Autumn 2013. It’s almost 15 years since the 1999 Nato bombardment of Serbia killed more than 2,000 civilians and caused serious continuing environmental problems along with deliberate infrastructural damage designed to help oust Slobodan Milosevic. I marched in London against the bombing, which Britain was a major part of, but still, I’m almost embarrassed by the warm welcome that I receive when I arrive. Not only are the Serbian people I meet (with the exception of state-run museum staff) unlike the dour stereotype so often propagated, but even the airport staff are friendly. The airport, incidentally, is Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, named after the Serbian-American inventor and after whom Tesla Motors is named.
I pick up an excellent, free, English-Serbian city map from the tourist information desk, tell the well-groomed woman the name of my hotel and she deftly circles its location (even though it’s new) and tells me (in English) where to get the bus from. Outside, it’s sunny and the bus arrives in less than five minutes. The driver changes my ridiculously high-value bank note without a whiff of annoyance and I sit with some Serbian grandmothers, who laugh at the size of my suitcase.
The 20-minute, 12-kilometre journey gives you a good idea of the typical styles of architecture that you can expect here – brutalist housing estates, wide boulevards, parks and, finally, the Brankov Most bridge over the Sava River, from where you realise just how beautiful this city is. Somewhere between Paris and Berlin, but without the skyrocketing prices (you can rent an apartment here from US$30 [Dh110] per night), there’s a grand-but-gracious old town on a hill overlooking the river to my left, complete with churches and riverside barges, and a Soviet-style commercial centre to my right. I get off the bus and walk up the hill; a combination of the map and Cyrillic guesswork lead me to Hotel Townhouse 27, a new boutique hotel in an exhilaratingly hip area. There are old, gritty, Parisian-style apartments, small squares and pedestrianised, bookish areas that remind me of Prague. My hotel is an ultra-modern conversion of a residential block and my room is like a studio apartment, looking noiselessly onto an internal courtyard and immediately making me feel at home.
Outside in the surrounding area, there’s a Beirut-style vibe in the stylish outdoor cafes, where residents are making the most of the end of summer. I walk along Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, to the Belgrade Fortress, originally built by the Romans in the second century AD. Construction carried on until the 18th century and, today, the site houses a military museum, a pretty park and great views of the confluence of the Danube and the Sava.
I have lunch in Skadarska, Belgrade’s equivalent of Montmartre, with Jelena, a contact from the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade, who majored in politics. At the Sesir Moj (My Hat) restaurant, we sit outside on a cobblestone street with traditional musicians touring from inn to inn. The food is great and cheap – shopska salad (cucumber, onion, tomato, cheese) for 250 Serbian dinars (Dh11), home-made bread (69 dinars [Dh3]), Zlatar mountain cheese (330 dinars [Dh14]), cevapchichi (minced-meat kebabs; 690 dinars [Dh30]) and my absolute favourite, chilli peppers stuffed with cheese (320 dinars [Dh14]). The area has an intellectual air – as I head off around the city, I pass, by turns, the Museum of Pedagogy, a newsagent called Gramsci, a bookshop called Plato, the Victorian and grand Writer’s Club and the Federal Association of Globe Trotters. I stop for a coffee at the lovely Smokvica, a food-and-drinks market and cafe-restaurant (www.smokvica.rs/en), before heading to the National Assembly, St Mark’s Church and Tasmajdan Park.
I walk back to my hotel past Hotel Moskva, a colourful, 100-year-old landmark Russian building, now a four-star hotel. Round the corner from Townhouse 27 is Supermarket (the name looks much cooler in Cyrillic). It’s a trendy, civilised (apart from the smoking – Serbia is not yet part of the EU) deli-restaurant-concept store with jazz music and multicoloured seating outside (www.supermarket.rs). For dinner, I have a three-course set menu, including soup, salad and pasta, for a grand total of 590 dinars (Dh26). Across the street is Amelie, a tiny, French-style bar/cafe. Everywhere seems infused with an air of communist-era retro-chic, and I’m amazed by how few tourists there seem to be, compared to other European cities. Most of the foreigners that I meet are long-stayers, attracted by rents so low that they barely need to work.
