We are in Belgrade for a family wedding. Cousin Nico is celebrating his recent marriage to Dragana, who is Swiss of Serbian heritage, in the Orthodox Cathedral in Belgrade. A great excuse for a gathering of the clans – literally, as cousin Christine, Nico’s mum is Scottish and her mother and sisters are coming from Belgium and Tunisia. The dress code is kilts, even for baby Stevan.
We decide to make a long weekend of it. I travel out with Alex, Ross’s half-sister, husband Dan and baby Frankie, who sleeps like an angel throughout the flight – and in fact through the whole weekend, waking only to snack, smile and then sleep again.
With a day in hand before the grand event, we take to cycles along with Michael and Laura, both of whom had experience in Serbia during the war, working for the UN.
We start off by the river but before long take a long detour though a massive building site: the riverfront is being developed with Quatari and Chinese money into an impressive complex more at home in Dubai than Belgrade. Finally back on the cycle track we encounter some aggressive Juventus-supporting skinheads – toting beers and shouting insults – and an old Partisan rowing club: we wonder if the old right wing ever died and is perhaps now being re-awakened in the current rise of populism over Europe.
Over a little bike ferry, lunch on the river bank and back with some hours to kill. What better than to hire our own little boat for an hour on the river, to see the confluence of the Sava and Danube and to marvel at the size of the barges, the hundreds of floating nightclubs, in contrast to the small dachas and traditional fishermen.
The Mama hotel, our home for our stay, is host to the pre-wedding cocktail where the couple greet their friends who have travelled, some from as far as Canada. It is not only the Scots who are reunited – Diego’s sister, cousin and niece plus husbands have all travelled from Chile, and the Serbian relations who have played a big part in the organisation.
The next day we assemble outside the Cathedral. Branko, father of the bride, arrives touting a large bottle of homemade Slivovitz, which is proffered to any takers, men to being with though the girls are allowed to partake later..
We are a truly multinational crowd, and dress code ranges from full evening gowns to non Scots wearing kilts! Son Tommy and his friend Anna have now arrived so we are already merry by the time we enter the Cathedral.
No pews, just standing room around a central altar table where two crowns stand proudly awaiting their recipients. Heavenly Gregorian chants greet the bride and groom and the short ceremony ends with them circling the table just in front of me, wearing their crowns, led by the priest swinging incense, and followed by the best man and woman carrying candles. It is quite magical, other-worldly, and feels like we have gone back in time.
As we emerge from the Church we are besieged by Roma beggars, who are soon brushed aside by a big brass band playing earsplitting ‘tunes’; the couple depart in a car while we meander down the hill to the river and boat which takes us to the reception. Here we enjoy prosecco and the ladies start the Serbian dancing! And the slivovitz does more rounds…
At the Yacht club we are treated to more traditional dancing plus a surprise flash dance by some of the guests. Frankie sleeps though it all, despite the reappearance of the deafening band to herald the cutting of the cake! A wonderful and happy day.
On our last day we nip off in a taxi to see the old city of Zemun, with its Ottoman tower, panoramic views and riverside restaurant.
Belgrade is a surprisingly nice city – I had expected it to be a communist grey, but the wide pedestrian boulevards, littered with cafes and designer shops, the elegant turn of the century and art deco architecture, plethora of museums and Ottoman fortifications, make it fun to wander round.
There is even a large bathing lake, dotted with restaurants and bars, where we repair on the morning after. Some even pass out!
All in all, very civilised and I can only thank Nico and Dragana for the invitation that gave us the opportunity to discover it in such a fabulous way.