Saturday, November 17, 2007

First Snow!

The first snow has fallen in Belgrade! And it came quite unexpectedly as well. Some friends over for drinks at the flat and then off to xLagum nightclub for some progressive house. Everything looked normal, a bit of rain, but not much and an icy chill, which enticed us to take a taxi to the club. A few hours later, numerous beers gulped down and knackered from dancing like maniacs it was time to leave. Exit the club into what felt like a blizzard! SNOW! Everything white, everything nice, in our inebriated states. Well, not so nice for one member of our group, who managed to narrowly dodge a rather huge tree branch snapping off due to the weight of the snow.

I love snow. I don't generally like being cold at all, but if there's snow it seems to cancel out all the negativity associated with freezing to your bones. I also love Belgrade under that white layer of snow. It looks a lot prettier during winter if there's snow to cover up all the grey and dirt, rather than when it's just a very cold winter's day. Snow always seems to bring out the inner child in me (not that I generally need an excuse for that!).

Unfortunately, it's raining and all the snow has turned into that awful thing called slush, full of mud and dirt and just returns the city to a grey, wet and slippery mess. Not nice with a monster hangover!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Did I Mention Just How Much I Love Belgrade?

Sorry Bijeljina, but you won't be taking over Belgrade as my most favourite place in the world. No offence, but Pančevo (a small town north of Belgrade, with extremely high levels of air pollution and cancer) and Valjevo are far more exciting than the tenth largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Voja and I spent four hours in Bijeljina - quite frankly bored out of our minds. I'm usually the kind of person who can find something to do in any given destination - not in Bijeljina. Perhaps just our experience of Bijeljina was a bad one, maybe there are people who enjoyed Bijeljina. The last thing I want to do is offend anyone with this blog, but to be quite clear, Bijeljina has to be one of the most boring places I've ever been to.

The journey from Belgrade was pleasant enough, with us arriving 30 minutes earlier than expected. It always amazes me the simplicity of Serbian border crossings, granted we crossed in the middle of nowhere, a few simple metal huts, not very well lit at night, and a half-hearted, not-bothered-in-the-slightest, "Does anyone have something to declare?". I didn't even get an exit stamp from Serbia in my passport! However, you know you've entered Bosnia when you pull up into a brand spanking new, metallic, massive, computer-controlled, brightly lit border crossing - in the middle of nowhere, and with just one or two other cars at any given time. Waste of EU resources, perhaps? There's no need for ten lanes really, is there?

Ten minutes after cro
ssing the border, and we arrived in Bijeljina. At first glance, it is a rather run-down, depressing, concrete jungle, or perhaps more fitting - plant pot. It's tiny! The centre of town comprising of a mosque, a dom omladine (a youth centre - full of old men and ugly tables and chairs), a basket ball court next to a rather huge monument to fallen Serb soldiers during the Bosnian war in 1990s, a concrete square shopping centre and the town hall. The town hall is reasonably pretty, with a nice statue and flowers. The main shopping street leads off from this square and no we're not talking about a Belgrade style Prince Michael (Kneza Mihaela) Street, more like some ugly shops, and a bank. Bijeljina appears not to have had any reconstruction work done since, oh I don’t know, the 70's. With those charming, white coloured, ball shaped lamps that you see everywhere in the former Yugoslavia and rather disturbing yellow, drainpipe style fencing to stop you walking on the, erm, pretty green grass.

Unperturbed, we set off to find somewhere to have a coffee. This involved walking around the the various streets just off from the main square. The streets generally consisted of nothing, apart from a few run down shops and more than one city's fair share of sport betting shops, with alcohol and coffee being served. 30 minute
s later, having gone round in circles, daringly walking further and further from the centre, only to turn back after a short while as all around us it was just blocks of flats or grubby houses, we stumbled across the first reasonably decent coffee shop, hidden away on the main square. Caffeinated and refreshed we exit and wonder what on earth should we do? To all intents and purposed we had seen all there is of Bijeljina. Well, when one doesn't have anything to do, one generally eats, right? Apparently, not so in Bijeljina. Having not seen a single restaurant during our quick stroll of this town, and not really fancying take-away pizza or cevapcici , or even something from a bakery (if we had seen one of those), whilst standing in the cold (none of the few eating establishments we had managed to find had any seating inside - nor outside), we decided to risk it and walk a bit further into the abyss that is the streets leading away from the centre of town. 20 or so minutes later, we stumble across what appears to be a pizzeria, with seats and tables! Terribly excited, we immediately entered and sat down. We were the only customers in the place. Quite hungry, we both ordered a large pizza each and eagerly waited to fill our stomachs – with pizza that had the after taste of lard.

