Hidden Belgrade (64): The Cursed Ghost Ship

Having been in a bit of a wedding frenzy over the past few days, I thought about the history of what I thought was one of the most beautiful and doomed wedding presents in Serbia: the “Dragor” river yacht, which I once read was a belated gift of the Romanian royal family to their daughter Marija on the occasion of her marriage to King Aleksandar Karađorđević.

Left forgotten and burnt below the defunct Old Railway bridge, ”Dragor” (later renamed “Krajina”) is a haunting mess, its smelly dirtied entrails open for a few those passing by to see, with no indication of having been a pinnacle of luxury in the 1920s. Most commonly featured in the news whenever it threatens to unmoor and wreak havoc on the Sava due to its impressive 56m length, it is also regularly “rediscovered” by Serbian journalists when they justly want to write about the pitiful way the country is looking after its patrimony, and it is from one of these that I found out about its sad and tumultuous fate.

A few days ago, I decided to visit it again, fresh from a wedding, where I got to ride in a beautiful piece of mid-century Swiss engineering, the Red Arrow “Churchill” train, which, like “Dragor”, was also considered a defunct piece of old metal after an accident in the Gotthard tunnel, before being lovingly restored and, after a few decades, used by the Swiss Railway company (SBB) to display its long tradition (and earn some extra money from organising private parties and special brunches). This time, on a wonderful autumn morning, I could finally see some of its former glory, thanks to its defiant prow, the only part that still looks interesting.

Thankfully, when I got history boat hobbyists from “Paluba” forum managed to gather enough old phots and stories to help me reimagine what it was (and could be). The discussion on the forum also revealed that the boat was not a wedding present, but actually a way of (rather ostentatiously) marking a 10th anniversary of the breach of the Macedonian front by the Serbian Army, led by the then Prince regent Aleksandar. This is alluded to in its name: the Dragor is a smallish river which flows through Bitola, an important historic city close to the Front.

The confusion might have been created by the fact that Queen Marija arrived to Belgrade with great pomp on the royal Romanian river yacht on 6 June 1922, and that the two yachts became confused in the popular memory.

“Dragor” was built in Regensburg as part of the reparations Germany had to pay to Yugoslavia, to allow  the Karađrođevićs to go up and down Yugoslavia’s many might rivers in style. Decked with a powerful steam engine, it was painted white to signify its royal owners, and according to the forum posters who got the chance to see it in the Yugoslav times, it had three salons, an office, two master apartments, and more than a dozen cabins, as well as a majestic wooden staircase in its main area. The interior was made out of walnut wood, intricately carved and decorated, while teak was used on the deck.

The yacht was used by the Royal family until 1941, when it was seized by the Independent State to Croatia, and then ended up first in Bulgarian, and then later, in German hands. When it was returned to Yugoslavia and re-joined its riverine navy, it was renamed Krajina and restored to be used by Tito.

Although he was apparently not a fan of river cruises on the “Krajina”, he still used it in 1961. to greet the representatives on the inaugural meeting of the Non-Aligned movement, as well as to meet his Romanian counterpart to agree the construction of Đerdap dam on the Iron Gates.

A few years after Tito’s death in 1980, it was given to “Majdanpek” gold refinery and jewellery chain to serve in their promotions. It was once again restored, but the materials used on the deck were not suitable, and the boat started to deteriorate. On top the shoddy restoration, Yugoslavia first entered a series of major recessions and then a civil war, which were not exactly conducive to its luxury industry. In the 1990s, the ship ended up in the hands of MAG Intertrade, an import-export firm, founded in 1992.

The intention of the owners was to restore the ship, and install a diesel engine, to use it for luxury cruises and events. The restoration, however, stripped “Dragor” of its former elegance as its upper deck was fully covered to function as a salon. This alteration required some further changes on the ship, which extended the restoration. MAG’s owner also died in 2005, which complicated the situation, until a fateful decision of the firm to recoup some of the costs by renting it out to a Serbian film production crew in 2006.

The idea was to also use some of the sets that had to be built as permanent addition of the yacht, however this proved to fatal.

Due to negligence, the ship went up in flames in January 2007, only so that a forgettable and critically unsuccessful, dumb self-exoticising sex-romp “Na lepom plavom Dunavu” (IMDb:5.2/10) could be made. As it happens, the production was not insured for this situation, and as evidenced by the current state of the ship, did not return it to the prior state. After the fire, the ship was protected a part of national patrimony not to be sold as scrap metal, but is now basically left to rot on the banks of the Sava.

One can only dream what could be made of “Dragor” had it managed to maintain its former glory: the wonderful cruises up and down the mighty Danube, parties that it could have hosted and the history that could be experienced inside it. Sadly almost everybody who touched it had a tragic fate: from the family and the country that built it, the now defunct gold company that owned it, and the tragic 90s businessman who wanted to make it great again. It is also not the only historic ship in Belgrade that suffered a sad fate: the old state-protected steam ship Župa, which was set to be restored, sank in June 2021.

However, one can dream that one of the few luxury yacht construction and design companies that operate in Serbia, like the Art of Kinetik, get to work on Dragor, and maybe allow it to have a happier second life.  

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