Belgrade: The Untapped Gem of the Western Baulkens

Located on the banks of the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade, in my opinion, is an little-known tourist gem of the former-Yugoslavia. Whilst most visitors to the western baulkans head to the coastlines of Croatia and Montenegro, the alpine regions of Slovenia or the hinterland and ancient towns of Bosnia & Hezergovina, Albania and Macedonia, many stear clear of Belgrade and its turbulant recent past. News footage from the 1990s of Slobodan Milosevic’s passionate speeches, the brutality of the Yugoslav War and the US bombing of Belgrade are still fresh in the minds of many people. But setting this aside, Belgrade is a city full of history and culture, with amazing architecture and museums, not to mention its raging night-life for those who like to party the night away…

View towards Belgrade from Kalemegdan

One thing that instantly struck me with Belgrade was the lively, yet laid back atmosphere that filled the city. This was most noticible in the centre of the city, and along the shores of the Danube and Sava rivers (which encircle Belgrade), where great numbers of people lesiurely walk through the streets and riveside promenades during the late afternoon and into the last hours of the night. Elderly couples, young families and youths – it seems as though the entire population of Belgrade are outside and enjoying the cool evening air. I spent a few weeks with relatives in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) – the vast suburbs of the city, which seem to stretch forever – streets upon streets of communist era apartments buildings, thanks to the Tito administration. But the percieved ‘ugliness’ of these structures is hidden by the countless parks and blooming green foliage which appears to almost suffocate the concrete and glass monstrosities. Almost every evening of my stay in Belgrade was spent walking along the riverside promenades, passing an hour or two before or after dinner.

After the toll of midnight, the shores of the Danube and Sava rivers transform into the heart Belgrade’s nightlife, centered aroung the splavovi, old barges which have been transformed into every type of nightclub imaginable. There are literary hundreds of them along the rivers, offering all types of music, from western RMB and pop to Serbian techno-folk. People of all shapes and sizes, and in all types of interesting attire, flock en masse to the splavovi each night. Of course, this isn’t to everyone’s taste, so if it happens to be all a bit much for you, there are many small, inconspicious bars and clubs dotted around the centre of the city. Or, as I did on more than one occasion, grab a few new found friends, and some supermarket goodies, and spend the evening in one of Belgrade’s many parks talking about music, the trials and tribulations of study, the state of Serbian politics (hot topics amoungst students in Belgrade), or just the world in general.

Kalemegdan

Belgrade’s piece de resistence has to be Kalemegdan, also known as the Belgrade Fortress. Kalemegdan is the site of the orginial city of Belgrade, founded by the Celtic tribe of Scordisci in the 3rd century (perhaps this heritage plays a role in popularity of Irish Celtic music amoung many young people I met in Belgrade). Located on a hill, overlooking the Save and Danube rivers and the hinterland below, it stands as an impressive monument of Belgrade’s strong military past. Kalemegdan was originally the heart of the city, containing the entire population within its walls. But over the centuries, as the population expanded, Kalemegdan was transformed into a military stronghold, defending Belgrade from numerious invaders. And today it has become one of the largest and most beautiful parks in Belgrade and one of the city’s most revered historical sites.

Kalemegdan

Being a strongly orthodox nation, the population of Serbia take great pride in their religion and it’s traditions. Each family has a saint, and their slava (the feast day of their family saint) is a grand affair, with celebrations sometimes lasting for days. This reverence to their religion can also be seen in the newly erected and awe-inspiring temple of Sveti Sava. If you think it’s impressive from the outside, completely dominating the large park in which it is situated, wait until you step through its doors. The vast proportions, the marble, the wall paintings and most of all the dome, magnificently lit by the daylight streaming in gracefully through the windows. It will take your breath away. And that’s not even thinking about how much money (with all that gold and marble, and fine craftsmanship), as well as time, was poured into its construction and decoration.

During my visit to Belgrade, I spent a day with my grandmother’s sister, who lives in the old bourgeois/aristocratic residential quarter of the city (located just behind Sveti Sava). This was once the neighbourhood of ambassadors, aristocrats and wealthy businessmen before the introduction of communism (my great-aunt’s late husband’s family was of this old Serbian aristocracy). Although the area has fallen into decay, walking down its streets, one can still imagine the past wealth and vitality of this area, with its wide avenues and once grand homes. Unfortunately, the neighbourhood is set to drastically transform. Foreign investment is slowly pouring into Belgrade and many of the original homes are being sold off and torn down to path the way for developers and their modern apartment blocks.

The Temple of Sveti Sava

No visit to Belgrade is complete without a walk down Knez Mihajlova – the main pedestrian street in Belgrade. Lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and food stands, it bustles with people day and night. Or for the romantics, I recommend a walk down Skadarlija – with it’s cobble stone treelined streets, flowerfilled window boxes and quaint, old world cafes, giving you a glipse of the charm of old Belgrade.

Further afield is Beli Dvor (The White Palace), the home of Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia and his family. This estate is open to visitors, who come and marvel at the stately home, its extensive art collection and beautiful gardens. Entrance tickets can be bought at most tourist agencies in Belgrade, which also includes a shuttle service from the centre of the city (Beli Dvor is approximately a 30 minute bus trip from the centre) and an English and Serbian speaking guide. It’s definitely worth a visit.

A courtyard, Beli Dvor

The extensive gardens of Beli Dvor

I also highly recommend spending an afternoon wondering through the cobble-stone streets of Zemun. Orginally a small town in the outskirts of Belgrade, it has been almost eaten up by the sprawling suburbs of Novi Beograd. However, it still retains its old-world charm, with it’s narrow residential streets and baroque architecture. Cafes and padestrian promenades line this part of the Danube shoreline, making Zemun popular for weekend day trips. Once in Zemun, don’t forget to make your way to the Millenium or Gardos Tower. You’ll be greated with a spectacular view over Zemun, the Danube and out towards Belgrade city. On my visit to Zemun, I remember remarking to my aunt that the town has a very ‘dalmatian’ feel, as though I was in a small town on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Funnily enough, Croatia’s territory once included Zemun, which now has one of the largest Croatian populations of any ‘town’ in Serbia.

Images from my personal collection.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s