The cliches state that in Belgrade you will eat royally well and end up on a riverboat dancing to Turbo Folk amongst the impossibly tall and good-looking Serbian people. Sometimes it’s nice to discover the stereotypes are true…
Beograd, the “White City,” is the capital of east-west-Grecian-Balkan culture. If you think that is as clear as the Danube’s muddy waters than you’re not alone. This dynamic city was once the capitol of Yugoslavia, a much larger country that included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Macedonia (not the Greek one). But much like the car that bears its name, the country split apart after a few good miles down the red road.
The fall of communism meant a resurrection of old grudges that led to a brutal war over territory. Serbia became much smaller and less well-liked. But despite the bad blood Belgrade remains the main metropolis of the region attracting people from all over former-Yugoslavia for work and play. Factor in 500 years of Ottoman rule, a 30-year emperor, the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the Romans, what you’ve got is a melting pot of Europe’s greatest empires and greatest failures. More importantly you’ve got a place that’s seen the dark side and is ready to party.
Best of the Beaten Track
The most obvious place to start any Belgrade tour is Republic Square, recognizable by the loiterers who are either waiting for someone or waiting for something to happen. The square is abutted by the National Theater on the east and the Serbian National Museum on the north. But, before you sequester yourself from the common man inside these fine art institutions, take a walk down Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) pedestrian street. Brand names stores and cafes catering to tourists line the boulevard, but the architecture is the real thing to see as it is one of the only sections of town where the glory of the Kingdom of Serbia maintains its magnificence. Remember to look up so you don’t miss out on the details of the Viennese-like structures on either side, then look down again to avoid tripping on that accordion player.
The boulevard will lead you straight for Kalemegdan Park and the Belgrade Fortress. Kalemegdan is a landscaped park with Danube views on the northwest side and booths selling trinkets, keep walking through and you’ll find yourself at the entrance to the Belgrade Fortress. This maze of trenches and walls safeguarded the city for hundreds of years, and now acts as a memorial to the Turkish, Roman and Serbian leaders buried there.
Next stop the Nikola Tesla Museum in Vracar (pronounced Vrachar). Check the museum’s website for English tour times. You can wander the place without a guide, but you’ll need him to turn the machines on, that’s the fun part. The whole tour, film included, takes less than an hour and you’ll be electrified (sorry, couldn’t help myself) by the results.
Skadarlija, or the old Bohemian quarter, ends the day well. Outdoor bass players, low-lighting and flowers inspire love in the most stoic of souls.
Friendly communism, that is what Yugoslavia was known for back in the day, and the leader of this utopian dictatorship was Tito. He had a full name but much like other pop-culture icons, i.e. Cher, Madonna, Prince – he just goes by Tito. Many claim he found the balance between totalitarian rule and the free market – many, but certainly not all. While the jury may still be out on Tito, a foreign visitor can still enjoy his cult of personality without being part of it with a visit to the Tito Mausoleum, or “the house of flowers.”
After a flashback to the good ‘ole days of block housing go and visit one. See what happened in a communist printing house at BIGZ. The building is still owned by the same people who ran it as a printing press, but instead of publishing treatises by Marx today they are renting the space to all and sundry… which usually means artists. Now it acts as a giant studio and party house with groups occupying almost every corner: artists, theater, bars, bands, film crews and everything in-between roam the halls in search of the next happening. The place has become so popular that security has been placed at the front door for crowd control, which annoys the residents something fierce, so like all good fringe scenes they’ve snuck out the backdoor and found a way to circumvent authority. There are rumors of a BIGZ alternative house opening on the other side of the city, but the underground crowd is doing it’s best to keep it secret.
Make a trek outside the underground scene to see and be seen at the Mikser House. The new hotspot hosts events, a restaurant with modern, international cuisine and a shop hustling the wares of local designers. Mikser House is the new kid on the block and meant to give an alternative to the posh Supermarket Concept Store in the trendy Dorcol (pronounced Dorchul) neighborhood.
Experience & Events
The Serbian economy is in a transitory phase. Well, it’s been in a transitory phase since the lift of the embargo. So, there hasn’t been much investment in festivals and the like: but there are still some events that attract the attention of an international audience. The months of March and April offer a series of film festivals, beginning with the largest, the Belgrade International Film Festival. Many of the screenings are help at the Sava Centar, Tito’s pet project for the non-allied nations.
The Bitef Festival was one of the foremost performance art festivals in Europe in its heyday. The fest still attracts some of the biggest names in live performance.
Exit Fest in Novi Sad is the most popular annual event in the region. It is an international music festival held inside historical sites across Novi Sad, that draws clubbers and rock kids from around Europe.
