I was in Belgrade for two weeks back in November 2018. That was my 23rd visit since year 2000 when I started to keep records of my travels. I am very glad that I have those records, otherwise it would be impossible for me to remember where and when exactly I went in the past 20 years.
INTRODUCTION TO BELGRADE
But first things first! I am from Belgrade, I was born and lived there until I was nearly 25. Then I moved to London in 1990, right after I had graduated at the University of Economics. Belgrade was a very cosmopolitan place in the 80s. That was a decade when I became old enough to take the maximum advantage of life in the big city. I used to go to the theatre and to concerts and generally I had a busy social life. Additionally, I frequented iconic night clubs and mixed with some very sophisticated people. I lived in the city and with the city and I knew its every corner.
Despite the fact that I haven’t been living there for a long time now, I love Belgrade and I consider it to be my city. Whenever I go back I feel at home. That’s not only because I speak the language and can spontaneously communicate with people, but also because of a very strong sense of familiarity. In many years in which I have been away, Belgrade has not changed much. It is only in the past few years that there are significant and visible changes, such as extensive city centre restoration projects. You can see that in a photo of Republic Square below. The square is currently under complete renovation.
Does the fact that I am from Belgrade make me an expert on the city? I would say – yes and no. Yes, because I certainly know a lot about the city, its history and historical sites, about its streets and buildings. I know the city inside-out. But, at the same time I am not an expert in a sense that the city’s dynamics have certainly changed. Thus for example, every time when I go back I discover new trendy bars and chic restaurants that usually only the locals know about.
HISTORY OF BELGRADE
1. Ottoman Belgrade
To properly understand and appreciate Belgrade, it is important to put it in its historical context. Belgrade’s distant history is irrelevant for the city as it is today. There is almost nothing that remains from ancient days, despite the fact that people lived in that same location for several thousands of years.
While southern parts of Serbia fell under the Ottoman rule following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, it was in 1521 that the Ottoman Sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent – conquered Belgrade. The Ottoman rule lasted for 346 years, until the Ottoman garrison withdrew from Belgrade in 1867, under the order of the Ottoman government. The Principality of Serbia became fully independent in 1878. It was further transformed into the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882.
During the period from the initial Ottoman conquer until the full independence, Belgrade changed hands between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans three times. Additionally, each time when Belgrade was under the new rule, the city was completely razed to the ground.
Throughout its history, Belgrade was battled over in 115 wars and completely destroyed 44 times.
Almost nothing remains from the Ottoman period. Perhaps, the Belgrade Fortress is the most prominent site from that era, although the fortress was already there at the time when the Ottoman army conquered it in 1521. At the time of independence, Belgrade was a provincial Ottoman city, adorned with mosques and without any contemporary European style buildings. At that same time, not far from Belgrade and just across the Adriatic Sea, the Italian Renaissance was fully blossoming. Various Italian signorias – the governing authorities in Italian city states – competed with each other in order to build a more beautiful city. The Renaissance never arrived to Belgrade.
The city as we see it now started to develop in the 2nd half of the 19th century. The oldest building in Belgrade is a nondescript construction from 1727 in Dorćol.
2. Belgrade in Two World Wars
Belgrade was a front-line city in the First World War. Much of the city was completely destroyed in numerous battles between the Austro-Hungarian army and the Serbian troops.
Further significant destruction of the city occurred in the Second World War. In March 1941 the Yugoslavian government signed the Tripartite pact, hoping to keep Yugoslavia neutral during the war. But, the Serbs rejected the pact and organised mass demonstrations. In retaliation, Luftwaffe heavily bombed Belgrade on the 6th April 1941. Additionally, allied forces heavily bombed the city in April 1944. The city ended the war with 11500 destroyed buildings.
3. NATO Aggression
But, Belgrade’s misfortune did not finish with the end of the Second World War. Most recently, the city was heavily bombed during the NATO aggression in the 1999 Kosovo War. Under the pretext of “preventing the humanitarian crisis”, in a purely criminal act and in contravention of the international law, the aggressor bombed the city for 78 days. However, it was really never about helping anyone. Approximately 50000 depleted uranium missiles were dumped, mostly on the territory of Kosovo. Additionally, the biggest US military base outside of the USA – Bondsteel – was built in Kosovo. The building below remains as a testament to NATO criminality and as a remainder to the Serbs that NATO is the enemy of the Serbian people.
All this considered, it is a miracle that Belgrade has any remaining buildings at all. Nevertheless, the city has a beautiful historical centre despite its continuous destruction throughout the history.
