Around a fifth of all Serbs live in Serbia’s capital: a big, vibrant city that makes an ideal place for a weekend away – easy to get to, with lots to see, a fascinating historical backstory and a buzzing centre whose mixture of grand nineteenth-century buildings and utopian 1960s-style blocks forms an appealing arena for an affable throng of shoppers, drinkers and diners with whom it’s hard not to fall into step. It’s highly affordable too – and likely to remain so unless the Serbs realise their dream of joining the European Union.
Nowadays, Belgrade feels like a city very much at ease with itself and looking to the future. But it wasn’t always so, and to properly understand the city you have to go to Kalamegdan – the sprawling fortress that commands Belgrade’s heights, and which was for hundreds of years the furthest outpost of the Ottoman empire. In those days it was no exaggeration to describe this city as the place where East meets West. Belgrade’s position at a junction of different languages and religions, and its undisputed strategic importance, are the reasons for its unfortunate destiny as a city that has seen war more often than peace: the first shots of WWI were fired here, and during the last couple of millennia the city has changed rulers no less than 60 times.
Standing on the heights of Kalamegdan, with the majestic confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers below and the vast sweep of the Pannonian Plain beyond, it’s not hard to appreciate Belgrade’s military significance. This is surely also one of the great views of the world (right up there with the Peak in Hong Kong), situated on the very tip of the Balkans and in looking from Eastern Europe into the West. The peace of today is in stark contrast to the past: the wooded Danube island below is known as Veliki Ratno Ostrvo – ‘Great War Island’ – and has regularly been used for lobbing shells in both directions, and the fortress’s military museum displays quite an arsenal of artillery, including the anti-aircraft batteries that targeted NATO jets in 1999.
South of here, another river island occupies a quite different place in the hearts of Belgraders – Ada Ciganlija – where they go to swim, to eat, to dance and to generally forget about history altogether. Known simply as ‘Ada’, the river is dammed here to form a placid lake, and just a mention of the place can invoke a misty-eyed yearning in most locals. Come on a summer weekend and you’ll fight for a place on the sandy beaches that line the river and island, not to mention a table at the numerous outside bars and restaurants. During the week or at any other time of year it can be a magical spot, with free bikes to explore the path that runs around the lake.
Not far from Ada, the green and rather posh residential area of Dedinje was once home to the Yugoslav royal family, and you can still visit the palace of Prince Milos, in the lush Topčider Park. It’s also the location of perhaps the most Yugoslav sight of all, the flower-filled mausoleum of Josip Tito – a solemn place that’s still very much visited by those who feel those years were the best in the country’s recent history. It’s a period that’s documented in exhibitions either side of Tito’s tomb and in the museums in the grounds. The only difference from when I was here last is the addition of the president’s third wife Jovanka, who died in 2013, and the ruins of Tito’s villa visible through the trees – destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999 after it was adopted by Milosevic as his residence. (There are similarly ruined buildings elsewhere in the city, deliberately left as a reminder at how misunderstood the Serbs believe they were during the war.)
Topcider park, Belgrade © Marija Vujosevic/Shutterstock
What Tito would have made of south Belgrade’s other major sight, the Hram or Temple of St Sava, is anyone’s guess. Dedicated to the patron saint of the Serbs, whose remains were notoriously burnt on this spot by the Turks, this vast church was begun in the 1930s but during the Tito years the project was mothballed, and the foundations served as a playground for local kids until the rise of Serb nationalism in the 1980s. Since then the walls have risen rapidly, and although still far from complete, you can peek inside for a glimpse of the huge dome and concrete shell (which in time will be covered by the world’s largest mosaic). Visitors can also see the finished crypt below, which gaudily celebrates the Serbian kings and saints and their most famous places of worship. It’s a popular and, for Serbs, a highly significant place, ironically funded by personal donations during one of the most isolated and economically deprived periods in the country’s history.
Old downtown of Novi Sad, Serbia © Veronika Kovalenko/Shutterstock
An excursion to Novi Sad
Back in the city centre, seek out the old riverside area and tiny neighbourhood of Sava Mala, which is under a vast and ambitious development designed to create a swanky new waterfront neighbourhood. They are even planning to move the station (supposedly where Agatha Christie had the idea for Murder on the Orient Express) to a more convenient part of town. Before they do that, consider taking a train to the country’s second largest city, Novi Sad, which sits at the heart of the multi-lingual Vojvodina region – much the easiest place to get a glimpse of Serbia beyond the capital.
Novi Sad is tiny compared to Belgrade, and its compact centre has a thoroughly European air, with a series of pedestrian streets and cafés that are perfectly in tune with its Austro-Hungarian roots. Apart for the vast Petrovaradin fortess on the opposite bank of the river (one of the largest in Europe), there’s not much in the way of sights, but it’s an easy day-trip before heading onto the Fruska Gora to the south – a region of rolling hills and wooded low mountains speckled with orchards and vineyards, much of which is protected as a national park.
The Fruska Gora is known for its Serbian Orthodox monasteries – many of which are open to visitors and make a much more accessible alternative to the spectacular medieval monasteries of southern Serbia. It’s also a wine-producing area, and you can visit several wineries in and around the small town of Sremski Karlovici. Its tiny and very attractive centre is dominated by a huge Orthodox church and the summer palace of the Serbian patriarch, along with the country’s oldest school of theology – all dating from a time when this was the last bastion of Orthodoxy between the Catholics of Austro-Hungary to the north and the Ottoman Turks to the south. Even here, enjoying a glass or two of the sweet local wine, in what is an undeniably attractive provincial town, the politics of Serbia, and its unenviable history, never quite go away.
View on Petrovaradin fortress over Danube river, Novi Sad © Andrej Antic/Shutterstock
Getting there, rooms and food
I flew to Belgrade with Air Serbia and stayed at the City Savoy hotel – a very comfortable mid-priced hotel right in the centre of town. Belgrade is a great place to eat, and there’s an ongoing re-discovery of Serbian and Balkan dishes which means lots of excellent grilled meat and salads, stuffed peppers, cheese pies (borek) and the Serbian staple, Kajmak, a mild cream cheese that you’ll find everywhere.
Manufaktura, just off the main shopping street of Kneza Mihailova, is a great place to try all this, as is Ambar, which has the added advantage of views over the Danube from its location in the so-called Beton Hala, a funky line of riverside restaurants.
Right opposite the St Sava temple in the Vracar district, Ceger has a more international menu, and a buzzy outdoor terrace, and I’m pleased to say that my favourite bar from 30 years ago, the renowned Café ?, is still going – a Turkish-style konak that still serves hearty Serbian food washed down with beer and slivovica (plum brandy). Finally, in Novi Sad there’s perhaps no more memorable place to eat than the terrace of Sat in the Petrovardin fortress, where you won’t be disappointed, either by the food or the fabulous views over the Danube.
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Top image: Belgrade, capital of Serbia with St. Sava temple and Avala tower in the background © Slavica Stajic/Shutterstock