Mikser House, the one and the same, holds an annual festival of designers, film, lectures and even activities for the wee ones.
Lodging in Belgrade runs the gambit from luxury hotels to mattresses in alcoves. But most people choose the middle ground and opt for furnished apartments. No two interiors are alike in a Belgrade apartment; while you may have skylights in one, another will give you a loft and still another will surprise you with green shag carpet and sturdy Yugoslavian furniture. If you are travelling solo, or don’t fancy a flat, then consider the Green Studio Hostel. It was rated the best hostel in Belgrade by Lonely Planet. And no wonder when you get a free welcome beer, all you can drink coffee and tea, free laundry and a place to sleep for a handful of euros. Got money to burn? Swank it up at the Metropol Palace Hotel which has played host to some of Belgrade’s more distinguished guests, such as Elizabeth Taylor. The newly remodeled building pulses with a steady rhythm of well-dressed folk night and day.
Every Serb will ask you: do you like our food? Really, everyone. The traditional fare combines the best of the region’s meat and polenta recipes with the spices from Turkish cuisine. Try it out at any kafana (Serbian tavern); really I haven’t found a bad one, and then answer the friendly Serb: yes, I do. The hip Supermarket Concept Store offers a selection of non-Serbian eating, such as sushi. And while you’re in the neighborhood of Dorcol check out the new cafe Sestre for a vegetarian menu. Sestre means ‘sisters’ and by some weird coincidence the place is owned by two sisters… who would have guessed? The portion of their menu that’s vegetarian was compiled by asking their veggie friends to each make a recipe; they kept the best on the menu. Far from the maddening crowd you’ll find some brilliant pizza. The place is on Kraljice Marije street, behind the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, for the life of me I can’t find any signage. Look for a white awning the says ‘pekara’ (wood oven) and has a line of people outside. They sell pizza by the ample slice for €1. Ask for a slice with paprika sauce instead of the traditional ketchup, it’ll set you straight.
People claim that one of Belgrade’s few assets is its extraordinary nightlife. I think it’s one of the many, but truly the experience is a unique one. Begin the evening’s rhythm back in the Dorcol neighborhood at the Blaznavac Kafe. The house was once the residence of one of Serbia’s prime ministers but one can barely recognize it from all the psychedelic murals. Next on the list is an underground nightclub, Klub Geca. It’s dirty-rocking-electric-80’s pop-metal fun. Now it’s time to head to the riverboats. Cross the bridge and go down the stairs. Those ripples on the water aren’t just the current, they’re the non-stop bumping of the boats’ sound-systems. For some serious clubbing look to Lucas with its Turbo Folk scene on the water. Klub 20/44 is a cheaper, more casual alternative. Watch the sun come up over the cityscape as you shake it to the progressive beats, then think to yourself – wow! Why haven’t I come here before? Still haven’t had enough? Ask someone to tell you how to find Mama’s. Technically it doesn’t exist, but everyone knows where it is; the place never closes.
Getting There & Around
Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla international airport offers direct flights from most European capitals, but Budapest is the nearest international airport offering cheap flights for longer distances. The Budapest-Belgrade train runs three times a day. Another option is to look for flight deals to/from Timisoara in Romania; the train to and from Timisoara runs twice daily.
Once in the city, buses run often and go pretty much everywhere. You can buy a bus card from an kiosk. People often don’t pay for the bus at all, but occasionally you’ll see the inspectors pop on with their machines and you’ll pay a fine if you get caught without a ticket. Cabs are easy to catch, but be careful they will try to rip you off, especially if you’re catching one at the train station. A cab from the train station to the center of the city should only run 300-400 Din. Prices are a bit more expensive after midnight.
The Tourist Organization of Belgrade offers comprehensive info, whilst the city’s official website is a reliable resource for locations and website addresses or popular sights, tourist offices and emergency services.
Lonely Planet has the best city guide. To get a feel for the city’s tumultuous history check out Borislav Pekic’s The Houses of Belgrade, where the author tells the city’s story through its uprisings.
Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was filmed in Belgrade in 2011. Emir Kusturica is a Serbian who made it big and who become an accidental Nationalist icon, and it’s worth checking out his filmography. Vice.com’s guide to the Balkans visits Belgrade, showcasing the Turbo Folk scene. The Fall of Rock and Roll directed by Goran Gajic and Zoran Pezo is a comic relief after so much heaviness. Both directors quit the industry and a friend of mine tells me that he thinks one of them is driving a cab in Chicago.
Soundtrack to the City
Feature image by Jaime Silva.