Category Archives: Serbia

‘Tis the Season: Europe’s Best Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take in the colours, aroma and treats of the merriest Christmas markets in Europe  

Prague xmas mkt

Christmas is easily the most eagerly anticipated season for millions around the world. Come December and you cannot escape the refrain of Christmas carols, the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts on the streets and the wintry air scented with the spicy aroma of cinnamon and warm mulled wine. Dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees shimmer like towers of light, angels and elves grace rooftops and shop windows, streams of light rain down old timbered homes, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Christmas markets.

Every town interprets the traditional Advent Calendar, with surprises and treats unveiled each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with three-dimensional designs. Local craftsmen set up stalls around medieval Town Halls selling knitted woollen clothes, nutcrackers, stars, bells, candles, toys, besides objects made of wood, glass, stone and ceramic. The festive season is at its glorious best all across Europe and here’s a guide to the very best.

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Germany
When it comes to Christmas markets, Germany truly takes the stollen (cake). With a tradition dating back to 1393, every city has multiple markets, each with a particular theme and special local treats. In the Harz region at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town of half-timbered houses near Hannover, the Mayor cuts a giant stollen to declare the market open. Known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling), a special Christmas train chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is named after hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as Dresden Christstollen (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market around the Old City Hall of Cologne ladles out traditional gluhwein (mulled wine) and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near the Cathedral with hundreds of stage performances throughout the festival. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt is lined with Bavarian stalls that dish out Nuremberger sausages, lebkuchen and zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped plum treats!

The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a medieval market, a fairytale forest and the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world. Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt and Christkindlmarkt. With the stunning Gendarmenmarkt Square and WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus witnesses Christmas-themed parades and circus performers every Saturday. Hundreds of decorated stalls at Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt compete to win the award for the ‘most beautiful stall’.

Zurich Sechselaeutenplatz_02

Zurich, Switzerland
At Basel, the Christmas market is split into two sections – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. But if you can’t get there, central Zurich is a good place to catch the Yuletide spirit. The Hauptbahnhof or Main Train Station hosts the Christkindlimarkt with a 49 ft tall Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lined with stalls, it is one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe.

Wienachtsdorf, Zurich’s oldest and largest Christmas market is held in front of the Opera House in the picturesque Old Town. The whole season is packed with events – Advent concerts, Lichterschwimmen or candle-floating event and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display hosted by Zurich hoteliers. Don’t forget to grab Swiss delights like raclette and fondue.

Budapest Christmas

Budapest, Hungary
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is the oldest market in the Hungarian capital and takes place at Vörösmarty Square. The city center wears a festive air with light shows, folk dancing, live music and over a hundred stalls selling Christmas gifts, traditional Hungarian food and freshly grilled flódni, the Hungarian chimney cake. The exterior of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is converted into a giant advent calendar, with a new window display opening every day.

The Advent Feast, the open-air festive-season market, takes place in Szent István Square at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest church dedicated to Stephen, the country’s first king. Lined with vendors and an ice skating rink for children, it has folk dance shows on weekends. Try lencseleves or lentil soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.

Belgrade christmas market tree

Belgrade, Serbia
Serbia is Orthodox Christian and Christmas is aligned to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one, so festivities are centered around 7 January rather than 25 December. However, celebrations are in full swing for a month. Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike, is transformed into the Open Heart Street with colourful wooden huts selling Christmas delicacies and drinks. The two-week long New Year fair features an indoor amusement park, a skating rink, concerts and shows, a beer festival and souvenir stalls.

At the annual Santa Race thousands dress up as Deda Mraz (literally ‘Grandpa Frost’ as Santa is known as Serbia) or Mrs Claus, and run through the capital for charity. As per Serbian tradition, badnjak or an oak branch is symbolically burned in homes on Christmas Eve and a public lighting is held at St Sava Temple. The centrepiece of the feast is pecenica (roast pork), typical winter treats like sarma, mince and rice wrapped and slow cooked in cabbage leaves besides cesnica, a bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the portion with the coin will receive good fortune in the year ahead.

Krakow xmas market

Krakow, Poland
During Christmas, the old Polish capital of Krakow (Cracow) in the south comes alive and the tantalizing smoky aroma of grilled meat and cheese hangs heavy in the winter air. The city’s main Christmas market is held in Rynek Glowny, the huge main square in the middle of the Old Town. With a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, rows of wooden stalls sell hand-painted Christmas baubles, spiced nuts, boiled candies and Christmas goodies.

