Belgrade described as "gritty exuberance," and think this is indeed a good dichotomy of the Serbian capital. The pedestrian boulevard Knez Mihailova is the height of exhilaration with its plethora of cafes, restaurants and designer fashion shops. Locals and visitors are out in droves enjoying the day and evening. For many it's then onward to night clubs spilling over with spirited partiers partaking in Belgrade's renowned fast-paced nightlife. Our wanderings on side streets bring us to the grittiest of essences in the dull grey concrete of Soviet-era buildings rising like stalwart sentinels.
The next day we walk further along the lengthy Knez Mihailova to Republic Square with the National Museum and National Theatre. Nearby is the landmark Hotel Moskva, which first opened its doors in 1908; a major investment of the Russian Empire. It is now a state owned establishment. The beds over its history have been slept in by Albert Einstein, political leaders Yasser Arafat and Indira Gandhi, notable actors Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, producers Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski...to name a few.
Across the street is the National Assembly. Unusual sculptures side the main entrance - powerful horses rear up with legs draped over equally powerful nude male human forms. These creations of Toma Rosandić, dating back to 1938, spur ones imagination. I see the herculean men wrestling mighty steads analogous of the Assembly being a match for any opposing power.
Our next venture takes us upward to Belgrade Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Also known as Kalemagdan Citadel, some 115 battles have been fought here, beginning in Celtic times and through Roman rule, but much of what stands today is 18th century Austro-Hungarian and Turkish reconstructions. On a cliff point the Victor Statue (Pobednik) rises up, commemorating Serbia's victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
Just inside the fortress gates the Military Museum holds ancient and medieval weaponry, and of particular interest is the presentation of military history of the former Yugoslavia; the noteworthy rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito (who is buried in Belgrade), through the Yugoslav Wars and break-up of Yugoslavia, to the bombings of Serbia by NATO in 1999.
We climb higher to churches nestled near the hill's edge. The Ruzica Church (Rosette Church), formally the Church of the Holy Mother of God, is one of the oldest churches in Belgrade, built from stone remnants of a Middle Age fort that once stood here. This small military church was destroyed many times; its present form dates back to 1867. Statues of two warriors stand guard; a spearman from medieval times and a WWI infantry soldier. The interior wraps us in beautiful Byzantine icons.
Nearby is the Chapel of St. Petka (a.k.a. St. Paraskeva), built on top of a spring believed to be miraculous. A nun works at a small table in the church, filling plastic bottles specially embossed with a cross and Cyrillic script which probably reads "blessed water." I watch a lady purchase a bottle for a few 'dinar' and immediately gulp it down. I attempt to find out more, but no one speaks English, so I just go ahead and purchase a bottle and gulp down half. "This can't be bad as all of Belgrade has potable water," I say as I pass the remainder to Rick, "and being that it is blessed can't hurt."
Outside the chapel are rock caves. In each semi-circular cave is a pedestal with a picture of a prominent religious figure, and hanging around a ledge against the cave walls are more saintly images. The air is thick with the odour of melted wax from flickering candles stuck in a sand-filled pit that front the images - the barely visible spirals of smoke rise in prayers of hope.
After six hours of tromping about the fortress grounds, our wobbly legs indicate we have had the worthiest of workouts and time to head downward for a "feet-up" evening in our cozy Prince Hall Palace Hotel.
The next morning we head back towards the Sava River to the Palace of Princess Ljubica to "coffee with the princess". I have a 'shucks' moment, learning the coffee sessions happen only Saturday's at noon - and being Tuesday we'll miss meeting a faux-Princess Ljubica in period-dress. As we meander through this sizable but modest home erected by the order of Prince Miloŝ Obrenović I in 1831, I imagine the princess and her eight children rambling about, and if miscarriages, still births and new-born infant deaths had not plagued the royal family, there may have been as many as 17 children in this abode (or perhaps a larger house would have been ordered). Prince Milos is remembered for participating in the uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, with his son Prince Mihailo (Michael) following his cause.
In the same area we navigate to a tavern where we sit at thick wooden tables in dingy surrounds and are soon appeasing our rumbling stomachs with hearty chicken stew. Over a coffee chaser, our server Joseph fills us in on how the tavern became known as "?". "Built in 1823 for Mr. Naum Icko, who was appointed head of the merchant guild and trade consul by Prince Milos, it became a house for eminent citizens to drop by to discuss cultural and business opportunities. It is said the Prince forbade smoking outside this meeting place
because of its being across the street from the Cathedral." He tells us that over the years the tavern changed names and owners many times, and in 1892 it was named "By the Cathedral" - but not for long, as church authorities found this insulting. The owner then put out a question mark sign as a temporary solution, which stuck to this day. It is now a municipal property where locals and visitors still gather for discussions and...oh yes... delectable traditional food!
last Belgrade evening we go back once more to our favourite niche - the historic district Skadarska (or Skadarlija), with its cobblestone streets and a legion of colourful 'very bohemian' restaurants and cafes. Sipping Turkish coffee in the relaxed atmosphere surrounded by local artsy types, I never want to leave this great city - but leave we must... with a bundle of fine memories.
Rick Butler Slideshow