If I’d just stepped out of the Tardis I would have struggled to know which country I was in, let alone which city. Strolling down Kneza Mihaila, the main shopping street, I passed a Greek bank, a French Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institute, an Italian restaurant and a Spanish fashion shop.
“Belgrade has always been a melting pot,” said my guide Dejan. “You can feel the mix in the people too.” Sitting astride the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, and the boundary between middle Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, Belgrade has been invaded more times over the centuries than any city deserves. This is where a host of different cultures and religions have collided – hence the need for the hilltop fortress that looks out over the surrounding, tree-covered plains.
It has been bombed more than its fair share over the years – most recently by NATO in 1999. Some of the damaged buildings still stand. However, the city as a whole, while not pretty, is certainly handsome, and dotted with a surprising number of green spaces.
Although we were strolling through the centre on a bitterly cold February evening, the streets were busy and the bars packed. The city has been listed as one of the world’s best for nightlife – there are reckoned to be 400 bars and clubs here, and even the rivers are thronged with floating restaurants. One British woman I met, over on business, told me she’d found herself dancing on the tables at two in the morning on one of the boats.
There was no dancing on tables at the achingly hip Tribeca bar, perhaps because little alcohol was being drunk. When I asked what all the cool 20-somethings were sipping, “Nescafé” was the surprising response. Perhaps the night was still far too young for the clientele to be hitting any alcohol.
However, another vice was being flaunted – everyone else in the bar was smoking, a shock after the fug-free UK. It is rare to find a non-smoker in Serbia; getting off the plane at Belgrade’s airport I’d been immediately hit by the smell of cigarettes.
I had to fight the compulsion to steal an ashtray as a memento from the Royal Palace the next day. Although it’s the residence of Crown Prince Alexander II and his family, group visits are allowed at weekends by prior agreement. Beautiful though the Palace is, the real fascination of looking around is knowing that the Royal Family actually lives here. Although, in the Crown Prince’s office, I noticed that the family photos on his desk are facing out into the room so that visitors can admire them.
The basement is perhaps the most surprising part of the Palace, its oriental-style décor based on the Kremlin’s Terem Palace. It is the building’s recreation centre, complete with CD player, home cinema and billiards table. President Tito never lived in the Palace during his reign over Yugoslavia but he did make use of it, and the cinema was apparently his favourite room. His chair still sits on a raised level, set back and above the other seats, where he made the generals of the various republics sit. It was more of an insight into his psyche than anything on display at his Mausoleum.
The Crown Prince wasn’t at home on the day I visited – he was in Kosovo, where independence from Serbia was expected to be announced the next day. Back out on the streets, protests were forming and emotions were running high.
A few of us went for lunch in a restaurant set inside Belgrade’s fortress and, as the snow softly fell outside, Kosovo was the main topic of conversation. The eyes of one of my new Serbian friends filled with tears: “Kosovo is an important area to us,” he said. “It is where so much started, our history is there. It’s like we’ll lose part of our soul.”
The Serbs are all too aware of their poor world image and I was asked all the time for my impressions of Belgrade and its people: “We’re normal aren’t we?” This would inevitably lead to a round of jokes about themselves. The Serbs are known for their sardonic sense of humour – when I told Dejan that a satellite was due to be shot down that weekend he said, “It’s sure to come down on us. Everything else does!” There is a strong hope that hosting Eurovision this May will put the city in the spotlight in a positive way for a change.
I was also asked if I would go back. The answer was a resounding yes. The history alone makes it worth a visit, the atmosphere was vibrant and friendly, and the prices reasonable. And I’m already missing my favourite watering hole of the weekend, the aptly named World Travellers Club (left), one of Belgrade’s ‘underground’ bars, that you have to know about to be able to find. I knew that I wouldn’t miss the smoking, but I still couldn’t help but smile when Dejan handed me a parting gift – a cigarette lighter.
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