29 May 2012

What To Do in Cluj-Napoca

We arrived in Cluj-Napoca on a half-empty train with rain-streaked windows.  That morning we'd crossed the border from Vršac in a Serbian taxi.  The driver was fast, the landscape was a blur of sunrise and outstretched fields.  It had been a glorious day.
On the journey from the plains of the southwest into the foothills of Transylvania, the landscape changed.  Farms were smaller, men mowed hay with scythes, draft horses replaced tractors and, instead of concrete, the houses in the mountains were made of wood.  Romania, in our first glimpse of it, was rural in the extreme, like a gothic fairytale.
But then we got to Cluj-Napoca and spent two damp days floating in a sea of modernity, music and food - the dripping forests, wolves and castles would have to wait.  Above, "Rupa and the April Fishes" - a San Fransisco based band that sang in French and Spanish - plays to a crowd of soggy urbanites.  As we were passing by, a group of young mimes showed up in stripes and facepaint. The mimes danced soundlessly, we felt bemused, the setting could have been anywhere.
We had come to Cluj-Napoca - which is called "Cluj" informally - because it seemed a promising start to a big wilderness.  It was supposed to be our doorway to Romania.  What we found was a separate thing, receiving almost nothing from its surrounds, a kind of island of cosmopolitanism.  After two days we knew nothing about the country and our minds were swirling instead with concert dates and cinema premiers (the Transylvania International Film Festival begins June 1st, there are posters everywhere).
Cluj had been described in our guidebook as a university city, which meant two things to us.  First: the guidebook would probable be out of date.  College towns change quickly, what was new and popular two years ago will be passe by the time we visit.  Second: the town wouldn't be out of date.  If there are students and young people, a city can't help but feel stylish.  Students don't care about how old the town museum is, or the story behind the belltower or what the old mayor said about the Hungarians - they want good places to eat and exciting places to drink.  Case in point: Kaja Tanya restaurant on Inocentiu Micu Klein.  A daily menu, vegetarian options, excellent food, cheap prices, bottles of liquor being passed from hand to hand - it was great, it was fun, we began to fall in love with the city, rain be dammed.
In an old theater space, thin, good looking youths had gathered for an art and fashion fair.  The paint on the ceiling was flaking off, the floor was scuffed and creaky, the whole building felt as though it had just been opened to the world after decades of decay.  It would have felt like Bram Stoker's version of a boutique, but the venue wasn't the point - we were the only ones looking at the light fixtures and crumbling moldings, everyone else was focused on the present.
The clothes were made for very angular people, a few photographers roamed around to document the coming together of Cluj's fashionable set.
The rain never stopped.  We spent two nights and the day between jumping from shelter to shelter, hoping for a break in the weather but never finding one.  What we found instead was exemplary coffee (at Toulouse cafe, the milk was artistically frothed, the espresso perfect) and a cafe crowd that spoke a fluent, easy mix of Romanian and English.
A big stage had been set up outside in the square.  We listened (sipping our second cups) to a full orchestra play for a few umbrella-holding pedestrians, the conductor exuberant, the string section shivering, the audience very meagre.
On a side street, an "international foods festival" was taking place to very little fanfare.  There were some excited customers huddled at picnic tables, but there was a lot of food and few mouths.  Local restaurants had set up tents to dish out hot bowls of ramen and boards of sushi, German sausages, goulash and generic "Shanghai Express."  This man was beginning a huge batch of paella while talking to a reporter - he had his earbuds in and a camera slung around his shoulders.  He seemed excited.
Our best meal in Cluj was at Baracca, a grey-toned box of lights and wine bottles on Napoca street itself.  When we lived in New York, we played (as all New Yorkers do) at being restaurant critics and knowledgable gourmands.  That seems like a long time ago now - it's difficult to find good food in the hinterlands, much less great food.  An elegant, well cooked plate brings with it the thick aroma of nostalgia, an opportunity to dredge up fond recollections and old discussions at different tables.  Now, we talk less about the food we're eating and more about the dim-lit places of the past.  Do we get homesick?  No.  But we often dream of traveling in the New York of our memories.  Was the grilled duck breast at Baracca good?  I can't remember, I was lost somewhere else.
It shouldn't be surprising that a city like this, in Transylvania, is so worldly.  In metropolitan streets, influences and culture jump from country to country, city to city, bypassing everything in between.  What was surprising about Cluj-Napoca was how quickly it had appeared from the pines and hayfields, like a sudden patch of electric light springing up from the 19th century.  Just a few miles away from where we were eating, sheep were being penned in for the night, women were cooking over woodfires.
We finished our last night in Cluj at Old Shepherd Pub on Matei Corvin street, with bottles of Silva beer.  The young owner had spent some time in Britain and insisted that he was modeling his bar after the English pubs he'd grown to love.  He also insisted that we drink his favorite local brew instead of British ale and the cellar space had more of the lost Alphabet City grunginess of the old East village than anything one could find on Avenue A today.
We left Cluj in another downpour, having seen almost none of its sights but feeling that we knew it well - both because its demeanor was familiar and because we'd spent so much time in its boîtes.

