Thursday, 23 August 2012

The House of Flowers

Funny place, Belgrade. If you give it a cursory glance, it just looks like any other Western European capital - McDonalds, pavement cafes, the usual. Make the tiniest scratch into the surface and you realise it's very different.

Outside the city centre, it can be difficult to get a menu in a Latin alphabet. The national museum has pieces of a downed US fighter plane on display - when you look at the bombed office block in town, you can understand why.

When we visited, there were no cheap airlines that flew there - the many excellent bars and restaurants avoided that sameness that can afflict those in places colonised by Brits on Ryanair weekends. There is an Irish pub, but it's bizarrely called the "Three Carrots" because there was some sort of mistranslation regarding shamrocks (although there's a Serbian version of the Pogues, called the Orthodox Celts, which are apparently immensely popular). It seems somehow seems dated for all this, but also more original and engaging.

On one hand, the last Balkan war is so recent that it and the debate over Serbia's future means that it overshadows the Yugoslavian era. But, on the flip side, Belgrade is only developing contemporary tourist attractions - it's a lovely place for a meal and a drink, but there's a shortage of things to see. So, we visited Tito's Mausoleum.

It's actually a much bigger complex than just one museum. There's three, altogether. The gardens were a little overgrown when we went. The fountain, which must have been a cutting edge piece of sculpture in its day, was almost dry and had the odd bit of litter floating in the remaining water.

Although the garden had seen better days, the first museum we visited, the museum of 25th May, was excellent. It had a wing dedicated to the communist era of Yugoslavia. Which was interesting, although I'd covered a lot of the material studying communism at university.

More surprising and unusual was the temporary exhibit. Which was about John Lennon! "Give Peace a Chance" and other of Lennon's songs played over the loudspeakers as we wandered around. The gist of it was that Lennon had sent Tito seeds of a tree to plant in the Peace Park. It was strange, but immensely cool and a good way of getting across Tito's links with the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War - and totally not what we expected!

The mausoleum itself - the actual House of Flowers - was a bit more traditional. Tito's tomb - the Yugoslavs hadn't embalmed him in the classic Soviet style, so it was a normal marble affair. There was a recreation of Tito's office too. More interesting, there was a display of batons. Which sounds tremendously dull but wasn't. Baton races were held by young people all over Yugoslavia to mark Tito's birthday. Some of the batons were incredibly ornate, with hammer and sickle motifs, or friezes that reflected the origin of the baton - pastoral scenes, sailing boats, as well as more industrial themes.

And, finally, there was the Museum of Stuff That People Gave Tito. It wasn't called that, but that was what it was! There were African headdresses, Oriental rugs, and other beautiful items from other heads of state. Then there were more personal items that people from across Yugoslavia had sent him - knitted mittens from a peasant woman, sheepskins, wine, and other hand crafted objects.

My main memory of this last section is being followed by security guard. Everything was behind glass and there was absolutely no way we could even touch it, let alone steal it. But this uniformed chap followed us around at a fairly indiscreet distance, presumably in case we managed a Mission Impossible style heist and left with our short pockets bulging with ceremonial daggers and embroidered handkerchiefs. Or maybe the poor bloke was just bored.

Anyway, I bought the Cookbook I mentioned in my last post. It's fascinating. Tito ate lobster with Nixon, and shashlik kebabs with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Ceaucescu was entertained over cheese and egg soup while Tito was served goulash and grilled chicken by Stalin.

I was going to post one of the recipes, but I suspect that they have possibly lost something in translation - they seem to have fewer herbs and seasoning then I'd expect. So, if you want to try the barbecue food that the Queen was given on her first visit to a communist country, then the book says they had cevapcici, and pljeskavica, along with kajmak (cream cheese - I tend to blend cottage cheese, lemon and pepper rather than making my own) and pittas for dipping, and a salad. They go well with chicken and bacon parcel things, which aren't given in the book but are very nice!

I don't know if or when we'll ever go back to Belgrade, although I would like to, someday.  I suspect we saw it in a state of rapid change, and that the handover of Serbian war criminals for trial will eventually mean Belgrade will become a mainstream destination. But it was fascinating visiting when we did.

1 comment:

  1. The Three Carrots. That made me literally laugh out loud.

    I love the fact you visited when you did. I went to Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia before they opened up, and I'm scared to return because they'll have turned into Thailand. (I'm talking 1990-1992 - ancient history!) I wrote about them on my travel blog - Just look in the tag cloud if you're interested.