Located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade, the historic capital of Serbia is packed with forts, churches, quaint kafanas (coffee houses) and riverside splavs (barges), discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
As the haunting drone of the trumpet on Izgubljeno jagnje (The Lost Lamb) played on the car stereo, our Serbian tour guide and archaeologist Luka Relič saw our spellbound faces and remarked, “I was there at Guča (Gucha) in Dragačevo district for the annual trumpet festival. It was fantastic. The audience is in the valley below as four trumpeters on four surrounding hills simultaneously play Sa Ovčara I Kablara – a nationalist song often associated with Tito. That is how the week-long trumpet festival officially begins.”
Miles Davis was right. Like him, we too ‘didn’t know you could play trumpet that way.’ The jazz legend had made this famous remark after attending the Guča Trumpet Fest, Serbia’s famous folk festival and the largest trumpet and brass band event on the planet.
We didn’t visit during Guča but just the tunes and tales were enough to give us goosebumps! Though folk music has always been ingrained in Serbian society, their love for the trumpet took root during the rule of Prince Miloš Obrenović who ordered the formation of the first military band in 1831.
Ever since, the trumpet has played an intrinsic part of Serbian life. From births, engagements, marriages or funerals, the tunes range from lilting notes to mournful dirges or robust martial marches, as the occasion demands. That evening, we experienced live music at Skadarlija, the hip Bohemian quarter of capital Belgrade.
Till the 1830s, gypsies squatted in the abandoned trenches opposite the ramparts of Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan; today it buzzes with tourists and locals who flock to its kafanas (coffee houses/taverns) and breweries. At traditional restaurants like Dva Jelena (Two Deer), local musicians play starogradska (Old Town Music).
At one end stands Belgrade’s oldest beer brewery BIP (Beogradska Industrija Piva), founded in early 19th century, though we sampled excellent craft beers at Samo Pivo (literally, Just Beer) and Serbian House of Beer.
The main Republic Square in Belgrade is beautiful, dominated by the bronze statue of Prince Mihailo of the Obrenović dynasty, a national hero who expelled the Turks from Serbia and liberated seven cities under Turkish rule in 1867. Designed by Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi and erected in 1882, it was the first monumental equestrian statue in Serbia. When the statue was unveiled, 101 cannons were fired and all the churches in Belgrade rang their bells.
We ambled along Knez Mihailova, described as the most beautiful pedestrian zone in southeast Europe. The walking avenue is lined with shops, hotels, souvenir stores and a lovely gallery on murals and Christian art from various monasteries across Serbia. We took a sip at Delijska ćesma, a lovely public well with drinking water that was reconstructed from old drawings and photos. Interestingly, even in India we use the word ‘chashma’ for a spring. With Turko-Persian influence in both our countries, words like damad (son-in-law), sapun (soap) and kitap (book) lent an air of familiarity.
As we entered the Belgrade fortress, the oldest part of town, Luka explained how it had been occupied by many nations – Bulgarian, Hungarian, Austrian, Roman, Ottoman, Byzantine, German to Mongols, Goths and Huns! “And now Indians,” we remarked! “But you come in peace,” Luka defended us bravely! “That’s what you think!” we countered.
“Serbia is a friendly European country, really affordable and after we write about it, you could be dealing with hordes of Indian tourists.” We even taught Olga the octogenarian vendor at the park how to say “I love you” in Hindi (it was her idea). Imagine the shock, or delight, on the faces of avid Indian travelers to Belgrade accosted by the 80-something Olga professing her love!
We too were in for a shock. Besides Tito postcards and souvenirs, Olga had old Serbian currency notes printed in 1993. The war in Bosnia and Croatia led to massive inflation and the government started printing extra currency and kept adding zeros in the bank notes. Soon they were worthless but were now great collectibles. “I am the richest woman in Serbia,” said Olga who has been running her mobile shop for over 62 years. “I’m so rich, I live in a huge park and go home only to sleep,” she chuckled.
