After seeing Rammstein in Berlin, I'd waited five years before getting a chance to see them again in Lisbon. The Lisbon gig was so awesome that as soon as I got back to London I decided to go and see them again. Having seen the first night of the tour, it only seemed right, in the end, to see the last night as well, and so I bought tickets to see them in Belgrade. I'd loved the city when I'd been there before, so I thought it would be great to go back and see a gig there.
Later, it turned out this hadn't been such a good idea. The gig turned out to be in the middle of the busiest and most stressful month of my professional career, as I tried to understand and interpret data from the Herschel Space Observatory, in time for a deadline for publishing the results of the end of March. Taking a Thursday and Friday off in the middle of this was not the wisest move. I considered not going, but in the end I decided I'd just have to live with working some even longer hours either side of the trip. I'd regret it too much if I didn't go.
There were going to be four of us going, but two pulled out at the last minute, so it was just me and Sam who met up at Luton airport brutally early on the Thursday morning to fly to Zagreb. Our tastes in music are very different. They have just one overlap, and that is Rammstein. Sam hadn't seen them before but he couldn't have been looking forward to it any more than I was. We'd decided to go to Zagreb first as the flights were a bit cheaper and it would be nice to see another city.
I'd been here before, in the middle of winter seven years ago. I'd only spent a day in Zagreb then, and I'd been horribly tired after getting a night train from Trieste. I was horribly tired again, but this time it was a fantastic warm sunny day. We walked up to the upper town, and took in the view from near the Lotrščak Tower.
Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I'd crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually.
We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we'd find that the Swedish owner was pretty weird, vaguely racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia.
We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick up our tickets. Last time, I'd only crossed the Sava briefly, to go to a club on a boat, so I hadn't seen Novi Beograd at all. Under clear blue skies I really liked it. It was quite quiet, and we stopped for coffees and snacks at cafes along the way to the stadium. We got hold of our tickets with no problems, and it was nice to actually have one this time. Negotiating my way past layers of security in Lisbon when my ticket never arrived had been challenging enough; I was glad I wouldn't have to do the same in Serbia.
We went to the Sveti Sava cathedral. On another beautiful spring day, the parks in front of the cathedral had a nice vibe.
Later as it got dark we headed towards the centre of the city. We passed the parliament buildings and the presidential residence, and I stopped to take a photo. As I took a long exposure, a smartly dressed guy who was walking by approached. He didn't look happy. He demanded to see our passports. My first thought was that it was some kind of scam and I was going to walk away, but then he showed me a police badge. I showed him my passport, holding onto it carefully in case he was just trying to steal it. He asked us things in very broken English, the gist of which was that he wanted to know what we were doing. He didn't speak very much English, and we did not speak any Serbian, so he just shouted at us a bit. He seemed bothered by the way I was taking photos, which he seemed to be saying was not legitimately touristic. Still, in the end it was just a few unpleasant minutes and then he walked off. I'd never got any vibe of ex-dictatorship on my previous visit here, but this was definitely that.
The next day we walked past the same place and noticed a prominent sign saying "No photography".
Gig time came. We headed across the river, back through the wide streets of Novi Beograd, at first just us and then later joining ever increasing crowds of people on their way to the massive arena. It was going to be awesome.
We had two spare tickets. Someone at the hostel had put us in touch with someone they knew who was looking for a ticket. We'd spoken to this person, Nikola, on the phone, and he'd offered us 1000 dinar each for the tickets. Face value was 3000 so we decided we'd try to sell them at the venue and see if we got some more. When we were outside, with huge throngs of Balkan metallers swirling around, I slightly wondered if I should have taken Nikola's offer. I've never managed to tout tickets successfully even in London, so trying to cut deals in Serbia was not going to be easy.
In the end we sorted things out pretty quickly. There were plenty of people asking for tickets, and my only mistake was picking someone who was pretty wired and didn't speak English. We had a haphazard negotiation, a brief tussle when he tried to take the tickets from me without letting go of his cash, a short misunderstanding when he thought I was also selling my own ticket, and then the deal was sorted. We headed in before anyone else tried to forcibly buy our tickets from us.
The Lisbon crowd had been quite well managed, but here it was boisterous, and the security was heavy handed. The entrance to the cheap part of the arena was overcrowded, and it took us a long time to get in. At one point the security had started shoving people around, and I thought it was going to get violent. Luckily the moment passed, and we made it in. We missed all of Combichrist's set, but I'd seen a bit of them in Lisbon and I thought they were really, really poor, so I was not upset.
The gig was pretty much as awesome as the Lisbon show had been. The explosions were all well-timed this time, and I could see that it was all running smoothly. The only slight disappointments were that they didn't play "Liebe ist für alle da" or "Seemann", which had both been awesome in Lisbon. But it was still an incredible show. We were close enough to the front to get pretty hot from all the flamethrowers, and we weren't even in the "Fan Pit", the front third of the floor where tickets had been twice as expensive.
After the show we poured back out onto the streets of Novi Beograd. The next morning Sam got a train to Budapest for a few more days of travelling. I flew home, to another few days of 15 hour stints in the office. But it had definitely been worth coming.