Back at the square, I thought I’d better take some photos before it got dark. It was about 5pm, the bus we planned to take back to Belgrade was at 7pm. It was cold and windy; few people were on the streets – even though it was a Saturday. Where on earth were all the cafes with music, talking, laughing – with people? Where are all the people on a Saturday afternoon/early evening in Bijeljina? Apparently they are at home. Why? Because there’s nothing to do unless you like to walk around a dark, empty, town square or you’re addicted to betting on horses. Utterly depressed and bored, Voja and I quickly agreed that we should go to the bus station and get the hell out of this town.

With our 6pm bus tickets safely in our hands and 40 minutes to kill somehow, we went back to that inspirational main square, and again we had coffee in the aptly named “City Cafe” (i.e. the only cafe in the city). Voja complained that he felt a bit stupid going back to the same cafe two hours later. I told him jokingly not to worry because the same people would probably still be there. I did not need to joke – the same people were still sitting at the same tables, drinking the same drinks, looking thoroughly bored like us.

As the clock said 6.01pm, we enthusiastically waved goodbye to Bijeljina from the comfort of a bus with a big sign on the front window, which read “BELGRADE”. Let’s hope we never have to meet again. You’re probably thinking I’m being too hard on Bijeljina, but really I have never been so bored in my life. Maybe it's because we didn't really know where anything was, and where was good - but in my defence, we DID walk around LOTS and normally you would stumble across a number of different cafes, or restaurants or whatever to choose from. Sure, Bijeljina isn't a huge town, but neither is Pančevo, which had plenty to choose from. Obviously the economic situation in this small region of Bosnia doesn't help and perhaps one should not be so quick to be annoyed at the lack of facilities. Some investment in the economy and environment of the town would probably do wonders. Or perhaps I need to see the town during summer - I'm sure it's a lot more lively then rather on a cold, windy, grey November afternoon!

Regardless of the reasons for a dull day in Bijeljina, I will never take the cafes, clubs, restaurants, people or streets of Belgrade for granted every again. I love you Belgrade!

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Bijeljina Here I Come

Tomorrow I'm off to Bijeljina, which is just over the border in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I'm not quite sure what to expect from this town of 65,000 people. It is located within the Republic of Srpska entity of Bosnia, so I'm presuming it's probably not that much different from what I'm used to seeing in Serbia itself. A quick Internet search seems to indicate there's only one tourist attraction in Bijeljina - that being an ethno-village. But we'll have to see once I get there!

You may or may not be wondering why on earth I'm travelling to Bijeljina, I mean it's not exactly a tourist hot-spot. In my previous post I was on a rant about visas. I'm going to Bijeljina because of exactly that. I don't have a residency visa for Serbia....yet. I'm legally allowed to stay in Serbia for 90 days from the date of the entry stamp in my passport. Those 90 days are up and therefore I'm popping over the border for 3 hours until the next bus back to Belgrade departs. I just hope it isn't the same border guard who sees me leave Serbia only to return three hours later - that odd British guy, what's he up to? Smuggling cigarettes, alcohol or worse? ;-)

Nah, I'm not bothered. I'm actually quite looking forward to seeing a new town and I love any excuse to visit Bosnia! I won't be spending my time there sitting in the bus station cafe! Pictures and details of what I got up to when I get back.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Serbia Initials EU Association Agreement

Serbia, EU initial association agreement
7 November 2007 | 09:22 -> 15:28 | Source: B92, Beta
BRUSSELS -- The EU and Serbia have initialed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA).

Deputy Prime Minister Božidar Đelić initialed the agreement on behalf of the government, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on behalf of the EU at a ceremony this afternoon, that was also attended by President Boris Tadić.

Tadić said that the SAA was a major recognition of a European Serbia and proof that Serbia had the capacity to become a fully-fledged European country. He ad
ded that citizens would in future be able to build their lives according to European standards and values.

Đelić told B92 earlier that the initialing of the agreement would be a step towards Serbia’s candidacy for the EU.

“The initialing of the agreement and the signing of the Readmission Agreement are only the first steps towards our goal, which is to become an EU membership candidate by the end of next year,” Đelić said.

