The Zagreb-Belgrade road trail

July 10, 2016

Exploring the Balkans to appreciate the various similarities and differences between its historic cities

The Zagreb-Belgrade road trail

Among the cities of the Balkans, the north-western capital of Croatia, Zagreb presents a different aspect altogether as soon as you land at the airport. The airport, like Sarajevo’s, is small, yet busier -- served by a lot more airlines. This is partly due to Croatia’s assiduous promotion of the country as a cheap holiday destination. A line of buses is ready to transport passengers to the city centre of Zagreb which is 30 minutes away.

From the bus station at the city centre, you hop onto the tram to get into the city. The very first thing that strikes you is the spaciousness of the city. Although the population is just over 0.7 million, the city covers an area of 30 kilometres.

If you travel out of Zagreb to its suburbs, where the Museum of Contemporary Art is located, the city looks pretty much like Islamabad. My friend, Robert, pointed this out to me. On closer inspection, I did concur with his observation. Also, unlike other big cities in the Balkans like Sarajevo, Belgrade and Mostar, where rivers run through the heart of the cities dividing them into two halves, in Zagreb, the River Sava runs through the suburban areas.

Arriving in the city, you are in the midst of architectural marvels. The architecture of the buildings reminds you of Vienna, said Robert. No wonder Zagreb attracts a large bulk of its tourist traffic from Germany and Austria. Unlike Sarajevo, the imprint of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is deeper here. I suspect this is due to the long possession of Croatia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia was passed into Austrian tutelage only in 1870 when Istanbul abdicated its effective control to the Austro-Hungarian empire).

In contrast with other countries of the Balkans, Zagreb has remained unscathed from the ravages of the war that engulfed the region in the recent past. That is why architecture is preserved and intact, mostly. There is something pristine about the buildings. I was lucky to find an apartment in the main square of the city -- thanks to friend Adnan Rehmat’ s recommendation. In the square next to the flat, an ongoing music concert added melodious tunes to the daily routine. This musical concert was in aid of a disabled charity. Every night, a large crowd would gather to enjoy the music.

Unlike Sarajevo, the city wears a permanently festive look. Zagreb is more life-affirming than other cities of Bosnia that I visited. This could be due to Bosnia’s unfortunately prolonged exposure to a long civil war that ravaged the country.

Unlike Sarajevo, the city wears a permanently festive look. Zagreb is more life-affirming than other cities of Bosnia that I visited.

I timed my visit with a subversive film festival which is organised annually. I was lucky enough to catch the tail-end of the political festival which ended on the day I arrived. The debate that we attended focused on whistle-blowers and the freedom of speech. The talk attracted quite an engaged and challenging crowd. The discussion was organised in the famous Cinema Europa. Zagreb’s cinemas are among the best that I have seen in Europe. Unlike modern multiplexes, these are quite old-fashioned with cushioned and spacious seating. The entrance to the cinemas is graced with statues, old-style film projectors and old film posters. The ambience of the entrance eases you into a feeling of being in a film studio without the intruding and trashy presence of pop-corn shops which are characteristic of multiplexes springing up everywhere in the Western world.

There is a great deal of historical continuity in food throughout the Balkans. Cevapcici (a skinless meat sausage) and Chai (tea) unite the region.

Having savoured the city for close to three days, I decided upon taking a bus journey to Belgrade from Zagreb to see more of the region’s landscape. In the region, bus is the most convenient way of getting from one place to another. The Zagreb Bus Station or Autobusni Kolodvor Zagreb is a busy place with buses going in every direction in the region. Trains are not in much use though the rail service from Zagreb to Slovenia is the best railway route. However, travel by bus from Zagreb to Belgrade provides one of the best experiences of the public transport system.

The bus, equipped with Wi-Fi, trundled its way to Belgrade with stop-overs at various places on the way. Enroute to Belgrade, I noticed signposting to the town of Vukovar which was the site of fierce fighting between the Serbs and the Croats.

The customs official at the border crossing between Serbia and Croatia took longer than usual. As soon as the bus moved onto Serbia, the road to Belgrade seemed to be in a relatively poor state. My acquaintance in Belgrade, Sanja Nikolin, gave me a small digest about the recent developments in Serbia, its social and cultural life, its health and social welfare system to read. I found out that unemployment is high, wages are low, and confidence in the political class runs even lower.

Compared to Zagreb, Belgrade’s cuisine is more diverse. While touring the historic Belgrade Fortress, I met an enthusiastic traveler, Gregory from Germany. Travel and geography being his passion, at the fort, he gave me a historical low-down on the importance of Belgrade as a military and strategic post in the region which was very refreshing.

All of Belgrade’s historic buildings are located in the Old City. The new part of Belgrade has relatively new-ish buildings, including the parliament. Many hotels of historical importance are also located in Belgrade. Hotel Belgrade is in the new part while old part has Hotel Moskva which is a very majestic building in itself. In Belgrade, road signs even display names of famous hotels -- which is quite unusual.

Belgrade still has many historic buildings of great architectural beauty despite having been bombed regularly throughout history. The latest assault was the NATO bombing in the 1990s which destroyed many historic bridges of the city.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to Museum of Ivo Andric, a great Bosnian writer, in the city. As the museum is not frequented by many tourists, I had my fill of the place, engaging the museum staff in long discussions about Ivo Andric’s life and work. Due to the limitation of time, unfortunately, I had to wrap up my already-truncated Belgrade visit on a reluctant note and leave for Warsaw.

The Zagreb-Belgrade road trail