Glorious Grittiness in Belgrade

Nobel laureate once wrote that Belgrade, the capital of Ser­bia, has often been torn and split, as if it never existed but is perpetually being created, built upon, and recovered. Certainly, that seems the case when considering the country’s recent history, be­ sieged by civil war slightly more than 20 years ago when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Now as I walk the streets of this city upon two rivers-the Danube and Sava – I see Belgrade being recreated once again. A glimmering tower, soon to be the five-star St. Regis Belgrade, is rising along the waterfront. A W Hotel is under development nearby, both part of a new city within a city marked by luxury condominium developments, office towers, restaurants, and more. Yet, I still feel a grittiness to this waterfront area, reminiscent of Eastern Europe coming out of the Cold War. Perhaps it is just that edginess that is drawing film­ makers galore to Belgrade. I literally stumble upon a Moulin Rouge set as I walk the streets, with costumed characters out of the 30’s trying to politely edge me off set. The backdrop, it turns out, is for a remake of Papillon-the story of a convicted French felon who is detained on a remote island and plots his escape. If I peered hard enough among the costumed men, perhaps I’d see the stars Charlie Hunnam (in the former Steve McQueen role) and Rami Malek. But I’m more interested in exploring and so continue along charming cobblestone streets.

 

OTTOMAN & EUROPEAN CROSSROADS

Belgrade is fascinating for its smorgas­bord of influences, a city situated at an important historic crossroads where east meets west. There are signs of the Otto­ man Empire and Oriental influences mixed in with the architecture of a European cityscape and austere Soviet-era buildings. Belgrade, in fact, evaded the architectural destruction that hit neighbors like Bosnia during the years of conflict, and there are few signs of those turbulent times. I espe­cially admire the exquisite Baroque facades of Hotel Moskva (Moscow) in the city’s center and the National Museum, across from Republic Square, which my guide tells me is a “center of emotions.” When Ser­bians are happy about something, people spontaneously gather at the square; when they’re angry and want to protest, they gather at the square.

Close by is the Museum of the Yugoslav Rim Archive that houses one of the most significant film collections in the world. Marshal Tito, who presided over Yugoslavia for 35 years, was coincidentally a film lover. Tito, who was also noted for standing up to Stalin, managed to keep the six re­gions of the former Yugoslavia together, i.e. Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Upon his death in
1980, however, he left no apparent succes­sor and Yugoslavia was then faced with six leaders each vying “to be more equal than the next.” That contributed to the regional imbalance that eventually led to civil war. Tito today remains widely admired among Serbians and his memorial site, the House of Flowers, is worth a visit especially for its enormous gallery that houses hundreds of unique gifts to him from world leaders.

Near the center of Belgrade, at the confluence of the Danube and Sava, is Bel­grade Fortress on the grounds of Kalemeg­dan Park, which is like an indoor/outdoor museum. There are gorgeous grounds for strolling and beautiful vistas looking east where the Ottomans once congregated to invade the city. An on-site military mu­seum features fascinating memorabilia from over the centuries, including a captured Enigma machine from World War II. Outdoors along walkways are positioned odd-looking tanks and cannons from bygone days.Small cruise boats begin itineraries from the fortress with some continuing along the Danube to the National Park Djerdap area, also known as the Iron Gate, a spectacularly scenic area featuring the longest and deepest gorge in Europe.

FRESCOED JOURNEYS

A days diversion for me instead means heading to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, a couple hour’s drive from Belgrade. I relish its wide promenades flanked by outdoor cafes, boutiques, and public squares. Prettier still is the city’s Petrovaradin Fortress on the op­posite bank of the Danube. Beneath the re­ mains of the vast fortress, built by the Haps­burgs, is said to be a 10-mile long maze of tunnels where the crown jewels were once hidden from the enemy. Now the fortress hosts the enormous Exit music festival each July that attracts 150,000 enthusiasts.

Nearby, I detour to the important Krusedol monastery to admire its exquisitely frescoed walls and icons; monasteries and gilded Byzantine churches abound in Serbia and are popular with tourists. I also indulge in a tasting session at a small local winery, Zivanovic, which is using genetic re­engineering to recreate Roman wines once produced in the region. I’m told that the Danube reflects the sun perfectly on to the area’s hillside grapes.

SWEET DROPS OF RARIA

Back in Belgrade, I hit upon the more popular local drink, rakia, which is a de­rived from an Arabian word meaning “drop of sweat,” in this case sweet drops of wine vapor that create fruit brandies. There’s no better place to test that vapor than at Rakia
Bar, an intimate establishment that creates 13 of its own rakia varieties, among 100-plus other concoctions. My favorite is a plum-based version with raspberry. I take the testing slowly as the alcohol content is 25-30%; stronger ver­sions were given to birthing women before the days of anesthesia.

After aperitifs, it’s time to return to the up­ and-coming waterfront, the Sava Mala district, where trendy restaurants along the riverbanks now liven up the gritty neighborhood. I begin to delve into local Serbian cuisine, which is a rich blend of Turkish, Mediterranean, Austrian, and Hungarian influences, dominated by foods such as smoked meats, sheep’s milk cheeses, spicy butter spreads, and breads. The long table next to my group is acting particularly buoyant, drawing my attention. “It’s the Game of Thrones cast,” a friend whispers in my ear. Sure enough, yet another film crew has been enticed to ex­plore Belgrade for its filming, and the director and cast are enjoying their wrap-party.

Their presence reminds me of how Belgrade is yet again recreating itself, and I’m glad to explore it before the masses learn of its mul­tifaceted appeal and descend upon it. I am in time to see the metamorphosis begin.