The Serbian capital may not be the most beautiful city in the world, but it has an almost unparalleled energy about it…
The oxidised venerability of the green cupolas is betrayed on closer inspection. The ‘mosaics’ above the entrance, swamped by the surrounding marble behemoth, turn out to be draped paintings of what the mosaics will finally look like when they’re done.
Venture inside the Temple of St Sava, and you see that it’s still a shell. Walls that are due vivid art explosions remain bare concrete, and even the scaffolding seems lonely in the vast open space. It has been under construction, with numerous lengthy interruptions, since 1935. No-one’s insane enough to estimate a completion date – but there’s something mesmerising about seeing great things in the process of being made.
This sensation strikes repeatedly in’s ferocious whirlpool of construction and change. Trying to capture the Serbian capital at any one moment is like trying to grab hold of a coiled hosepipe as a high-pressure surge of water is blasted through it. On the taxi journey in from the airport, I mention to my driver that I’ve visited before, in 2008.
It’s his cue to launch into what I soon learn is an unavoidable Serbian character trait – the passionate, enthusiastic desire to explain. This is new, that is new, this will open soon, you haven’t seen this, look at the new bridge while we sit in the gridlock that it’s supposed to eliminate.
There’s a lot to tell, too. Belgrade, the punch-drunk boxer that somehow keeps getting up again, has an unfortunate pugilistic history. Around periods of Roman and Ottoman rule, Huns, Hungarians and Habsburgs have waded in, while the Nazis and NATO administered 20th century bashings.
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It only takes a look at a map to see why. The important lines aren’t the ever-shifting borders, but the contours. To the north, you have the flat expanse of the Pannonian Basin. To the south, the high crags of the Balkan Peninsula begin almost immediately – and the main routes through the mountainous melee all end in or near Belgrade. The city has long been the strategic frontier between eastern and western civilisation.
No-one would describe Belgrade as beautiful. There’s too much grey concrete for that. But you’d hardly describeas a beautiful city either, and Belgrade shares many character traits – turbulent history, ever-present sense of change and unstinting ability to have a good time. Pretty, no; fun and fascinating, heavens yes.
Belgrade is not a behind-the-viewfinder place. It’s a city you live and experience – however temporarily – rather than see. The rewards are for the ears rather than the eyes – although engagement does run the risk of encountering a three hour lecture on the current political situation. Allow yourself to be swept along with the rhythm, though, and Belgrade’s badump-badumping heart is cacophonous.
It may not seem like this from the benches that line the edges of Kalemegdan Park. Pine needles decorate the pathways, old men gather around to play chess in the background, and the exalted perch allows splendid views out over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
The park is home to the Belgrade Fortress, a miniature city of strollable ramparts, duck-under arches and walls that have become grass-covered hills over time. There’s a blissful sense of peace, completely at odds with the city’s restless spirit.
Even the spots you expect to be serene and sedate manage to elicit jolts of surprise. Inside the leafy Royal Compound, the wall-to-wall frescos in the homely chapel of St Andrew the First-Called initially offer a picture of cuteness. Then you look up to dome, and see the bullethole through Christ’s forehead – a donation from World War II, apparently.
The Royal Palace leaps dramatically in style from room to room, taking in classical European grandeur and heavy Renaissance nods. The superb Russian-influenced basement levels feature the world’s coolest pool room and a private cinema amongst the eye-popping blizzard of wall patterns. The stories win out, however – every portrait on the wall tells of dynastic squabbles, assassination, behind-the-scenes puppeteering and exile.
Near to the palace is what’s now called the Museum of Yugoslav History. It’s better known as the ‘House of Flowers’, the mausoleum of enigmatic former Yugoslavian leader, Josef Broz Tito.
The tomb itself is surprisingly simple; what surrounds it is not. To the right lies a collection of gifts from member states of the non-aligned movement that Tito was influential in setting up as a counterweight to NATO andPact. An Afghan Buddha head, 12th century Nepalese mandalas and an ivory desk set from Sudan are amongst the extraordinary haul. Elsewhere, photos show a charismatic communist with a penchant for hob-nobbing with the great and good from all fields.