The fortress and the large grounds in front are collectively called Kalemegdan, derived from the Turkish words kale (fortress) and meydan (field). Walking through the Stambol Gate, we walked to the Monument of Gratitude to France, erected for their help to Serbia in World War I. The fort’s highest point overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. When viewed from the Pannonian side from across the rivers the fortress appears white, leading to the city being called ‘Beo grad’ (White City) or Belgrade.
Pobednik, the Victor statue stood tall on a column, built in 1928 to commemorate Serbia’s victory over Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires during the Balkan Wars and the First World War. Luka told us how the statue was originally meant to be at Terazije Square but landed at this spot as the “ladies of Belgrade were offended by the nude sculpture!”
We were lucky to witness a wedding at the Ružica (‘Little Rose’) Church inside Belgrade fortress. Besides harmonica and trumpets, it is a common practice to wield the Serbian flag at important functions. Inside the church was an ornate chandelier entirely made up of bullets! After a quick look at the Roman Well, we headed past what was one of the few remaining Islamic monuments in Belgrade – the tomb of Damad Ali Pasha, a Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire 1713-16.
Dominating the Belgrade skyline is the Cathedral of St Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and dedicated to its founder St Sava. Currently under renovation, we saw its just completed crypt suffused with gold paintings. Josip Broz Tito’s mausoleum The House of Flowers is set in a garden full of sculptures donated to the communist statesman and former Yugoslav leader. There’s also an interesting museum with gifts from across the world given to Tito during his long tenure, besides relay torches with touching messages on scrolls.
Belgrade is packed with museums. The fascinating Nikola Tesla Museum, founded in 1952, preserves 160,000 original documents and 5,700 personal items of the famous inventor and physicist after whom the Tesla unit and Belgrade’s airport are named. Time your visit to catch the short film and science demonstration at the top of every hour. Founded in 1844, the National Museum is scheduled to reopen in 2018.
Luka told us how a filming crew from a UK TV show, visiting the museum saw the signs in the local Cyrillic script and remarked ‘They could be keeping aliens and we wouldn’t know’. Set up in 1958 and renovated last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art was the first contemporary art museum in Europe and has a massive collection of 35,000 works ranging from Roy Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol.
One of the city’s unique aspects are its kafanas (café/tavern) and the oldest one in Belgrade is the enigmatic ‘?’ or Znak pitanja (Question Mark). Though it changed many hands and was known by different avatars, in 1892 the tavern’s new owner wanted to change the name to Kod Saborne crkve (By the Saborna Church), a move opposed by the Serbian Orthodox church. The owner temporarily put a question mark on the door, which became its identity and remains so till date. Thankfully, there were no people of questionable intent!
Famous Serbian linguist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, who created the Cyrillic alphabet frequented the kafana in the early 1830s. We enjoyed our thick strong coffee served in quaint cups on low carved tables and dropped by at the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel next door. Here, Vuk lies buried in front of the main entrance, making peace between the kafana and the church, alongside Serbian kings and princes.
After an ethnic feast at Zavicaj restaurant, we were off to experience Belgrade’s legendary nightlife at its many clubs and splavs (party barges) moored on the banks of the Sava and Danube Rivers. The longest stretch of the mighty river is in Serbia and we enjoyed a boat cruise from the old town of Zemun taking in the bright lights of the city. Belgrade was truly a grade above.
Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade is reachable from India via Moscow or Istanbul. Zlatibor is 213 km away with Sirogojno nearby.
Where to Stay
Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 69, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 3333100
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
Where to Eat
Ph +381 11 7234885
Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670
Šaran Seafood Restaurant
Kej Oslobođenja 53, Beograd
Ph +381 69 2618235
Kafana Question Mark
Kralja Petra 6, Beograd
Ph +381 11 2635421
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Ph +381 11 3625036
Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
For more info, visit http://www.serbia.travel
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways.