The International Writers Magazine: Belgrade in a day
A five story building stood in front of me. Intact, but for the forty foot gaping hole in the middle, as though a giant had crushed it under foot and then moved on. Close by, the former army head quarters, now a pile of rubble, and the completely gutted national Serbian television station, all serve as a continuous reminder of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that assaulted the city for nearly three months. Now, seven years on, and with former President Slobodan Milosevic dead and buried, Belgraders are looking to the future, and inviting visitors back to their city.
Belgrade in a day
Having never seen a building that was torn apart by a bomb before, I was taken back when my guide pointed out an old casino targeted by the Americans.
If your loved one suggested Belgrade for a holiday you would be forgiven for having a few reservations. The notorious capital of Serbia and Montenegro is certainly not top of the list for most people. In fact, it’s probably not even in the middle of the table, but more than likely somewhere down the bottom, fighting for relegation just a few places higher than the likes of Baghdad, Gaza and Kabul.
The city has seen it’s fair share of conflict and bloodshed over the years. It was of course Serbia that was invaded by Austria-Hungary in 1914 after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb sparking world war one. In 1941, Belgrade suffered again as the German bombers blitzed the city. And more recently, in the nineties, after the demise and separation of Yugoslavia, the respective fighting in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
But besides decimated buildings and a bloody military history, what exactly does this notorious city actually have to offer the discerning traveller? On behalf of my employer, a tour operator considering the possibility of group adventure travel in the region, I was sent to find out. With an eye to reviewing several cities in the area in a very short space of time, I was allotted less than 24 hours in Belgrade. Arriving on a train from Zagreb just after midday, I was showered, fed, introduced to my guide and ready to go by one pm.
Our first stop, was the grave of the former president Tito, the man responsible for shaking off Nazi rule during the second world war and bringing communism to the nation of Yugoslavia. In his memory remains a solitary marble tomb embossed with gold letters that simply read 'Josep Broz Tito 1892 - 1980.' A fresh reef of roses has been laid across it. Near by there is a reconstruction of his office containing his desk, some pictures and various gifts given to him from his fellow country men, and friendly world leaders throughout his lifetime. It seems Tito had a penchant for batons (yes those objects passed from one athlete to another after each leg of a relay), and there is an entire room dedicated to his extensive baton collection, ranging from the remarkably simple to the unimaginably ornate. Eager to escape the theme of politics and death we moved on.
The next stop on the itinerary was the Temple of Saint Sava, an enormous orthodox cathedral (the largest in the Balkans) that towers over the southern extension of the city. What is most striking about this cathedral, apart from the sheer size of the thing, is that it appears to be brand new. This is not the case as work first began on the project in 1935. However, work continues as the building was interrupted first by World War II, and then by communism. The domes are still shiny, as though the wrapping has only just been removed, and once inside, the inner walls that should be decorated in religious images and frescoes are bare smooth concrete. There is still a fork lift truck in one corner, and workmen are busy taking a break somewhere. Were Serbia an EU country, a membership that will likely elude them for sometime to come, this whole area would be a hard-hat zone. My guide Marco begins singing some Byzantine chants to demonstrate the acoustics. A trained opera singer (I am to discover), his melancholy voice seems to softly float off to every corner and return deeper, louder and clearer.
From the cathedral, a taxi dropped us in the centre of town to explore on foot. We began in the city’s central square. While a few ageing generals and other unpleasant politicians gathered in a small country town to commemorate the recent death of the man who brought the Serbian people notoriety in the world and the highest inflation rate in history, others gathered here in Republic Square, releasing hundreds of balloons into the sky to celebrate what will hopefully be the final nail in an ugly coffin of Serbian history.
'The biggest victims of Milosovic’s politics are the Serbian people' comments Marco as we begin to make our way through the busy square. ' He took us to war, he destroyed our economy, and he gave us the worst reputation in Europe.' As the sky becomes grey and rain starts to fall, we make our way through the pedestrianised centre to Belgrade’s number one tourist attraction, the Kalemegdan fortress. Lining the streets on route are the stores you would expect to find in any self respecting European capital; Levi’s, Nike, McDonalds. The fortress itself was built over many centuries, attacked and rebuilt more times than one can remember, and was finally handed over by the Ottomans to the Serbs in 1867. Today much of it exists as park. It’s strategic hillside location offering unbeatable views over the conference point of the River Sava and the River Danube. An excellent spot for a stroll, a romantic escape, or quiet contemplation.
With early evening setting in, and the rain finally stopping, we strolled through the stony walkway of Skadalya. The Bohemian centre of the early nineteen hundreds. Once the favourite hang out, of poets, writers, and musicians alike. Now the cobbled street is jam packed with some of Belgrade’s best restaurants. Taking their names from folk songs like the 'The Three Hats' or 'There are days', these establishments are serving up fine Serbian cuisine to the lively jingles of the local musicians. The whole street is a wash with laughter, smiles, beer, and the tapping of feet.
The last stop on the tour, under my insistence, was the bar. And in Belgrade there are many to choose from. 'We are not wealthy people' began Marco, 'our lives are not easy, and it’s very hard for us to travel. So we must have a good social life. We are very proud of our social life here in Belgrade.' I could see why as we pulled up to the stretch of boats that lined the river. Restaurants and cafes by day, nightclubs by night. Where, during the summer months, the banks of the river are full of Belgraders rewinding in the sun with a cocktail, and when the heat gets too much, slipping into the river for a refreshing paddle.
After a Serbian feast of grilled cheeses, meats, and seafood, a few drinks became a few more. The cafes became bars which in turn became clubs. I found myself still up, dancing on the back of a boat as the sun began casting it’s morning shine on the Danube. And as I stumbled into a taxi and handed a crumpled hotel card to the driver, I reflected.
The few tourists who do make it to this lively capital city, tend to be greying American sun seekers, cruising the Danube along which Belgrade is merely an afternoon stop over. They swiftly tour the afore mentioned sights before returning to their vessel to eat some more food, drink some more beer, and eat some more food.
With it’s Mediterranean climate, sociable population and affordable 24 hour nightlife Belgrade is a young city, and a fun city just waiting to be rediscovered by anyone who enjoys a weekend break in a vibrant and happening European destination. A place where former greatness and an unfortunate run of bad times have mixed to create an uncertain blend of the two; a newly awakened city with an exciting but unpredictable future.
© Tariq Elkashef May 2006
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