Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Parking in Belgrade is an absolute nightmare.

It takes us half an hour to find the car and about five to drive from Ljubljana to Belgrade. The highways in Slovenia and Croatia are in excellent shape but as soon as we cross the border into Serbia the blacktop begins to show signs of wear and demise. We cheer as we pass the Beograd sign but as we come to a slow halt in the congested traffic on Branko Bridge I’m beginning to doubt he wisdom of bringing a car into Belgrade.

Parking is a problem in every European city - since none of them was built with cars in mind - but parking in Belgrade is a complete nightmare. The inner city is divided into three zones; each zone has its limit on how long you can park. In the red zone one may park 60 minutes tops; in the yellow zone 120 minutes, and in the green zone 180 minutes. Zones are indicated by a red, yellow or green sign that features an all-telling image of a tow truck. Dues are to be paid at kiosks or, very hip, by sending your license plate number per SMS to number 9111 (for the red zone), 9112 (yellow) or 9113 (green).

These rules apply between 0700 and 2100 on weekdays and until 1400 on Saturdays. During those hours, officers armed with palmtops patrol the streets in search of freeloaders, who get towed without ado. Any Belgradian will tell you that once your car gets towed off, it’ll take half your vacation to get it back.

Most tricky is the interface between inner city and surroundings, where the green zone somewhat jaggedly flows over into the free zone. There are no chipper smiley-signs or something like that to indicate that you’re in the free zone, but you can recognize it from the outrageous amount of cars that are parked virtually everywhere; on sidewalks and lawns, often side by side and often blocking each other, showing a candid confidence of the Belgradians that everybody leaves for work around the same time. But even during the day, parking spots are hard to find. It seems that Belgradians park their cars somewhere and leave them there for ever.

Draga guides me from alley to alley, from friend’s house to friend’s house. The phone rings continuously from even more friends telling her that someone they know saw a free spot somewhere, at the other end of town. It takes us over two hours to arrive at the conclusion that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a foreigner to find a parking place in Belgrade. Morose but grateful we slide into the gaping hole of a parking garage in the heart of town. A small uniformed man with a badge and a Maclite welcomes us and promises to guard our car with his life. That will set us back a mere 90 Eurocents per hour.

Outside I raise my arm to hail a cab. About a dozen of them respond by rolling away from the curb towards us. Before Draga and I get in, we experience a moment of spiritual awakening as we stare at the pockets of emptiness they leave behind.

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