Once I got into Niš I wasted little time in going to see the skull tower. The monument must occupy a special place in Serbian national history, and very few people are as immersed in their national history as the Serbs, because it was constructed out of the skulls of Serbian rebels by the Ottomans. The lesson the Ottomans hoped to teach the Serbs didn’t take because the rebellion ultimately succeeded. Hard to believe such savagery still existed two hundred years ago. But then a brief look at recent history shows us that such measures were not so alien even to the most “enlightened” of nations.
The tower however was very disappointing. A chapel was constructed around the tower and it was more like a cement wall with some skulls than the other way around since most of the skulls went missing. A description of the tower as it appeared in the 1830’s is much more evocative than what is left of it. You can read it on Wikipedia and it also appears on an informational panel inside the chapel.
The town was gearing up for a jazz festival. Downtown had a busy pedestrian area with the usual commerce. But I was impatient to get to Belgrade. I passed through the rather large fortress on my way to the bus station. Between the fortress and the riverbank I suppose I could have spent another day exploring.
A few days later I stumbled onto an article that gave me some interesting background on the recent goings on in Serbia and Niš in particular. Though I didn’t quite recognize Niš as it appeared to the author ten years before my visit, some things didn’t change. There are still gambling parlors on every corner in downtown Niš.
On the very first night in Belgrade I set the pattern by staying up until 4am. A large part of the rest of my eight days in Belgrade was spent going out late and staying in bed until the early afternoon. Belgrade isn’t what I would call beautiful and probably cannot compete culturally with some other European capitals but its nightlife is rich and exciting. The question of where to put a bar is answered in every possible fashion – on top of a roof, in an apartment, in a disused courtyard buried deep in a shopping center, under a bridge, on a boat.
You could walk to the chic Hotel Moskva right in the center of the city, with its windows underscored by green neon; take the underground crossing avoiding staring at the mangled face of a beggar, probably a war veteran; duck into an alley that doubles as a an art gallery with temporary exhibits of paintings behind glass and graffiti murals on the walls; cut through the salsa dancers in the square under a brutalist building and enter its lobby; take the elevator with a door that doesn’t close to the deserted seventh floor with peeling carpet and follow an arrow to a rooftop terrace under the giant billboard. Here you can have a beer and listen to the jazz band play. Then the party moves a few blocks over. Find the right doorway and buzz the bell marked “Apartment 6”. Walk up and enter. This is no ordinary apartment. There’s a bar in the front room and tables in the other two rooms. Drawings hang on the wall bathed in soft orange light. The window is open and maybe some hip garage rock is playing. You order a honey rakiya and sip slowly, enjoying the sweet, smooth flavor. Then the music cuts out and someone grabs a guitar and everyone joins in to a rendition of a Pixies song. It’s nearing two AM but you still want more. Walk to the Sava river and across the several hundred meter span to the other side. Here a string of boats pump music until sunrise.
One night I was hanging out with a young Serb and not for the first time I heard a story of how at some festival or beach or other gathering a group that consisted of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins came together and there were no problems and everyone drank together and was merry. Why should it be otherwise but conditioned by years of conflict the young generation still registers some surprise. It is also a hopeful sign.
As far as sightseeing there’s not much. Though the site of the city has been inhabited since time immemorial, its location on the border of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires makes one of the most fought over patches of land in the world. Hardly anything seems older than two hundred years. The St. Sava cathedral, recently built, impresses me with its simplicity. It’s one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world but inside is just a single space, without seats and the floor is plain concrete. The Serbs maintain a strong religious tradition. I talk to a Russian student in my hostel who is preparing for divinity school by studying Serbian.
The center is so dense with points of interest that I never take the tram or the bus since everything – sights and nightlife – is within a twenty minute walk.
Novi Sad also lies along the Danube. It’s the capital of Vojvodina which is an autonomous region that has strong ties to Hungary. Mainly a student city it has a pretty old center and a sprawling modern part with very wide streets and lots of greenery. I get exhausted just getting to the center from my hostel and so do not see much of it. I can only look at the fortress, never once taken in battle, from the other shore. It will resist me as well.
Sitting alone in my hostel I hear chanting from outside. A part of the sky is lit up. It’s a stadium and a game is going on. I find a corner gate from which most of the pitch can be seen. Smoke from flares drifts aimlessly over the field much like the action on it. I missed the first goal and no more come. The crowd chants “Novi Sad” to a rough approximation of “Every Breath You Take”. A love song never sounded so militant. As the clock winds down police in riot gear line up around the stadium. This is the biggest rivalry in Serbian sport – Belgrade’s “Red Star” versus the perennial runner-up Novi Sad’s “Vojvodina”. The police seem to accomplish their goal of separating the supporters and I do not see any trouble. Luckily my street is not blocked and I do not have to take a detour to get back to my hostel.
Novi Sad surprises me with ubiquitous fast food Chinese restaurants. I barely spotted any in Belgrade. It’s not exactly the same as the American version but not so different either. I get something with noodles, mushrooms and possibly fern, all soaked in soy sauce. Somehow I have trouble adjusting to the idea of Chinese people speaking Serbian but no English.