Bel of the Balkans

A city jux­ta­posed be­tween old and new, Bel­grade is still host­ing the af­ter party of when cul­ture and con­flict col­lide, but as Naw­ied Jabarkhyl dis­cov­ers, that’s ex­actly what makes it so spe­cial

Friday - - Travel -

Hvala… that is prob­a­bly the only word of Ser­bian you’ll need to get by in Bel­grade. It means thank you, by the way, and it’s a phrase you’ll find yourself us­ing con­stantly given the hos­pi­tal­ity of this mul­ti­lay­ered city; steeped in his­tory, yet des­per­ate to com­pete as mod­ern and vi­brant.

Bel­grade, the cap­i­tal of Ser­bia, sits just on the nook of where the River Sava meets the River Danube. Lo­cal leg­end has it the Sava is fe­male, and the Danube male; with Bel­grade mark­ing the point they meet to kiss be­fore head­ing to the Black Sea.

The city it­self is pretty much sep­a­rated by the River Sava. On one side is the new part of town, pop­u­lated with hard-to-miss Soviet-style high-rise tower blocks – not the best first im­pres­sion.

Amidst this sprawl­ing res­i­den­tial area lies Bel­grade’s leading shop­ping mall – the USCE Cen­tre, a na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion sta­dium, and mod­ern restaurants like the aptly named Novak – linked to the world’s num­ber one ten­nis player and Ser­bia’s finest cur­rent ex­port, Novak Djokovic. It’s the new town of Bel­grade, if you like.

Al­most sym­met­ri­cally op­po­site though, is the old town – com­monly re­ferred to as Stari Grad – which

shows off Bel­grade’s rich his­tory and cul­ture in all its glory.

Bel­grade was first given city sta­tus by the Ro­mans in the sec­ond century, thanks to its vi­brant trade mar­kets. With that, its im­por­tance grew and over the next thou­sand or so years, it was con­stantly fought over, chang­ing hands sev­eral times in the process.

In the early 1600s, Bel­grade was con­quered by the Ot­toman Em­pire, and be­came a key seat of the ter­ri­tory that sprawled through most of the Mid­dle East, and parts of North Africa and South­ern Europe. The Ot­tomans were in­volved in the area for al­most three cen­turies, leav­ing a last­ing Is­lamic and Ara­bic legacy. The

Walk­ing through the city you could be any­where in Europe - it re­tains a hotch­potch of in­flu­ences

city was fought over sev­eral times dur­ing the pe­riod, par­tic­u­larly in the in­fa­mous Aus­tro-Ot­toman wars, which de­stroyed large parts of it.

De­spite its rich his­tory, Bel­grade is per­haps best re­mem­bered for be­ing the cap­i­tal of Yu­goslavia, which – in more re­cent times – as­sumed Ser­bia as one of the coun­tries it uni­fied un­der a com­mu­nist sys­tem of federal govern­ment.

The city’s che­quered past has pro­vided it with a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ray of fea­tures. In­deed, walk­ing through Stari Grad, you could be vis­it­ing more than one coun­try.

You move from a street that feels like a busy East­ern Euro­pean cap­i­tal, to one that would be well placed in small town in ru­ral Italy, and around an­other cor­ner to find a feel of Paris.

You could be any­where in Europe, but thanks to the in­ti­mate na­ture of the city, it re­tains a unique vein run­ning through a hotch­potch of other in­flu­ences.

The cen­tre of Bel­grade is formed as a strip known as Knez Mi­hailova. The pedes­trian-only zone is buzzing with life morn­ing, noon and night, and is over­looked by im­pres­sive build­ings and man­sions built dur­ing the late 1870s.

The at­mos­phere is in­fec­tious, with many invit­ing places to eat or drink amid lively chatty crowds and street per­form­ers. But be warned, in busy ar­eas like this beg­ging is a big prob­lem. Women hold­ing ba­bies, or even lone chil­dren, reg­u­larly ask for food and money.

My ho­tel, the four-star Bel­grade Art, was right in the hus­tle and bus­tle of Knez Mi­hailova. Al­though it was a bit noisy at times, it was cen­tral, mod­ern and af­ford­able, so an ideal base for my whis­tle-stop tour of the city.

It was re­fresh­ing not to see many fast-food chains or in­ter­na­tional brands in Bel­grade. The city has no Star­bucks and not a sin­gle Sub­way.

This is one of the great ad­van­tages of Bel­grade; din­ing is cheap – a meal at a high-end restau­rant for two costs about € 40 (Dh200), with equally de­li­cious and af­ford­able eater­ies scat­tered through­out the city.