The Merry Cemetery

Not this man, but another buried nearby in Săpânţa's cemetery loved his horses.  "One more thing I loved very much, To sit at a table in a bar, Next to someone else's wife,"  his gravestone continues.  The words were not exactly his and who knows if he'd be too happy about them being his epitaph.  They were written by Stan Ioan Pătraş, the artist who created 700 of the unique tombstones that fill what is now dubbed "The Merry Cemetery." Each epitaph is written in first person and is a tribute to the villager it represents. Sure, this might mean betraying a person's taste for O.P.P. or strong liquor, but mostly the words simply convey what that villager did day in and day out.  Every so often, it also describes the circumstances of the person's death.
The art is simplistic, folky and bright.  People mostly look the same, which makes their action in the scene even more of a characterization.  We couldn't read any of the words while we were there, but were completely immersed in looking at the portraits.  Women were most often weaving, farming or cooking - but what instruments they were using alluded to that special dish that they may have been known for. Dough rolled out, carrots chopped or mixing bowl in hand.  Men were represented as the butchers, bartenders, shepherds, policemen and soldiers that they were. Their roles in the community.
A noteworthy number of men are depicted alongside their tractor, truck or car.  This doesn't necessarily mean they were mechanics.  Driving around the village of Săpânţa, even today, the houses don't have driveways.  Vehicles are not simply something everyone has.  What those paintings of the red pick-up or blue two-door are really showing is the pride that their owner had felt.  The accomplishment, the ownership.  As the years on the tombstones move on through the 40s, 60s, 80s, automobiles pop up more and more.  They begin to be depicted not just as part of a legacy or portrait, but also in the 'scene of death' illustrations.  Many of the gravestone have art on both sides.  Life on the front, death on the flipside.
One epitaph, written for a 3-year old, curses that "damn" taxi that "couldn't find somewhere else to stop" and struck her.  The verse is angry and heartbreaking.  Such is the case with accidental deaths caused by reckless driving or alcoholism. You can hear the blame being cast. But what else is an artist to do? Especially when you know these people personally.  When people had a chance to offer input for their own grave, I'm sure they did.  In cases where the deceased had been sick for a long time, there are declarations of gratitude to the caretakers and supporters. 
I feel like each decorated cross turns the person beneath it into a sort of folk legend.  Some are tragic figures, others are comic, most are archetypes, some are heroes. "They're lives were the same, but they want their epitaphs to be different, " Dumitru Pop remarked to the New York Times in 2002.  The Merry Cemetery has become somewhat of an unlikely tourist attraction in a tiny town just miles from the Ukrainian border.  Pop, who has been making the gravestones for almost 40 years at this point, confessed to carrying around a notebook to record juicy Sunday morning gossip.  His mentor, Pătraş, was right about there being no secrets in Săpânţa.
Stan Ioan Pătraş created the tombstones from 1935 until his death in 1977.  Before he passed, of course, he created his own.  It is in the same style most of the rest, double-sided with a portrait on the front and a scene from his life on the back.  The tableau he chose shows him at a work table, creating a tomb marker while a young man plays a violin.  His autobiographical epitaph talks about the "cross he bore," in supporting his family.  It lacks the humor or irony of many of his other verses.  His home, now a small museum, paints a different picture.  His life's work pops off the wall like a celebration.  It hardly feels like a chore, a burden - then again, these were also the instances in which his art didn't need to be consumed by death. 
Newspaper clippings, portraits and - fittingly - post-mortem degrees cover some walls, but really, what you notice is all of the art!  And all of the religious iconography that the Merry Cemetery is noticeably lacking.  Above the bed are portraits he created for Communist Party members.  He had been embraced by them, a local artist who was tied more to folk traditions than Western influence. Nicolae Ceauşescu himself, along with his equally notorious wife, stopped by to have their portraits done.  
Pătraş left his house and workshop to Dumitru Pop, his best apprentice, who continues the tradition to this day.  When we arrived at the small cottage, Pop was working away outside.  The familiarly shaped cross lay on his workbench, painted "Săpânţa blue."  He simply nodded and let us into the home and then sat in the corner as we looked around.  I wondered whose cross we'd taken him away from his work on.  Was he close with them?  Were they already dead?  Will he create his own marker like his teacher had - and, if so, what will it say?
Calling it "Merry Cemetery" may be a little misleading.  A signpost that translates it to "Happy Cemetery" in town is even more so.  Some paintings show obviously dejected people, some tributes are downright morose.  That's what makes the place so incredibly captivating - it is 'merry' only in its lack of soberness.  "Lively" would be a better word, I think.  Just like each person's life, these wooden crosses are unique and personalized, but also undeniably connected.  Dripping with local color, in many ways they are indistinguishable from one another.   The Merry Cemetery feels like its own little village within a village, with secret or mundane or too-short lives under each peaked roof.