Some things from the Tito era will not be missed – particularly the dated and defiantly grim state-owned hotels. They’ve now been sold off, and tenacious competition has meant they’ve had to thoroughly refurbish in order to survive. Some of the makeovers are nothing short of a total triumph. The art nouveau exterior of the Hotel Moskva, for example, finally has the interiors to match. Dazzling mosaic walls compliment indoor fountains; rooms named after famous former guests are now timeless without being timeworn.
Nearby, the three star Hotel Prag is a more humble affair, but the makeover has given the common areas a rich, friendly warmth rather than a squalid comradely chill.
The competition comes in the form numerous ‘art’ and ‘design’ hotels that have opened in the last five years. This wave of stylish, modern-looking, service-focused and comparatively great value accommodation options has transformed the nature of staying in Belgrade. The Crystal and the Zira are marvellous examples – both are slightly outside the Old Town, but try darned hard to make up for it. They’re slick, attractive and more importantly, fun.
This ethos is exploding at the bottom end of the market too. Dušan Spasić, co-owner of the newly opened Montmartre hostel explains: “A couple of years ago, there were maybe 20 hostels in Belgrade. Now there are so many 20 to 25-year-olds coming, there are 70 or 80.”
Again, competition is driving standards high. The Montmartre is a spotlessly perky joint – small enough to be personal, and with enough touches such as the free Playstation and faux stained glass windows to be genuinely distinctive. Dušan admits that nine or ten rivals are of equally high quality.
Those backpackers, it’s fair to say, aren’t coming for the opportunity to learn about Tito or stroll around the fortress. Belgrade has a rollicking nightlife on a world class scale. Splavovi – riverboat clubs – boom during the summer season before everyone takes their dancing shoes underground for winter.
A walk along Strahinhića Bana offers an illuminating insight. Many venues are slumbering, while others heave body-to-body in a thick cigarette fug, fizzing conversations fruitlessly shouted through the bass thump.
There appears to be no rhyme or reason to which joints are popular – Soho does Japanese food by day, Pastis is ostensibly a French-style bistro. But there’s an all or nothing side to the Serbian mindset – clubs tend to have a year or two of being cool before dying a sudden death.
The same applies along the waterfront on the east bank of the Sava. The queue outside hip hub du jour Magacin looks like a Kraaken’s tail, so we join the shorter one at the vaguely Mexican-themed Frida. A crowd over two levels rubs against each other, sparks instigated by the live band, and getting back from the bar with a round of drinks represents an extraordinary achievement.
The best illustration of how Belgrade lives for the night, however, comes at Talas in the suburb of Zemun. We sit down to eat at what by Serbian standards is the ludicrously early hour of 8pm. It turns into a feast, and by 10pm, the place is full. A Roma band wanders from table to table, cranking out Balkan-style footstompers. Anywhere else this would be an embarrassing irritation. Here, it’s an integral part of the entertainment. The girls at the end table are on their feet, sashaying along, whooping and clapping. By the end of the evening – the band will play pretty much non-stop until four or five in the morning – the girls will be on the table and the sozzled chaps watching them will be metaphorically under it.
This is all very well if you haven’t slipped into a food coma beforehand. It doubtful that there’s another major European city where you can consistently eat so well for so little. Even at top end restaurants – such as Đorđe in the Vračar district around the Temple of St Sava – you’ll struggle to pay more than £15 for a main course. Co-owner Alexander Stefanovic explains that they’re trying to wean Serbs off the enormoportions of grilled meat that are often seen as the sole indicator of a good meal. “We’re trying to present traditional Serbian dishes in different ways and promote quality over quantity,” he explains as I tuck into beefsteak rolls that hardly represent a pretentious dainty tower.