Taste traditional Polish dishes on a Krakow Christmas Market Food Tour – Polish dumplings, special sausages, oscypek (smoked cheese) served with cranberry jelly and smalec, a traditional spicy spread made of lard and served over hot slices of bread. Don’t miss the procession of the Krakow Christmas Crib Contest.

Copenhagen Tivoli Garden

Copenhagen, Denmark
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, all the Yuletide action revolves around the Tivoli Gardens, which is bedecked with more than 500,000 fairy lights. Three different light shows are held in the park, a traditional Pixie Band plays festive songs at various points and firework displays dazzle the skies on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar or honninghjerter, dense honey cake often filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

Estonia xmas mkts

Tallinn, Estonia
In a recent poll, Tallinn the beautiful Estonian capital was chosen as the #1 European Christmas Destination 2019. Beautiful location by the Baltic Sea, a well-preserved walled, cobblestoned Old Town and a rich Christmas tradition give medieval Tallinn an unbeatable appeal. The Town Hall Square Christmas tree, which has been set up since 1441 and was one of the first to be displayed in Europe. There’s also a winter grotto, performances by choirs, poets and dance troupes. rows of huts, where you can pick up traditional handmade gifts and try out Estonian cuisine like black pudding and sour cabbage.

Strasbourg-christmas-market

Strasbourg, France
The Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik is the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. Set up in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Grande Île, the market radiates from the city centre around Cathedral square and Place Broglie. At Place Kleber, you’ll find the Grand Sapin (Great Christmas Tree) lit up with 7km of lights. Earlier, people used to put presents for the poor under the tree. Today, it hosts the ‘Village of Sharing’ where charity stalls sell souvenirs and food for a cause.

There are numerous markets all over Strasbourg’s beautiful squares reachable through quaint narrow alleyways. For Alsatian tastes and flavours visit the stalls by local growers at Place des Meuniers while Place du Marché-aux-poissons, around the Palais Rohan has a Christmas treats market with beer, wine, vin chaud (mulled wine) and local eats like bretzel (French version of the German pretzel) and choucroute or grated cabbage pickled in wine, accompanied by sausages and slow-cooked pork.

Zurich’s Wienachtsdorf

Zagreb, Croatia
Having been voted the best Christmas Market in Europe three years in a row means that Zagreb can no longer compete but that takes away little of its charm. In the Croatian capital, all the action takes place around Jelačić Square, which dons the air of a carnival. An ice park at King Tomislav Square, live Nativity scene at Zagreb Cathedral, ice sculpture carvings, pop-up bars, street food stands, outdoor music stages; there’s even an area dedicated to fuliranje (fooling around) at Strossmayer where revelers can dance in the street and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Try local fare like orahnjača (walnut roll) and kiflice (vanilla half moon biscuits). Ride the Jolly Christmas Tram through the city center accompanied by Santa and his elves.

Vienna-Wiener Weihnachtstraum

Vienna, Austria
The first Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) was held in 1298 and today the Austrian capital has over 20 events to choose from – from the Museums Quarter to Belvedere Palace, an Art & Craft market at Karlsplatz in front of the Karlskirche or even a Vegan Advent Market! For the perfect introduction, head straight to the Viennese Christmas Market at Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.

Nearly 150 stalls dish out sausages, kiachl (doughnuts from Tyrol served with cranberry jam), Schilcher glühwein (mulled wine from Styria) and Raclette Brot (bread with warm Alps cheese). The highlight is the huge ice skating rink, reindeer rides for kids and a classic nativity scene. Vienna is good to visit all year round but in Christmas it becomes a winter wonderland with video projections on facades of historic buildings.

Prague christmas markets

Prague, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets in Prague are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, literally a five minute walk from each other! Catch the day’s festivities at Wenceslas with some Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen in the afternoon, then hang around the Old Town Square for the main tree to be lit up. For a truly local experience head to Peace Square in Vinohrady! Wooden huts dish out Christmas treats like svarák (Czech mulled wine), vanočka (braided cake), klobása (Czech sausage) and trdelník, barbecued pork pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.

