A journey through Serbia’s flatlands

I was keen to see something of rural Serbia, where the pace of life drops to a dawdle and the modern world seems to be only slowly making its presence felt. In retrospect, I might have chosen a more stimulating region to explore, because the journey to the small town of Bač and the Monastery of Bodani was through a landscape of relentless, flat agricultural land stretching as far as the eye can see.

To make matters worse, the weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Dark, threatening clouds turned to rain almost as soon as I set out on the road. The journey passed through small villages and towns on roads that were often arrow straight and empty of traffic. I saw very few people, and I was beginning to think these place were deserted. Then, as I drove through one of these small communities, lots of old ladies in traditional dress were coming out of church.

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

It was hardly a riot of activity, but it proved there was some life here after all. For the next few kilometres I passed numerous old ladies in traditional dress on bicycles. On a Sunday in rural Serbia, the government might want to consider putting up road signs near churches warning drivers of the hazards created by church-going old ladies. It’s not that they are dangerous, just that they cycle slowly and erratically on their way home while wearing their Sunday finery.

Eventually I arrived in Bač, one of the oldest settlements in this region that is today home to a few thousand people. It’s a sleepy place that hides a fascinating history. The main attraction of which is the semi-ruined Bač Fortress on the edge of town. Dating from the 9th century, what survives today was largely built between 1338 and 1686. The fortress has witnessed countless wars and occupations that have swept across this region over the last thousand years.

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

I was lucky enough to arrive at the fortress just as the rain stopped and the sun came out. Strangely, as I arrived, a large party of school children from Novi Sad was just leaving in a bus. I still have no idea what they were doing there on a Sunday afternoon and, after hardly seeing a living soul on my journey to Bač, it was a bit surreal. Once they’d departed, I had the entire site to myself. It was all very peaceful until a snake slithered across my path. Time to move on.

Bač is home to a Franciscan monastery which was originally founded in 1169 by the Knights Templar. Sadly it was closed for restoration works and, as I wondered what to do next, it started raining again. I jumped back in the car and headed towards the Orthodox Monastery of Bodani. It was only a short drive and my guidebook made it sound interesting. Outside the monastery was a car park with 30 parking spaces, all empty. It seemed that I’d also have this site to myself.

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

I did spot a monk walking into a building, but other than that I was all alone in the monastery and its grounds. There was no information, so I just wandered around, took a few photos and then returned to the car. The monastery dates from the 15th century, but wars and occupations saw it destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. The current building is 18th century, as are the lovely frescoes inside. It was very peaceful, but I couldn’t help thinking my guidebook had overstated its interest.

Since I’d bothered to make the journey to a place that probably doesn’t see too many tourists, I looked in the guidebook to see if there was anything else in the area that I should visit. There wasn’t. On empty roads, I set off on my return journey through Serbia’s flatlands back to Novi Sad.

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

The village of Bač, Serbia

The village of Bač, Serbia

Novi Sad and a festival of Serbian wine

I arrived in Novi Sad from Fruska Gora, a glorious area of rolling hills, forests, ancient monasteries and rich agricultural land. It’s one of Serbia’s main wine growing regions, with plenty of small producers making wine that is largely for the domestic market. Serbia’s not exactly renowned for its wine production – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bottle of Serbian wine outside of Serbia – but if my experience at Novi Sad’s Festival Vina is anything to go by, that could be about to change.

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

The sun was setting as the wine festival got into full swing in the square outside Novi Sad’s cathedral. There was a live band playing classic Serbian songs, everyone in the crowd seemed to be singing along, and a few of the older inhabitants were dancing. It was an entertaining evening and the wine tasting ended up being a lot of fun. I bought some plastic tokens to trade for wine, and spent the next hour or so chatting to wine producers and sampling the fruits of their hard labour.

I think it fair to say that the wine producers of Burgundy and Napa Valley have little to fear in the near future, but some of the wine was very good. This was the fourteenth year the festival has been held, and the marketing seemed pretty slick. Most of the wines come from Serbia, but there were some from other countries in the region – Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia – and some from Spain, Portugal and France. Don’t be surprised if you see a bottle of Serbian wine in your local supermarket sometime soon.