The Gnezdo Restau­rant is a true gem. Tucked away in­side a run-down three-storey house on Branko’s Bridge (re­port­edly named af­ter Ser­bian poet, Branko Ćopić, who jumped to his death from the bridge), this in­de­pen­dent restau­rant may be crum­bling on the out­side, but the in­te­rior is cosy, bright and warm. It of­fers a small or­ganic menu of around 10 dishes, each skil­fully pre­pared us­ing the fresh­est lo­cal in­gre­di­ents – the car­rot and gin­ger pot­tage is an ab­so­lute must!

The city may have been fought over on and off for sev­eral cen­turies, but Bel­grade has held on to a rich of­fer­ing of ar­chi­tec­ture. The Bel­grade Fortress sit­u­ated in Kale­meg­dan Park is an im­pos­ing fea­ture and one of the old­est in the coun­try.

For cen­turies, the city’s pop­u­la­tion was con­cen­trated within the walls of the fortress, which was built to pro­tect the city from in­va­sion. In­ter­est­ingly, part of the fortress has huge white stone walls – built

Cre­ative types still flock to build on this age-old at­mos­phere, buoyed by the area’s lib­eral spirit

to sig­nify Ot­toman rule. Other parts have red brick ad­di­tions – proof of the brief pe­ri­ods when the Aus­tri­ans con­trolled the city. The most in­ter­est­ing fea­ture though, is the quaint St Petka’s Church.

Built on a spring, it is named af­ter the woman, Saint Petka, who was thought to have been buried on the spot cen­turies ago. The spring wa­ter is be­lieved to be sa­cred and ben­e­fi­cial to women, while the en­tire in­te­rior is de­signed us­ing hand­crafted mo­saic tiles, por­tray­ing bi­b­li­cal im­agery in the most fas­ci­nat­ing way.

Bel­grade has lots of churches, many grander than this, like the St Sava Tem­ple, and many more ar­chi­tec­turally im­pres­sive, such as St Mark’s Cathe­dral. But it is the feel­ing of spir­i­tu­al­ity that most im­presses at St Petka’s – re­gard­less of your re­li­gion, this is a place that touches you.

Of course, the Balkans wouldn’t be the Balkans with­out the nightlife, and coun­tries like Croa­tia and Bul­garia draw mil­lions of vis­i­tors each year, largely due to their en­ter­tain­ment of­fer­ings.

While Bel­grade lags be­hind them, there’s no short­age of lively noc­tur­nal ac­tiv­ity. Take the Splavlova strip on the banks of the Sava, with its rows af­ter rows of bustling bars on stead­ied boats, which of­fer great views of the city.

Visit the district of Skadar­lija, es­sen­tially the old Bo­hemian Quar­ter, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It dates back to the late 19th century when its kafane (restaurants and tav­erns) were the meet­ing point of the great­est minds in Bel­grade – the artists, mu­si­cians, painters and poets would line the cob­bled streets to eat, drink and ex­change ideas. To­day cre­ative types still flock to build on this age-old at­mos­phere, buoyed by the area’s lib­eral, free­think­ing spirit. Here you can savour the feel of a city steeped in his­tory, tra­di­tion and cul­ture over a plate of tra­di­tional Ser­bian food – think sarma (stuffed cab­bage rolls), pod­varak (roast meat with sauer­kraut) or a de­li­cious mous­saka.

Skadar­lija is unique, but an­other area of the city sums up the two halves of Bel­grade in five square kilo­me­tres – the diplo­matic quar­ter, where key govern­ment de­part­ments are housed. The for­eign min­istry once had the grandeur to com­pete with some of the finest in western Europe. But im­pos­si­ble to miss, just a few hun­dred me­tres away is the for­mer home of the de­fence min­istry.

The two build­ings, which sit op­po­site each other, are rem­nants of the Nato-led bomb­ings of Yu­goslavia in 1999 – a stark re­minder of just how re­cently the coun­try and re­gion were af­fected by in­sta­bil­ity.

The build­ings still have win­dows blown out and metal poles jut­ting out of loose hang­ing con­crete like bones stripped of flesh. This might seem un­sightly at first glance, but the govern­ment has cho­sen to leave the site as it is to pro­tect its her­itage.

To keep a stark re­minder of just how much the coun­try has suf­fered may not be a bad idea. Bel­grade is proud of its past, but in a re­gion that’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ‘Euro­pean’, the city seems de­ter­mined to move on to a brighter fu­ture.

For cen­turies the city’s pop­u­la­tion was con­cen­trated within Bel­grade Fortress to guard against in­va­sion Bel­grade sits on the nook of where the Sava meets the Danube

Many build­ings in the city have been re­stored taste­fully

Bel­grade Na­tional Mu­seum show­cases the city’s rich his­tory

St Sava Tem­ple is the largest Ortho­dox church in the world

Knez Mi­hailova is busy all day and all night

St Mark’s Cathe­dral is one of the most ar­chi­tec­turally im­pres­sive in the city

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