Vračar has become newly hip with Belgrade’s well-heeled after the openings of several quality establishments such as the arty Zaplet 2.0 and Maska, a bar-restaurant-club hybrid. But elsewhere in the city, restaurants are trying to stand out by doing something genuinely different.
Serbian/ Italian hybrid Lorenzo & Kakalamba is mighty weird. A giant goat hangs down above the wood-fired pizza oven, a bench back is made up of furry toy sheep, whilst gold-painted mannequins, Renaissance kitsch and traditional blankets are part of a trippy kaleidoscopic mix. Irrespective of the flamboyant gimmickry, the Pirot lamb cooked in an earthenware dish is a tender treat of the highest order.
Another odd concept is to be found at Supermarket. Sem Velditeer, the man behind an inventive international menu that veers from sushi and Thai chicken soup to pork medallions, says it’s about creating a community hub. “People can come in and spend two euro or 50 euro. You can sit with a laptop and have a slice of cake, or a full meal.”
There’s no scrimping on quality, though – the exceptional mountain-raised beef fillets would easily cost two or three times as much in the.
Sem reckons Belgrade is undergoing a restaurant explosion because of relatively high unemployment. “It has become cool to be a chef – it’s seen as a great way to become rich.”
Where Supermarket is genuinely unique, however, is that it is also what can only be described as a boutique department store. There’s a spa centre and tattoo parlour out the back, whilst the clothes are all sourced from local designers. Homewares have been imported from Nordic designers who rally against the IKEA ethos, whilst books, wines and silly giftware such as the ‘terrorist tea pot’ covered with a balaclava tea cosy are given equal status.
It’s a distinctive respite from Belgrade’s increasingly homogenised shopping experience. The main drag – Kneza Mihaila – is now almost exclusively the preserve of major international chains. There are some local flag-flyers to be found in the side-streets and courtyards off it, however. Ramax, for example, exclusively sells clothes by Serbian designers.
More intriguing is the Choomich Design District. It’s a mini-mall tucked behind a drab and rather sad-looking shopping precinct, and it has been given over by the city to a group of independent designers and artists. Fashion is the general focus, but each shop concentrates on something distinct. Damsel in Distress plumps for lingerie, Remake makes cool artworks out of old plates, Vladimir Stojanovic makes woollen goods look sexy again.
The boutique owners acknowledge they’ve been parachuted in to an area that was riddled with alcoholics and junkies in a bid to transform it. But the designers are looking to the future rather than the past. Marina Baniac, who designs bags and jewellery for five artist collective Atippi, says: “The exchange of ideas is important. When creative people are together, we are stronger. And here we have a designer colony.”
I make the mistake of asking when the Design District sprang up. The answer is predictable – like so much else in Belgrade’s fury of transformation, it’s less than a year old.
A taxi from the airport into the city centre should take around 20 to 30 minutes unless traffic is horrendous. Expect to pay around 1500 dinars. Other alternatives include a minibus to Trg Slavija (approximately 30 minutes, 250 dinars) and the dawdling number 72 public bus to Zeleni Velac (30 to 40 minutes, 80 dinars if ticket bought at stand, 120 dinars if bought on bus).
Taxis within the city tend to be cheap and honest – you’ll have to go some way to pay more than 1000 dinars for a fare. Public buses, trams and trolleybuses cost 50 dinars per ride if tickets are bought from a kiosk, 100 dinars if bought on board. New tourist-friendly day passes are in the process of being introduced.
When to go
Summer – especially July and August – can be uncomfortably hot, winter is chilly if not Arctic, while most rain tends to fall in May and June. Meanwhile, the splavovi tend to close in early to mid-October after the summer season. Decide what you’re going for, and time it accordingly…
Need to know
Currency: Dinar (DNR). £1 = 117 dinars.
Disclosure: This guide was originally written for National Geographic Traveller. David Whitley was a guest of the Serbian National Tourism Organisation. All information is correct as of October 2011 when the guide was researched.