The day after the wine festival dawned bright and clear. The same could not be said for my head. I had plans to go north and see what my guidebook insisted were unmissable sights, but first I wanted to explore the spectacular Petrovaradin Fortress and spend a little more time wandering Novi Sad’s lovely historic centre. After a disappointing breakfast (not a strong point of Serbian hotels) and the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted, I set off into the Hapsburg-era citadel to see what all the fuss was about.

The Petrovaradin Fortress has existed since Roman times, but what you see today dates almost exclusively from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the War of the Holy League (1683-99), saw Novi Sad and Serbia become a satellite of the Habsburg-controlled Holy Roman Empire. The plan was to build a fortress here that would prevent the Turks from ever marching on Vienna again. The great French military architect, Vauban, oversaw its construction.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

The finished product is magnificent. The vast and well preserved fortifications are even more impressive than the extraordinary views over Novi Sad in one direction, and the Fruska Gora countryside in the other. Strangely, the fortress was something of a white elephant. By the time of its completion the Turks were no longer a serious threat to Europe, and military technology had moved on so much that the fortifications were largely obsolete.

The fortress did play a central role in the defeat that signalled the end of the Ottoman threat to Central Europe. In 1717, the Ottomans marched an army north that would be defeated at Petrovaradin by Prince Eugene of Savoy, Europe’s leading commander. Underneath the fortress are 18km of fortified tunnels that could hold 30,000 troops. If the fortress was overrun, these troops would be able to fight on. The tunnels were never used, except as a prison.

I was staying in the Hotel Leopold I, which is housed in a former barracks within the fortress, and spent a couple of hours wandering around the fortress before heading into Novi Sad for lunch. It was Sunday and things were very quiet – I suspect a fair number of Novi Sad’s citizens were nursing sore heads from the Festival Vina. After lunch, I jumped in the car and headed 70km north-west towards Bac and the 15th century Monastery of Bodani.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, a Serbian Athens?

A couple of years ago, when I visited Serbia for the first time, I was taken aback by its fascinating, historic and (surprisingly) cosmopolitan capital, Belgrade. As I sat on the plane on the way home, I vowed I’d go back to explore some of the rest of a country that comes with a weight of history, and a modern reputation that isn’t conducive to tourism. I finally got to return for a few days and, after a day in Belgrade, headed north for a weekend in Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad.

I was looking forward to spending some time in a place known both as the ‘Athens of Serbia’, because historically it has been a centre of learning and has a rich cultural heritage, and as the ‘Gibraltar of the Danube’, thanks to the immense and imposing Petrovaradin Fortress. More than that though, Novi Sad has a reputation as a relaxed, lively and welcoming place, with some of the best museums and food in the country.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Unluckily, my first experience of the city was being pulled over by the police. The blue lights of justice flashed in my rear view mirror and, for a moment, I thought I might be in trouble. I’m never really sure what to do at times like this, my only previous run-in with the police in Eastern Europe was when the Berlin Wall was still standing. The East German officer who caught me crossing a road when the light was still on red issued an on the spot ‘fine’ of five Deutschmark.

It was a hot day, and the sun beat down on me as I watched the officer walk slowly to the car. I was still contemplating how I might communicate with him when he leant in through the window. I think he asked me if I knew why I’d been stopped, luckily my uncomprehending look quickly gave me away as a foreign idiot. He shouted to his fellow officer to get back into the police car and, drawing deeply on his cigarette, waved me on my way with a shake of his head.

Breathing a sign of relief, but no wiser as to what offence I’d committed, I made my way to the dramatic Petrovaradin Fortress, where my hotel offered spectacular views over the city and the River Danube. At check-in I was offered a glass of fiery plum brandy, which I was assured was a local tradition. After my run-in with local law enforcement, I told myself it couldn’t hurt to ‘calm my nerves’. It was still burning my oesophagus an hour later as I walked around Novi Sad.

