Belgrade: The Late Bloomer of the East
Belgrade is still finding its modern footing as the city overcomes the scars of war and reconnects to its pre-socialist traditions
"Traffic here works according to the principle of self-determination," my friend Oliver tells me. "You wait for a good opportunity to cross. If there isn’t one, you have to create one. Just stare down the cars and hope for the best!" The wide street is feeding more cars into the roundabout on Slavija Square, in the middle of which stands a solitary traffic cop, his police hat pulled down tightly revealing only the hardened grim stare of a man facing Belgrade’s rush hour traffic armed with nothing else but a whistle and traffic batons.
A gap in the stream of cars allows some of the pedestrians to dash across, arriving flushed at the foot of Hotel Slavija Lux, a towering skyscraper overlooking the square that in its prime, was the flagship hotel of Yugoslavia. From the roof terrace, the Hotel Slavija gives a panoramic view of some of the peculiar structures dotting Belgrade’s unique skyline.
Serbia’s capital has been slow in opening to the outside world. During the period of isolation in the 1990s, sanctions imposed as a response to the Milosevic regime immersed much of the country into a period of economic and social turmoil. With little influence from the outside, corruption, cronyism and organised crime flourished, connecting seamlessly into the highest political circles. This culminated in the bombing of what was then the remainder of Yugoslavia, in response to the Kosovo War.
Belgrade, as the centre of power, was heavily hit and evidence of the bombings remains, such as the fractured monolith of the former Ministry of Defense stretching across both sides of Kneza Milosa street, where cement blocks dangle ominously from iron wires above the gated off grounds.
Today, Belgrade with its population of nearly two million, layers its socialist past firmly, but carefully around the heart, countering an air of social malaise with an effervescent vitality.
Despite the cool evening and late hour, the Trg Republike, the Square of the Republic, is packed with old and young. Beer can idle in his hand, a deflated old man sits alone on a park bench, lost in thought despite the reverberating chatter around him. Next to him, a youngster haggles with the clerk of a newspaper stand, pointing towards the pensive old man. "Vidi ovoga kako podmazuje kosti, i ja bi tako," he says, "Look at him greasing his bones, let me do the same."
But the clerk refuses to sell him the beer; the sale of alcohol in stores and at newspaper stands is prohibited after nine o’clock. Frustrated, the youngster settles for a pack of cigarettes, and sulking, melts away into the crowd.
"In here." Sara, our host, pushes open the door of a non-descript turn of the century apartment building on Zeleni Venac (the Green Wreath). Inside, on the second floor, a former apartment hosts a dimly lit bar, complete with haggard couches, beaten up tables and friendly drink prices. On the balcony, one briefly escapes the buzz inside, peering down on the crowd milling through the orange spotlight of the street lamps.
Belgrade’s nightlife enjoys considerable fame across the region, but without a local at one’s side, it is easy to miss the gems, most of which are hidden away inside the city’s apartment buildings. Also, many of the streets went through multiple name changes with shifting political tides, which doesn’t help. What the wandering visitor does find, though, are the club boats anchored on the Danube, offering musical selections for every taste.
The sights of the city
The following morning, a coffee on Knez Mihailova street shortens the recovery time for the final stretch. The House of Flowers, the former winter garden and now mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito, lies on top of Boticeva Street, best reached by cab. Slipping past the tour group amassing at the entrance, the quiet of the sloping green park seems out of place in the normal bustle of Belgrade. At the upper end stands Tito’s simple white marble tomb, the name and lifespan written out on top in golden characters, flanked by greenery.
On the left, is a room containing the collection of youth relay batons, trophies of the race across Yugoslavia held every year from 1945 to 1987, passing through all six republics before finally being offered to Tito in Belgrade on his official birthday on 25 May. The batons were designed by noted Yugoslav artists, although each organization in Yugoslavia was invited to offer Tito a uniquely designed baton. Over 20,000 batons exist, in all, of which only a selected few are on display, infinitely varied in shape and intricate detail.
Back outside, the friendly porter is quick to call a cab and before long the Kalemegdan Park, the courtyard of the magnificent Kalemegdan Castle, appears in all its glory. The ramparts on the western side give an overview of New Belgrade sprawling behind the banks of the Danube. Like most larger Yugoslav cities, Belgrade experienced a rapid increase in population after World War II.
In response to a growing need for housing, the city administration signed off on plans devised two decades earlier in the 1920s for the large scale construction of planned city blocks, some now iconic, such as the twin-towered Geneks building. Its 35 stories are known as Belgrade’s Western Gate, the antipode of the Eastern Gate, the three layered apartment buildings facing each other on the south east end of town.
Deep inside the park, hidden behind trees, the Kalemegdan Castle is perfect for a stroll in the late afternoon. In its 1,500 years of existence, the fortress location on top of the hill at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers gave a unique vantage point to the East, North and West. Below, the Great War Island seems to float quietly in the triangle where the rivers join, and in the late afternoon sun, is tinted black in contrast to the water’s radiant shimmer. So named because of its strategic significance in military campaigns now faded in history, the island was with changing times and fortunes either the city’s ally or its foe.
As the sun begins to set, the river island passes out of its slanting rays and lightens into an amiable green. While atop the hill in Kalemegdan’s heart, the view of the city is topped only by Victor, whose statue on a pedestal high above the terrace watches Belgrade slowly exhaling into nighttime.