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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