Zurich Sechselaeutenplatz

Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’s Winter Wonders is more a party than a Christmas Market, with over 200 wooden chalets serving glühwein, Belgian beers and waffles. The event is spread out across multiple locations – the Bourse (stock exchange), Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte Catherine, Marche aux Poissons and Grand-Place with a light and sound show projected onto it. Other attractions include a covered ice rink, a huge Christmas tree and a giant Ferris wheel.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 December, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.  

 

Adrift on the Danube: Sketches of Serbia

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A former settlement of gypsies turned into a hip bohemian quarters, a pottery village, an Ethno Park, vineyards, lavish spreads against an idyllic countryside and a gorgeous sunset cruise, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the best that Serbia has to offer

Sirogojno Church IMG_9240_Anurag Mallick

“Going to Serbia? Must be cold!” remarked a well-meaning friend. “No, that’s Siberia! This is Serbia. Novak Djokovic… Ana Ivanovic… Jelena Janković… Serbia?” we shot back. Until recently, our knowledge of all things Serbian was limited to its most famous tennis personalities. But thanks to the Serbian government’s visa waiver scheme launched in September 2017, we were among its first beneficiaries and got to know the Southeast European country a little better.

Of course, we knew Tito. We have a Josip Broz Tito Marg in Delhi, named after the Yugoslav communist statesman and founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno. Even back then, Yugoslavia had a liberal travel policy that allowed foreigners to freely explore the country and its citizens to travel worldwide.

Josip Broz Tito IMG_0764_Anurag Mallick

Despite Marshal Tito’s efforts, in 1991 a decade after his death, the unified country of jugo-slavia or ‘southern Slavic’ ethnic states splintered into Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

We flew in via Moscow to the capital Belgrade and landed at Nikola Tesla airport, named after another famous son – the noted physicist and inventor. The quirky baggage carousel emerged from the boot of FIAT cars installed in the wall with the poster ‘Welcome to Belgrade, FIAT – Proudly made in Serbia.’

Nikola Tesla Airport baggage carousel IMG_8829_Anurag Mallick

“So how’s Slobodan Milosevic?” we asked our driver as a conversation starter. Met with a frosty stare, we knew we didn’t mean the controversial president. “The tennis player…?” “Oh, that’s Slobodan Živojinović! You know ‘Boba’ eh?” he said with renewed respect. “He’s retired now. All our names end with -ić (ich). Can be confusing.” He switched tracks on the car audio and a lady’s wailing voice greeted us. “That’s his wife – Serbian pop singer Lepa Brena.” He sighed and shrugged, as if it explained everything.

That evening, we walked down Belgrade’s buzzing pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, named after national hero Prince Mihailo, who expelled the Turks from the country. His bronze statue astride a horse dominates Republic Square. On the far end, Skadarlija was once a settlement of Gypsies in the abandoned trenches opposite the ramparts of Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan.

Prince Mihailo monument IMG_8866_Anurag Mallick

Today, it’s a hip Bohemian quarter full of kafanas (coffee houses), breweries and traditional restaurants like Dva Jelena, where musicians play starogradska (Old Town Music). Over coffee, we sat with Alex from Balkan Adriatic, to tailor our Serbia itinerary. We set off early morning for Zlatibor in western Serbia, stopping at a bakery for some börek (baked filled pastries), the most popular Serbian breakfast, paired with yoghurt.

The signboards whizzed by as we tried to read them, in vain. It looked uncannily like the restaurant signs one finds in Goa these days… “Is it Russian?” we enquired. “No, it’s Cyrillic”, said Alex. “H is N, П is P, P is R, C is S, 3 is Z!” The script seemed as if the Underground was sending coded messages (‘Ha! Read this, Herr Goebbels’) or perhaps someone had too much rakija (local plum brandy) and jumbled up the letters. One thing was clear – mastering Cyrillic wasn’t happening on this trip.

Zlakusa pottery IMG_9118_Anurag Mallick

Driving past stunning lakes, forests and monasteries at Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, we reached the pottery village of Zlakusa. Mixing powdered flintstones with local clay, potters slowly turn the wheel by hand to create masterpieces. Seventeen local families have been practicing this art for generations. Each piece had two seals – the letter ‘3’ or Z to denote the village Zlakusa and the family’s name, in this case, Pottery Tesić. With amazing precision and practiced ease, Zarko Tesić shaped a large earthen dish with a lid, used traditionally to cook meat.

