The ancient cupolas, covered in a green oxide patina, become less and less venerable as I draw closer. The mosaics above the entrance, swamped by the surrounding marble behemoth, turn out to be draped paintings of what the mosaics will look like when they’re done.
Venture inside the Temple of St Sava, and you’ll see that it’s still a shell. Walls that are due vivid art explosions remain bare concrete; even the scaffolding seems lonely in the vast open space. It’s been under construction, with numerous lengthy interruptions, since 1935. No one’s insane enough to estimate a completion date — but there’s something mesmerising about seeing great things in the process of being made.
This sensation strikes repeatedly in Belgrade’s ferocious whirlpool of construction. Trying to capture the Serbian capital at any one moment is like trying to grab hold of a coiled hosepipe as a high-pressure surge of water blasts through it. In the taxi from the airport, I tell my driver I’ve visited before, in 2008. It’s his cue to launch into what I soon learn is an unavoidable Serbian character trait — the passionate desire to explain. This is new, that is new, this will open soon, you haven’t seen this, look at the new bridge while we sit in the gridlock that it’s supposed to eliminate.
There’s a lot to tell, too. Belgrade, the punch-drunk boxer that somehow keeps getting up, has an unfortunate, pugnacious history. Around periods of Roman and Ottoman rule, Huns, Hungarians and Habsburgs have waded in, while the Nazis and NATO all administered 20th-century bashings.
It only takes a look at a map to see why. The important lines aren’t the ever-shifting borders, but the contours. To the north, you have the flat expanse of the Pannonian Basin. To the south, the high crags of the Balkan Peninsula begin almost immediately — and the main routes through the mountainous melee all end in or near Belgrade. The city has long been the strategic frontier between eastern and western civilisation.
No one would describe Belgrade as beautiful. There’s too much grey concrete for that. But you’d hardly describe Berlin as a beautiful city either, and Belgrade shares many character traits — turbulent history, ever-present sense of change and unstinting ability to have a good time. Pretty? No. Fun and fascinating? Heavens, yes.
Belgrade is not a behind-the-viewfinder place. It’s a city you live and experience rather than see. The rewards are for the ears rather than the eyes, although engagement does run the risk of encountering a three-hour lecture on the current political situation.
Allow yourself to be swept along with the rhythm, though, and Belgrade’s badump-badumping heart is cacophonous.
Even the spots you expect to be serene and sedate manage to elicit jolts of surprise. Inside the leafy Royal Compound, for instance, the wall-to-wall frescos in the homely Chapel of St Andrew the First Called initially offer a picture of cuteness. Then you look up to the dome, and see the bullet hole through Christ’s forehead — a WWII indiscretion, apparently.
It may not seem like this though from the benches lining the edges of Kalemegdan Park. Pine needles decorate the pathways, old men gather around to play chess in the background, and the exalted perch allows splendid views out over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
The park is home to the Belgrade Fortress, a mini city of strollable ramparts, duck-under arches and walls that have aged to become grass-covered hills. There’s a sense of peace here, at odds with the city’s restless spirit.
Even the spots you expect to be serene and sedate elicit jolts of surprise. Inside the leafy Royal Compound, for instance, the wall-to-wall frescos in the homely Chapel of St Andrew the First Called initially offer a picture of cuteness. Then you look up to the dome, and see the bullet hole through Christ’s forehead — a WWII indiscretion, apparently.
The Royal Palace leaps dramatically in style from room to room, taking in classical European grandeur and heavy Renaissance nods. The superb Russian-influenced basement levels feature the world’s coolest pool room and a private cinema amid the eye-popping blizzard of wall patterns. The stories win out, however — every portrait on the wall tells of dynastic squabbles, assassination, behind-the-scenes puppeteering and exile.
Near the palace is the Museum of Yugoslav History — better known as the House of Flowers, the mausoleum of enigmatic former Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito.
The tomb is surprisingly simple; what surrounds it is not. To the right, lies a collection of gifts from member states of the Non-Aligned Movement that Tito was influential in setting up as a counterweight to NATO and the Warsaw Pact. An Afghan Buddha head, 12th-century Nepalese mandalas and an ivory desk set from Sudan are among the haul. Elsewhere, photos show a charismatic communist with a penchant for hob-nobbing with the great and good.
Some things from the Tito era will not be missed — particularly the dated and defiantly grim state-owned hotels. They’ve been sold off, and tenacious competition has meant they’ve had to thoroughly refurbish to survive. Some of the makeovers are a triumph. The art nouveau exterior of the Hotel Moskva, for example, finally has the interiors to match. Dazzling mosaic walls complement indoor fountains; rooms named after famous former guests are now timeless, not timeworn.
