Our next change of country was marked with a change of alphabet and our ability to understand anything. Beograd beckoned and we arrived by freeways merging into cramped city streets marked with ramshackle parking. Met by our host Milutin we entered our temporary home in the heart of the cities Old Town. Entering the small apartment filled with antique furniture and art collected by Milutins partner Ivana we see first hand Ivana’s passion as a Historian. Intrigued by the fashion sketches in our bedroom we are illuminated with the story of Ivana’s grandparents. Well known in Serbian theatre, her grandfather designed costumes for major opera and theatre productions and her grandmother turned his beautiful drawings into reality. How they managed to keep their beautiful home from destruction by their gorgeous and hyper husky puppy we will never know.
With evening growing we went for a walk into historic Belgrade and found a great traditional restaurant complete with a band.
The next morning we walked through the city to the old fortress and were interrupted by the ethnographic museum of Serbia which we were forced to enter, because culture. It was our first glimpses into the unique identity of Serbia and the Balkans as well as all the similarities with Romanian craft, dress and tradition.
Upstairs there was also an excellent exhibition on Nasuh bin Karagöz bin Abdullah el-Visokavi el-Bosnav a fascinating figure from Bosnia and a master in the true sense of the word.
The fortress itself is a huge archeological complex built overlooking the river and is now a beautiful area of public parks. We explored towers, tunnels and Ottoman wells, saw sword-fighting, archery and traditional dance. There was even an old chapel with chandeliers made from swords, guns and bullet casings.
We found the small and dilapidated National Art Gallery on our way out of the fortress and spent some time with the paintings as a woman played beautiful piano music. A great way to experience art.
Everytime we tried to find the address to our accommodation the internet would take us to the residence of Princess Ljubica. This was obviously a bit above our price range, but we went to visit anyway as it is now a museum. The house itself was quite beautiful and was decorated to demonstrate the aristocracy through various eras in Belgrade.
What was even better was that there was a Albrecht Dürer exhibtion happening in the basement at the time. The exhibition showed a number of amazing Dürer etchings as well as a huge amount of work which he inspired through his students and beyond.
Serbia is rightfully proud of the inventor, engineer and futurist Nikola Tesla who was born in Serbia and later moved to America to further his career. We visited an excellent museum which took us through some of his most important inventions and his later life. Emmily got to hold a fluorescent tube while a huge Tesla coil transmitted electricity through the air and lit up the pole! It was amazing and interesting to hear about his ideas of transmitting information and electricity without wires as well as his ideas to provide energy and information to the world.
Wandering the streets of Belgrade we happened upon an excellent exhibition by contemporary artist Ivana Radovanovic. She had hand stitched giant figures from rough hessian filled with soil and straw. It was eerie and haunting. There was also documentation of a performance where she lit these figures on fire in a huge desolate warehouse space creating huge burning effigies of the hollow men.
We spent the evenings getting to know our new hosts and learning a little more about Serbian culture. The Serbs seemed to have more of an affinity with Russia than with the west and the strange alphabet we had been failing to interpret was the Cyrillic alphabet. Serbia had also been the seat of power and the controlling force of Yugoslavia with the Serbian royal family ruling until the mid 40’s when the communist government took power. Unfortunately Serbian history has many tales of war, with understandably strained relationships with some of its neighbours. The feuds and ties go back aeons and are hard for us to grasp. It was during one of these conversations that it was revealed to us the betrayal by the Croats towards the Serbs during WWII. When neighbours turned on one another for simply having a different surname or religion, even though their families had lived side by side for generations. A very familiar story.
Serbia is quite a religious country with its own form of orthodox Christianity. A unique feature of this faith is the family saint. Each family is affiliated with a saint which is retained through the husbands line and is a distinctly Serbian practice. One of the perks about this practice is that the whole family gets their own day off once a year on the day of their saint.
Not all of our conversations were of history and war. We also shared our unusual traits that mark us as ‘weird’ yet united us in the same club. With Mulitins extreme positivity, even in dire or extremely painfully circumstances ( to Ivana’s annoyance at times) and Ivana’s love of the cemetery behind the house she grew up in. Spending more time with the historically dead then the living. It turns out us weirdos live all over the world : )
And then the hunt began.
Leaving the White City we drove into the autumn coloured country side. The anticipation building within Emmily at the thought of seeing her first Spomenik. After navigating the tiny roads for over an hour we came upon a sign pointing us in the right direction. Who knew it would be this easy?
Since 2011 Emm has been haunted by photographs by Jan Kempenaers depicting giant sculptural monuments scattered throughout former Yugoslavia. The Spomeniks were commissioned by the leader of the Socialist Republic Josip Broz Tito between the 1960’s and 70’s to commemorate the landmarks of battles and concentration camps during WWII. Tito appointed leading artistist and architects to design monuments inspiring unity and national pride whilst remembering the sacrifices of his people. Once magnificent tourist attractions, after the civil war and decline of Yugoslavia most of the Spomeniks were abandoned and even destroyed.
Reading up on the various locations of these giant brutilist sculptures it became apparent that many were in isolated regions, often coming to dead ends of their exact were abouts. In the end we mapped out eight potential possibilities and hoped for the best.
The Kosmaj Spomenik was not only signposted but was situated in a beautiful forested picnic spot with a wide path leading up a hill. Slowly its large form began to reveal itself between the trees.
The spomenik was huge and awe inspiring. Made up of six freestanding concrete structures it seemed powerful and immense, both uplifting and terrifying. It seemed to burst forth depicting both an explosion, a triumph and a horror.
Looking into the history this constuctivist star commemorates we could find very little. The artist is unknown and the details of the battle soaked into this site are vague at best. All we know is that Yugoslave partisons battled Germans and lost over 5000 soldiers. The quote “(their) guns of freedom kept shooting” pops up in relation to our Kosmaj search but of its source we have no clue.