Paris has the Eiffel Tower. London has Big Ben. Rome has the Colosseum. And Belgrade has the weirdly shaped naked man who was shipped up to the fortress so the citizens of the fair capital don’t have to stare at his manhood in the heart of the city, for where it was originally planned. Well, the actual reasons for why it was finally placed in Kalemegdan, facing the river, instead of Terazije, are just as convoluted as the history of the Balkans in general, but the end result is the same: nowhere in the world can you see sunsets this spectacular, with the profile of some extremely heroic buttocks randomly blocking out the sun.
This might again feel like veiled criticism- but it isn’t: I am usually very suspicious of statues, and most modern ones look decidedly mis-shaped to me, but the Victor was just carved to be there. Which is not easy to accomplish, when the view from the fortress is quite unique as it is: the Danube meeting one of its major tributaries, the Sava, in the heart of a city. I’m not sentimental about a lot of things, but I tend to get soft hearted and weak minded when thinking of rivers, their slow but unrelenting progress, how they are arteries linking our lives together in often unseen ways. Plus, I’ve seen the Sava when it was a baby -and it still is a baby, somewhere in Slovenia, it gushes from a mountainside, a very small trickle of Alpine water, which at the same time somewhere in the distance becomes a majestic matron making its way first to the Danube and then together to the sea.
I blame the above lyrical outburst on the feeling of extreme peace and one-ness with the forces of the universe given by pints of Jelen consumed on the walls of Belgrade fortress while peering into the distance over the confluence, on a fine sunny day. This experience should be everyone’s staple when visiting, and then you can potter about the rest of the area as well, stumbling upon the rather elaborate grave of a Turk, tanks, a weird statue dedicated to the French and a squeaky clean toilet, which is always reason for great happiness for a weary traveler.
Once done with the exploration of the fortress, you might as well go straight towards the centre on Kneza Mihailova: a leafy pedestrian street with plenty of bars, restaurants and shops. Since by now it has become obvious that I do like to stray away from the beaten track, I do however generally veer right at this point towards Kosančićev venac- this is basically the oldest part of old Belgrade, fallen mostly out of grace during forward looking communist times, but enjoying a revival of late, and serving up several delights, such as the elaborate French embassy, Princess Ljubica’s palace and Saint Michael’s Church- well, frankly, this last specimen is best when admired from the garden of the Question Mark (Znak pitanja) coffeehouse. Belgrade does dramatic backdrops pretty well, as you see. This area has also become a hub for design stores of the better kind, like Makadam, which also sports a restaurant and a lovely terrace, and Gradstor.
Adjacent to Kosančićev venac is Savamala- which, depending on whom you ask, is either a horrible slum with ramshackle buildings or a vivid arts scene- with ramshackle buildings. There’s no doubt that the area is in need of some care and attention, but the plan to turn it into a shiny glass menagerie of modernist monsters envisaged by the authorities is definitely not the best way to go about it. Opposition to the Waterfront project is strong, but Eastern European governments do still have a way of sneakily imposing their will against that of their people- so now might be the last chance to explore Savamala in all of its broken, graffitied, disheveled and decrepit beauty. There are also plenty of places to drink to Savamala’s decrepit beauty such as Mikser House- where we bumped into a pretty effervescent Sunday vinyl market or KC Grad.
I have a particular fondness for Savamala’s red trams rattling along Karađorđeva street: they make this panicky sound of a flimsy implement about to fall apart, especially when navigating turns. Each time I hear one of them approaching, I half fear that maybe only some seats and a door will arrive into the station, with the rest of the tram merrily trotting off into another unknown, and perhaps far more interesting direction.
Another Savamala highlight is the area of the stairs coming down from the foot of Branko’s bridge to Karađorđeva, with popular spots such as Jazz Bašta and the oddity of an organic restaurant, Gnezdo with a pretty fancy balcony overlooking the street- from where you can revel in the clickety passing of the aforementioned streetcars named disaster.
In case you’ve successfully made it back to Kneza Mihailova street and don’t know what to do with yourself, you can turn left into another historic neighbourhood, Dorćol, which got it’s name from the Turkish dört yol, four roads, and used to be the trading hub of old Belgrade. It’s mostly just houses- with the occasional added excitement of something like the Bajrakli mosque on Gospodar Jevremova street, which, just like some of its Christian counterparts, is usually engaged in some complicated and indeterminate rebuilding action. My favourite pastime in Dorćol is walking around- aimlessly, I would hope, but I have to come to terms with the fact that by now I’ve mostly learned the logic of the streets. If you’re very fresh to the city, then do get very lost around here, just taking in the sights and the feeling of the place. Quite fortuitously, the area is packed with bars and restaurants of all shapes and sizes, from hipster haunts to mind boggling displays of fake leather and plastic flowers, so everyone can find the ones closest to their hearts.
