I traveled to Belgrade, Serbia last week to produce our first ever European Support Driven conference. I did not know what to expect from Belgrade, other than knowing it was a great pleasure to work with our event coordinator, Jelena, who is from Belgrade. I was very work-focused and hardly thought about the location part except in logistical terms for the event. The city would be whatever it would be. I’d eat, I’d work, and then I’d go home to Virginia.
And then I arrived in Belgrade. Jelena picked me up from the airport and took me to the old part of the city, to the waterfront down the hill from the fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. We ate a lazy sun-drenched lunch next to the Sava river, at a place called Sofa. She told me about growing up in Belgrade, and pointed out the bridges where there had been live concerts every day during the 90s to form a living shield so the bridges wouldn’t be taken out in the bombings. She said this all very matter-of-factly, describing the sounds of the air sirens and the bombs. Now Belgrade is a peaceful place, and she laughed because she liked that she missed school for a year during that time.
Our hotel was across the river in New Belgrade, and after our warm, drowsy lunch, she showed me some coffee and pastry shops near our hotel, then dropped me off since I had been awake for more than 30 hours at that point.
The next morning I walked to a pastry shop I didn’t learn how to say the name of until my final day in Belgrade — the shop name was written in Cyrillic. It’s written Хлеб и Кифле and pronounced Hleb & Kifle. I couldn’t decide among the pastries, so I bought (and ate) two: an almond croissant and some sort of tubular pastry that looked like a 6-inch double-shotgun barrel with cinnamon apple filling.
The morning was crisp and sunny, a beautiful spring day, and I didn’t want to go back to my room. I texted my colleague Scott to see if he was up and wanted to take a walk before we started working on conference setup that afternoon, then I crossed the river on foot and we wandered around Belgrade.
One of my favorite things about Belgrade was the street art. The sun was low when I walked, so most of my photos have harsh shadows, and I wasn’t able to capture as many of the murals and graffiti as I would have liked. Our daughter is really into street art and would have loved to see all this. I wish she could have been there with me.
We wandered streets with no goal in mind, and ended up first in a little Bohemian section of town, and then the fancier city center.
After our walk, we got to work, and I didn’t stray far from the hotel until the conference was over. When it was finished, Jelena took us to celebrate at a restaurant on the bank of the Danube River in Zemun — a rustic old part of town that looks like a Hungarian village — with live music and lots of happy revelers celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and just being with friends. It was loud and happy and wonderful. The band, set on a small stage in the corner of the bright-art-covered dining room, featured an accordion player, a guitarist, and a vocalist, and they played an eclectic mix of American and British covers (sung in Serbian), Serbian pop and rock, and traditional Russian and Gypsy songs. The large table next to us, which ordered round after round of food, sang along with gusto to the Serbian songs.
We walked the cobbled streets of Zemun to the Gardoš tower, which overlooks the rivers and the city.
The thing I didn’t do that I wish I would have is explore the concrete Communist architecture of the Blokovi — the urban section of New Belgrade divided into 72 bloks. My friend Denise took a long walk exploring the oppressive buildings, the architecture of which is termed “brutalist,” and after hearing her talk about it and after seeing photographs in Discover the Grit and Glory of New Belgrade’s Communist Architecture, I regret that I didn’t carve out time to explore this fascinating part of Belgrade.