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Phespirit goes to Serbia
Belgrade     November 2008

Had Yugoslavia not so dismally torn itself apart in early 1990s, Phespirit would have to rate it the most outstandingly wonderful and diverse nation in Europe. In the wake of its disintegration, however, the remnant that is Serbia finds itself land-locked, isolated and crest-fallen in much reduced circumstances. Although it has lost much, it has retained at its heart the great city of Belgrade; former capital of Yugoslavia, a survivor city, many times bombarded, each time enduring, standing at the confluence of two great rivers: the Sava and the Danube. Phespirit had to take a look.

He stayed at the Hotel Royal on Kralja Petra, in the Old City area. The hotel has seen better days, as has Phespirit, but at £27 per night for bed and breakfast he had no complaints. After spending a first morning acquainting himself with landmarks around his hotel including the Bayraku Mosque and the Turbe of Sheik Mustapha - remnants of Islam surviving the regional disputes with Kosovan Albanians and Bosniaks - he passed the afternoon at Kalemegdan Park and Fortress. It being a balmy autumn day with unbroken sunshine and temperatures above 20°C, he found this a beautifully relaxing place to while away the hours. The locals were out in numbers so time could be divided between exploring monuments, admiring the view to the two rivers, and simply people-watching.

The next day Phespirit headed further south, down to the modern city for a spot of building-watching. As in most Orthodox Christian countries he found a St. Alexander Nevsky Church. Belgrade's is not the most grand, with its frescoes horribly smoke-blackened, but this just makes it more intimate. Here is a church that can testify to the decades of devotion within its walls by the evidence layered deep upon them. The restorers' art may one day reveal dazzling colours hidden beneath strata of soot, but it would remove something of the people. By contrast, the Serbian Parliament gives the impression of a building recently cleansed. Its modestly proportioned neo-classical façade and three green domes reveal nothing of its recent decades to the outsider. Only the sharp-suited, id-badged, cellphone-toting individuals that bustle in and out of its main entrance suggest a new generation for a new era.

On his last day in the city Phespirit ventured even further south to the area around Topčider Park. Here is some open countryside, the 19th century Residence of Prince Miloš and the 'House of Flowers' mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito. This area is also home to the city's two top football stadiums, belonging to FK Partizan and FK Crvena Zvezda (better known as Red Star Belgrade FC). When Phespirit had completed his sightseeing he returned to FK Crvena Zvezda to attend the home league match against Voivodina. He paid the top price, 300 dinars (about three pounds sterling), for a seat in the West Stand.

The 55,000 all-seater stadium was probably only about ten percent full but the atmosphere was good. A barrage of noise poured forth from the massed ranks of hardcore supporters in the North Stand, to be met by a spirited response from the small pack of away fans in the South Stand. The opposing crowds showed off to each other with firecrackers, flags and flares, but Phespirit observed that their non-stop singing rarely altered in response to anything happening on the pitch. The stadium merely provided a venue, the teams an identity, and the match an excuse for ninety minutes of ritual male tribal behaviour; the football was mostly incidental. Phespirit was concentrating, though: Red Star won 3-1.

Belgrade is not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. It has been scourged and scarred too many times for that. Its modernisation seems to be a pace behind most other European capitals. There is a gracelessness in its veins. Even so, it is not a dull place. It is a crossroads city where history is made and re-made, and will always be worth keeping an eye on. Phespirit was glad he took a look.

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