Travel

Belgrade: A capital city springs to life in Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

It's Saturday night and I'm pressed against a crowd of singing, swaying, Champagne- and cocktail-toting Serbs outside one of the nightclubs on Strahinjica Bana, a street in the hip Dorcol district. A rock concert echoes up the hill, convertibles are thumping past, and the buzz feels more like Berlin, London or Barcelona than a war-torn capital in the Balkans.

But raucous nights like these are normal in the hard-partying resurrected city that is Belgrade.

"So many clubs have opened in the last few years," said Vladimir, a guy standing in the crowd. "Now you can go anywhere and do anything. A lot has changed since Oct. 5."

He meant Oct. 5, 2000, the day masses of nonviolent protesters assembled outside Belgrade's Parliament and ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, replacing him with a democratic, Western-backed government. The country has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

Strahinjica Bana, along with other hopping nightspots like it, has become a symbol of the resurgent capital. With an international theater festival this month and the renowned Belgrade Jazz Festival in October, Belgrade is reinventing itself as a fresh, dynamic cultural destination in Europe. That's one reason -- after a decade of bloody Balkan wars and NATO's 78-day bombardment of the city in 1999 -- travelers are starting to trickle back in. About 280,000 visited last year, more than triple the number since 2000.

I came here in spring, after dealing with crowds in Croatia, because I wanted to see a city that so far has been spared the tourist-catering atmosphere.

Today's news reports from Serbia (and the Balkans generally) focus almost exclusively on two things: Belgrade's lagging efforts to capture and extradite its war criminals and the country's stubborn, even militant refusal to grant Kosovo independence. With 20% unemployment, an economy battered by sanctions and the nation considered a pariah by the West, these weren't exactly touristic waters.

A MORE OPEN FUTURE

It was a bright morning as I carried my pack up one of the steep, winding streets that led away from the bus depot and followed signs pointing toward the Old Bohemian Quarter. Construction workers of various-looking nationalities were shouting over a racket of jackhammers. Old-fashioned bakeries and shops overflowed with customers. At the top of the hill, elegantly dressed patrons sat at cafe tables on the sidewalk of a gritty boulevard, opposite a McDonald's, which seemed to confirm I had landed someplace between a classical, enlightened Europe and a post-Soviet consumer blitz.

Belgrade has always been engaged in a volatile tug-of-war between East and West. Built on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the "White City" stood as an enduring, strategic crossroads separating Europe from what lay beyond it. Thracians from the southeast Balkan peninsula, Celts from Northern and Central Europe and Romans settled here.

The Slavs, from whom Serbs and most nationalities across Eastern Europe descend, came in the early 600s; during the next centuries, Serb dynasties fought against Byzantines, Hungarians and the Turks, who finally defeated them at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, initiating 500 years of Ottoman rule.

The country that once produced leading European figures in the arts and sciences has been cut off from the West for so long -- decades of Marshal Tito's "new way" communism, 11 years of Milosevic's autocratic rule and now seven years of punishing sanctions -- that even Americans, despite our country's lead role in the 1999 NATO bombardment that killed hundreds of Serb civilians, get a friendly nod.

On my initial walk through Belgrade, the past came alive in the rich array of architecture: the spartan, brick-wall design of the 17th century Bajrakli Mosque and the neo-Renaissance and Modernist structures dotting the downtown area, as well as the immense marble-white church of St. Sava (modeled on the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul), whose exterior was finished four years ago.

When I eventually reached the polished cobblestones and suave outdoor eateries on Skadarska Street in the Old Bohemian Quarter, I discovered the hotel prices were anything but bohemian. I continued through to the leafy Dorcol district and checked in at the cheaper but respectable Hotel Royal.

Like the now-gentrified Bohemian Quarter (a former gypsy settlement of shacks and cheap cafes that drew artists and writers there in the early 20th century), Dorcol also means a lot more to Belgrade's past than its present nouveau riche night life suggests. Once a cluster of medieval homes that sloped down to meet the Danube, the neighborhood was remodeled with palaces by the Austro-Hungarians, destroyed by the Turks and rebuilt last century in a grid-like pattern with modern buildings that have sapped some of its mystique.

Major landmarks nonetheless exist. The Jewish Historical Museum has fascinating photographs and objects on display, such as ancient demographic maps and sketches of synagogues from around the Balkans. There are public galleries (with collections as diverse as ancient frescoes and modern Impressionists) and private galleries featuring contemporary Serbian painters.