Lost as you are, it’s very likely that at some point you will make it to Skadarska street, or Skadarlija, which is pretty much the closest you can get to a real tourist attraction in Belgrade, with groups of selfie stick wielding Asians regularly pouring out of both ends. It’s been called the Montmartre of Belgrade, due to its past as a Bohemian haunt for usually broke artists, but that might be raising the bar too high- or too low.
For Montmartre these days is more of a Montmartre theme park, an idea of what it used to be like being sold bit by bit, decomposed into Chinese made baubles. Skadarlija, on the other hand, is a shortish cobbled street with many historic, and still pretty affordable restaurants serving great food- and, come evening, the atmosphere on the terraces still feels genuine, with locals outnumbering tourists even during summer and with the occasional grumpy man with a beer who might just be in the process of a)finishing an epic novel and b) looking for someone to foot his bill.
A short walk from Skadarlija leads you to Trg Republike. incidentally, this is where Kneza Mihailova begins- but since we’ve covered that part, we may proceed in the opposite direction, on Terazije and Kraja Milana towards the Church of Saint Sava- the giant white building is actually nicely visible right from the beginning of the walk, so no danger of getting lost here. This is a feature I really love about Belgrade- every now and then a street will offer a spectacular, organic perspective, another one of my favourites being the view up Nemanjina street from the train station, which has a special way of carrying light in the morning and in the evening.
When getting up close and personal with it, my feelings about the Church of Saint Sava are not quite as straightforward. It’s just a bit too white and too bulky for my tastes, like an exploratory ship an alien civilization built trying to approximate humanity’s fancies. It also looks eerily more like a mosque than a church- but then again, many mosques have Byzantine elements to them, so we’re moving around in the usual Balkan circles here. The Church is also unfinished on the inside- and each time I see it, it looks unfinished in a different way, or, should I say, every time it looks almost a bit unfinished-er than before.
There is of course a grand plan to finish it some day, and this grand plan also includes the moving of Nikola Tesla’s ashes to the Church- since the most relevant Serb of all times should of course reside in the (arguably) most relevant building in town. I do consider this as one of the silliest ideas ever and start to comprehend why Tesla preferred pigeons to humans towards the end of his life. (As mentioned before, Belgrade pigeons are particularly inquisitive, but generally look like they’re doing only completely sensible pigeony things, so Tesla was definitely on to something.)
Mercifully, for the time being Tesla’s ashes are still housed by the museum bearing his name located on Krunska street, about 20 minutes walk from the church, so in case you felt overwhelmed by its presence, you might electrocute yourself back into sanity in the blink of a pigeon’s eye. Krunska street itself is lovely and lies at the heart of Vračar, a neighbourhood of many wonders, such as the Kalenić market, one of those amazing Eastern European endeavours where you can buy pretty much anything from shoelaces to rocket launchers. Alongside pretty rose laden streets punctuated by small shops and cafés, you can also bump into something as eerie as the Beograđanka, a rather uncalled for high rise in the heart of old Belgrade, but of course, stranger things have happened around this part of the world, so, after all, why the hell not.
Crossing Kralja Aleksandra boulevard from Vračar, you can find the Tašmajdan park and the adjacent Church of Saint Mark- which hosts the remains of Tsar Dušan and is, yep, you guessed right, being renovated. Whenever I am in Tašmajdan, I also realize just how fond of popcorn Serbs are- there are ‘kokice’ stands of all shapes and sizes strewn all over the city, and especially so in parks and on promenades. Then again, Romanians are passionate about pretzels, so who am I to judge culinary quirks.
This area also has the dubious fame of having been quite severely hit during the 1999 NATO bombings with the building of the state television having been one of the main targets- there are ruins aplenty strewn across the city, most of them almost untouched, an eerie memento of the kind of devastation that most European cities did not have to witness since the mid-20th century.
Needless to say, there’s plenty of Belgrade not being covered above- but it’s a pretty fair estimation of what you can do in three days, on an ever so fashionable city break let’s say. When calculating your time, you should also ensure that plenty of it is set aside for eating and drinking as well- some suggestions on where to do that await you in the upcoming entry.