Terzića avlija is a charming Ethno Park at Zlakusa that served as the first school in town. A few houses in a pretty garden bedecked with flowers double up as museums with relics from the Balkan War besides photos, utensils and Partisan memorabilia. Shell casings had been modified into beautiful coffee filters. Guests can taste home made juices and traditional Serbian dishes prepared in the well-known crockery of Zlakusa, learn pottery or take courses in folklore dancing and stitching. There’s a strong tradition of wood carving too, on display at workshops along the way.

Old Village IMG_9204_Anurag Mallick

For insights into Serbian craftsmanship and countryside life in a 19th century mountain village we visited Sirogojno where 50 wooden houses had been transplanted from surrounding villages. Each was meant for a certain purpose and equipped with tools of the trade – blacksmith workshop, barn, chicken coop, corn crib, bakery, tobacco store, tavern with cauldrons for making rakija, a wooden church and the oldest house with roof crosses (erected to prevent premature deaths), dating back to 1845.

The only open-air museum in Serbia, Staro Selo (Old village) also has a store selling locally made jams, preserves and Serbian dolls. Outside, local ladies knitted Sirogojno style sweaters, caps and scarves. One beckoned us to her handmade tapestry and treats of dried apples and apricots on strings.

Zlatibor lake IMG_1190_Anurag Mallick

It was evening when we reached Hotel Mir Zlatibor. At Grand Restaurant Jezero, Alex swatted away the menu as one would a pesky fly, giving us a reassuring nod that supposedly meant, “I got this!” He ordered a typical Serbian mezze platter, a mixed meat pile-up, Escalope Karadjordje (pork escalope stuffed with kajmak or clotted cream) and Princess Donuts. Sips of vodnjika, a traditional brew, revived us from food coma. A word of caution: portions in Serbia are humongous, though you can order half portions!

Our food intake was an imminent threat to our wellbeing; ironical considering Zlatibor was a wellness destination. In 1893, on the insistence of local hosts, King of Serbia Aleksandar Obrenović established it as a health resort. In his honour, a fountain was erected at the spot where he had lunch and a small lake Kraljeva Voda, literally King’s Water, was built.

Zlatibor smoked meat IMG_9323_Anurag Mallick

The picturesque hotels and restaurants look lovely in the reflection of Zlatibor Lake. In summer, tourists take a stroll around it or go hiking, while in winter the lake freezes over and people come to ski on the slopes of Tornik. The local market is a great place to pick up honey, rakija, cheese and smoked meats.

At Drvengrad between Mount Tara and Zlatibor, we stumbled upon an ethno village so pretty it could pass off as a movie set. We discovered it actually was one, built by Serbian director Emir Kusturica for filming his movie “Life is a Miracle.” The village set-up had quaint wooden houses with streets named after eminent personalities like Djokovic and Ivo Andrić, Nobel-prize winning author of Bridge on the Drina. We took a guided tour of the art gallery, library, the ‘Underground’ cinema, the church of St. Sava and a souvenir shop. Visitors stay in log cabins, sold out during the annual Kustendorf Film Festival.

Drvengrad modified Trabbant IMG_9371_Anurag Mallick

At Mokra Gora we saw the famous narrow gauge heritage railway Šargan Eight that once ran from Belgrade to Sarajevo but was closed in 1974. Between 1999 and 2003 the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Serbian railways rebuilt the section over the Šargan Pass with Kusturica’s help. Popularly named Ćira or Nostalgy, the train runs on the Mokra Gora-Šargan Vitasi route with the tracks forming a figure ‘8’.

We made our own figure 8 back to Belgrade after some wine tasting at Aleksandrovic winery and the mausoleum of Serbian kings at Topola Oplenac with a crypt covered in mind-numbing mosaic. Soon, it was Alex (meal) time again and his order at Knežev Han restaurant matched the grandeur of the Serbian sunset.

Topola Oplenac crypt IMG_9569_Anurag Mallick

We bid goodbye to our rallyist friend as archaeologist Luka Relic guided us through the remainder of our trip – from Nikola Tesla Museum, Tito’s memorial House of Flowers, Cathedral of St Sava and Belgrade Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

We explored the fort and museums of university town Novi Sad, medieval churches and Krusedol monastery in the Fruska Gora mountains and family-run wineries like Bajilo Cellar at Sremski Karlovci. In the old town of Zemun we took a sunset cruise down the Danube – the longest stretch of the river lies in Serbia – before wrapping up with delightful seafood at Šaran restaurant!

