By Bob B., 17-time traveler from Braintree, MA
Some of the most memorable moments that I’ve encountered on O.A.T. trips have happened fortuitously. One of the hallmarks of an O.A.T. tour is the ability of Trip Experience Leaders to improvise and adjust a day’s program to take full advantage of unique opportunities or events that suddenly materialize. Once again on my latest journey, O.A.T.’s Northern Greece, Albania & Macedonia trek, such an unexpected experience emerged.
By the time of the post trip extension to Nis and Belgrade in Serbia, our O.A.T. “family” of fellow travelers had diminished from the original 16 to a band of seven “survivors.” We also had changed Trip Experience Leaders and drivers after we crossed the border from Northern Macedonia. Ahead of us was a six-day exploration of a country with a rich but troubled past. On Day 4 of the extension, an optional tour was offered. “From Royalty to Today’s Belgrade” featured an afternoon of visits to the Royal Compound of Serbia and to the memorial and museum honoring Josip Broz Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who was able to hold together the region’s disparate populace into a single nation. His 1980 death and the fall of the Soviet bloc led to the break-up of this confederation and the emergence of today’s Serbia.
The Royal Compound is home to Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine, along with Princes Alexander and Philip. The Karadjordjevic monarchy was abolished at the end of World War II and the royal family was in exile for nearly 60 years. The family resided in England where Crown Prince Alexander was born. King George VI and then Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) served as the Crown Prince’s godparents given that he was a descendant of Queen Victoria. A proponent of a constitutional monarchy, Prince Alexander currently devotes much of his time to humanitarian work.
The Crown Prince’s grandfather, King Alexander I commissioned the construction of the 331-acre complex that encompasses the Royal Palace, Royal Chapel, the White Palace, and the surrounding Royal Park and Gardens. Portions of it have been opened to the public since the family’s return to Serbia. Our tour focused on the Royal Palace and Chapel. The palace consists of a basement and three floors. Among our stops were the formal entrance hall, the Blue Salon, Royal Dining Room, and Library as well as the basement with its ornately decorated leisure room, cinema theater, and billiards area. The walls of the Royal Chapel were adorned in frescoes copied from notable Serbian medieval monasteries. During Communist rule, the chapel was desecrated and evidence of that remains with a bullet hole in the portrait of Christ found inside the dome.
While we were exploring portions of the palace, we noticed members of the royal family’s entourage observing us and scurrying about. Had we violated some type of protocol by taking photos and/or inadvertently brushing against exhibited artifacts? An official approached our Trip Experience Leader and, to our relief, we learned the reason for their activity. They had informed Princess Katherine of the presence of American visitors and the princess had asked to arrange a meeting with us. We were ushered into a large room and briefed on the do’s and don’ts of the audience. Given that we had no idea of the possibility of such an encounter, we were not exactly dressed for the occasion!
Upon entering the room, Princess Katherine welcomed us and warmly shook our hands. She then discussed the reason for this special gathering. While the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia has abated, its aftermath has left many in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition to the programs instituted by her husband, the Crown Princess has founded the HRH Princess Katherine Foundation to help those in need, regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Medical assistance was a key focus of her foundation. In that regard, she brought our attention to an upcoming medical conference that she would be conducting at the White Palace and asked that, if possible, we assist her in publicizing the event when we returned home. Princess Katherine instructed her staff to provide us with materials relating to the Royal Family’s ongoing endeavors. After the conclusion of her remarks, she invited each of us to have a photo taken with her. Our “close encounter” with royalty concluded upon her exit, as did the tour and we moved on to the next destination.
After a lengthy stay at the Tito Memorial site, we were pleasantly surprised upon our departure to find a member of Princess Katherine’s staff patiently waiting for us with the photographs taken earlier in the afternoon. We now had pictorial evidence of our chance get-together with royalty to support the tales of that day that we’d eventually tell back home and thereby be able to dispel disbelief on the part of friends and family!
While we can’t promise a close encounter with royalty, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the palace during the Serbia pre-trip extension to Northern Greece, Albania & Macedonia: Ancient Lands of Alexander the Great.