A Travel Vignette

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From a Serbian Travel Diary (1990)

Serbian Partners

A Visit to the Kalemegdan Fortress

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, June 1990

BELGRADE - "Whatever else you do, be sure to visit the Ruzica church at Kalemegdan," said an older cousin of mine when he heard my family and I were planning to spend half a day walking through Belgrade (YU). I was born in Belgrade, but had never before been to this part of Kalemegdan, a Turkish fortress at the confluence of the river Sava into Danube. My cousin was very disappointed when he heard afterward that we could not find it. "The next time you have some free time, I'll take you," he promised.

Indeed, about a week or so later, all of us drove to Kalemegdan together. As I parked the car against the wall just in front of an ancient castle gate, an older man approached us. "Is this pay parking?" I asked. "Yes, it is," he replied. "But, that means that you can count on us to protect your car and everything inside."

Light rain was starting to fall as the old man talked of the high crime rates in this part of Kalemegdan. Pointing toward a remote part of the wall, he said that just the other day he saw a mother light a candle on the spot her 17-year old daughter was raped and murdered. "With us," he said proudly, "you have nothing to worry about. You could have a ton of gold inside that car, and I guarantee you'd find it safe and sound when you return."

I smiled at the old boy. He looked like a retired soldier. Being a parking lot attendant to him obviously wasn't just part-time work. He was once again on sentry duty, and he wasn't going to disappoint his commander.

"How much is the parking?" I asked. "Whatever your kindness and generosity decides," he replied. "We are all pensioners. We use the money to buy food. We didn't get our pensions last month."

Had it not been for the fact that my parents were also pensioners, and that I knew that they didn't get their pension checks that month either, I would have thought the man was a con artist. As it were, I felt sorry for him. I took a wad of bills, peeled off a sizable bundle, and handed them to him. I can't be sure exactly how much I gave him, but it was probably close to 100 dinars. "God bless you, Governor," he said, as he proceeded to thank me probably half a dozen times.

The walls of the tiny Ruzica church were covered with ivy. Like a tour guide, my cousin kept explaining its long history. "It was here," he said, "that the king and the Serbian army commanders took communion before going off to fight the Austrians at the start of World War I." It was here, he also explained, that a captain in charge of the defenders of Belgrade in 1915 addressed his troops with words which immortalized him.

After taking a beating by the Serbian army in the war's early battles, aided by the German reinforcements, the Central Powers' forces were staging a comeback. Belgrade was about to fall. Every minute became important for the survival of Serbia. The longer the defenders of Belgrade lasted, the more time they would allow for the core of the Serbian army to retreat, and thus avoid being encircled and destroyed.

Standing in front of the tiny Ruzica church, the commander of Kalemegdan troops spoke to his men:. "The Supreme Command has erased our names from its register," was the famous line with which he started his speech. He and all but one of his men perished. But, the Serbian army survived, and came back to liberate the capital three years later.

As we spoke some more about the wars which this fortress and the church had survived, I was starting to see why my cousin insisted that we not miss seeing the Ruzica church. I felt I was walking on hallowed grounds. From the ceiling in the center of the church, hung a big chandelier. "The Serbian soldiers made it," my cousin explained, "while waiting at the Thessalonika front for the order to attack and break through." It was an unusual chandelier. Its base was a wooden cannon wheel. It was decorated with hundreds of shells, and connected to the ceiling with chains which were probably used to pull the horse-drawn artillery in WW I.

We walked slowly back toward the car. The rain had stopped. As we turned the corner, our parking lot guard was nowhere to be seen. "Ha," I thought to myself. "The old rascal. Maybe he was a con man." At least I saw that our car was still there. It was the only one left in the small parking lot.

At that point, a smallish man wearing a "sajkaca," emerged from the covered sentry post in front of the car. He looked just as old as the other one who checked us in. I didn't say anything, but he must have noticed a surprise on my face. "I know this is your car, Sir" he said. "My partner told me about you."

He kept chatting away as we were entering the car. "I know that you've already paid my partner. Isn't that right?" he asked, nodding affirmatively before I could even reply. I smiled again. "And I want you to know that my partner gave me half of it as my share," he added. "That's great," I said. "I am glad." I started the engine. But, the old man continued, "you gave my partner 20 dinars, and here is my share," he proudly cheerfully waved the 10-dinar note at me.

I didn't say anything. I smiled again, although I felt more like frowning. I did not want to shatter his illusion. As I backed the car out, I turned to my cousin and said, "Serbian business: Nothing like cheating your partner!" "Especially your partner!" he replied sarcastically emphasizing "especially."

When I looked up, I couldn't believe my eyes. Outside, the old man was standing erectly and saluting, his hand pressed against the side of his forehead. I waved him goodbye. He remained motionless only smiling in return. As I drove away, I glanced back in my rear view mirror. He was still saluting.  I pointed this out to my cousin.

"Look at the old Serb!" he said in admiration. "Soldiering must be in our genes." 

Maybe.  But, I had a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  For, cheating your partner also seemed to be "in the genes."

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