In Belgrade, few things are straightforward. Not the streets, which climb and curve between high buildings, leaving new arrivals with well-worn maps and iron-tough calf muscles. Not the written language, which jumps between Latin and Cyrillic at will (Zdravo! Welcome to Београд!). And certainly not the complex, juggled history, which has seen the place razed and rebuilt so many times that the Turks knew it as Derul el Džihad, or “The House of Wars”. As for postcard good looks? Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be mistaken for Florence.
Banner Image Credit:iStock.com/Igor Sinkov
But you’ll need to look elsewhere for your grey, Eastern European bore-town. The product of all those endless rises and falls is somewhere with a character as potent as Balkan coffee. And while it’s not classically pretty, there’s a solid grace to its green-tinged skyline. Serbia’s capital has become cherished in travel circles for its feisty spirit, low prices and riverside party scene – and that’s just the obvious stuff. Two decades ago, Belgrade was a name synonymous with all the wrong kind of headlines. Now, in city-break terms, it’s one of the continent’s open secrets.
On a chilly, sun-washed morning in autumn, I’m looking down from the walls of Kalemegdan Citadel (founded by the Celts, expanded by the Romans, hammered by more than 40 different battles) onto two great rivers. The Old City sits at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, a strategic location that once marked the division of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Then as now, Belgrade was situated at a regional crossroads. Influences and occupiers came from both east and west. Today, both rivers flow wide and handsome, their waters pale in the sun.
In the fortress grounds I see a red squirrel make faltering darts up an oak. Close by, a photographer is adjusting his equipment for a fashion shoot among the ruins. Today’s Belgrade is home to more than 1.2 million people, but it rarely feels over-run. Along Knes Mihailova, the pedestrianised main drag, ice-cream parlours and tobacco-fogged cafés spread onto the pavement beneath grand Austro-Hungarian facades.
“Sorry – I like to talk,” smiles the bespectacled bookstore attendant, apologising unnecessarily for having given me his own in-depth overview of Balkan history. I’d asked him about the dual use of Cyrillic and Latin alphabets (in very simple terms, both are employed officially – some see the former as more patriotic), and within ten minutes he’s pontificated on everything from Orthodox Christianity to the ethnic make-up of Bosnia. “Yugoslavia was a world power. Then we broke up. People still disagree exactly why it happened.”
That evening on nearby Skadarska, the sloping street traditionally seen as Belgrade’s bohemian heart, restaurants are serving up spiced pork and lamb dishes while Roma bands sway through old folk melodies in a blur of violins and accordions. When I leave, the streets are still full of rumbling trams. The walk back to my hotel takes me past the city’s old military headquarters, a building which has been left unrepaired from the bomb damage it suffered in the 1990s. It still stands there, scarred and gap-toothed. The decision is intentional, I’m told, so that it might act as a reminder of the past.
Down by the Danube two days later, there’s no such concession to bleaker times. I hire a bike and ride along the riverbank, my pack stuffed with bureks, the local filo-pastry pies (a tasty, if very flaky, legacy of Ottoman rule). I pedal west towards Zemun, once a little town in its own right but these days subsumed into Belgrade itself. The river is lined with the city’s famous party boats, scenes of bacchanalia on summer evenings. On shore, families of walkers pass by under rows of chestnut trees. The leaves are starting to redden and the riverside air is fresh.
Zemun, when I reach it, is all charm: a warren of wonky cobbles and hillside steeples. I wheel the bike up to its highest point, the turreted Gardoš Tower, where a sweeping view faces back across the city. Down below, the Danube is outspread, broad and blue. Its waters have already travelled for hundreds of miles from southwest Germany to reach this spot, and from here the river will flow east along the Bulgaria-Romania border before, eventually, emptying into the Black Sea.
It’s a fittingly far-reaching symbol for a city big on ambition. Back in the centre, the Sava waterside is full of 21st century frills: new design hotels, cycle paths, adventure playgrounds and gourmet burger food trucks. There are even plans for an opera house. The whole development is controversial – the worry is that luxury units will eventually crowd out galleries and art spaces – although I find an already lively atmosphere of pop-up cafés and afternoon cyclists.
One man who would doubtless have approved of the city’s modernisation push is Josip Broz Tito, the dictator who ruled Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. Still a divisive figure, he was instrumental in cementing Belgrade’s place in global consciousness and is buried in a mausoleum a short tram-ride from the centre. In an adjoining hall, photos show the dictator alongside everyone from Churchill to Richard Burton. An accompanying film informs me, to rousing music, that this “relentless citizen of the world” brought happiness “even to the trees”.
His grave itself is a hefty marble affair surrounded by tropical plants. Metres away is a huge display of relay batons that, once a year, were carried to Tito in Belgrade from different corners of the country by youth runners. The act was supposed to symbolise shared communication between the leader and his people. At the same time it was also a sign that, come what may, all roads lead to the capital.
Belgrade has a deserved reputation as somewhere to eat and drink well on a budget, but there’s more to the place than cheap nights out. The sizzle of grilling meat, the pounding of Balkan dance music and the wafting aroma of strong coffee are just the start: among the city’s jostle of 19th century architecture and Soviet towers is a vivacious capital increasingly well geared to visitors. It’s a fascinating place to explore.