I head out that night with some friends, Yefemia and Isidora, to the Mikser House (www.mikser.rs/en), a nightclub and art space, but the highlight is Cekaonica, a jazz club on top of the Bigz building, a gigantic pre-Second World War printworks that has been abandoned for the past 20 years and turned into artist and music studios, offices, radio stations and a circus, among other things. After the ever-so-slightly scary entrance into an anarchic series of dimly lit, graffiti-decorated hallways, staircases, putrid bathrooms and creaking lifts, we emerge onto the rooftop, where a decadent but refined group is listening to live music in an exquisitely lit room. Afterwards, we wind down with a cup of tea at Brodic, a converted houseboat on the river (in summer, enormous barges are turned into nightclubs).
The following day, the weather changes: outside my hotel, the wind picks up and the tree-lined streets are filled with leaves. It’s a day to stay indoors, so I meet up with a Serbian friend from Abu Dhabi, Nemanja, who shows me around. First we head to Tavern ? (yes, that question mark is intentional), in a rustic, 200-year-old building on Kralja Petra Street, where we enjoy Turkish coffee. Next, it’s off to the Nikola Tesla Museum (www.tesla-museum.org), to learn the fascinating story behind the inventor and engineer who features on Serbia’s 100-dinar note and whose name is famous now thanks to the California-based electric car company. That was named after Tesla because it was he who created, among many other things, the induction motor and alternating-current (AC) power transmission. A spirited guided tour (in English) and a selection of eccentric models and displays complete the picture.
Next, Nemanja drives me to Zemun, an old settlement 6km north of the city that was once the southernmost point of the Austro-Hungarian empire when Belgrade was ruled by the Ottomans. It’s a delightful place, with crumbling old houses, cobblestone streets and riverside views. On the way there, we pass the Genex Tower, a 140-metre-high, late-1970s brutalist structure which dominates the skyline of New Belgrade – the contrast couldn’t be starker. We have lunch at the Balkan Ekspres restaurant in Zemun, built around an old railway carriage overlooking the river. It’s a case of more cheese, salads, breaded meat and kebabs, but it’s tasty and keeps us warm. The weather is drizzly, so we don’t go outside: now summer has begun, it’s the ideal time to go.
On my last day, I take a 90-minute coach ride north (950 dinars [Dh42] from the main bus station) to visit the city of Novi Sad (on the way to the bus station in the centre of the “new” town, I pass the still bombed-out remains of the Ministry of Defence, one of hundreds of targets across the city in 1999).
Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, with a population of 250,000 people, was another target, still ingrained in my mind for the bombing of, among other things, the Žeželj Bridge. Thankfully, all the bridges have now been rebuilt, and the forests and rivers surrounding the city look like an attractive place for a summer holiday. Though the walk from the bus station into the centre of the city is depressing, the old town, much of which is pedestrianised, is historic and daintily colourful – though like most places it suffers visually from having a McDonald’s. I stop for an index sandwich (indeks sendvic), for which the city is known. Cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, chilli and curry powders in a long, toasted roll – it’s perfect as a quick snack.
After that, it’s on to the pièce de résistance, the 18th-century Petrovaradin Fortress, which sits impressively across the river from the old city. On the Varadin Bridge are a host of small padlocks chained to the bridge by couples who have pledged their allegiance and thrown the key into the Danube. There’s a great view from the citadel ramparts back across the city and upstream. The medieval old settlement situated below the giant clock tower also seems very well-preserved and non-touristy.
Back in Belgrade, I meet up again with my friend Isidora, who has a baby with her British husband Ronnie. The family take me to a market, where we sample burek, or local meat pie. I’ve only been here three nights, and while my wallet is telling me I could stay longer, my waistline isn’t. They hail me a taxi and the driver recognises me from two days earlier. I’m dropped off at the airport with the same dignified courtesy as when I arrived.
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