Nearby, the three-star Hotel Prag is a more humble affair, but the makeover has given the common areas a rich, friendly warmth rather than a squalid comradely chill.
The competition comes in the form of numerous ‘art’ and ‘design’ hotels that have opened in the past five years. This wave of stylish, modern-looking, service-focused and comparatively great value accommodation options has transformed the nature of a stay in Belgrade. The Crystal and the Zira are marvellous examples — both are slightly outside the Old Town but try darned hard to make up for it. They’re slick, attractive and, more importantly, fun.
This ethos is exploding at the bottom end of the market too. Dušan Spasić, co-owner of the newly opened Montmartre Hostel, explains: “A couple of years ago, there were maybe 20 hostels in Belgrade. Now there are so many 20- to 25-year-olds coming, there are around 70 or 80.”
Again, competition is driving standards high. The Montmartre is a spotlessly perky joint — small enough to be personal, and with enough touches such as the free PlayStation and faux stained glass windows to be genuinely distinctive. Dušan admits that nine or 10 rivals are of equally high quality.
The backpackers who are flocking to these hostels, it’s fair to say, aren’t coming for the opportunity to learn about Tito or stroll around the fortress. Belgrade has a rollicking nightlife on a world-class scale. Splavovi — riverboat clubs — boom during the summer season before everyone takes their dancing shoes underground for winter.
A walk along Strahinjica Bana offers an illuminating insight. Many venues are slumbering, while others heave body-to-body in a cigarette fug; fizzing conversations fruitlessly shouted through the bass thump.
There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to which are popular — Soho does Japanese food by day, Pastis is ostensibly a French-style bistro. But there’s an all-or-nothing side to the Serbian mindset — clubs tend to have a year or two of being cool before dying a sudden death.
The same applies along the waterfront on the east bank of the Sava. The queue outside hip hub du jour Magacin looks like a Kraken’s tail, so we join the shorter one at the vaguely Mexican-themed Frida, where a band has drawn a lively crowd. Getting back from the bar with a round of drinks represents an extraordinary achievement.
The best illustration of how Belgrade lives for the night, however, comes at Talas, in the suburb of Zemun. We sit down to eat at what by Serbian standards is the ludicrously early hour of 8pm. It turns into a feast, and by 10pm, the place is full. A Roma band wanders from table to table, cranking out Balkan-style foot-stompers. Anywhere else this would be an embarrassing irritation. Here, it’s an integral part of the dining experience. The girls at the end table are on their feet, sashaying along, whooping and clapping. By the end of the evening — the band will play pretty much non-stop until four or five in the morning — the girls will be on the table and the sozzled chaps watching them will be metaphorically under it.
I doubt there’s another major European city where you can consistently eat so well for so little. Even at top-end restaurants — such as Đorđe in the Vračar district around the Temple of St Sava — you’ll struggle to pay more than £15 for a main course. Co-owner Alexander Stefanovic explains they’re trying to wean Serbs off the vast portions of grilled meat that are often seen as the sole indicator of a good meal. “We’re trying to present traditional Serbian dishes in different ways and promote quality over quantity,” he explains, as I tuck into far-from-dainty beefsteak rolls.
Vračar is newly hip with Belgrade’s well-heeled after the opening of several quality establishments such as the arty Zaplet 2.0 and Maska, a bar-cum-restaurant-cum-club. But elsewhere in the city, restaurants are trying to stand out by doing something genuinely different.
Serbian/Italian hybrid Lorenzo & Kakalamba is mightily weird. A giant goat hangs above the wood-fired pizza oven, a bench back is made of furry toy sheep; the trippily kaleidoscopic decor also includes gold-painted mannequins, Renaissance kitsch and traditional blankets.
Gimmickry aside, however, the Pirot lamb, cooked in an earthenware dish, is a tender treat of the highest order.
Another odd concept is to be found at Supermarket. Sem Velditeer, the man behind an inventive international menu that veers from sushi and Thai chicken soup to pork medallions, says it’s about creating a community hub. “People can come in and spend two euros or 50 euros. You can sit with a laptop and have a slice of cake, or a full meal.”
There’s no scrimping on quality, though — the divine mountain-raised beef fillets would cost two or three times as much in the UK.
Sem reckons Belgrade is undergoing a restaurant explosion due to high unemployment. “It’s become cool to be a chef — it’s seen as a great way to become rich.”
What makes Supermarket truly unique, however, is that it’s also what can only be described as a boutique department store. There’s a spa centre and tattoo parlour out the back, while the clothes are all sourced from local designers. Homewares are by Nordic designers who rally against the Ikea ethos, while books, wines and novelty giftware such as the ‘terrorist tea pot’ (covered with a balaclava tea cosy) are given equal status.
