Back before I arrived in Belgrade in October 2017, I did post on my only experience of the city from back in the early eighties: a train trip in the dead of night on my way to Athens. It was my first time crossing over from the familiarities of western Europe to the wild, wild east, and I vowed to revisit the station once I had settled in to our new Belgrade home. Things didn’t turn out the way I planned. The station wasn’t near to our downtown apartment and nowhere close to anywhere else I needed to go. Time slipped by. I discovered cheese pies a-plenty elsewhere, and my attention turned to exploring our neighbourhood and finding my feet. But returning to the train station was a niggle in the back of my mind. It was an act of consolidating past and present, and an opportunity to see the world through more mature eyes, rather than just a blog post promise to myself. Yet, somehow ,I never could quite prioritize the trip when the free time arose. Finally in the spring of 2018, when the warm weather beckoned us outside, on impulse, I took the 40 minute walk to the Beogradska Zelenznicka Stanica.
How different it looked from the street side on a sunny, spring morning compared to my memory of the dark, smokey interior of the train that night! The streets were full of people enjoying the first warm day in ages, and I dodged trams and traffic to cross and enter the quite grand-looking, main building.
Once inside though, I entered a time warp from the old, post-war, communist era. The station’s main and ticketing halls didn’t match the charm of its late 19th Century exterior, and had clearly been refitted circa-1950 and never updated. It was strangely comforting in a way, because reality was starting to match my vague memories of the place.
I poked about a bit, wondering if it was possible to make it through to the trains without a ticket. Unimpeded by guards or barriers, I soon found myself on the platform area, and I walked to the checkered tablecloths of the station’s only platform cafe. Here’s the opportunity to get that cheese pie, I thought. “Imas pita sa sirom?,” I asked the waiter. “Ne,” he said, and rolled off a list of menu items that I had no interest in. I thanked him and ordered a beer, so I could sit and watch my surroundings. Well, it didn’t really matter now, as I had become an expert in the matter of Serbian cheese pies and had basically decided that they are good, but I prefer the Greek-style pie, although I don’t think any pie will ever match the giant one I ate so many years ago!
I glanced around me. The modern station was smaller and scruffier than I remembered.
Weeds grew up between the railroad ties, and I noted that the two tracks in front of me had terminal barriers. Clearly these tracks were the end of the line and not the same international through lines that I had traveled before. The train from from Novi Sad came in and terminated in front me. People rolled off and quickly dispersed into the terminal. Yes, clearly these were only local trains.
The scruffiness came from the lack of maintenance over the last few years, as Belgrade station was being slowly phased out for relocation. The old station building is part of a giant Belgrade waterfront development, which will bring a modern, multi-use complex to the centre of the city, including shopping malls, residential apartment buildings and a cultural centre. It’s a controversial project with many claiming that it will destroy the local community, although some well-planned, culturally sensitive redevelopment of the city is well overdue. It would be good to revisit the site in a couple of years, when it is hopefully completed. Fortunately the plan is to preserve the old railway station and turn it into a museum, eventually rehousing the popular Nikola Tesla museum into a new city centre location.
Procrastination almost resulted in never being able to revisit that day. Just a few weeks later the station closed permanently and whatever re-emerges from the renovations will not be anything like my 35 year old memories, which is just as well. The world needs to move on.