Belgrade: The Modern City
In its many contradictions, the Serbian capital is the place to be
"Make sure to lock your compartment from Budapest on; there may be thieves," the young Austrian National Rail conductor warns as we pull out of Vienna. Clearly, Europe’s great East and West divide still looms large in the minds of some. Vienna to Budapest demarcates the end of the civilised world: Beyond lie the badlands of the Balkans.
Perhaps this explains why so few people think of going there. Last Friday, my flight to Amsterdam was filled to the last seat with weekend city-hoppers: today, I am the only passenger in a six-berth compartment on the sleeper train to Belgrade. Of course, escaping the herd is itself a persuasive reason to head East, but it is far from the only one.
Geography provides the first surprise: Belgrade straddles two rivers, the Sava and the Danube, just down stream from Vienna. Indeed, the two cities are not as far apart as the conductor’s imaginary map suggested. Couched at the confluence of the rivers is the city’s central landmark, the Kalemegdan Citadel. In fact, this is a steep hill that accommodates a bewildering ensemble of Ottoman fortress ruins, some latter-day Romantic additions, Socialist-era monuments, and Orthodox churches. It is a fantastic testament to the city’s varied history; more importantly, it provides an eccentric setting for Belgrade’s most popular park: young people are sprawled out on the grass amid Ottoman masonry; couples cavort on the remains of the fortress wall; atmospheric cafés have grown out of bastion niches.
At one of them I order the "Cup Pobednik," the "Victory" ice-cream cup. It was out of stock; apparently victories are in short supply.
Also on the hill, housed in a Gothic-folly castle, is Belgrade’s military museum. The courtyard is littered with heavy artillery, tanks, and missiles, on display for the common people. Children are clambering around on the weaponry. In an enlightened move, they have appropriated the military machinery as their playground; until a guard in a ‘wife-beater’ undershirt shoos them away. Another section of the courtyard has been re-appropriated: jazz resonates from a small radio, and a stylish young lady, with cheeky short hair, sits at the entrance to what I soon find out are the castle cellars. Inside, the draughty corridor has been turned into an art gallery, showcasing works from the Muzej Macura collection. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a video-installation by the Austrian artist Thomas Redl at the centre of the exhibition. Again, Belgrade appears closer than before.
It is the surprising juxtapositions, thrown up by wanton history, that make cities exhilarating places to be in. Throughout Belgrade, such cultural dissonance is encountered raw: socialist-era housing blocks sit astride elegant, fin-de-siècle shopping streets, which have effortlessly absorbed all the brands and commodities known from the West. Life is good and glamorous in the East too, now. Sometimes so glamorous, that it bursts the bounds of Western bourgeois taste: A central street has been renamed "Silicone Valley" by the locals, for all the white-leather-and-diamante bars jostling for the custom of men with expensive cars and equally expensive girlfriends.
Most striking, though, is the legacy left by NATO warplanes on their more than 35,000 sorties over Serbia in the Spring of 1999: the enormous Generalstab building, the former military headquarters, has been left untouched since it was gutted by bombs. Thus, amid the prim embassies and government buildings on Kneza Miloša Boulevard, there stands a haunting ruin of contemporary warfare, calling the bluff on the seeming docility of the diplomatic outfits that surround it.
I wonder how the people of Belgrade cope with the internal contradictions of the place they live in. A conundrum faced by city-dwellers everywhere, solutions may differ radically. A lady running a souvenir kiosk in Belgrade’s old town has found perhaps the most attractive, and the most modern, response: Irony. As my American companion tries on a partisan-style military cap from the kiosk, the lady says with a glint, "Watch out, they’ll think you’re Radko Mladic!"
For more on the architecture of Belgrade, see also "Belgrade: Thinking Outside the Blocks" in TVR Sept. 2011.