Belgrade is situated on the confluence of Sava and Danube rivers. It is in a rather dramatic location, views of two rivers from the Belgrade Fortress are spectacular. The city proper has approximately 1.3 million people, while some 1.7 million people live in a wider cosmopolitan area. Belgrade is an ideal size city as it is small enough to be easily managed, although that’s relative. Unfortunately, Belgrade does not have a metro, which means that moving around the city can be time consuming and difficult because of heavy traffic. At the same time, Belgrade is big enough to have a thriving cultural scene and many reputable theatres, festivals, concerts and the world famous night life.
The tram number 2 encircles the centre of Belgrade. This is where you will find the most interesting sites. Additionally, you can walk everywhere within this relatively small area. It is an area with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The central axis runs from Saint Sava Church on one side, to the Belgrade Fortress on the other side.
1. Saint Sava Church
Saint Sava Church – is dedicated to the founder of the Serbian Orhodox Church, an important figure in medieval Serbia. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha burned his remains in that location in 1595.
In 1895, 300 years after the burning of Saint Sava’s remains, the Society for the Construction of the Church of Saint Sava was founded. Its goal was to build a temple on the place of the burning.
In 1905, a public contest was launched to design the church but all 5 received applications were rejected. After the breakout of the First and the Second Balkan Wars and the First World War, all activities on the construction of the church stopped.
In 1919, after the First World War, the Society was re-established. A new public contest was held in 1926 and the second-place submission by the architect Aleksandar Deroko was selected. Finally 40 years after the initial idea, the construction of the church started on the 10th May 1935, 340 years after the burning of Saint Sava’s remains.
But, the works stopped altogether after the April 1941 bombing of Belgrade. By that time the church’s foundation had been completed and the walls had been erected to the height of 7 and 11 meters. The occupying German army used it as the Wehrmacht’s parking lot. The Red Army and later the Yugoslav People’s Army used it for the same purpose in 1944. After the Second World War, various companies used it as storage space.
The Serbian Patriarch German renewed the idea of building the church in 1958. 88 requests were made to the Communist government, of which 82 were sent to the President of Yugoslavia – Tito, but he never replied. The permission for continuation of the building works was finally granted in 1984. A new architect was selected and he remade the original projects to make better use of new materials and construction techniques. The works started in August 1985.
The greatest achievement of the construction process was the lifting of the 4000 ton dome. The lifting took 40 days using specially constructed hydraulic machines and it was completed in June 1989. At that time I regularly passed the building site on the way to the university and I remember seeing the dome a bit higher every day.
After the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, the works stopped again. The Serbian Patriarch considered such expensive works inappropriate at the time of great suffering of the Serbian people. However, the works continued in 2001 and the exterior of the church was completed in 2017.
The Russian Academy of Arts is currently working on the internal decoration.
2. From Slavia to Terazije
Slavia Square – is the busiest and the most important of Belgrade’s central squares. In my opinion, it is also the ugliest square in the city and perhaps the ugliest of all similar squares that I have seen in various European cities. To describe a particularly unsightly part of any city to my Serbian friends, I would say: “It’s like Slavija”. It is unfortunate that such an important part of the city remains so neglected, although some effort has been recently made to improve the square’s image.
A new big fountain was constructed in the square’s central area in 2017. The square certainly looks better now, although I don’t think that the fountain is the perfect choice for such an important spot in the city. To get an idea of what could have been constructed instead of the fountain, it would have been sufficient to travel to other European cities, to see what they have done. The most prominent building in the square is Hotel Slavija.
King Milan Street – is Belgrade’s main street. It runs from Slavia Square to Terazije. There are several important landmarks in this street. The street is slightly dull in my opinion. There are no restaurants, bars or coffee shops, only shops. However, considering its importance, there are plans for its revitalisation and return to its former glory. Nevertheless, you can still have an enjoyable walk along this street.
As you move down King Milan street, you come across the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. Although Yugoslavia disappeared nearly 30 years ago, the theatre retained it original iconic name, which still remains a very powerful brand. The theatre was founded in 1947, as the representative theatre of new communist Yugoslavia, after the Second World War. It is a veritable cultural institution.
Belgrade Palace – is a 101m tall building and one of the symbols of the city, representative of its “golden age” in development. Its construction started in 1969 and it finished in 1974. At the time when I lived in Belgrade, the building housed a famous flag-ship department store “Robne Kuće Beograd”, where it was possible to buy everything. No equivalent department store exists now in Serbia.
Old Palace – was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty. It is now the City Assembly of Belgrade. The palace was built between 1882 and 1884, in the style of the 19th century acadamism. It was supposed to surpass all existing residences of the Serbian rulers. The palace was damaged in both World Wars.
After the First World War the palace was repaired and the first important restoration was around 1930. The palace complex and the royal garden were guarded by monumental, decorative stone arches with gates, which were destroyed in the Second World War.
The palace was bombed and partially demolished in the first German bombing raid in April 1941. The repair and re-arrangement of the Old Palace after the Second World War lasted until 1947.