The main sights of the city are all located in its attractive historic centre. Despite having a history dating back to the Romans, most of the old city dates only from the 19th century. This is a consequence of Serbia’s troubled history with its neighbour, Hungary. In 1848, when Serbia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarian troops stationed in the Petrovaradin Fortress revolted. They bombarded the city  for months until much of it was destroyed.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Serbs have long memories, and this is not something they are going to forget anytime soon. Although most would probably point you towards the Hungarian occupation of World War II as a greater reason to dislike their northern neighbours. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and complicit in the near annihilation of Serbia’s Jews, not to mention the deaths of thousands of Serbs and Romany. History in this part of Europe is never easy or, given Serbia’s own modern history, straight forward.

I visited the friendly tourist office and wandered around the town before finding my way to the fantastic Project 72 Wine & Deliserving modern takes on traditional Serbian dishes. I spent the next two hours chatting to the waiter (who spoke excellent English) and planning what to do in Novi Sad. Fate it seemed had already made a choice for me. As I finished my long, early dinner, the waiter told me there was a Serbian wine festival taking place that very night … it seemed rude not to participate.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Holocaust memorial, Novi Sad, Serbia

Holocaust memorial, Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Food, Novi Sad, Serbia

Food, Novi Sad, Serbia

Exploring the monasteries of Serbia’s Fruska Gora

Half-hidden amongst the densely forested hills of the Fruska Gora National Park lie one of Serbia’s great cultural highlights: seventeen Serbian Orthodox monasteries dating from between the 15th and 18th centuries. Fruska Gora lies to the south of Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad, and a day spent exploring villages, vineyards and ancient monasteries provides a fascinating insight into the more traditional way of life that still exists in the countryside.

Fruska Gora would be worth a visit even without its monasteries. It’s a beautiful area, criss-crossed with walking trails, that also happens to be one of the country’s leading wine producing areas. The economy of the area seems to be based on wine, honey production and fruit growing – although a lot of the fruit ends up as alcohol as well. Beehives are dotted everywhere in the countryside, including mobile beehives on the back of trucks. They take their honey seriously in Fruska Gora.

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

It’s not so easy to get around without your own transport, so I hired a car in Belgrade and visited the area en route to spending the weekend in Novi Sad. I arrived at the 16th century Krusedol monastery, with its bright red gatehouse, early in the morning to find the entrance open but no sign of any people. I walked through the peaceful grounds until I reached the monastery. At the entrance, a monk hurried past on his way into a nearby orchard with barely an acknowledgement of my existence.

There was no one to point me in the right direction, so I followed my nose until I found myself admiring the stunning frescoes that adorn almost every inch of the monastery’s interior. Some of these paintings have survived from the 16th century, others date from the 18th century. Simple and colourful, they reminded me of the extraordinary frescoes I’d seen at Ethiopia’s Lake Tana monasteries – there must be historic links between these two branches of Orthodox Christianity.

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Frescoes in Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Novo Hopovo Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

As I left the monastery, the grey skies of the morning gave way to sunshine just as a large tour group from Austria arrived to shatter the peace and quiet. I drove off to visit a couple of other monasteries, passing through the lush valleys and hills for which this area is famed. This was always a remote area, and it was this remoteness that attracted monastic communities fleeing from the Ottoman Empire as it expanded northwards into the Balkans.

As wars and occupations swept backwards and forwards across the region, the monasteries of Fruska Gora became beacons for Serbs – vital links to their religious and cultural heritage. They still play a similar role today. I visited a number of other monasteries, all of which were within a 20km drive of each other and yet felt as isolated from each other as if they were on different planets.

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Two highlights were Novo Hopovo and Velika Remeta monasteries. Both had peaceful locations, but Novo Hopovo had far more interesting frescoes – not to mention a gift shop stocked with locally made bottles of wine and local plum, cherry and apricot brandies. I don’t know what it is about monks and alcohol, but they have consistently proved to be some of the most creative booze hounds throughout the history of humanity’s relationship with the demon drink.

After a tour around Novo Hopovo I realised that it was well past lunch time. I’d not had any breakfast and hadn’t found a single restaurant on my travels through Fruska Gora. It was time to head for Novi Sad where, excitingly, I was staying in a hotel that forms part of the magnificent Petrovaradin Fortress, commanding sweeping views over the River Danube.

