I’ve heard Belgrade described as “gritty exuberance” and think this is indeed a good way to characterize the dichotomy of the Serbian capital.
The pedestrian boulevard, Knez Mihailova bustles with locals and tourists frequenting the abundance of cafes, restaurants and designer fashion shops.
After dark, nightclubs spill over with spirited partiers partaking in Belgrade’s renowned fast-paced nightlife. On side streets are the grittiest of aspects in the dull grey concrete of Soviet-era buildings, rising like stalwart sentinels.
Farther along the boulevard is Republic Square with the National Museum and National Theatre. Nearby is the landmark Hotel Moskva, which first opened its doors in 1908 — a major investment of the former Russian Empire.
Over its storied history, the hotel’s beds have been slept in by Albert Einstein, political leaders Yasser Arafat and Indira Gandhi, actors Jack Nicolson, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro and producer Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few.
Across the street is the National Assembly. Gracing the entrance are sculptures, (by Toma Rosandic dating back to 1938) of powerful steeds rearing up over herculean nude males.
To me they seem analogous of the Assembly being a match for any opposing power.
Our next venture takes us upward to Belgrade Fortress (a.k.a. Kalemagdan Citadel) overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.
Here, battles have been fought since Celtic and Roman times, but much of what stands today are 18th century Austro-Hungarian and Turkish reconstructions.
A Military Museum holds the history of the former Yugoslavia, the rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito until 1980, through the Yugoslav Wars and break-up of Yugoslavia, to the bombings of Serbia by NATO in 1999.
We climb higher to churches nestled near the hill’s edge. The Ruzica church (Rosette church) was built from stone remnants of a Middle Age fort.
Destroyed many times, its present form dates back to 1867. Statues of a spearman from medieval times and a First World War infantry soldier stand guard. Byzantine icons fill the interior.
Next, is Chapel of St. Petka, built on top of a spring, which is believed to be miraculous.
A nun works at a small table in the chapel, filling plastic bottles embossed with a cross and Cyrillic script.
I observe a woman purchasing a bottle and immediately down it. I hand the nun a few “dinara,” gulp down half and pass the remainder to my travel partner and say, “This can’t be bad, as all of Belgrade has potable water and that it’s probably blessed can’t hurt.”
Outside the chapel are rock caves. In each semi-circular hollow is a pedestal with a picture of a religious figure, with more saintly images hanging against the walls.
Thin spirals of smoke rise from candles in the sand-filled ledges fronting the icons. It has now been six hours of tromping around the fortress grounds, and a good time to end an awesome day.
The next day, we head to the Palace of Princess Ljubica.
I have a “shucks” moment, learning coffee with a faux-princess in period-dress only happens on Saturdays.
As I meander through this sizable but modest home, erected in 1831 by Prince Milos Obrenovic I imagine the princess and her eight children rambling about, while her Prince is out participating in uprisings against the Ottoman Empire.
We navigate to a tavern named “?”
In its dingy surroundings we partake a hearty chicken stew.
Over a coffee chaser, our server, Joseph fills us in on how the tavern became known as “?.” He says, “It was built in 1823 for Mr. Naum Icko, the appointed head of the merchant guild and trade council by Prince Milos. It became a house where eminent citizens came to discuss cultural and business opportunities.”
In 1892, after many name changes and different owners, it was dubbed, “By the Cathedral.” Local church authorities found this name to be an insult, so the owner changed its name to a simple question mark, as a temporary measure. It has stuck to this day — now a municipal property and still serving traditional food.
On our final night, we visit one of our favourite niches in Belgrade, the historic district Skadarska, with its cobblestone streets and bohemian appeal.
Sipping our Turkish coffee, surrounded by artsy types, I feel as though I never want to leave this great city.
But leave we must, taking with us a bundle of fine memories.
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