BELGRADE – A tour company in the Serbian capital Belgrade is offering a nostalgia trip to a country that no longer exists, offering visitors a chance to admire the buildings, objects and even vehicles of a bygone socialist Yugoslavia.
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia officially ceased to exist in 1992 when, amid a series of bloody conflicts, the region balkanized into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which, in turn, separated into Montenegro and Serbia in 2006.
Despite the bloodbath that accompanied the collapse of the socialist entity, the country continues to pique the interest and fascination of foreign visitors in Serbia.
One tour company, YugoTour, has capitalized on this.
“We have a lot of visitors from all over the world,” Nebosja Hinic, one of the guides at the agency, which deals with roughly 5,000 tourists a year, told EFE.
YugoTour takes its clients around the city of Belgrade in a Yugo, a Yugoslav car that in the 1980s was king of the road in the communist nation.
One such client is Briton Josh Newsome, who was in Serbia to explore the country’s history and architecture.
“What was quite fascinating of Yugoslavia was the fact that it was non-aligned. It was interesting for us to find what different experiences people had living here, also people who planed these buildings, city planners, and how government, what government strategy was,” the 27-year-old said.
He has a special interest in comparing the way of life in Yugoslavia not only with Western Europe but also with the rest of Eastern Europe, countries that were either part of the Soviet Union or aligned to it.
Despite being a socialist nation, Yugoslavia remained outside the grip of the Iron Curtain, it was not a member of the Warsaw Pact and it remained more open to the West compared to Soviet-aligned nations.
Yugoslavia developed a successful socio-economic model under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980 after 35 years in power.
One of Belgrade’s star attractions is its brutalist architecture, which is characterized by its robust, functional and, to the modern-eye, ugly features hewn from concrete.
New Belgrade, the modern part of the Serbian capital constructed after World War II, boasts several examples of brutalist style as it became the Yugoslav symbol for rapid modernization and urban development.
“The apartments were very functional. They paid a lot of attention to green zones in the buildings and there is no doubt the architects considered the person as an individual but also part of a community,” Hinic said.
The two towers at the 135-meter-tall Western City Gate skyscraper, also known as the Genex Tower after the company that financed it in 1980, provides evidence of the prosperity that drove the country.
Nowadays the office spaces have emptied after the consortium filed for bankruptcy and the surrounding grounds have fallen to neglect.
“We have to look to preserve modern history as much as we do, things of the whole 20th century. I think if we leave traces like this, and to crumble, we will be regretful in years to come,” Newsome said.
In central Belgrade, the Yugodom museum offers visitors a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who lived in Yugoslavia by displaying household items like sofas, chairs, TVs, radios, telephones, movie posters and lamps.
“All the objects are made in Yugoslavia,” Mario Milakovic, a designer and founder of Yugodom, told EFE.
“The building is from socialist realism, the interior is what we call modernism,” Mario said of the premises built at the end of the 1950s. Here, he displays objects from between 1960s-80s.
A poll last year suggested most Serbs would vote for Tito again if he was around today, indicating that nostalgia for the good old days is alive and well.
“People understood that Yugoslavia was a State, with a capital ‘s,’” said Danilo Sarenac, from the Institute of Contemporary History.
Despite its shortcomings, especially when it came to free politics, it is clear there was an orderly system with rules, something that is lacking nowadays,” he said.
He said it must not be forgotten that Yugoslavia’s economy had approached levels close to those seen in developed nations and was well above modern-day Serbia.