25 May 2012

Serbian Painted Churches

In the Church of Saint Nicholas in Sremski Karlovci, we finally admitted it.  We were having fun looking at religious architecture.  Painted in dizzying patterns of yellow and blue, adorned with countless icons, lit by intricate stained glass windows, the interior was vibrant and spirited.
There are some types of cultural experiences that are inescapable in Europe – pork schnitzel, curtainless showers, restaurant touts and churches, to name a few.  We go into loads of cathedrals, temples and synagogues and usually they're pretty boring.  Or, they don't allow photos or we don't go in at all because the doors are locked.  We treat churches as an obligation usually, something to check off our daily list.  But in Serbia, we've actually become a little excited about them, and have been visiting many more than we usually do in a country.
The reason: Serbian churches are usually painted and beautiful.  
We stopped at Krušedol Monastery, outside of Igir, on a whim, thinking that the bright red gatehouse was the church itself.  Instead, there was only a pathway leading into a parklike space - silent except for songbirds and the trickle of a nearby stream.  There was no one around, the grounds were completely enclosed by a high wall.  Nestled into a lush, inconspicuous valley, just off a (mostly dirt) lane, the monastery seemed like a secret.  
The church itself was attended to by a few monks in robes and beards.  The door was open, nobody stopped us from going in.
The Krušedol monks were silent and welcoming, but we still felt nervous about approaching the iconostasis (which was breathtaking).  The walls here are enough to look at, though.  Built in the early 16th century, the monastery was painted in two stages - once in 1543-6 (when the main frescoes were done) and later in 1750-6, when some fire damage was repaired and a few new additions were made.
The paintings cover every inch of the interior, and the hues run from dusky to smokey blue.  Sunlight dripped in through a few high windows.  I shouldn't have worried about the photographs; just before we left, a young monk turned the lights on so that I could get a better picture.
In Serbia, painted walls aren't only the preserve of Orthodox churches. Walking into the Catholic cathedral of St. Gerard, in Vršac, is like entering a bizarre forest of color.  The pillars are vined with green and the canopy is an autumnal riot.  The light plays in interesting ways on the patterns, turning a narrow palette of green, yellow and ochre into rich and dark shades.  It must have taken someone years to complete.
It's rare to find a church in Europe that feels alive, other than on Sundays or saints days.  But in Vršac, the cathedral felt open and ready for visitors.  Townspeople wandered in and out, talking to one another.  We were treated to an organ performance by an older man who was playing for a group of schoolchildren - nobody minded us taking pictures, nobody cared that we were wandering around.  It was a wonderful, welcoming experience.
At St. George's cathedral, in Novi Sad, the atmosphere was more hushed, but still enjoyable.  On a hot, muggy day, the cool darkness of the cathedral was welcoming, the iconostasis was almost luridly decorated and the whole place was the epitome of high baroque grandeur - except that it was built at the end of the nineteenth century.  It's a style.  The Serbs obviously like their churches ornate and colorful.

