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14 Aug 17

Urbanite Belgraders Hug Concrete, Not Trees

Srdjan Garcevic

Belgraders may be famed for wild partying but they have little interest in exploring wilderness of the natural kind.  

 

The only fauna that interests the average Belgrader is found partying on the splavs or strolling in Knez Mihailova. Photo: Pixabay

As we were climbing around the ruins of Machu Picchu, feathery clouds clung to peaks covered with thick emerald forest.

Rain, which pounded from the morning, stopped and allowed sunlight to shyly caress the sheer black cliffs above the foaming river.

Around us, hundreds of tourists were jostling with selfie sticks to capture these magical scenes.

My chain-smoking Belgrade-born-and-bred mother slowly moved uphill, panting. Once she got her breath, she looked around to take in the otherworldly beauty.

“So all this climbing for this? I should have stayed in the city,” she said tersely and sulked for the rest of our Andean adventure.

Even if my mother is on the extreme end of the spectrum, Belgraders on average do not enjoy being far from pavements and shops.

Unlike Slovenes, who routinely abandon their towns on weekends for hikes in the Alps, or Germans and Czechs, who descend on the Adriatic shore in camper vans every summer, we are loath to abandon comfortable beds, let alone spend our weekends bereft of the possibility of lounging in cafes.

Although a walk around Belgrade is considered a normal social activity, suggesting a hike through natural beauty spots to a friend here is likely to elicit a chuckle and a suggestion to think again.

Despite a passionate minority who spend their weekends spotting wildlife around Serbia, the only fauna that interests the average Belgrader is found partying on the splavs or strolling in Knez Mihailova.

This predilection for the urban is interesting given that Serbia’s primary charms are its mountains and rivers.

While many of our ancient cities hide remarkable monuments, from the macabre skull-studded Celekula in Nis to the remains of the Roman city of Sirmium in Sremska Mitorvica, neither of them come close to the beauty of the Danube slicing through the Djerdap gorge, the meandering river Uvac or the rolling hills of central Serbia.

Probably part of the reason for our indifference to nature is precisely because urbanisation in Serbia is a relatively recent phenomenon.

At the turn of the last century, Belgrade was home to just about 70,000 souls and was still the largest city in the country.

Until the mid-19th Century, city life outside of Austro-Hungarian Vojvodina was rare and mostly dominated by the Ottoman Muslim population, who subsequently left as Serbia gained independence.

As Belgrade’s rapid growth during the Yugoslav years was mostly due to thousands leaving small villages in search of a better life, it is not too surprising that most Belgraders do not consider the countryside as very exotic or yearn to go back to it.

Indeed, many of us have been forced to spend summers in grandparents’ villages, where nature was a backdrop to boring days away from Belgrade friends, rather than a thrilling chance for adventure.

Holidaying in cities, coastal or otherwise, for many of us is a sign of independence and, to an extent, wealth.

To make things worse, there is the social stigma associated with a fondness of the rural: villager, “seljak”, is a derogatory label, which every Belgrader, whether born or an arriviste (a dreaded much maligned “dodjos”), seeks to avoid.

While it may be ok if you go to your holiday home in relatively urbanised Zlatibor or Kopaonik, indulging in hikes and camping may make you seem like a weird loner.

It seems that Serbia’s landscapes were underappreciated by our predecessors as well. Our culture traditionally did not pay much heed to the great outdoors, but was rather more concerned with the historical and social.

Although much of Serbian literature happens in small towns and villages, there are a few major Serbian poets and novelists who idolised nature along the lines of Wordsworth or Thoreau.

Among our most famous artists, few are renowned for their landscapes and most recognisable Serbian paintings are either church art, historical paintings or portraits.

Thus, there are also few iconic landscapes etched into our collective consciousness that we feel compelled to see.

While images of Drina or Djavolja Varos are recognisable to most Serbs, they are nowhere as evocative as the white cliffs of Dover to a Brit, the Grand Canyon to an American or Triglav mountain to a Slovene.

Ironically, most of the landscapes that get frequently mentioned in our history and art are not (fully, at least) in Serbia.

There are relatively few Serbs these days who cross to Kosovo to visit Gazimestan where the famous battle of 1389 against the Ottomans took place and where the death of much revered Prince Lazar signalled the beginning of the end of the Serbian medieval state.

Most landscapes where key events from World War I and World War II happened, like the Albanian mountains, Corfu, Kaimakchalan, Sutjeska and Neretva, are farther away.

And last but not least, our paranoid attitude to illness and dirt is also a major factor that prevents us from outdoor pursuits. The joke that the Ottomans could have scared Serbs away by opening a door on a battlefield and saying that there is “promaja” (a draft), is not too far from the truth.

If you take a Belgrader into nature, be prepared to listen to them listing all the ways they fear that they will get injured. From an early age we are taught that sitting on the rocks will destroy our bladder and kidneys, that walking off-road will result in tick-transmitted Lyme disease and that promaja will simply kill us.

As most of us learned the hard way in Belgrade’s Tasmajdan park and meadows around the Belgrade fortress that dog poo and cigarette butts grow in the grass, we are very reluctant to use it for sitting, let alone sleeping.

Unlike Western Europeans who seem unfazed by mud and dirt, even the hardiest Belgrader will be shrouded in a pile of wet wipes within minutes of seeing anything brown on their body.

Sadly, as some perceive nature as essentially a pile of dirt, we will happily leave rubbish in a meadow or a stream.

Although hikes and camping trips are still not considered a fun activity by most, younger Belgraders are slowly discovering the joys of exploring their country.

This started with the increasing popularity of visiting traditional farms (salas) in Vojvodina, which still offer orderly patios for eating and drinking.

Now there are now many enthusiasts trying to acquaint people with the joys of walking up the pyramidal Rtanj Mountain or rafting on the river Drina.

Some of our celebrities have even decided to abandon Belgrade and live in the countryside as farmers.

As many are discovering the beauty of nature, conservationism has also become more prevalent: there is a popular campaign to stop throwing rubbish around and a petition to protect Danube birds at the proposed site of the new Belgrade port.

Considering that our great-great-grandfathers had to march to Corfu and that our great-grandparents hid in the woods during World War II, it is understandable why Belgraders see visits to nature as traumatic, yet a more outdoorsy spirit would definitely do us good.

Not only would our lungs rest from Belgrade’s polluted air, but our eyes would hopefully open to how little we know about and appreciate Serbia’s rural charms.

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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