I doubt many people visit Belgrade for the architecture. That’s a shame. A bizarre mix of elegant 18th and 19th Century neoclassical, early 20th Century modernism, post-Second World War communist brutalism and a scattering of more ancient buildings, give Belgrade an intriguing cityscape. One found only in a formerly magnificent capital that survived a half century of communist didactic.
I loved walking around Belgrade’s vibrant streets, but it would be hard to describe the city as ‘beautiful’. Fascinating, yes. Welcoming, definitely. Beautiful, not conventionally. Buildings have crumbling facades, paint is peeling, graffiti is ubiquitous. It feels almost like a place suspended in time, decaying grandeur slowly turning to dust. First impressions can be misleading though, and Belgrade turned out to be full of surprises.
It’s a city in need of a facelift, but probably not the one planned for the historic but neglected Savamala neighbourhood. Everyone I talked to objected to its planned redevelopment. Beautiful old buildings would be replaced by steel and glass towers of overpriced apartments most Serbs can’t afford. Everyone said government corruption was to blame.
People may not come for the architecture but they do come for the lively atmosphere. Careworn Belgrade may be, but it’s a captivating city with immense spirit. It’s gained a reputation as the hedonistic nightlife capital of the Balkans, symbolised by boats converted into nightclubs on the Sava river. Attracting a party crowd, these floating bacchanals close only when the sun comes up.
More traditional, and sedate, nightlife can be found around the Skadarlija area, known locally as the Bohemian Quarter – the traditional home of writers and artists, now joined by digital developers and graphic artists. Tucked in behind the ancient Kalemegdan fortress this is the historic heart of Belgrade and is pure pleasure to explore.
Along with more edgy Savamala, Skadarlija forms Belgrade’s contemporary artistic and cultural centre. Trendy, youthful bars mingle with traditional coffee houses, boutique clothes shops share space with street food stalls; the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Pull up a pavement chair at one of the cafes or bars and watch the world go by.
In the heart of Skadarlija, pedestrianised and cobbled Skadar Street is a little piece of history. Lined with bars and restaurants serving up Serbian staples it is about as touristy (not very) as Belgrade gets. I came here one night with some Serb colleagues and, while eating my own body weight in traditional dishes, had the pleasure of Serbian folk music played live by roving bands of musicians.
Serbian folk songs are full of the pain of Serbia’s history. Never ask a Serb to explain a folk song, not unless you’ve got time to spare to be brought up to speed on centuries of woe. Serbia was a victim of geography long before the destruction of World War II, the Iron Curtain and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia that saw it become a pariah state.
Caught between east and west, it was subjugated by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ransacked by its neighbours. Situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade had strategic importance, and was occupied and razed to the ground dozens of times.
Serbs rebelled more times than you can count, on each occasion the dream of an independent Serb kingdom was crushed. At one point an Ottoman army of 300,000 descended upon Belgrade, destroyed all opposition and forcibly deported the entire population to Turkey. There is a mournful song for each of these occasions.
Even when Serbs managed to beat the Turks, it ended in disaster. One folk song recounts Serbia’s great victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The Turkish army was beaten, the Sultan killed and Europe rejoiced at being saved from Ottoman conquest. The only problem? The Serb army and its leaders had been decimated.
This ‘victory’ opened the way for Hungary to take control of the country. The Turks were back again in 1459, and this time they would stay for more than four centuries. Serbia would have to wait until 1882 for its independence. Serbs have long memories, and ironically this history is one reason they find it so hard to accept Kosovan independence.
As I said, only ask a Serb about their folk songs if you haven’t made plans for the weekend.