Sunbathing in Sabac

Not Too Šabac

For me the trip to Šabac was really a last minute decision.  Although I had known for several hours that it was possible for me to go, I still had difficulty deciding if I actually wanted to go as I didn’t exactly expect to see anything worthwhile.  In fact, I was still in the process of reconsidering my decision to go all the way to the car.  It wasn’t until I was seated in the back seat of a moving Toyota Yaris that I finally knew that I was indeed going to to Šabac.  There were four of us going, but the owner of the Yaris was a Hungarian woman on her way to see her boyfriend play accordion at a concert in a small village a short distance from Šabac.  This would leave us remaining three, a Greek from Austria, a Slovak, and myself, stranded in the relatively small town, which none of us knew anything about except that we shouldn’t have high expectations, until the concert was over and the Yaris returned for us.

Most pedestrian zones in the Balkans look similar to this.
Most pedestrian zones in the Balkans look similar to this.

Upon our arrival we began by sitting down for coffee and ice cream in a small cafe in the city’s pedestrian zone which was lined with many cafe’s, pubs, and retail stores.  After our coffee we began to explore the small city.  We started by finishing a brief tour of the pedestrian zone which boasted nothing which would set it apart from the pedestrian zone found in Valjevo except for the small children which were intrigued by hearing a foreign language spoken in front of them for what may have been the first time.  There was one such girl which sat in a swiveling wicker chair doing nothing but stare and listen to our otherwise banal conversation as we finished our coffee.

We continued somewhat haphazardly into a park which might as well have not been named as it did not seem particularly significant aside from a few abandoned buildings

Former cafe and music venue
Former cafe and music venue

which we found out had served as cafes or hosted concerts sometime in the recent past.  We also discovered that the park hosted a pair of abandoned Nazi WW2 bunkers.  But the only striking feature of the park was the young Serbian couple walking their young child which took the time to speak with us for a few minutes and to give us directions to and advice about the most important sites to see in Šabac.  Probably, they were a little surprised that such a group would visit Šabac at all.  I was similarly surprised when they mentioned they had visited the US and knowing all that America has to see, the only state they visited was Georgia.

We quickly dismissed the couple’s first suggestion that we visit the pedestrian zone as we had just come from there.  Instead, they advised that we visit the Old Town, which included the river front.  I did not know it beforehand but the River Sava flows through Šabac and it was calm, wide, and beautiful.  To get to the river we first had to walk for about twenty minutes through the city’s residential districts where we had the opportunity to see many interesting buildings and people which seemed to be leading, from a foreigner’s perspective, interesting lives.

Each utility pole was painted differently.
Each utility pole in the Old Town was painted differently.

As we approached the river we crossed a set of railroad tracks which were overgrown with weeds and saturated with rust.  I imagine they had not been used in over twenty years.  The rails ran alongside a large vacant lot which looked as if it must have been used as some sort of waste dump.  Although now it appeared to be empty, the signs beside the entrance warned passersby not to enter.  The path we were following would eventually lead us to the Old Town, which actually turned out to be a large riverside park.

WW2 Era Fortress
WW2 Era Fortress

Eventually, we found our way to the River Sava on the far end of the park.  On the left was a ruined fortress filled with signs warning against falling stones and even more graffiti.  Despite the warnings we dared to venture into the small fortress where we sat for several minutes and looked out over the serene river.  The bright sunlight poured into the otherwise dark, unlit fortress to give us a glimpse of the damp, dusky corridors lined with fallen stones.  To the right of the fortress stretched a short, narrow street full of sunbathers and cafes.  There was also a sole crotch-rocket painted to resemble scenes from the hit Hollywood blockbuster 300.

This... Is... ŠABAAAAAC.
This… Is… ŠABAAAAAC.

After receiving too many awkward glances for taking so many pictures of a motorcycle we returned back from whence we came where we dined, not in hell, but at one of the better restaurants we had yet experienced in Serbia.  Godfather’s Ćevapi House (Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma) served traditional Balkan cuisine in the traditional Bosnian style.  As we ate we were treated to a drive-by of what might have been one of the most feared bike gangs that side of the Sava.

We left the restaurant in high spirits and saw many other interesting sights, not just architecturally but also anthropologically and sociologically.  Despite the good food, better attitudes, and excellent experiences, the night was was more or less ruined by an awkward conversation in an otherwise lovely courtyard belonging to a cafe guarded by a door decorated with bells.

 


 

The entrance to the Old City
The entrance to the Old City
Graffiti in the fortress
Graffiti in the fortress
We feared for our lives.
We feared for our lives.
Ćevapi at Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma
Ćevapi at Ćevabdžinica kod Kuma
Cafe Zvonce
Cafe Zvonce
Cathedral of Resurrection

The Whirlwind that was Valjevo

Cathedral of Resurrection during the 2014 flooding.
Cathedral of Resurrection during the 2014 flooding.

I think on account of the extreme temperatures I had experienced immediately upon arrival my first impression of Valjevo was not quite as fair as I think it should have been.  Like Belgrade, I saw a city heavily littered, heavily graffitied, and with many buildings in varying states of disrepair (partly thanks to the generosity of the American military).  I distinctly remember the first time I walked across the Kolubara River which flows beside the newly constructed Orthodox Christian Cathedral of Resurrection.  The pristine condition of the new cathedral juxtaposed with the shallow, murky, rock laden Kolubara enticed me to hastily jump to the conclusion that Valjevo would be nothing at all like I had expected after having read about Valjevo online.  Had I known any better I would have remembered that the disastrous state of the riverside, full of debris, trash, and stones was due to the extreme flooding which had affected the majority of Serbia in the spring of last year.  I would later find out that the riverside is in the process of reconstruction thanks to the generosity and good will of the government and people of Japan and thanks to the predatory loans offered by the International Monetary Fund.

However, thanks in no small part to our dedicated tour guide I soon came to see a different city.  Admittedly, between classes, afternoon naps, cultural activities, and of course evening naps, it was with great difficulty that I found the motivation to attend the numerous tours to the various museums, monasteries, wineries, monuments, cafes, and rivers.  Each day in Valjevo was a whirlwind of activities and experiences in which I was forced to balance studying (which happened only rarely), exploring Serbian culture, investigating the city of Valjevo, and becoming acquainted with my new classmates each with their own background and motivations for studying Serbian.

Every night in Tesnjar (Valjevo's Bohemian quarter) is filled music and alcohol.
Every night in Tesnjar (Valjevo’s Bohemian quarter) is filled music and alcohol.

Eventually a core group of about six of us students made it a habit to experience Valjevo intentionally and on a daily basis.  Those of you who know me should know that the only way I know how to do anything is reluctantly and you should be happy to know I did not change this aspect of myself for Valjevo.  I frequently debated not going to any of these activities and lying in comfort in front of my fancy new fan.  Everyday was a new restaurant ranging from Italian cuisine to Serbian fast food and from deliciously prepared ice cream to ice cream that tasted a little too much like cigarette smoke.  In the evenings after our school organized culture sessions (cooking, singing, or dancing) we would again return to the city where each night we were treated to 20 dinar (19 cents) live performances by local musicians covering a variety of genres of music including Yugoslav rock, American rock, turbofolk, and traditional Serbian kafana music.  This music served to draw us closer to the city and eventually our proximity drew us closer to each other.

Eventually I’ll attempt to write more specifically about the historical significance of Valjevo as well as some of the highlights of my three weeks here.  There is really just so much more to say about Valjevo that cannot be said within a single post.