MAK­ING THE GRADE

Ex­pe­ri­ence one of Europe's new­est hotspots while it's still cheap and hip, writes Al­bert Stumm.

Herald on Sunday - - SERBIA - —AP

Ta­bles with posh pa­trons spill out of cafes on to cob­ble­stoned side­walks. Roam­ing mu­si­cians ply tourists for tips against a back­drop of re­stored Art Nou­veau build­ings. Across town, the thump of techno beats keeps the young and well-heeled danc­ing un­til dawn.

It’s not Barcelona or even Ber­lin. It’s Bel­grade, baby.

The city is still dirt cheap for visi­tors, but its chic fu­ture is ar­riv­ing fast. In some ways it’s like Bu­dapest with its ruin bars 10 years ago, or Prague in the 90s — gritty, full of life and undis­cov­ered — but with an added dash of style that nei­ther of those hotspots had un­til they were al­ready over­run with tourists.

Now might be the time for this off­beat des­ti­na­tion. Con­struc­tion has be­gun on a 92-hectare de­vel­op­ment that prom­ises to trans­form a brown­field right in the city’s core.

Win­ter tem­per­a­tures av­er­age around 2C, but New Year’s Eve is an ex­cit­ing time to be there, with wild street par­ties when hun­dreds of thou­sands of tourists, mainly from neigh­bour­ing Croa­tia, Slove­nia and Bul­garia, dance at open-air con­certs and at­tend fire­works dis­plays.

Here’s a quick guide to a city on the verge.

Treat your­self

First things first: Bel­grade will never be in the run­ning for Europe’s most beau­ti­ful city, partly be­cause the for­mer cap­i­tal of Yu­goslavia has been de­stroyed and re­built so many times in the past 2000 years. Ex­pect to see bru­tal­ist Soviet-era build­ings and gov­ern­ment build­ings that were dam­aged in a 1999 Nato bomb­ing cam­paign and never re­paired. De­spite the eye­sores and ne­glect, el­e­gant 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture also ex­ists, es­pe­cially around the main pedes­trian prom­e­nade, Knez Mi­hailova (Prince Michael) St.

What the city lacks in Euro­pean charm, how­ever, it makes up for in af­ford­able lux­ury. The best mas­sage of my life cost US$25, with tip, for an hour. One of my favourite meals in three months of trav­el­ling around Europe — in­clud­ing duck pate with a bright smear of quince paste on the plate, aper­i­tifs and a bot­tle of wine — was US$45 for two peo­ple.

Plenty of fa­mil­iar ho­tel brands are bar­gains here, but why bother when a one-bed­room Airbnb goes for US$27 a night?

The apart­ment I snagged for five days was in the trendy Skadar­lija neigh­bour­hood, a cen­trally lo­cated bo­hemian hang­out with an artsy vibe, gal­leries, smoky kafane (tav­erns) and tra­di­tional restau­rants serv­ing rak­ija, a fruit brandy of vary­ing flavours that is po­tent enough to dou­ble as paint thin­ner. Must-dos

For a leafy respite from the grey city, head to Kale­meg­dan Ci­tadel, a fortress that dou­bles as the city’s big­gest park. An­cient Celtic tribes­men laid the first stones of the foun­da­tion, and its perch atop a ridge at the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava rivers was so prized it was over­taken and built upon by a suc­ces­sion of ma­raud­ers. Much of that his­tory is on dis­play in the ci­tadel’s Mil­i­tary Mu­seum, which has about 3000 items in its col­lec­tion rang­ing from Ro­man swords and Ser­bian suits of ar­mour to the wreck­age of a US stealth bomber shot down in 1999.

The fortress, which is free to en­ter, of­fers a range of other ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing archery, ten­nis and bas­ket­ball, as well as a fairly cheesy ex­hibit with an­i­ma­tronic di­nosaurs. Or do what the lo­cals do: grab a six-pack and sit at the edge of the ram­parts for the best views in the city.

For a glimpse into the life of a favourite Ser­bian son, check out the small but mighty Nikola Tesla Mu­seum. English­s­peak­ing guides will demon­strate the sci­en­tist’s most well-known achieve­ments, in­clud­ing the Tesla coil, which can wire­lessly light flu­o­res­cent bulbs from across the room. Guides also men­tion lesser-known fail­ures, such as Tesla’s plan for an in­dus­trial-sized trans­mit­ter on a for­mer Long Is­land potato farm that would have beamed power to New York. Tesla elec­tric cars were named in his honour.

Down by the river

Thanks to a youth­ful pop­u­la­tion and rea­son­able prices, Bel­grade has emerged as one of Europe’s prime party des­ti­na­tions, and the banks of the Sava are lined with float­ing clubs called splavovi, which means rafts. They en­force strict dress codes and keep the party go­ing un­til sun­rise with a sound­track of vaguely folk mu­sic set to driv­ing house beats.

The party can be­gin ear­lier on land in the sur­round­ing Sava­mala neigh­bour­hood, where you’ll find am­ple op­por­tu­nity to hop be­tween bars with names like Mla­dost and Lu­dost (trans­la­tion: young and crazy). The resur­gent area has at­tracted cre­ative of­fice types who lunch at river­side restau­rants in a ren­o­vated strip of ware­houses. Toro Latin gas­tro bar pro­vided a wel­come break from Niko­lai Tesla Mu­seum in Bel­grade. Pic­ture / 123RF the heavy cui­sine of the Balkans, but don’t be sur­prised when it’s a few doors down from a va­cant shell with graf­fiti-cov­ered ply­wood.

Nearby, con­struc­tion has be­gun on the Bel­grade Wa­ter­front, a planned clus­ter of sleek sky­scrapers filled with offices, lux­ury res­i­dences and bars. Al­ready, part of a for­mer rai­l­yard has been turned into a river­front prom­e­nade with play­grounds, beach vol­ley­ball court and restau­rants. It may take 30 years to com­plete the mas­ter plan, but St. Regis and W Ho­tels are al­ready slated for a 2019 de­but. The city may not be so cheap for long.

Statue of Vic­tory with a mon­u­ment in cap­i­tal city Bel­grade. Pic­ture / 123RF

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