Christmas Shopping

 

Written for Expat.rs by Pat Andjelkovic

The end-of-the-year holidays are creeping up on us again, and along with the joy we feel about celebrating with our families and friends comes the dread of what to buy them. Selecting a gift is challenging enough for most of us anyway, but finding a high-quality “Made in Serbia” present is even harder, especially if you’ve lived here for a couple of years and know that those on your list will politely stifle a groan when presented with more ajvar and šlivovica. On the other hand, if you’ve been skipping these, head for your local C Market and choose a good jar of “prženi ajvar,” (darker in color; not the bright red kind), and a bottle of fiery Žuta Osa plum brandy, easily recognized by the wasp on its label.

Once upon a time there used to be state-run stores that sold all kinds of handicrafts (from all over the former Yugoslavia) in one convenient place. Nowadays, you can find an assembly of naïve paintings, hand-knit shawls, sweaters and caps, wooden figures, and painted gourds on Saturdays and Sundays in places like Bezistan, the passage that runs between the McDonald’s in Terazije and Dom Sindikata. The latter even holds craft fairs from time to time, but unfortunately, you never seem to hear about them until they’ve over. Craftsmen here are pretty willing to bargain.
BeoIzlog (Belgrade Window) on Trg Republike usually has a super collection of basic souvenir items, though selection varies, and it’s best to keep checking. They also carry a fairly good selection of books on Serbia, and downstairs there’s a CD section where you can find classic Serbian music, turbo-folk, and (my favorite) ooompa-ooompa brass band music. If you can’t tell what’s good and what’s not, take along a Serbian friend to help, or else place your confidence in the sales person. They sell DVDs here, too, but you can also find Serbian films sold along Knez Mihailova. Check the back and see if they have English subtitles and if the DVD can be played in your region.

Each Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm there’s a great antique fair at Hotel Slavija. You’ll find all kinds of goodies, from silver boxes and spoons to old Serbian coins and bills. (Those 500 billion notes make great gifts!) Certain museums too, especially the Ethnographic Museum on Studenski Trg near Kalemegdan Park, offer a selection of pottery, embroidered blouses, carved wooden figures, and silver or bronze jewelry. Selections vary, so keep popping in from time to time.

Even your local green market can be a source of representative gifts, like all kinds of wicker baskets, opanci (those characteristic Serbian shoes; men’s have the little curl on the toe; women’s do not), distinctive Serbian caps (šajka?a), hand-woven rugs, and leather, fur-lined slippers.

If you’re traveling to a country that has no restrictions on the importation of “raw” foods, you can buy some buttery kajmak or a selection of smoked meats and cheeses, and even a wide selection of loose herbal teas. You may even find on the market a stand selling all kinds of wares bearing the Serbian national crest or some nationalistic slogan. Even if it’s in Cyrillic and you think “nobody back home” can read it, beware, for such items can be provocative to certain types of persons of former Yugoslav republics. No sense in cousin Bill’s getting a black eye because of your holiday gift.

For a variety of items, I always seem to go back to the same galleries, each within a short walking distance of each other in the Knez Mihailova walking street area. Gallery Fontana at Knez Mihailova 20, offers a fairly good selection of paintings, hand-painted silk scarves, and glazed pottery. Their usual selection of jewelry isn’t to my taste, but occasionally you can find silver reproductions of old Serbian jewelry (brooches, earrings, rings) that make wonderful gifts.

You may not be attracted by the run-of-the mill ceramics in the window of Galerija Grof on number 15 ?ika Ljubina just behind the Walking Street, but if you go in, you’ll find lovely framed embroidered Cyrillic alphabets, hand-made embroidered notebooks and greeting cards, as well as embroidered tablecloths and napkins. They’re not cheap, but they are worth the money.

Across the street is a tiny store boasting in English, “The Best Ties in the World,” and you be the judge; maybe the hand made silk ties by Neven Vrgoc, are just that. They’re sold in his shops in Europe and in Beverly Hills, but hey, get one here in Belgrade.

Walking down ?ika Ljubina a bit further toward Trg Republike, you’ll find the Grubin anatomic shoe shop on your right. These make great (and comfortable) gifts, and the store offers quite a selection. I always get lots of compliments on mine when I visit the States; people think they’re Birkenstocks….and I think they’re just as good, and a fraction of the price. There are more stores around the city, too, and there’s even a stand at the Flea Market in New Belgrade.

Do and about-face and walk back half way down the street and turn right on Marka Leka Street to the Galerija Art which, depending on when you pop in, has one of the best selections of Serbian crafts I’ve seen. They also offer a wide selection of paintings, from naïve painters such as Milan Raši? to those of more traditional artists. Be sure to go upstairs, too; more paintings up there.

A wonderful traditional Christmas gift is an icon. These can be found in varying degrees of selection within Orthodox church gift shops, or in specialized stores that sell religious items. (There’s one just across the street from the JAT agency on Boulevard King Aleksandar, almost on the corner of the Boulevard and Resavska Street.) Another remarkable icon artist is Bojan Glavoni? (cell 063 - 868-2277), who works out of his home and also paints miniatures and illustrated initials, in Gothic, Romantic, or Renaissance style.

In conclusion, the best way to holiday shop in Belgrade is to keep your eyes open, for you just might come across the ideal gift tucked away in some tiny little shop on a side street when you made a wrong turn.