During the repair, the architecture of the building was significantly changed. Two domes facing the garden and eagle sculptures were removed. The facade facing King Alexander boulevard was completely altered. The auxiliary buildings were demolished after 1945 and the building of the Maršalat was demolished in 1957. The former royal complex today consists of only two buildings, the Old Palace and the New Palace.
New Palace – was a royal residence of the Karadjordjević dynasty. It is the seat of the President of Serbia today. This palace is directly opposite the Old Palace. Its construction started in 1911 and it finished in 1914, just before the First World War. The palace was substantially damaged during the war and was thoroughly rebuilt between 1919 and 1922. The New Palace became the official royal residence in June 1922 when King Alexander I Karadjordjević and Queen Maria moved in. The New Palace was the official royal residence between 1922 and 1934, when the royal family moved to the new royal complex in the area of Belgrade called Dedinje.
The two remaining building from the former royal complex in King Milan street are certainly beautiful, however they are a pale shadow of the complex that existed before the Second World War. It is a shame that after the war the complex was not restored according to its original design and that parts of the complex were additionally destroyed by the communist government.
Terazije – is Belgrade’s official city centre. When street numbers are assigned to Belgrade’s streets, the numeration starts from the part of the street that is closer to Terazije. Its current look was mostly established after 1947 as the square was remodelled to accommodate the 1st May military parade. This included removal of the beautiful fountain in the centre of the square, additionally tram tracks were removed and a number of “modernist” buildings were constructed in the style of the nearby Marx and Engels square. However, Terazije contains several notable buildings.
Hotel Moscow – is one of Belgrade’s most recognisable buildings. It was constructed in 1908 and it originally operated as a 36 rooms inn, within the multi purpose Palace Rossiya. It represented a major investment of the Russian Empire in the Kingdom of Serbia. It’s a 4 star hotel today.
Terazije Fountain – was built in 1860 to celebrate the return of Prince Miloš Obrenović and his second rule. In 1911, during the reconstruction of Terazije it was moved to Topčider. It was reinstalled in Terazije, in front of the Hotel Moscow in 1975, although not in the same place.
Palace Albania – was built in 1940 and it was the first skyscraper in southeast Europe. It was the first high rise building in Belgrade and for a long time the tallest one too. Its name comes from a restaurant “Albania” that occupied the exact same spot.
Krsmanović’s House – in 34 Terazije street was built in 1885, in the neo-baroque style for a wealthy merchant. It served as a royal residence between 1918 and 1922, as the royal palace was damaged in the First World War. It was in this house that a document was signed on the 1st December 1918, creating the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
3. Serbian Parliament and Nikola Pašić Square
The House of the National Assembly of Serbia – is the Serbian Parliament. It is one of the most recognisable symbols of Belgrade. Its construction, that started in 1907 near the former location of the large Batal Mosque, was interrupted by the First and the Second Balkan Wars and the First World War. The neo-baroque building was completed in 1936. Because of its architectural, historical and artistic value, it was declared a cultural monument in 1984.
When I lived in Belgrade, this building was the Parliament of Yugoslavia and for some strange reason I still think of it in that way. Clearly, after so many years the building has changed its function, maybe I will get used to it too.
Nikola Pašić Square – is named after Serbia’s famous 20th century politician and Prime Minister. It was built during the 1950s, as part of a massive Terazije reorganisation project. It was called Marx and Engels Square until 1992, in honour of famous communist theoreticians.
Nikola Pašić Monument – was erected in the early 1990s.
Trade Union Hall – is a big building behind Nikola Pašić monument. It is the dominant architectural feature of this square, together with one of Belgrade’s largest fountains. The building is in the socialist realism style, with late modernism influences. Many political and cultural events happened there. It was declared a cultural monument in 2013.
4. Republic Square
Republic Square – is the site of some of Belgrade’s most important public buildings: the National Museum, the National Theatre and the Prince Michael monument.
Prince Michael Monument – by the Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi, was erected in 1882, in honour of the prince’s most important political achievement: complete expulsion of the Turks from Serbia and liberation of 7 remaining cities still under the Turkish rule within the then Serbian territory. Names of these 7 cities are carved on plates on the statue’s pedestal and the prince is sculptured with his hand pointing to Istanbul, showing the Turks to leave.
National Theatre – was built in 1869. It was a typical theatre building at the time and particularly reminiscent of La Scala in Milano, in terms of its renaissance conception and decorative finish. The theatre went through different phases of architectural and artistic development and it survives as a symbol of Serbian culture, tradition and spirituality. The building was damaged both, during the German bombing of Belgrade in April 1941 and it was also hit during the heavy bombing by the Allies in April 1944. The current building has the 1922 appearance. The theatre houses three artistic ensembles under its roof – drama, opera and ballet.