Velika Remeta Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Velika Remeta Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Beehives, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Krusedol Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Velika Remeta Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

Velika Remeta Monastery, Fruska Gora National Park, Serbia

A stroll along the Danube

The sun was shining and the weather in Belgrade was humid and sultry – I was surprised by the heat, but in summer it can reach 40°C and the humidity is stifling. I headed down to the Sava riverfront in the hope that there might be a breeze. There wasn’t much but, as I walked to where the Sava and the Danube rivers meet, there was wind enough to power some sailing boats.

The old wharf area along this stretch of the Sava sits under the immense bulk of the Kalemegdan Fortress, it’s a commanding presence. Until a few years ago this was a rundown industrial area with a row of warehouses looking for a new purpose in life. Today, they’ve been transformed into a number of restaurants serving delicious food that comes with river views.

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

In a city as hilly as Belgrade the riverfront is pleasantly flat. No surprise then that this is one of the more popular cycle routes in the city. It makes for easy walking as well, so I continued on my way past where the Sava and Danube meet along the banks of one of the world’s great rivers.

The Danube is redolent of history. The river has been the central character in the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of this entire region. It is a mystical, magical river which begins life as little more than a trickle in the Black Forest of Germany. By the time it reaches Belgrade it is a majestic sight. It’s no surprise that it has been immortalised in music and literature over the centuries.

Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz might be the most famous example of the influence the Danube has had on art, but it is just one example. As well as featuring prominently in the Bulgarian national anthemn and in a Jules Verne novel, the Danube can boast its own ‘school’ of painting. Not many rivers can make that claim.

I had a wonderful walk along the river, lots of people were out enjoying the weather and there was a holiday feeling in the air. I’d only seen the Danube once before, that was years ago in Bratislava when it was still part of Czechoslovakia rather than modern day Slovakia. I remember the thrill of seeing the river, seeing it again was like visiting an old friend.

I reached Marina Dorcol na Dunavu, a small port for leisure craft, beyond which it was difficult to go further. The area suddenly became run down, industrial and a bit unpleasant, so steering inland I made my way back into Belgrade. Just beyond the marina is the port of Belgrade where hundreds of cargo ships dock each year, coming either from the Black Sea or from the river to the north.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

It doesn’t take long to reach the centre of Belgrade, and I spent the rest of the day wandering its atmospheric streets, which literally teem with life. I made a a stop or two at a couple of the city’s many ice cream parlours. I visited churches with beautifully ornate interiors (no photos allowed), one even had a wedding going on, no one seemed to mind another onlooker. I found myself in the shopping district and walking past the parliament until the heat got the better of me.

I made one last sweep through the lovely old Skadarlija area, had lunch at a  pavement cafe, washed down with a local microbrew, and then it was back to the hotel and a taxi to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport. My time in Belgrade was all too short, but I’m glad I had time to explore the city. It’s made me want to go back.

Belgrade’s war scars

What do fictional human being Donald Trump and the capital city of Serbia have in common? Had I not been in Belgrade and heard it for myself I doubt I would have believed it, but the preposterously haired Trump has a ‘special’ relationship with the city. Trump (which, for anyone of my generation and British, is another word for ‘fart’), intends to build a five-star hotel in the heart of Belgrade.

It’s not just any hotel that Fart, sorry Trump, wants to build, he intends to raise a hotel phoenix-like from the ashes, or in this case rubble, of the former headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Defence. The buildings were destroyed by NATO warplanes on May 7, 1999, and have been left in their current condition ever since.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

The attacks on the Ministry of Defence were just one of many that NATO carried out in Belgrade and the rest of Serbia, as part of attempts to end the war in Kosovo. A war started when the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević tried to tighten Serb control over Kosovo. It escalated into a one-sided battle between the Yugoslav military, supported by Serbian militias and police, and Kosovar Albanian forces.

