The best way to become familiar with a city is through a baptism of fire. Being left alone, to your own devices, meagre as they are, just you and the city, and the ultimate goal is to find your way. With Budapest, it’s Blaha Lujza square, the square I could not figure out for the life of me in the first few months. Every time I made it out from the maze of the underground passage, it was the wrong exit, every time I had expected to finally get it right, a new disappointment. I’m on the other side again, cars, buses, people rushing by and I was so sure I’d nail it this time.
With Belgrade, it’s the statue of the Victor, the Pobednik. My friend needs to run an errand in the city centre and tells me to have a nice walk in the fortress, meet you in an hour or so. We’re talking about the times before Google maps here, before any smart app that saves your ass, just me and the city plan, and a very primitive tourist guide. We’re also talking about a time before decent ‘modern’ tourist guides to Belgrade, so I am stuck with a thick guide to the already obsolete Yugoslavia pilfered from the school library, on account that no one else ever read it, nor would they intend to.
In what I instinctively feel to be the bombastic voice of an oldschool geography-slash-history teacher I am told the Kalemegdan lies at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube, overlooking the Great War Island (yet another very martial Serbian thing). It is situated at a height of above 125 metres, and in Antiquity it was home to the Celtic settlement, then Roman castrum of Singidunum. The fortress was later rebuilt by the Byzantines, and in 1404, after the collapse of the Serbian medieval state following the Battle of Kosovopolje, it became the seat of the state of despot Stefan Lazarević.
In 1456, Iancu de Hunedoara defended it from an Ottoman onslaught- that’s why the bells toll at noon in my side of the world, to celebrate Iancu’s exploit, sadly almost immediately followed by his death. So the Ottomans did take the fortress in the end- it’s in the tell tale name, Kalemegdan is kale meydanı after all, the square of the fortress in Turkish. The Austrians lay claim to it too, and in very Germanic practical way built some hospitals, while in the early 20th Century the area was home to an airport too.
Next to the fortress I bumped into the zoo, which strangely for me hosted quite a few chicken, and was somehow subtly linked to the imaginary of the city,as its animals seem to have escaped onto the streets of the city during WWII- I absorbed related imagery both from Kusturica’s Underground, and from Tea Obreht’s rather excellent novel, The Tiger’s Wife.
What I did not find at the end of that first exploration, though, was the statue of the Pobednik, and anyone who’s ever been to the Kalemegdan will testify that you can’t really avoid the thing- but I did. As far as statues go, I’m pretty positive that Ivan Meštrović’s naked gentleman hovers low on my list of favourites, but it does fulfill its duty of landmark very well, particularly against spectacular sunsets. All that was lost on me the first time I visited the park, and when asked whether I saw IT I had to ashamedly confess I didn’t- I must have inexplicably ambled around it, seeing everything from the grave of Izzet Mehmed Pasha to the Nebojša tower and Saint Petka’s Church. Everything but the Victor.
All that was later compensated for, and these days I make particularly sure to point out its majesty to all those to whom I might serve as an occasional guide to Belgrade. Please, by all means, behold the Pobednik. And in further atonement, when my apartment happened to lie right beside the Kalemegdan, I made sure to visit him both at dawn- a ridiculous 6 AM by winter time, with the added misery that the sun actually rises on the opposite side of town, and at dusk, which is frankly his time to shine, buttocks against the flaming horizon. Although that might not sound like a must do on your bucket list- trust me, it actually is. As far as sunsets go (a subject that has become both exhausted and exhausting in the age of the Image as carried by the Internet), actually standing on the tip of the hill in a sea of diffuse crimson light does manage to send a shiver or two down one’s spine.