House Wine and the Family Beesness

This is Borivoj Živanović showing off some of his family's accolades.  His "great, grand, grandfather," Professor Jovan Živanović, is considered the Father of Modern Serbian Beekeeping.  Diplomas are framed and flanked by wine competition awards.  We visited the Živanovića estate in Sremski Karlovci with the purpose of visiting their in-house Museum of Beekeeping, dedicated to Borivoj's accomplished ancestor and the methods he employed.  We had no idea that the family had been (more than) dabbling in viniculture and wine making for over 200 years.  Their family legacy is one of wine and honey.  When we arrived, Borivoj and his father, Zarko, were hard at work in the backyard.  The son spoke English, so he'd be the one to give us a tour - but first he had to go deliver some wine to a restaurant.  Over to a sunny patio we were directed to have a wine tasting while we waited. Who's complaining? 
That familiar smell of fermenting grape hovered in the fresh air.   Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet and then the wine that most people come to Sremski Karlovci for - Bermet.  It's a fortified wine along the lines of vermouth made only in this town at the edge of the Fruska Gora wine region.  A few local families, including the Živanovićs, have passed the recipe down amongst themselves, giving only a laundry list of 20+ herbs and spices as a hint.  We tasted the white (figs, vanilla and pinewood jolted out - very sweet) and the red (spicier, maybe cinnamon?)  Bermet was served on the Titanic - and while "on the Titanic" may not be the best words to use in an endorsement, it obviously means that Bermet was among the finest wines of its day.  As for the honey - delicious.  One was deep brown and strong, the other was different and stupendous.  "Acacia," Borivoj said returning.  Then, he unlocked the Beekeeping Museum.
Beekeeping is something that has become an interest of ours on this trip - like spelunking.  They're both something we will forever associate with Europe.  There is apiculture in America - Merlin's father kept bees - and caving, but both seem to be more abundant over on this continent.  It was actually in Slovenia that we fell in love with caves and hives.  So, it was fitting to go to our second beekeeping museum ever in another former Yugoslav country.  The museum was tasteful and interesting and presented with love.  Old manuals, diagrams and instruments - a honey extractor from 1876, a steam beeswax melter from 1881 - were all on display.  Our guide had such an easy understanding of the process, an ingrained respect for every item in the museum and what it represented.
Borivoj explained that Jovan had single-handedly brought modern beekeeping to Serbia.  "Modern" meant utilizing removable trays and moveable hives.  Above you have the old way of keeping bees, that gnome-hat contraption made from wicker and covered with clay.  In order to harvest the wax inside, one had to destroy the hive and the colony.  The faux house next to it is Professor Živanovića's creation called "Amerikanka" (American Lady).  This was a nod to the fact that "everything new and modern was coming from America."  In goes a tray with the comb and out you can pull it once all covered up with honey.  The bees survive to live another day.  What's more, it allowed beekeepers to move their hives safely to different pastures.  You want the taste of acacia?  Bring the bees out to feed somewhere they'll have all the acacia nectar they can stomach.  
The reiteration of the phrase "and you no have to kill bees" showed the great-great-grandson's esteem for his ancestor.  The Professor, who came to beekeeping late in life, had immediately contemplated the ethics of the process.  All the intellect and fervor he'd previously lent to academic papers and textbooks about the Serbian language (his career beforehand) he applied to beekeeping.  Yellowed issues of the magazine he started, "Serbian Beekeeper,"  were piled up in a glass case.  This church-shaped hive had been decorating the family garden since 1880 but was now too valuable to keep outside.  Another jewel of the museum's collection was the oldest photograph in all of Serbia.  It was a portrait of Josim Živanović, Jovan's father.  Before he become worthy of his own museum, the Professor's father and grandfather had already made a name for their family with their wine. 
Along with keeping his bees and teaching everyone else how to do it properly, the Professor kept up the family wine business and wound up passing both down to his descendants.  Borivoj is a fifth generation beekeeper and a seventh generation wine maker.  In truth, his father is more into the bees and his focus is more on wine.  It's a busy time right now. The steel contents of their 300 year old wine cellar, the oldest in the town, are in the process of being transferred over to newer, bigger, more modern digs.  The wooden barrels will stay put.  What a family to be born into, what tradition.  Heady and sweet.

