Bridge to Belgrade
Written by Vladimir Duloviç
More than 2,000 years old, yet still young at heart, Belgrade is equally well known for its turbulent history as for its sociable residents and enjoyable nightlife.
If there were such a thing as a contest for the largest quantity of dramatic historical events that have taken place in one city, Belgrade would be at the very top of the list.
The city’s history includes such events as the epic siege of 1456 – one of the rare battles that Ottoman sultan Mahomet the Conqueror lost – and the firing of some of the First World War’s first shots.
The wars and battles wiped out many of Belgrade’s nicest sights, leaving it in a perpetual flux of new and old, grand and feeble, Ottoman and Habsburg. This isn’t a city teeming with many eye-catching sights, yet it will often leave you astonished. What all visitors agree upon is that what it lacks in outer beauty, Belgrade makes up for by being charming and genuine.
“Meet me at the Horse” is what locals say if they are arranging to see somebody at the centre of Belgrade’s downtown. The ‘horse’ referred to here is actually the equestrian monument to Prince Mihailo, a beautiful neo-Renaissance structure made in 1882 by the Florentine sculptor Enrico Pazzi. The name of the venerable prince who arranged the Ottoman departure from Belgrade was also given to the city’s most elegant shopping street – Kneza Mihaila. You will find this open-air gallery of 19th- and 20th-century architectural styles teeming with shoppers, tourists, street performers, and souvenir sellers late into the night.
The very heart of Belgrade is its fortress, lying on a strategic position above the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava, where the city was born back in times when the Celts settled there. Today, the fortress’s time-stained walls are hidden behind the lush greenery of Kalemegdan, a beautiful 19th-century park filled with monuments.
The most famous among them is the Victor, erected after First World War. The figure with a sword in one hand and a hawk in the other stands in a fantastic setting overlooking the two rivers. From this dramatic position you can marvel at the panoramic views across the sweeping stretches of lowlands where New Belgrade was built in the 20th century to house the rapidly expanding worker population.
You have by now surely noticed the graceful tower of the orthodox cathedral, Saborna crkva. It lies in the centre of a warren of old streets, some of which still retain their original cobblestones. No matter how fine the interior and the gilded iconostasis of the church might be, it is the small house across the street that draws the attention of most visitors. This fine example of Old Balkan architecture has always been a café but it is a curious misunderstanding of 1892 that gave it its name – “?”. Sit at one of its low tables for a sip of turska kafa, which – all Belgraders will explain – is Turkish in name and in origin but is prepared differently here.
From here it’s only a few steps down to the Sava River and Beton Hala. A decade ago, this was a symbol of industrial wasteland on Belgrade’s riverbanks. Today, there is a row of fashionable cafés and restaurants that enjoy the views across the rivers.
Much like Beton Hala, the area towards the main railway station, Savamala, is swiftly transforming. Here derelict buildings rub shoulders with old palaces, and shops for the urban youth stand next door to those selling car parts. At the centre of this inspiring change is KC Grad, combining a concert venue, exhibition hall, shop, and a bar enclosed by crumbling houses.
Perhaps the most celebrated of Belgrade’s quarters is Dorçol, sliding from the pedestrian Knez Mihailova Street towards the Danube. It is best known for its many bars and cafés – one of which you will find on almost every corner. The undisputed highlight of contemporary Dorçol is Supermarket – a large space of minimalist design that combines a fusion restaurant with a large store, well stocked with all kinds of goods by local designers.
Let us not forget that Dorçol is also very historic and full of noteworthy sights. In one of its tree-lined streets you will find the 17th-century Bajrakli Mosque, the centre of the Muslim community of Belgrade. In a true spirit of coexistence, which was cherished here for centuries, the seat of the Jewish Council is just around the corner. To top it all, next door is the Gallery of Frescoes where you can feast your eyes on the copies of paintings from Serbian monasteries, several of which are on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Once you get tired of the old town, it is time to embark on the IBikeBelgrade tour. Led by knowledgeable and resourceful guides, you will cycle along the rivers, through the communist-era blocks of New Belgrade and to Ada Ciganlija, the city’s green refuge, home to Belgrade’s most popular beach stretching along the seven-km lake as well as the city’s only golf course.
Spare an afternoon or an evening to visit Zemun. Once a separate town on the other side of the Sava River, it is now a scenic neighbourhood – a walk through its alleys presents a particularly atmospheric experience. Most of the guests head for its riverside promenade, lined with many a restaurant known for fish specialities and acoustic folk music.
Above the walkway rises the Gardos Hill, topped by the Sibinjanin Janko Tower, the focal point of Zemun’s silhouette. No visit to Zemun would be complete without admiring the view from here: beyond a cascade of rooftops that spill over into modern blocks, you will see the all the sights of old Belgrade laid out before you.
By the numbers
The length in metres of Belgrade’s Ada Bridge, (Most na Adi). With its tall pylon that can be seen from almost all parts of the city, the colossal bridge is quickly turning into one of the city’s symbols.