At least 400,000 Kosovar Albanians became refugees during the war; while thousands more died at the hands of Serb troops and militias, who unleashed a wave of ethnic cleansing against Kosovars.  Milošević’s government did nothing to prevent the killing, and quite a lot to facilitate it, one of the many reasons he died in a prison cell belonging to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Despite the mass graves found in Kosovo, victims of war crimes, Serbia feels wronged by the NATO attacks. Serbia has some support, Amnesty International has called NATO’s attack on the Serbian TV headquarters in which 16 people died, a war crime. Yet it’s striking that the destroyed Ministry of Defence buildings are next to the largest military recruiting poster I’ve ever seen. Hardly a signal that lessons have been learned.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Maybe transforming these bombed out monuments to some of the darkest moments in recent European history, will provide psychological closure for Belgraders. Maybe not. After all, even if he does like to build hotels, Trump hardly seems like the sort of man interested in building bridges.

Kalemegdan Fortress, home of Serbian Despots

Despots are very misunderstood people. Mainly, it turns out, because modern usage of the word has been corrupted from its former meaning. During the Byzantine Empire it meant ‘Lord’ and was an official title used. Serbia was part of Byzantium and Serb rulers became known as despots.

I looked this up after visiting the Despot Stefan Tower in Belgrade’s magnificent Kalemegdan Fortress. Despot Stefan was a model despot, regarded as one of finest military leaders of his time, he was a political and economic moderniser who was also a prolific patron of the arts and a highly regarded writer. Despot Stefan made Belgrade Serbia’s capital in 1403 and rebuilt much of the Kalemegdan Fortress.

Situated high above the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, the Kalemegdan Fortress literally dominates the the city of Belgrade. It is a massive structure, with layer upon layer of defensive walls and ditches, its huge size hinting Belgrade’s former importance. The history of Kalemegdan is the history of Belgrade and Serbia.

As well as being one of Serbia’s most historic sites, and providing impressive views over the Danube and Sava Rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress has the distinction of being the largest park in Belgrade. Serbs would also add that it’s free. I walked around the walls, taking in the dramatic views and enjoying the holiday atmosphere as Serbs in their hundreds visited the park.

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a great place to spend a morning wandering around and, while it’s full of interesting things to see, it’s the spectacular views over the confluence of the Danube and Sava that steal the show. From high up in the Kalemegdan Fortress, a place that has been fortified for over 2000 years, you can see that the Danube is a mighty river.

Sail south and you arrive at the Back Sea with access to the Mediterranean. Sail north and Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, The Netherlands and the North Sea await. Rivers connected Belgrade with trade routes north, south, east and west. No wonder it’s been fought over and destroyed so many times throughout history.

It’s a history with more plot twists than a Raymond Chandler novel. Prehistoric tribes lived here before a flourishing Celtic culture took root around 300BC; the Roman Empire conquered the region; when that split in two it was replaced by Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. Attila the Hun dropped by and ravaged the region in the 5th Century.

The first written record of the name Belgrade came in 878AD. Armies of Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopped here. By the time the Third Crusade passed by, Belgrade was in ruins and Byzantium was in chronic decline. The arrival of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would come to dominate Serbia and Belgrade for over 400 years.

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Ottoman rule was occasionally swapped for Austrian as the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian Empire fought for dominance. When Serbia gained independence in 1882, Belgrade became its capital. Austro-Hungary’s attack on Serbia in 1914 kick-started the First World War, and Belgrade was destroyed by the fighting. Yet in 1918, it became capital of a united Yugoslavia.

Things calmed down until 1941 when Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact, entering into a defensive agreement with Germany, Italy and Japan. This sparked a revolt against the government and Germany invaded. Once again Belgrade was destroyed. The Allies destroyed the city again in 1944. It was eventually captured by the Red Army, never a good thing to happen to a city.

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Statue in Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Statue in Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Tito’s communists took control for the next 46 years until the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. This sparked a regional conflict throughout the 1990s, culminating in the Bosnian War, widespread human rights abuses and genocide against Bosnian muslims. Most war crimes were carried out by ethnic Serbs. Renewed fighting in 1999 over Kosovo resulted in NATO bombing Belgrade, the scars of which still remain.

Selfie in front of the Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Selfie in front of the Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Serb history is a roller coaster ride, and you can feel the weight of that history when stood in the Kalemegdan Fortress.

Belgrade, a giant canvass for street art

Belgrade can appear like a vast open-air gallery. Walking around, it seems like every building and wall has been converted into a makeshift canvass. Apparently, street art is a relatively new phenomena, but as a form of expression it has swept through the city like wildfire. Today street artists from around the world come here to create works, and Serbian artists travel abroad to reciprocate.