24 May 2012

Hello Dunav, Our Old Friend!

Hello again to the Danube, that murkiest and longest line in our travels.  The last we saw these waters was almost a year ago, in Budapest, where the shores were thick with cruiseships and overhung by cathedrals. We caught sight of the river again in Belgrade, where the banks are lined with floating dance clubs that glow and bob in the evening light.  It’s exciting to come back to it, like meeting up with a familiar coast or turning onto a much-driven road.  In Serbia, the great river is called the Dunav, and we’ve been tracing a rough route along it for weeks.
In Belgrade, we ate a big dinner with a group of Americans in the old water quarter of Zemun.  Once a separate town, Zemun is now one of the oldest parts of the capital, and perfectly sunset-picturesque on a summer night.  Old houses – older than most in bomb-flattened Belgrade – house a yellow-lit universe of fish taverns and cafes.  The clientele is well heeled, the area has a reputation for Mafioso money and flashy cars, the view up the water towards the city proper is enchanting.  We feasted on pike perch, catfish and carp from the Dunav as the light faded, then walked along the waterside promenade in the dark.  The blue-black water sounded like a thick emptiness beside us, the far side was lost in the night.
In Smederova, sticks were driven down into the mud and fishing boats were moored among them, tangling lines and looking cheerful in the morning sun.  We were told that it was possible to swim, and I don’t doubt that people do, but at this point in its journey the water is a little suspect.  At its genesis, the Danube is a well protected water source, but as it leaves Austria, regulations dwindle.  Although some of the worst dumping is prohibited in Serbia now, the Dunav is still sometimes treated like a moving landfill.   Still, the locals love to fish, and their roaring outboards cut white wakes in the surface when they go out.  We’d see them nestled together far out on the surface, two or three in a cluster, lines dropped in opposite directions, cigarettes burning.  Some fished from shore, but their luck was worse.
Smederova is Serbia’s steel town, and it’s where we noticed the barges the most.  As far as we can tell, barges come in two types: those churning upriver and those gliding down.  Their engines are unnoticeable except in the calmest and stillest moments when a slow growl can be heard, almost like a tremor in the earth.  Shipping is the lifeblood of the region, the reason why the Dunav remains so important here.  Dock cranes and derricks sprout up along the banks like huge willow groves, railroad depots sit rusting, trucks belch exhaust and wait for the goods that have come up or down.
Riblja Čorba is Serbia’s version of halászlé, a soup we ate a lot of in Hungary.  It’s loaded with paprika, which turns the fishy broth a bright red.  In Sremski Karlovski, we ate a big pot of it sitting by the water, dipping coarse bread into our bowls.  At “Dunav” (the actual, obvious name) restaurant, the carp in the soup was as fatty as pork belly, and floated around as soft clumps of flesh, barely held together by a few bones and skin.  It was delicious, a mix of decadent flavors; the fish was mellow and oily, the paprika was smoky and earthy.  The whole dish reminded us of river silt in an appetizing way – a stew of reeds and heady scents, the kind of dark place where enormous fish lurk for years, growing rotund and slow.
Sremski Karlovski is a quiet town of wine growers and rickety tractors in the north of Serbia.  There are beautiful old houses, out of place with the agricultural aura, that date to the Hapsburg period, when Karlovski was the political center of Serbs in the monarchy.  It’s pretty, with cheerfully painted houses and a few ornate churches, but it seems to have turned away from the Dunav.  The riverside here is forested and featureless – only a line of water running through the great plain.
Novi Sad, a few miles upstream, was much more connected to the water, with bridges thrown across to the far shore and a higher vantage – to look out over the Dunav (or the Danube, the Duna, the Donau, the Dunărea…) is to look at a constant of many millennia.  The first seed of the name came from the pre-language of Europe – dānu, a word so ancient that it has become a part of almost every continental language, means “river.”  In Europe, the Danube is the river.
In Serbia, the floating restaurants and clubs that are popular on the Dunav are called splavs, and they're a way of life in Belgrade.  We wanted to eat at this one in Novi Sad, but found it abandoned.  The footbridge from the bank had collapsed, the interior looked gutted - there were still a few cases of empty beer bottles on the deck, but that was it.  We ate in town, on dry land.

