Between rivers in the capital of Serbia
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.