It’s a respite from Belgrade’s increasingly homogenised shopping experience. The main drag, Knez Mihailova Street, is flanked almost solely by global chains, though there are some local flag-flyers in the side streets and courtyards off it. Ramax, for example, only sells clothes by Serbian designers.
More intriguing is the Choomich Design District — a mini-mall tucked behind a drab shopping precinct that’s been given over by the city to a group of independent designers and artists. Fashion is the main focus, but each shop focuses on something distinct. Damsel in Distress plumps for lingerie, Remake makes cool artworks out of old plates, Vladimir Stojanovic sexes up woollen goods.
The boutique owners acknowledge they’ve been parachuted into an area once riddled with alcoholics and junkies, in a bid to transform it. But the designers are looking to the future, not the past. Marina Baniac, who designs bags and jewellery for five-artist collective Atippi, says: “The exchange of ideas is important. When creative people are together, we are stronger. And here we have a designer colony.”
I absent-mindedly ask when the Design District sprang up. The answer is predictable — like so much else in Belgrade’s fury of transformation, it’s less than a year old.
Jat Airways offers direct flights to Belgrade from Heathrow, while Wizz Air flies to the Serbian capital from Luton. From regional airports, it may work out better to take a connecting flight via Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Paris with KLM, Lufthansa or Air France. www.jat.com www.wizzair.com www.klm.com www.lufthansa.com www.airfrance.co.uk
Average flight time: 3h.
A taxi from the airport into the city should take around 20 minutes, from 1,500 dinars (£11.52). Other alternatives include a minibus to Trg Slavija, taking around 30 minutes, from 250 dinars (£1.92), or the number 72 bus to Zeleni Velac — 30 to 40 minutes, 80 dinars (61p) if you buy a ticket at the stand, 120 dinars (92p) if you buy on the bus.
Taxis tend to be cheap and honest — you’ll have to go some way to pay more than 1,000 dinars (£7.68) for a fare. Public buses, trams and trolleybuses cost 50 dinars (38p) per ride if tickets are bought from a kiosk, 100 dinar (77p) if bought on board. New, tourist-friendly day passes are in the process of being introduced.
When to go
Summer, especially July and August, can be uncomfortably hot; winter is chilly, if not Arctic, while most rain falls in May and June. Meanwhile, the splavovi tend to close in early to mid October, after summer.
Need to know
Currency: Dinar (DNR). £1 = 117 dinars.
International dial code: 00 381 11.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Temple of St Sava. Karaðorðev Park.
Belgrade Fortress. Kalemegdan Park. www.beogradskatvrdjava.co.rs
Royal Compound tour, via Tourist Organization of Belgrade. Knez Mihailova 6. www.tob.co.rs
Museum of Yugoslav History. Boticeva 6. www.mij.rs
Hotel Moskva. Terazije 20. www.hotelmoskva.rs
Hotel Prag. Kraljice Natalije 27. www.hotelprag.rs
Crystal Hotel Belgrade. Internacionalnih Brigada 9. www.crystalhotel-belgrade.rs
Hotel Zira. Ruzveltova 35. www.zirahotels.com
Montmartre Hostel. Nusiceva 17/5, 2nd floor. www.montmartre-hostel.com
Soho. Strahinjica Bana 52. T: 00 381 607 500 506.
Pastis. Strahinjica Bana 52b. T: 00 381 11 328 8188.
Magacin. Karadjordjeva 4. T: 00 381 62 715 848.
Frida. Karaðorðeva 2. www.cantinadefrida.com
Talas. Kej Oslobojenja 37, Zemun. T: 00 381 63 556 678.
Đjorðe. Moravska 10. www.restorandjordje.rs
Zaplet 2.0. Skerliceva 6. www.2tacka0.rs
Maska. Rankeova 7. www.vilamaska.com
Lorenzo & Kakalamba. Cvijiceva 110. www.lk.rs
Supermarket. Visnjiceva 10. www.supermarket.rs
Ramax. Knez Mihailova 21a.
Choomich Design District. Cumicevo Sokace Street.
How to do it
Regent Holidays is offering three nights’ B&B accommodation at the Crystal Hotel, with return flights from London, from £470 per person. www.regent-holidays.co.uk.
Black Tomato is offering three nights in a duplex suite at the Moskva Hotel, from £629 per person, including flights to Belgrade from Heathrow, private transfers, a private guided tour of the city and an evening dinner cruise on the Danube. www.blacktomato.co.uk
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)