Rehn stressed that the initialing was Serbia’s first concrete step towards EU membership, and that it would give real economic benefits, stimulate investment,
create new jobs, and increase the security of its citizens.

The wording of the text was agreed upon in September, and Belgrade has been awaiting initialing since October, though this was postponed following a negative evaluation of cooperation between Serbia and the Hague Tribunal. A positive Hague evaluation was the main criterium for initialing, while full Hague cooperation remains the condition for the signing of the agreement.

Some more positive news for Serbia - this time coming from within the European Union. I personally want to see Serbia in the EU, I want to see all the countries of the Western Balkans within its borders. What we have at the moment is quite literally a Balkan ghetto in the middle of Europe. If you travel in any direction from Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Skopje, Tirana, Pristina or Podgorica you will end up at a European Union border post. STOP! Unless, of course, you have that all so precious visa.

Having grown up in the United Kingdom, as a member of the EU, I've never had to think about visas when travelling to the continent. Spur of the moment decisions to go to Amsterdam, Paris, Dublin or even Prague for a w
eekend were common. All I had to do was book the plane ticket and turn up at the airport - a few hours later and I'm drinking coffee in the main square. Serbs, as well as the rest of the Balkan people, don't have this luxury. Without a visa they are confined to this little Balkan ghetto in the middle of Europe. Serbs cannot suddenly decide to go to Vienna or Budapest for a weekend break, oh no, it's just unthinkable. It takes at least a few weeks, perhaps even months of planning. Documentation is required - letters, hotel reservations, plane tickets, bank account statements, pay slips, photographs. Then there's the task of having to queue outside the embassies, early in the morning, for perhaps a number of hours - which I would classify as degrading if I were in their shoes.

There's no need for visas any more. Europe is OUR continent, not just for those with EU membership. Serbians, Bosnians, Macedonians etc should be free to travel just like the rest of us. They all have their own lives in their own countries - work, friends, family, homes - people don't generally just leave that all behind to escape to the golden EU. And those who do are more than likely already ille
gally in the EU (and will be returned under an agreement, which is a condition of this Association Pact). Is it so odd that a family from Macedonia or Montenegro just want to see the Eiffel Tower, Edinburgh Castle or the Colosseum? Why do they need to have some sort of conference to go to, or family to visit or a job to go to? Tourist visas need to be abolished, not just to be fair to the people of the Balkans but it might also, just perhaps, a tiny tiny little bit, remove some of that resentment many people here feel towards the EU.

Personally speaking with people I know in Serbia, they feel like second class European citizens. Put through the indignity of screening
procedures and personal questions just to go on a simple holiday or to visit friends or family. Having to take time off from work in order to queue and having to pay for a flight before they apply - and quite possibly not even getting a visa in the end.

Of course, there are reasons for these countries not being within the EU yet. I respect that and understand those reasons to some extent. B
ut it really is about time that the EU stopped treating the people of Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina as second class citizens - Croatians have visa free travel to the EU. Quite a number of South American countries (such as Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador) do not need visas to enter the EU, I have nothing against South Americans in the slightest, but is it not even a tiny bit unfair that some of our fellow European citizens need visas to travel around their own continent?

So next time you hop on a plane for a weekend b
reak, having just come into some money or just having decided on the spur of the moment, please don't take it for granted.


Visa 'horror' stories and more information here.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Exit Festival: Best Festival in Europe

Exit named best European festival
7 November 2007 | 11:11 | Source: Tanjug
LONDON -- The Exit festival in Novi Sad on Tuesday received the Best European Festival award at the UK’s Festival Awards 2007.

They beat off competition from 40 of the biggest European festivals, Exit said in a statement.

The only criterium for the award, presented to Exit representatives Ivan Milivojev and Konstantin Polzović at a ceremony in London, were votes from the public.

The other competitors included FIB Benicassim (Spain), Roskilde (Denmark), Hultsfred (Sweden), Les Eurockeennes de Belfort (France), Pinkpop, Lowlands (Netherlands), Quart Festival (Norway), and Pukkelpop and Rock Werchter (Belgium).

People throughout world voted for the nominated festivals via the internet.

These were the fourth annual Festival Awards, and the first time that the category for Best European Festival had been included.


It's official, Exit is the best festival in Europe! This is great news for Serbia and another fine achievement to add to the list, first Eurovision and now Exit. It really does please me to see more and more positive news regarding Serbia, it is about time for the rest of the world to see the real Serbia and 'over-write' the image of a grey, primitive and depressing pariah state.

