Travelgirl welcomes guest blogger, Jackie Reddy, who shares her story of a visit to Belgrade for a friend’s wedding, and how current residents are dealing with the past.
As night buses go, the number 73 in Belgrade was one to remember. The passengers were chic and the atmosphere was buzzing. It was 2am on a Monday morning and life was good.
In Republic Square, spotlights threw the statue of Prince Mihailo into high relief. The bronze finger of the man who expelled the Turks from Belgrade pointed toward Istanbul and below his feet, the white light blazed flowerbeds to confetti. This red-carpet entrance to the Terazije, the city’s central square, couldn’t have been more appropriate. The cafe at the Moskva, the grande dame of Belgrade’s hotels, was open and waiters were serving slices of the establishment’s namesake cake to sweet-toothed crowds. Music pumped from somewhere and I was the only one nodding off. Even the grannies on the bus were chirpy. An espresso and a cigarette is the breakfast pick-me-up for most Belgraders. Was it too early for one of those?
As I debated, the bus turned onto Požeška, south of the Old Town. As I stumbled through the lobby of the Balkan Hotel Garni, the desk clerk looked up, disappointed. I was home early. In my room, I closed the curtains against the laughter below and wondered if dawn would show Belgrade to be a more workaday place.
Before I flew in for her wedding, my Belgrader friend warned me not to expect a pretty city. Her exact words? “It’s ugly.” But Belgrade wears its past unapologetically. Coming into town from Nikola Tesla Airport a few days earlier, I was fascinated by the city’s Soviet-style apartment blocks. Stained with age, these concrete dominoes dwarfed the Austro-Hungarian and Art Nouveau buildings below. A stark reminder of conflict that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, some city blocks still gape vacantly and a few façades are peppered with bullet holes. She might not be a beauty à la Paris or Vienna, but Belgrade’s disparate appearance speaks volumes about the city.
The bird’s-eye view from the Kalemegdan Citadel puts the White City into perspective. At the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade was squeezed between the Ottoman Turkish and the Austro-Hungarian empires for much of its history. This was a border town, and as they conquered the city, countless invaders used this fortress as their base. When the Kalemegdan complex became a park in the 19th century, the fortress and its surrounding plateau were given over to promenading Belgraders. Wandering the ramparts one afternoon, I heard the unmistakable clink of cutlery. Curious, I looked over a wall and down onto the white tables of Kalemegdanska Terasa, one of Belgrade’s swankiest eateries.
On the night of my friend’s wedding, I stood on a barge on the Danube, toasting the bride and groom with shots of Slivovitz, the potent plum brandy so loved by Serbs. I danced to traditional Serbian music and ate slices of the nut-laden Moskva cake that I’d glimpsed from the bus a few days earlier. On the opposite bank, the trees of Great War Island were black outlines in a navy sky. From there the Ottoman Turks had laid siege to the city in 1521; the bombardment ended with Belgrade’s entire population being deported to Istanbul. I was imagining the devastation when the woman across from me began to talk.
She was Croatian, she said, from Zagreb. I didn’t ask, but she began talking about life in the 1990s. As neighbors, Croats and Serbs, she believed, should never have fought. I wanted to know what it was like now. “We’re trying to be friends,” she said. She smiled and raised her glass.
Whether you’re browsing in the new Usce shopping mall or floating on one of the city’s pleasure barges, it seems good times are here again. Yet the past was never far from anyone’s mind. After the wedding, Saša the taxi driver took me back to my hotel. As we sped across the Sava, the lights of Branko’s bridge smeared to a blur. We drove into town and although it was past midnight, I wasn’t surprised to see crowds wandering Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s pedestrianized shopping area.
We turned down Nemanjina Street and Saša’s mood darkened. We passed the shell of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence building, destroyed in the 1999 NATO bombing. “Terrible times, terrible times. I don’t want to think about it,” Saša’s hands left the wheel and pushed something away. We were quiet for a while, but by the time we passed Ada Ciganliga – Belgrade’s pleasure island – he was chipper again. Saša, like his city, was resilient.
The next day I sat with Jelena, another Serbian friend, in Skadarlija, the city’s bohemian quarter. Over apple strudel at My Old Hat, we watched the crowds tripping down the cobblestones. Musicians moved from table to table at the traditional kafanas that lined the street: Dva Jelena (Two Deers), Tri Sešira (Three Hats) and Ima Dana (There Are Days). “There’s always a party in Belgrade,” she said. With clubs and bars for every night of the year and a great exchange rate (1 Euro = 114 Serbian Dinars, 1 Dollar = 88 Serbian Dinars), Belgrade’s nightlife is no secret on the Continent. National carrier JAT Airways puts the city within easy reach of Western Europe and city slickers from Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome and London pour into hotspots like The Tube and mark their calendars for the annual Beer Fest. And with atmospheric venues like the Wine Cellar, even the caves beneath the city are a draw for hedonists.
If everyone seemed to be living for the present, she acknowledged, it’s because they were. Her parents, however, missed the security of Tito’s era. I’d visited the grave of the president of the former Yugoslavia earlier in the day. Set in the manicured grounds of his house, the airy mausoleum was filled with gifts from foreign leaders and tributes from his own people. Among the Serbians I met he inspired respect and a deep nostalgia. His death in 1980 was the end of one way of life and the beginning of another.
But so much had happened since then. And while their city bears scars, Belgraders aren’t about to let mere appearances get in the way of their fun. The sense here is that life is for living and enjoying, and it takes only a few days in Belgrade to see that they can’t be wrong.
A native of Ohio, Jackie Reddy now lives in England. She was formerly the ethical travel columnist for St. Christopher’s Inns Hostels e-zine but mostly covers British culture, food and travel. She’s also rather partial to long train journeys across Eastern Europe and is always planning her next trip. Follow her on twitter @JackieReddy.