Dorcol also butts up against Republic Square. The city's bustling center point, which faces the National Theater and National Museum, is anchored around a giant bronze statue of Serbia's Prince Michael on a horse and was the site of the earliest anti-Milosevic demonstrations in 1991. Even in the wee hours, the square, ringed by inexpensive pizzerias and outdoor cafes, is a place to sit comfortably and watch the parade of people.

EXPLORE ON FOOT

Like many of the 1.5 million people who live in Belgrade, you can take buses or trams to get around. But because of the range of neighborhoods and the shifting geographies, the best way to see the city is on foot.

On my second day, I ascended to the sprawling medieval fortress in Kalemegdan Park, which sits on a steep promontory northwest of the city center and represents Belgrade's origins.

Standing atop the ancient stone walls that once loomed over early Slav settlements, I looked down on the slow, wide union of the Sava and Danube rivers. Dotted with historic monuments and sculptures of famous Serbs, with footpaths lacing through the trees, the expansive park and fortress is the cradle of Belgrade life.

All that serenity vanishes when you reach the park's base at Knez Mihailova Street, a buzzing pedestrian thoroughfare that has become the commercial centerpiece of Belgrade's resurgence. Lined with bookstores, galleries, designer shops and boutiques, Knez Mihailova is studded with outdoor bars and cafes, a handful of cultural centers -- and like Republic Square, it's clogged at all times with people.

What attracted me even more than the central flare of Belgrade, which includes the 2-mile-long King Aleksander Boulevard lined with endless outdoor markets selling cheap goods of all kinds, was the easy, slowed-down pace of Zemun, Belgrade's charming Hapsburg-era neighborhood that lies just across the Sava River.

Zemun, considered a separate city for centuries until it officially joined the Serbian capital in 1934, is also built on and around a small hill and is marked by quaint Baroque squares, cobblestone streets and tastefully restored 18th century homes.

Close by, you'll find some of the best works of the 20th century Yugoslav avant-garde, as well as exhibitions of current artists from across Europe, at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and aviation buffs can check out the glass-and-aluminum structure shaped like a flying saucer that houses Belgrade's Air Museum, with a collection of more than 50 original planes, gliders, helicopters, rockets and other aircraft.

None of which tops Zemun's best feature: It is smack on the Danube and its riverbank is full of nightclub rafts called splavovi, which fill with tireless dancing weekend crowds and have put this city's night life on the map.

I checked out a splav and found the music deafening and the drinks a bit overpriced (considering I was in the Balkans) at $8 a pop. But the view of the starry sky and the dark forest across the river made the anchored barge a pretty cool place to have a drink.

Which is why it's striking, given all that's modern and Western about Belgrade, to walk through downtown and see the towering, shelled-out remains of buildings hit by NATO bombs.

"It's not normal to have such ugly, destroyed buildings in the center of the city that people pass and see every day," said Aca Nikolice, who works at a kebab takeout spot a block from a bombed military depot. "Eight years, my friend, eight years," he told me, shoveling minced-meat sausages into a pita and handing me the local wrap, known as a cevapcici. "But it feels just like yesterday." (Note: Though Belgrade abounds with excellent pan-Balkan dishes -- a fusion of German, Italian and Turkish cooking that's heavy on the meat but also offers stuffed cabbage, bean soups and other delights for vegetarians -- nothing beats the price, taste and experience of a street-side cevapcici.)

Many among the post-Milosevic generation say the wound from the bombings is still fresh, but they're ready to shake off their pariah status.

"Other countries need to see that Milosevic -- his government, his system of governing and his era -- is dead," said Nenad Petkovic, 25, a book salesman.

America and Europe's insistence on a free and independent Kosovo is the biggest thorn in the Serbs' side. Kosovo, settled by Serbs about 1,400 years ago, is home to the Serbian Orthodox Church and represents the country's core heritage and history. "Losing Kosovo would be like losing Serbia itself," said Ivan Stanojevic, a political science student at Belgrade University.

But more immediately, said artist Mirjana Rankovic, Serbs shouldn't keep being punished -- by economic sanctions, by visa restrictions -- for the crimes their government committed in the 1990s. "It's humiliating. We have to ask each time we want to travel," she said. "And often they don't let us."

And that's the irony: As Belgrade heats up as a destination for culture and night life, Serbs themselves are finding it barely possible to leave. Nonetheless, the vibrant arts and music scene they're creating is helping to lift this city slowly to a place it hasn't been for years: among the culturally rich and respected capitals in Europe.

After I walked Belgrade's hilly streets of past and present and talked with the people who inhabited them, the capital that I believed to exist before I came here proved to be far different from the city that I came to know.

I prefer the second one.


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