Letter from Europe

A matter of time - Belgrade

Issue no. 2008/28


hidden europe reports on European elections and a referendum in Jersey. We also visit Belgrade and think about the city's illustrious history - the times when the Orient Express stopped in Belgrade.

Dear fellow travellers

Here is a little respite from the US election campaign. Several countries in Europe indulge in a little democratic theatre this week. Lithuania had parliamentary elections and a referendum this past Sunday, and in the days ahead political creatures can enjoy the spectacle of voting frolics across Europe: a poll for president in Azerbaijan, senate elections in the Czech Republic and a referendum in the Bailiwick of Jersey.

The big issue in Jersey is timekeeping - or, more precisely, whether clocks on the island should follow British or French time. Jersey, like the other Channel Islands, has a tenuous link with Britain, though it is not a part of the United Kingdom (nor is it part of the European Union). It is Jersey's proximity to France that has prompted the proposal that the island might forsake Greenwich Mean Time in favour of Central European Time. We shall see what happens! There is a precedent for a possible Jersey change. Gibraltar switched to Central European Time in 1982.


We were examining some old Serbian newspapers and chanced upon several listings of the names of guests then staying in the principal hotels in Belgrade. Evidently such lists were commonplace in Belgrade right through to the early part of the last century, though we do not know if they were exhaustive, or whether they merely selectively reproduced the names of guests whom the newspaper editor judged to be particularly welcome in the Serbian city.

Late nineteenth-century Belgrade was in a state of rapid flux. At the start of the century, the city boasted dozens of mosques. But the urban plan of 1867 transformed Belgrade from a city of the Orient into something much more European. The planners decided that demolition of the mosques and old Turkish-style markets and coffee houses might pave the way for elegant boulevards and squares. In so doing, they ripped the heart out of the city. But Belgrade's ethnic colour did not disappear overnight. The Turkish communities living in and around the fortress and near the Danube stayed, as did the Jewish families and traders who gathered around Dorcol. But Turkish domination of Belgrade's cultural and public life was certainly on the wane, ever more marginalised as Belgrade redefined itself as a city of the West.

Eventually the railway came and, just a year or two later, the Orient Express. But there was nothing oriental about the Orient Express. The train's passengers came more from Paris or Vienna than from Constantinople and points east. Although the Orient Express is sometimes judged today as a symbol of the exotic, it was actually part of the process of making Belgrade much more European. Those lists of hotel guests in the newspapers became longer and longer, so much so that eventually the editors decided to dispense altogether with the practice.

The next issue of hidden europe will be published on 1 November 2008. Yes, we mention Belgrade there too, and have a word or two about elections. And much more besides. Meanwhile, please take a look at the contents of our current issue on our website. Our e-brief is published twice or thrice monthly. Had you realised you can see an archive of over 120 back issues online?