Finding your way round Belgrade is a bit of a challenge as street names and signs on public buildings are written in cyrillic script and look rather like mathematical formulae. The main shopping street in Belgrade is Knez Mihailova – Prince Michael’s street – but the street sign starts ‘kHe3’ and ‘mihailova’ contains an ‘x’ and two reversed ‘N’s. Taking a trip from the tourist office in Knez Mihailova to the entertainingly named ‘Boulevard of the Despot Stefan’ in order to visit the botanical gardens therefore means arming yourself with a street-map, counting road junctions and assuming that the sun (in November) will move round from south-east to south-west during the hours of daylight. It was – thankfully – good weather during the first few days of my stay and by the time the clouds arrived I had a general grasp of where I was.
There are two rather particular hazards to watch out for when walking round Belgrade: horribly uneven pavements and sleeping dogs. After two weeks my knees and elbows were scarred by unanticipated encounters with the former and whilst I didn’t actually fall over any dogs stretched out asleep in the pedestrianised streets it was more by good luck than good management. The odd thing about Belgrade’s packs of unaccompanied hounds is that they all seem to be well fed, good natured and to have a profound sense of social responsibility regarding their bodily functions. I’ve seen more dog shit on the pavements of cities where dogs haven’t been allowed out on their own for thirty years!
Belgrade is an ideal venue for anyone interested in old cars, notably the Communist world’s infamous Trabant. Although much derided in the west, this notoriously polluting little car is still going strong in Serbia and maybe it is so popular because of the national addiction to smoke. As it happens, I arrived in Serbia during the week that the Government introduced a ban on smoking in public places. The small cafés got round this by keeping the fumes inside and designating their outside seating as the non-smoking area – not ideal in mid November!
At first a little anxious, after the recent Balkan conflicts, I found the people of Belgrade polite, charming and extremely helpful and felt safer there than in several European capital cities that are rather closer to home. The city is at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers and there are fine views to the west from the ancient fortress in Kalamegdan park, where solitary women can wander around in the evening without fear of being accosted and old men meet to play chess on sunny afternoons – surrounded by sleeping dogs!