Be­tween rivers in the cap­i­tal of Ser­bia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - I AN ROBERT SMITH

IN his book Balkan Ghosts, Amer­i­can au­thor Robert Ka­plan de­scribes how, each time he ar­rives in Bel­grade, he takes a rit­ual walk from his lodg­ings at the 1906-vin­tage Ho­tel Moskva to the Kale­meg­dan Ci­tadel.

He claims this is nec­es­sary to im­press upon him­self where, ‘‘his­tor­i­cally and ge­o­graph­i­cally’’, he is.

Ka­plan has a point. First set­tled by the Celts in the third cen­tury BC, this mighty head­land, which over­looks the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava rivers, may no longer be the so-called White City’s ge­o­graphic cen­tre but it cer­tainly re­mains its spir­i­tual heart.

Sub­se­quently for­ti­fied by Ro­mans, Byzan­tines, Serbs, Ot­tomans and Aus­tri­ans, the Kale­meg­dan has been be­sieged and de­stroyed al­most too many times to count. In the 18th and 19th cen­turies it marked the bor­der be­tween east and west, where the Aus­trian Haps­burg Em­pire abut­ted the lands of the Ot­toman Turks.

By the time English novelist Re­becca West vis­ited in 1937, it had be­come a park where ‘‘chil­dren play among lilac bushes and lit­tle ponds and the busts of the de­parted nearly great’’.

Un­like Ka­plan, I can’t af­ford to stay at the Moskva, but I do man­age morn­ing tea in its cafe. At­tended by as­sid­u­ous wait­ers, my re­flec­tion show­ing in nu­mer­ous gilt-edged mir­rors, I wash down a rich, choco­lat­e­drenched pariska cake with a dou­ble espresso as I gaze from spot­less win­dows at pedes­tri­ans on the rain-washed street.

Even­tu­ally I join them, cross­ing Trg Repub­like and strid­ing along flagged and pedes­tri­anised Knez Mi­hailova Street. This is the heart of old Bel­grade and its premier shop­ping street, where at­trac­tive, fash­ion­ably dressed women pa­tro­n­ise up-mar­ket shops and bou­tiques housed in hand­some neo-baroque build­ings.

Be­yond the book­stalls at the end, I cross a busy road. Sud­denly the noisy city re­cedes as I walk along av­enues of beech, plane and horse chest­nut trees, among flowerbeds and the lilac bushes men­tioned by West.

Gone too are Bel­grade’s trade­mark traf­fic fumes, re­placed by the aroma of wet earth and veg­e­ta­tion tinted with a whiff of river mud that her­alds the ap­pear­ance of the Sava. The river un­winds far be­low, an ox­ide green coil spanned by bridges, its banks lined by barges hous­ing the city’s fa­mous night­clubs.

Be­yond the river, dour com­mu­nist-era apart­ment blocks fuse into a murky grey­ness. Against this back­drop, life un­folds. The Kale­meg­dan re­mains, as it was in West’s time, the place to which Bel­graders re­pair in or­der to un­wind. I see lovers and chil­dren, old men play­ing chess, stalls sell­ing sou­venirs and ice cream.

An el­derly woman, wear­ing the clothes of an­other era, sits on a bench and knocks two chest­nuts to­gether. As as­ton­ished passers-by look on, a squir­rel scam­pers down the trunk of an ad­ja­cent tree and, leap­ing into the woman’s lap, feeds from her hand.

Fur­ther on, Ivan Me­stro­vic’s mon­u­ment to the French sol­diers who died here dur­ing World War I rises from an elab­o­rate flowerbed. ‘‘Stand­ing by the statue,’’ Ka­plan wrote, ‘‘I felt the close­ness of time like a tight lump in my throat.’’

I, too, feel a tin­gle as I en­ter the Stam­boul Gate, erected by the Ot­tomans in the 1750s. The re­dun­dant tanks and can­nons of the mil­i­tary mu­seum stand to one side. But I walk on, past the Aus­trian bell-tower, a pasha’s fu­neral turbeh and the Great Well — an­other Aus­trian in­no­va­tion, dug in 1721-31 to en­sure a re­li­able water sup­ply to the ci­tadel — un­til I come to Me­stro­vic’s Vic­tory mon­u­ment. It is a vast nude, hold­ing a sword in one hand and a fal­con in the other, over­look­ing the merg­ing of the rivers.

Rain falls as I con­tinue to­wards the Danube, de­scend­ing be­neath ram­parts and tow­ers and cross­ing swaths of grass. Stand­ing in the driz­zle, I watch a barge fly­ing the red, white and green Bul­gar­ian flag chug down­river and feel, just like Ka­plan, on a fron­tier.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.