Berries & Cherries

It was impossible not to notice the cherries at Kalenić market in Belgrade. It was like all of our thought bubbles that read "It feels like summer," were manifested right there in the red, shiny, orbs. We wanted to buy some, we really did, but we'd just eaten about a pound of fried fish from the market's fishmonger and were already carrying the ingredients we'd just gathered for our tomato paprika Kačamak. Everyone else was buying cherries in bulk along with slender, pointed strawberries. A little helper, not much higher than the market table, embezzled berries from her family stock when no one was looking. Women in kerchiefs and men in coke-bottle glasses manned the stations. Shriveled, wrinkled and old, their presence made the fruit look even riper.
Many of the fruit vendors were obviously from outside the city, their shoes still had countryside clinging to them. Behind most of the market stands were the carts, suitcases and boxes employed to make the trip in. They say that if you don't have a chance to make it outside Belgrade, Kalenić Pijaca can give you a glimpse of life in the country. Sure enough, when we left Belgrade and headed for Smederevo, the scenes from the market stretched out before us. We had no idea we were driving through "Little California" - Zaklopača - one of the most famous fruit producing regions in Serbia.
Orchards stretched out on either side of the road. Tractors putted behind us. One of the few non-farm-vehicles we saw was a black BMW. A ladder stuck out the back, in amongst a trunkload of cherries. Ladders were propped up against trunks all over. People were hard at work. An absolutely ancient woman bent over a row of strawberries. I'm not convinced she'd be able to straighten up if she wanted to after a lifetime of working a patch like that. Cropland covers about two thirds of Serbia and even with three quarters of that land focusing on grains, fruit is still produced in massive quantities. In fact, one third of the world's raspberries come from here.
85% of cropland in Serbia is owned by private farms. So, you can count on hand-picked, insecticide free fruit grown by people who have been in tune with their land and their plants for generations. Along with their perfect microclimate, the villages around Zaklopača also have the Danube right there to their north. The Balkan fruit basket has been sending produce upriver to industrial Germany for centuries. Recently, the cherries and berries of Serbia are beginning to get more attention from big juice and frozen food companies. They're heartier varieties, more flavorful fruits, they freeze better and keep their flavor longer than a lot of the competition.
Plums are probably Serbia's most famous fruit, raspberries are definitely their most plentiful, but it's hard to argue with cherries and strawberries. In Belgrade, we'd told someone about going over to Kalenić market and they immediately asked, "Did you buy cherries?!?" I'm pretty sure I lied and said we had, embarrassed to have passed up such an obviously beautiful bounty and not wanting our decision to be any comment on the fruit's irresistibility. On the road, we were able to make up for it.
We parked and bought a kilo of each, cherries and strawberries. It was more than we needed, really, but the women shook away our pleas to stop adding more to the bag. The price was for a full kilo and they weren't going to short change us even one little pit. I mean, bit. We drove away happily weighed down and began to eat right away. We remarked on each one, sweet or sour, ripe or riper. Oo, I just got a good one. The corners of our roadmap were stained red by my fingers. It felt too early to be indulging in fruit like this. Only May? Spitting cherry pits out our open windows, we christened the roadside "Summer."

