Belgrade Insight / Taking a Ride to a Forgotten State in Belgrade

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YugoTour guide, Slobodan Davidovic, poses with Yugo car while guiding a tour. Photo: Sonja Borgmann

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight on December 23, 2018, and in Balkan Insight.

by Sonja Borgmann

A new tour of Belgrade is designed to give tourists a taste of what it was like to live in Yugoslavia.

An oddly rectangular and pumpkin-colored car lurches down a Belgrade waterfront street, conspicuously out of place among the smooth traffic of more modern vehicles. Behind the large wheel is 23-year-old Natalija Ugljevarevic.

Ugljevarevic, a guide for the YugoTour company, is fidgeting with the worn-out gear changes, preparing to pick up American tourists for an experiential ride through Yugoslav history.

YugoTour’s driving tours are designed to educate travelers about Yugoslavia, a federation created during the World War II that fell apart following the fall of Communism.

Guides drive guests between historic Yugoslav landmarks in Belgrade, once the former country’s capital, and in cars from the period, the pride of many Yugoslav families at the time.

Inside the car, with its sun-bleached upholstered seats and crank-down windows, Ugljevarevic offers her guests Cockta, a soda once popular as a replacement for Coca Cola in Yugoslavia, while Yugoslav dance music from the 1960s blares from the speakers.

Born four years after Yugoslavia dissolved, Ugljevarevic learned about life in the old days from fond memories passed down in her family.

“I try to tell them everything that made me love Yugoslavia and understand Yugoslavia,” she says.

YugoTour’s operation manager, 31-year-old Nina Ivanovic, whose childhood was spent in Yugoslavia, says she wants tourists “to get a taste of what it was like to live in Yugoslavia because it’s really difficult to explain it.”

For her, the Yugo cars are like time machines, reminding her of the vehicles she learned to drive in.

Guides lead four different history tours about former Yugoslavia, including one on architecture and another on political developments.

On the latter, the “Rise and Fall of a Nation” tour, they take visitors through significant landmarks in the creation and breakup of Yugoslavia.

Hotel Yugoslavia. Photo: Flick/mabi2000

This tour begins at a concentration camp in Belgrade that operated during World War II, where guides begin the story with how the Yugoslav peoples united in their fight against Nazi German occupation.

The visitors then tour the former Yugoslav government building as well as a hotel bearing the same name, once one of the most luxurious in the capital, which hosted Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and two US presidents, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

The tour ends at the grave of the former country’s leader and father figure, Josip Broz Tito, whose mausoleum forms part of the Yugoslav history museum in Belgrade’s upscale Dedinje district. It was little over ten years after his death, on May 4, 1980, that Yugoslavia fell apart.

Sharing about the wars of the 1990s that followed Yugoslavia’s break-up can be controversial and or even emotional for the YugoTour staff who lived through the period.

However, Ivanovic says their team aspires to deepen their guests’ understanding of the conflict beyond the simplified version she often saw portrayed in foreign media.

With tourism growing in Belgrade, YugoTour has increasing opportunities to do this, with more than a million tourists visiting Belgrade just last year.

The majority of YugoTour’s tourists come from Western Europe and the United States, the guides say.

Julie Steinbach, a 71-year-old retired teacher from California, passed through Belgrade once when it was the capital of Yugoslavia. She returned with a desire “to feel Belgrade as another piece of that amazing, complicated and challenging puzzle.”

The founder of YugoTour, 41-year-old Dutchman Ralph Van der Zijden, says he launched the company because he felt there were not enough opportunities in Belgrade to learn about the past country.

“We try to contribute to the protection of cultural heritage”, says Zjiden, who is hopeful that, by showing people are interested in Yugoslav history, the local government and communities will begin to remember and appreciate the landmarks scattered throughout the city of nearly 2 million people.