On a walking tour through the city, travel writer Mary Novakovich discovers regeneration in one of Belgrade‘s oldest neighbourhoods, Savamala. From buzzing clubs to a new four-star hotel, Savamala is picking itself up after years of leaving its buildings to decay.
Heavy lorries rumble noisily past, adding to the dust rising from the road works ahead of me. I’m standing on Karadjordjeva street in Savamala which, a century ago, was home to many of Belgrade’s most elegant buildings. It had been an elite part of the Serbian capital, where major companies built lavish offices in imposing Art Nouveau structures that have since been neglected. Walk north five minutes under the Brankov bridge and you reach the river Sava, whose old port used to be a centre of trade but now is the dock for giant river cruisers stopping in Belgrade en route to Bavaria or Romania.
It’s hard to believe – amid the dust, diesel fumes, graffiti and crumbling buildings – that I’m standing in the middle of an area that’s quietly been regenerating itself. Some signs, though, are easy to spot: Mikser House, in front of me, for one. It’s the creative and cultural hub of Savamala, where behind the severe façade of an old warehouse is a music venue, café, shop and, most importantly, an exhibition space for designers from all over the Balkans to show their work.
It’s the brainchild of Ivan Lalic, the former director of the Exit festival in Novi Sad, and his wife Maja, who ran Belgrade Design Week. They started with the Mikser Festival six years ago, showcasing the work of pretty much every discipline in art and design in neglected nooks and crannies all over Savamala. It was only in March 2013 that they finally found a permanent home in Mikser House, and the Mikser Festival runs in June each year.
They weren’t the first in Savamala, though: KC Grad, around the corner in Brace Krsmanovic street, has been running its own cultural mix of music, food and art since 2009. Its comfortably ramshackle look and large garden remind me of Budapest’s ruin bars, and it’s a comparison that springs to mind several times as I wander through the district.
I’m so distracted by the witty graffiti that I almost miss another venue near KC Grad, which until early this year was a buzzing nightclub with a large garden called Krug. But clubs change hands swiftly in Belgrade, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it had been sold to a new owner who hopes to have it ready for the summer.
In the meantime, though, clubbers have enough to choose from within a short staggering distance. Next door to Mikser House is a splendid example of early twentieth century architecture, with a frontage that looks suspiciously as if it’s been spruced up – a rarity in Belgrade. Three clubs huddle within: Mladost (meaning youth), Ludost (lunacy) and Radost (joy). On weekends, there’s a buzz with lots of young revellers about after midnight when the clubs really get going, but if you turn up before midnight, there’s always the relaxing ambience of pre-club bars such as Prohibicija a couple of doors beyond, which is handily located next to the sausage heaven that is Wurst Platz.
While the clubs’ decor generally favours industrial minimalist coolness, there isn’t any of that slickness you find in more self-consciously trendy areas. An exception to this is possibly the chic Brankow Bar hanging on the side of Brankov bridge, where its upmarket clientele doesn’t mind paying over the odds for cocktails.
As I head back down Karadjordjeva street, I soon see another side of Savamala’s regeneration. The district now has its first four-star hotel, Jump Inn Hotel, which opened in late March. It’s an immensely stylish place, with light airy rooms in a protected 90-year-old building. Its owners, who happen to be partners with Mikser House, saw the potential in the district, which until now had only cheap hostels. Considering you can get a double for as little as £80 – it’s close to the railway and bus stations, and not far from the city centre – I think they’re on to a good thing.
I wander down towards the river, dodging the cyclists zooming along the wide bike path by the water. Less than ten minutes’ walk ahead is Beton Hala, a large complex that shows one direction that Savamala could veer towards. These former warehouses have been turned into classy restaurants – Iguana, Frida, Comunale, and Toro, plus nightclub Julian Loft – that have become magnets for trendy Belgraders. I first visited the complex in 2009, when the gleaming white buildings made their surroundings look dull in comparison. Now everything else seems to be catching up.
Attractive though Beton Hala is – especially on warm summer evenings when everyone heads outside – it’s not exactly my favourite part of Savamala. Technically it’s not even within the loosely defined borders of the district. I prefer a bit less gloss and polish, neither of which are in huge quantities in one of the most delightful bars in the area; just beyond Brankov bridge is a staircase leading to Jazz Basta, a little café that sprang up out of an old derelict building. It’s just the right side of rickety, with a rustic interior and magical little garden (suitably so, as “basta” means garden in Serbian).
It’s been open for only a year and a half, so who knows what will happen to it in Belgrade’s constantly changing bar scene. Time is elastic in Savamala, where just a few years can make all the difference.
For more information, go to the Tourist Organisation of Belgrade, which offers tours of Savamala every Saturday.
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All images courtesy of Adam Batterbee.