23 May 2012

Belgrade Underground

This is Big Gun Powder Storage. The man-made cave, built by 16th century Austrians beneath the Kalemegdan Fortress, began life as a warehouse for gunpowder - hence the name. Once it was cleaned out and excavations around Belgrade began to unearth Byzantine and Roman sarcophagi, gravestones and statues, it became a display room. A lapidarium. In 1999, modern Belgraders left their own mark on the space, re-purposing it into an illegal nightclub. Named "Big Gun Powder Storage," of course. Their fossilized chewing gum spot the floor. This was the third stop on our tour of "Underground Belgrade," and our guide had finally gotten the full attention of 9 groggy Brits who'd been up until 8am clubbing on a boat in the Danube. Beer in hand, they were (admirably) surviving. "This was the greatest club in the world," he told them, "the DJ would play right on this 2,000 year old altar!" You can imagine the acoustics.
Belgrade is situated right where the mighty Danube meets the Sava and the Balkan mountains meet the vast Pannonian Plain. It's an ideal place for a city, except for the fact that everyone else is going to think so, too. Even a layman like me can figure out that there are two ways to defend yourself from invasion. You either position yourself at the highest point possible or burrow underground. With Belgrade positioned as it is, its back up against the mountains, the two great rivers 383 feet below and layers of easy to carve limestone beneath, they were able to do both. As a result, there are miles and miles of tunnels, bunkers, dungeons, posts and cellars below the city of Belgrade. There's a labyrinth of over 1,000 years of subterranean war strategy that remains mostly undiscovered.
Nowadays, this is the only type of warfare going on below the city, beneath  Cirila i Metodija Park. We'd walked down one of many stairways marked "Underground" in that familiar gothic font mimicking Paris' "Metropolitain" signs and found dozens of computer gaming rooms. Some wore headsets, all were engaged in some sort of battle that kept them glued to their seats and screens in these virtual underground command stations. This is the site of the first and only subway station built in Belgrade. The plans for the underground railway had been grand, but were quickly interrupted. It was 1995 and people were about to have more pressing reasons to go underground than building an expensive subway system.
Vuk's Statue Station, as it is called, is a big ole white elephant. It looks and feels exactly like a subway station, the metallic walls, public benches, signs pointing to the platform and the bathrooms. These days, the escalators drop you down to a platform that's being utilized as a stop on the Zemun - Pancevo train. I'm not exactly sure how that works, but we had to run up a down escalator when a guard informed us that only ticket-holders could descend. When we mentioned the experience to some locals over dinner that evening, there was some miscommunication.  This led to the suggestion that we should look into an "Underground Belgrade" tour if we wanted to see the system of passageways beneath the city.
They say that to see anything over 250 years old in Belgrade, you must go underground. Unfortunately, there isn't all that much of an opportunity. Lack of funding and squabbles over personal property prevents any sort of tourist infrastructure - you've gotta make things safe, put in staircases, employ guides, etc etc etc. Just deciding which in the multitude of networks to focus on would be an enormous endeavor. Access to a few sites has been allowed for tour guides, but it never really gets too deep (in either sense of the word). This doesn't make the tour less interesting, just sort of a tease. Ours included a room with some Roman remains, a wine cellar, Big Gunpowder Storage and this post-World War II bunker.
Celts, Romans, Huns, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Germans and everyone else wanted to lay claim to Belgrade throughout history. It wasn't all that far-fetched of Tito to think that Cold War Russia would come knocking on their door. Men were stationed in these small bunkers around the clock for years, waiting for an attack that never came. They were manned with cannons, but - of course - there was now also the threat of nuclear attack. "This is why they kept some water in these lead boxes." Our guide pointed at the cases below the stairs. "Like anything would survive a nuclear explosion. So stupid." He shook his head and laughed.
"So stupid," had been Dina's comment, too. She's the young woman who'd recommended an underground tour over dinner. Her utterance was in response to a recent Roman aqueduct excavation and the decision to simply cover it with a layer of concrete. "They say that now it will stay better protected for someone to open up and explore later. So stupid!" she repeated. Our guide began the tour with a power point presentation of everything he was once allowed to show tourists, but cannot anymore. Natural caverns, an underground river, another shelter-turned-club. He spoke of passageways that joined government buildings, German command stations and excavations that were named "Roman" simply because they were old. The presentation took place in a basement built around the remains of a Roman fortress. An ancient lead pipe juts out of the wall.
Our final stop was the wine cellar.  Dating back to the 19th century, it is now a bar. Before going in/under, I looked across the river at Zemun, a town that predates Belgrade but is now considered part of the city. I'd read that homeless people had started living in the neighborhood's underground tunnels. Over unlabeled bottles of wine, served alongside liters of Coca Cola, our guide reminisced some more about the "totally illegal" parties at Big Gun Powder Storage and other caves. "During the [NATO] bombing, young people felt they had no future. There was nothing to do but play music and dance." Like the ancient well-diggers and today's homeless, the builders of bomb shelters and secret passageways, those club-goers at the end of the 20th century found what they needed to survive in Belgrade's underground.