It really does bug me when people in the West make comments such as: "Isn't there a war going on there?", or "Why would you want to go to Serbia, isn't it dangerous?" The dark and negative connotations associated with Serbia for the past 15 years are finally changing. More and more European tourists are visiting and I would say that EXIT is one of the best ways to market Serbia (of course alongside the countryside, skiing, interesting cities etc) for younger travellers.

This year at EXIT there were over 20,000 foreigners, and 16,000 of them were Brits. I'm pretty sure that 99% of them had a positive experience, which they took away with them back to the UK and told many people. I can only presume there will be even more Brits and other foreign nationals in 2008.

Watch out Serbia, the cat's out of the bag now, so expect a British Invasion next year in Novi Sad. Whether that's for good or bad remains to be seen! But one thing is for sure, Serbia seems to be escaping from its shackles finally and branding itself nicely in the West - I just hope that nothing (and nobody) ruins all the good work.

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Please sir, can I have some more?

A rare visit to the green market this morning gave me some inspiration on what to write about in my next post. It also reminded my how much I actually love green markets - now. During my first extended period in Belgrade I would avoid the green market like the plague and the communication which would have to take place with Serbian villagers, as I was still rather shy speaking Serbian out loud in the so-called real word, far away from the comfort of the five person audience of the classroom. I preferred to go to the supermarket, in particular C Market or Pekabeta (sadly, they do not exist any more - it's all MAXI, MiniMAXI or SUPERMAXI these days), where one could pick one's fruit and hand it to the weighing woman without uttering anything more than an almost inaudible 'hvala'.

Now, for those of you have never seen a green market it truly is a fantastic place. Cheap, colourful, fresh fruit & veg are plentiful, almost
literally straight from the ground or picked from the tree. You buy them from the hard-working, scarf wearing, worn and weathered faced seljaci (peasants or perhaps more nice sounding villagers). Would you like 1kg of grapes for 70p? How does 1kg of fresh juicy strawberries for a measly 50p sound? You're all being so ripped off in Sainsbury's paying 3 quid for 250g of crappy strawberries! Plus, you can buy clothes, shoes, toiletries, cosmetics, household items and electrical thingamajigs (mainly imported from Bulgaria but that doesn't matter). I really should go there more often than I do, but it's just so much easier to go the supermarket!

Serbian food at first glance can seem so basic, sim
ple and perhaps rather stomach-turning. Any one fancy some 'bull sex-glands', or 'cow brain' which I once saw on a menu. I distinctly remember my first visit to a typical Serbian restaurant, not one of those fancy ones. I didn't understand the menu so well, so I just ordered a pljeskavica (a burger) and was quite surprised to be looking at a plate ten minutes later, with just a hunk of meat and some raw, chopped onion. It's only been in the last 6 months that I've learned to love Serbian food, particularly home-cooked, and now I can't get enough of it. Sarma, roasted peppers, musaka, djuvec, cevapcici, pljeskavica and stuffed peppers. Serbs love to grill food, or as it's called here - rostilj.

It seems to me that meat is of such a higher quality in Serbia, fruit and veg too - it's all natural, very little pesticides and chemicals are used
and mass-farming of animals is not done here (or at least to my knowledge it isn't). It's all so much tastier here.

(Sarma - minced mean and garlic wrapped with sour cabbage)

Serbia also turned me into a chocoholic, more so than I was back in the UK. Lots and lots of cheap chocolate of all varieties (I'm sure Lara remembers it all very clearly). My favourite being:

Unfortunately, they have a very bad sounding name for English speakers (it's properly pronounced nob-leet-seh). I can eat a whole box in one sitting (thus I usually buy two boxes at a time!)

You can get all kinds of fast food here, on virtually any street
corner and at any time of the day or night. Burgers, sausages, chicken, pizza or even noodles (Wok to Walk - similar to Wagamama opened recently in Belgrade, with outlets only in Spain, UK, Netherlands and the US), oh and pancakes! Ah, pancakes (more like crepes than the small, thick British ones), the best thing about Serbia (perhaps). With some kiosks offering more than 300 different combinations of fillings - from chocolate or nuts to ham and tuna) you are bound to find something you like. My particular favourite being banana and caramel. Trust me; you definitely won't go hungry in Serbia.

(Mmm, looks tasty, right?)

Now, all this talk of food has made me hungry, so I'm off to MAXI (it's closer than the green market by a couple of hundred feet).

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