One of Belgrade’s most famous murals is by Italian street artist, Blu. Taking up the whole side of a building, it’s a little faded but it’s definitely a city devouring a forest. Painted in 2009 as a critique of contemporary consumerist society destroying nature, it epitomises the political commentary of much of Belgrade’s street artists, who are often critical of the government, media and corruption.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

That said, I arrived at Blu’s Cities vs. Nature mural via a stairway beneath an underpass that was home to far less political works: a naked woman with large exaggerated breasts is just one of several dozen paintings on an exit from a highway. I’m surprised more accidents don’t happen on this stretch of road.

Cities v Nature, Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Cities v Nature, Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Later that same day, as I wandered back to my hotel, I spotted an alleyway that had graffiti everywhere, including a Banksy-like rat with machine gun. I always loved the Banksy rats. There was one I passed most days on my way to work in London, just a single rat defiantly holding a placard which read, “Go back to bed”. There were mornings when I could have joined the protest.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

A few years back, Belgrade’s street art made it into the pages of that flag bearer of neo-liberal economics, The Economist. One of the interesting points of the article is that graffiti was once the preserve of ultra nationalists and right wing football hooligans (in which Serbia specialises ); but the modern street art scene is far more cosmopolitan, international and tolerant.

This anguished artistic flourishing amongst a post-war generation seems like something worth celebrating.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade’s street art scene

There is graffiti everywhere in Belgrade. It’s a city that would keep former New York Mayor, Rudolph ‘Zero Tolerance’ Giuliani, awake at night. Although the theory that graffiti and broken windows in neighbourhoods leads inexorably to an increase in serious crime, seems to be debunked in Belgrade. It’s a city that feels safer than a lot I’ve visited.

The majority of Belgrade’s graffiti is of the usual ‘tagging’ sort that I neither find interesting or aesthetically appealing. A number of areas around the city have fabulous collections of thought-provoking street art though. The Ghost People of Savamala are just one example.

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Savamala is a run-down district that has become a vibrant artistic and cultural hub, as well as a nightlife hotspot. The Ghost People are the work of artists Tijana Tripkovic and Barbara Dimic, who use them to highlight the plight of local people being pushed out of the area by a planned redevelopment: the Belgrade Waterfront Project.

Financed by a Dubai-based firm, Eagle Hills, the project will ‘transform’ Savamala from an atmospheric neighbourhood in need of some love and a lick of paint, into Dubai by the Danube. Savamala’s culture and traditions will be erased by towers of glass and steel housing shopping malls, over-priced ‘luxury’ apartments and office space the city won’t be able to fill.

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Everyone I spoke to said the Waterfront Project got permission because a corrupt government had been influenced by money. Most people were blunter than that. Rudolph Giuliani would probably be in favour, but what price the loss of culture and tradition when local people are displaced? After visiting this wonderful area, it would be a terrible shame to lose such a vibrant place to international blandness.

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

In other parts of the city are more street art hotspots, but Savamala is unique in attracting some of the most creative street artists. The Brankov Most bridge, connecting old Belgrade with New Belgrade, cuts through the district, giving it an even grittier urban feel. Wander under the bridge and you find the giant La Santa de Beograd covering the side of a four storied building.

Symbolising the constant destruction and rebirth of Belgrade over the centuries, La Santa de Beograd by artist Giom Olbi Remed is a dramatic sight, whether viewed from the road below or from the Brankov Most. It’s become an iconic feature of Belgrade’s cityscape.

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Nearby are stairs leading up to the top of the bridge, the whole side covered in yet more street art. This area feels similar to the Hoxton area in London – well the Hoxton area of 15 years ago when Banksy was still a street artist rather than an international celebrity. I like that about it but, just like Hoxton, it seems Savamala is going to get gentrified.

La Santa de Beograd, street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

La Santa de Beograd, street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

The crumbling glory of Belgrade

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.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade train station, Serbia

Belgrade train station, Serbia

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.

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

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.

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

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.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

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.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

As I said, only ask a Serb about their folk songs if you haven’t made plans for the weekend.