Krusedol monastery frescoes IMG_1964_Anurag Mallick

Back in Belgrade, after checking out the local craft beer scene with Luka we all met up for a farewell dinner at Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant. A lavish Serbian spread and enough rounds of rakija and dunia (quince brandy) later, Zoran the dashing owner of Balkan Adriatic decided it was time to experience Belgrade’s legendary nightlife.

What followed was a blur of music, lights and faces, as we dove in and out of clubs and splavs (party barges), barely in time for our return flight. But there was enough reason to come back – the legendary Iron Gates on the Danube, the Guča trumpet festival and of course Alex’s off-road trips and his goulash!

Aleksandrovic Winery IMG_9481_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Turkish Airlines via Istanbul or Aeroflot via Moscow, and Air Serbia to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. Pottery village Zlakusa and “Terzića Avlija” ethno village are 185 km from Belgrade. Zlatibor is another 38 km away with Sirogojno and Mokra Gora nearby. Novi Sad is 94km/1 hr northwest of Belgrade. www.airserbia

When to go
The Kustendorf Film & Music Festival is held in January. Exit, an award-winning summer music festival is held at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the famous trumpet festival is held at Guča in August and a Rakija Fest in September in Belgrade.

Where to Stay
Hotel Moskva
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
http://www.hotelmoskva.rs

Hotel Mir Zlatibor
Jovanke Jeftanović 125, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 31845151
http://www.hotelmirzlatibor.com

Sirogojno village meal IMG_9164_Anurag Mallick

Where to Eat
Dva Jelena
Skadarska, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 7234885
http://www.dvajelena.rs

Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670

Knežev Han
Karađorđeva 4, Topola
Ph +381 34 6814411
http://www.knezevhantopola.rs

Grand Restaurant Jezero
Kraljevi Konaci bb, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 66415415
http://www.grandrestoranjezero.com

Winery Aleksandrovic
Vinca, Topola-Oplenac
Ph +381 34 826555
http://www.vinarijaaleksandrovic.rs

Local tours
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Parmak Zoran
Ph +381 11 3625036
http://www.balkan-adriatic.com

Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
relic.luka@gmail.com

For more info, visit http://www.serbia.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 July 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Belgrade: A Serbian Sojourn

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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

Air Serbia poster IMG_0928_Anurag Mallick

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.

Belgrade Fortress-Wedding at Ruzica Church IMG_0716_Anurag Mallick

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.

Skadarlija street musicians IMG_8917_Anurag Mallick

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.

Prince Mihailo monument IMG_8866_Anurag Mallick

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.

Belgrade Fortress IMG_0635_Anurag Mallick

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!

Kalemegdan vendor selling inflationary currency notes IMG_0600_Anurag Mallick

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 or Victor statue at Belgrade Fortress IMG_0672_Anurag Mallick

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.

Cathedral of St Sava IMG_0823_Anurag Mallick

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.

Nikola Tesla Museum IMG_0868_Anurag Mallick

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!

Question Mark kaffana IMG_0455_Anurag Mallick

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.

Zavičaj ethnic restaurant IMG_0901_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade is reachable from India via Moscow or Istanbul. Zlatibor is 213 km away with Sirogojno nearby.

Where to Stay
Metropol Palace
Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 69, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 3333100
http://www.metropolpalace.com

Hotel Moskva
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
http://www.hotelmoskva.rs

Dva Jelena restaurant IMG_8921_Anurag Mallick

Where to Eat

Dva Jelena
Skadarska, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 7234885
http://www.dvajelena.rs

Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670

Šaran Seafood Restaurant
Kej Oslobođenja 53, Beograd
Ph +381 69 2618235
http://www.saran.co.rs/en/

Kafana Question Mark
Kralja Petra 6, Beograd
Ph +381 11 2635421

Belgrade Fortress IMG_0729_Anurag Mallick

Local tours
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Parmak Zoran
Ph +381 11 3625036
http://www.balkan-adriatic.com

Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
relic.luka@gmail.com

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.