National Museum of Serbia – is the largest and the oldest museum in Serbia. It was established in 1844 and it moved into the present building in 1950. Its collection contains over 400000 objects, including foreign masterpieces. The museum building was built in 1903 for the Fund Mortgage Bank. It is declared the cultural monument of great importance in 1979.
5. Prince Michael Street
Prince Michael Street – is the main pedestrian street in Belgrade and it is protected as one of the oldest and the most valuable city landmarks.
It contains many buildings and palaces built in the late 19th century.
The major reconstruction of the street took place in 1987, when it was transformed into the pedestrian zone.
These works took 6 months and the new pedestrian street was inaugurated in October 1987.
Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts – in 35 Prince Michael street was built in 1924, in the academic style with elements of secession. The building houses the Academy’s library, one of the richest in Belgrade and also the archives that contain numerous materials on the Serbian history.
Russian Emperor Building – was built in 1926, in the early and the late Art Nouveau styles.
Delijska Fountain – was built by the ruling prince of Serbia Alexander Karadjordjević. It was named after the street at that time. It was demolished and built 3 times in the 19th century.
The current fourth reincarnation of the fountain was built in 1987, at the time of the major reconstruction of Prince Michael street. The current fountain is not in the same place as the old ones and it is not architecturally identical, although it retains elements from previous versions.
In recent years, the whole Old Town area has been gradually transformed into a pedestrian area and it is very beautiful.
However the works are ongoing, with projects to pedestrianise a much wider central area.
6. Princess Ljubica’s Residence and Cathedral Church
Princess Ljubica’s Residence – is one of the best preserved examples of civil architecture from the first half of the 19th century. It was built in 1830. The Turkish bath – hammam – was added in 1836. Today the building houses a small museum.
Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel – was built in 1840 and it is one of the most important places of worship in the country. The church is one of few preserved monuments from the first half of the 19th century and it was declared a cultural monument of exceptional importance in 1979.
7. Belgrade Fortress
Belgrade Fortress – consists of the old citadel and Kalemegdan Park, overlooking the confluence of rivers Sava and Danube. The fortress is the most visited tourist attraction and certainly everyone that comes to Belgrade will also visit this magnificent site.
Skadarlija – is the second most visited tourist attraction in Belgrade. The street partially preserved the ambience of the traditional urban architecture and it is also known as the main bohemian quarter of Belgrade, similar to Montmartre in Paris, but on a much smaller scale. You can find old and excellent restaurants in this street, that offer traditional Serbian cuisine.
9. Saint Mark Church
Saint Mark Church – was built in 1940, in the Serbo-Byzantines style. It is one of the largest churches in the country.
As you enter the church, the marble tomb of the Emperor Stefan Dušan (1331-1355) is on the right hand side. He was the King of Serbia and the Emperor of the Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians from 1346 until his death. He conquered a large part of southeast Europe and was one of the most powerful monarch of the era. Under his rule, Serbia was the major power in the Balkans.
Construction of this church could not follow the strict canon concerning the east-west position, because of the already urbanised adjacent area. In order to fit into the existing city grid, the Serbian Patriarch gave a special permit for the church to deviate by 10 degrees from the canonical rule. The church’s main entrance is in line Resavska street.
This church is considered one of the most beautiful constructions of the sacred architecture in the Serbo-Byzantine revival style and it was modelled on Monastery Gračanica.
After decades of neglect, Belgrade is rapidly changing. The city authorities have renovated many streets and painted a lot of facades. One of the most ambitious projects is Belgrade Waterfront. It is an urban development project on a neglected stretch of land on the right bank of Sava river, otherwise the prime city location, behind the former Central Railway Station. At the time of my visit, two buildings were completed.
However, I have slightly mixed feelings about this project. While I think that it certainly makes sense to develop an important part of the city, otherwise derelict for decades, perhaps this particular project was more suitable for the other side of the river, in New Belgrade. Anyway, it is too early to say anything now, let’s see the final result in several years.
As a part of this project, the main railway station was closed and moved to another location. The station building will become a museum and reconstruction of the square in front of the station is scheduled for this year.
Belgrade needs a lot of care. Serbia is essentially a poor country, as per World Bank, the GDP per capita in 2017 was – US$ 5180. Certainly, there is a lot of work to be done. When you move around the city, you can see a lot of buildings in a very bad state.
There is a degree of attraction in this decadence that makes Belgrade unique and very different to other European cities, especially in western Europe. But, this also points out that Serbia is cheap and I am sure that one day when all buildings are nicely and freshly painted, it will be perhaps another Vienna – beautiful but soulless and much more expensive.
Belgrade is a heroic city and I am proud to be able to call it – MY BELGRADE!