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.

Face to face with Europe’s refugee crisis

I’m not predisposed to emotional outbursts, a result of an upbringing under the dour grey skies of Northern England. So I thought twice about writing this blog. Not because I’m afraid of showing emotion, or of expressing my opinion; it’s more that, in the face of overwhelming suffering, whatever I write might sound trite or, worse, self righteous.

“Sitting here in my safe European home”, as The Clash song goes, I feel a profound shame at our collective failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding between Europe and Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria…on and on the list goes. My writing about it isn’t going to help. Yet warm, dry, safe in my Dutch home, I feel compelled to write.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a different story for the thousands of refugees I witnessed recently in Belgrade. People torn from their homes, separated from their families, throwing themselves into a terrifying world to escape an even more terrifying fate. To many, these people are migrants, a  term now loaded with loathing. A term that seems interchangeable with ‘non-person’ or ‘sub-human’ in the minds of some.

I find that attitude repugnant. I’ve never seen more humanity, however desperate, however impoverished by circumstance. The people – mainly from Syria and Iraq – sleeping rough or in tents in the parks of Belgrade, contrast sharply with the lack of humanity shown to them by Europe’s political class.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

I found myself staying in a hotel overlooking a refugee transit camp in central Belgrade – irony doesn’t get much more ironic than that. It was raining hard when I first arrived and conditions in the park deteriorated quickly amongst the temporary shelters and inadequate tents. There were no international agencies, no EU, just local (inadequate) services, and the kindness of ordinary Serbs.

After walking through the camp and meeting a few people – a remarkable number of whom speak English – my conclusion is that it is, and our politicians are, profoundly immoral to do next to nothing to help each and every refugee fleeing war and terror.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

As an individual, it’s overwhelming to witness so many men, women and children, young and old, trying to find safety. It made me feel helpless. Surely though, it’s not beyond the ability of the wealthiest continent on the planet to do better than this?

I’ll leave off the moralising, the political commentary, after all there are acres of newsprint and hours of TV broadcasts to fill that gap. I won’t even point the finger of blame at those who are ultimately responsible for this crisis…you know who you are.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

I’ll say only this. It’s easy to dehumanise the vulnerable, the weak, those in desperate need; and, because it’s easy, we must all keep reminding ourselves and our politicians that the people in the parks of Belgrade, lost at sea in the Mediterranean, and scrambling to cross a border in the hope of living a life of dignity, are just that, people. If we value our own dignity, we must value theirs also.