I’ve heard Belgrade described as “gritty exuberance”, and think this is as good as any two-word descriptor of the Serbian capital. The pedestrian boulevard Knez Mihailova is indeed the epitome of exuberance with its plethora of cafes, many edged with ice-cream freezers, popcorn wagons. Designer fashion shops run side-by-side along its length with wall-to-wall locals and visitors enjoying the day!
Belgrade Fortress rests on a cliff 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.
Our Belgrade Photo Gallery
On the cliff point the Victor Statue (Pobednik) rises up 14m, the symbol of the city, commemorating Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
Once inside the gates, built by the Turks in 1750, a pathway alongside the Military Museum tells of the military history of the former Yugoslavia, from the Nazi bombings and invasion, right up to the 1999 NATO bombings to overpower Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosevic from continuing the conflicts known collectively as the Yugoslav Wars.
Two famous churches are nestled on one side of the fortress near the cliff edge. We first go to the Ruzica Church (Rosette Church), formally the Church of the Holy Mother of God. It is one of the oldest churches in Belgrade, built from stone remnants of a Middle Age fort that once stood here. The small military church was destroyed many times; its present form dates back to 1867. Statues of two Serbian warriors stand guard- a spearman from medieval times and a WWI infantry soldier. The interior holds a beautiful display of Byzantine religious artifacts.
Nearby is the Chapel of St. Petka (a.k.a. St. Paraskeva), built on top of a spring believed to be miraculous. A lady works at a small table in the church, filling plastic bottles specially embossed with a cross and script with what I presume is blessed water. A visitor in the church purchases a bottle, and immediately gulps it down. I attempt to find out more, but no one speaks English, so I just purchase a bottle and gulp it down (with some saved for Rick) – can’t be bad as all of Belgrade has potable water and a little blessing can’t hurt.
Outside the main church 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 icons. The air is thick with the odour of melted wax from flickering candles stuck in a sand-filled pit that fronts the icons – the barely visible streams of smoke rise in prayers of hope. The roof is blackened, no doubt from larger fires that once burned in the caves.
Meandering up and down the levels and the many aspects of the fortress is both interesting and a good workout.
One fine morning we go towards the Sava River to have coffee with “the princess”. Upon entering the Palace of Princess Ljubica, I have a “shucks” moment, finding out the coffee sessions happen only at noon on Saturdays – and since today is Tuesday we will miss being led around by a guide in Princess Ljubica period-dress. But we do venture into this sizable but modest home erected by the order of Prince Milos Obrenovic I in 1831. The princess and her eight children rambled about this private residence, and if miscarriages/still births/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 reigned from 1815 to 1839 and again from 1858 until his assassination in 1860. He is remembered for participating in the 1st and leading the 2nd Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire.
Back down Knez Mihailova we come to Republic Square with the National Museum and National Theatre. Lording over the square is the equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic III (Prince Michael) who reigned for periods between his father Milos, first from 1839-1842, and again from 1860 until his 1868 assassination, and who like a chip-off-the-old-block promoted Balkan freedom from Ottoman control.
(If you are wondering, like me, why Prince I of the Obrenovic dynasty skipped to Prince III , it was because the first heir to the throne, Prince Milan Obrenovic II was too sickly to rule.)
We walk further along to see 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 Nicolson, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro; producers Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski –to name a few.
Across the street is the National Assembly. Most unusual sculptures side the main entrance – powerful horses rear up with legs draped over equally powerful nude male human forms. These creations of Toma Rosadic, dating back to 1938, spur ones imagination. I see herculean men wrestling powerful steads analogous of the mighty assembly being a match for any power.
Another neat area in the historic district is Skadarska (or Skadrlija) with its cobblestone streets and a legion of small “very bohemian” restaurants and cafes; a good place to knock-knees with local artistic types.
Not the largest, but one of the most important churches in Belgrade is the Cathedral of the Holy Archangel Michael – locally simply known as “The Cathedral” (Saborna Crkva). This Serbian Orthodox Church, built between 1837 and 1840, holds the relics of Serbian saints as well as Serbian greats of the Obrenovic dynasty (Milos, Mihailo and Milan).
Our traditional repast taken at Tavern “?”
It is a long story how this tavern became known as “?”. It was built in 1823 for a Mr. Naum Icko who was the head of the merchant guild and trade consul by decree of Prince Milos. It was a house for eminent citizens to drop by to discuss cultural and no doubt business opportunities. It is said the Prince forbade smoking outside this meeting place/tavern because of its being across the street from the Cathedral.
Over the years the tavern changed names and owners many times, and in 1892 it was named “Kod Saborne Crkve” or “By the Cathedral” – but not for long, as church authorities found this insulting to the church. 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….our delicious chicken stew….and we are glad we ordered one between us… bite-sized morsels of tender chicken swimming in a sauce of stewed tomatoes, red peppers, onions, carrots, garlic and spices, dotted with chunks of creamy cheese, along with huge buns as airy and white as clouds on a blue-sky day.
And the costs sat just fine with my Finance Minister Rick averaging (for accommodations, travel, entertainment, food) to $162CDN a day.
***We fly to Skopje Macedonia next – a direct 1 hour flight!
***Why did we abort our bus/train plan between Balkan countries? Train travel is not as easy through the Balkans as through the rest of Europe. We initially wanted to take a train from Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina to Belgrade, Serbia – but learned the train was “suspended” for reasons unknown – and therefore took a 6 hour bus (which turned out to be 8-hours).
Leaving Belgrade for Skopje there is a train 10-hours in duration, and also many buses leave daily from Belgrade to Skopje which take 8 hours (which does not make sense, if you look at a map) the reason being Serbia transport avoids going through Kosovo. We also aborted our plan of going to Montenegro and Bulgaria due to the difficulty of train/bus travel and no direct flights.
A great place to hang your hat in Belgrade:
Prince Hall Palace – this small hotel opened July of 2014. Tastefully decorated, spotless, modern rooms! And it is located right on the famous pedestrian street – Knez Mihailova! The reception desk and rooms are up some flights of stairs, but there is a small elevator that takes you within a few stairs of the reception desk; the breakfast is down a set of stairs. Staff members are always on hand and go out of their way to make your stay special. Highly recommended!