INTRODUCTION TO BELGRADE
But first things first!
I am from Belgrade, I was born and lived there until I was nearly 25. 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. It was a decade when I became old enough to take the maximum advantage of my life in a big city. I used to go to the theatre and concerts and I generally 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, 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’ve been away, Belgrade hasn’t changed much. It’s only in the past few years that you can see visible changes, such as the extensive city centre restoration projects.
Does the fact that I’m 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 historic sites, its streets and buildings. I know the city inside-out.
But at the same time, I’m not an expert in a sense that the city’s dynamics have certainly changed. For example, every time when I go back, I discover new trendy bars and restaurants that usually only the locals know about.
SHORT HISTORY OF BELGRADE
To properly understand and appreciate Belgrade, it’s 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 location for thousands of years.
While southern parts of Serbia fell under the Ottoman rule following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, conquered Belgrade in 1521. 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 became the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882.
From the initial Ottoman conquest until its full independence, Belgrade changed hands between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans three times. Each time when new rulers of the city arrived, they completely destroyed it.
Almost nothing remains from the Ottoman period. Perhaps, the Belgrade Fortress is the most prominent site from that era, although it 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 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 who was going to create 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.
BELGRADE IN TWO WORLD WARS
Belgrade was the 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 happened in the Second World War. In March 1941, the Yugoslavian government signed the Tripartite pact, hoping to keep Yugoslavia neutral during the war. But Serbs rejected the pact and organised mass demonstrations. In retaliation, Luftwaffe heavily bombed Belgrade on the 6th April 1941.
Additionally, the allied forces bombed it in April 1944. The city ended the war with 11500 destroyed buildings.
But Belgrade’s misfortune didn’t finish with the end of the Second World War. Most recently, the city was heavily bombed during 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.
Well, that was never really about helping anyone. Do you really think that NATO cared about Albanians? They dumped approximately 50000 depleted uranium missiles, mostly on the territory of Kosovo. Additionally they built Bondsteel, the biggest US military base outside of the USA, also in Kosovo.
The building below remains as a testament to NATO criminality and as a remainder that NATO will always be the enemy of the Serbian people.
If you consider all this, it’s a miracle that Belgrade has any remaining buildings. Nevertheless, the city has a beautiful historical centre, despite the continuous destruction throughout its history.
Belgrade is situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It’s in a rather dramatic location, the view of two rivers from the Belgrade Fortress is spectacular. The city proper has approximately 1.3 million people, while 1.7 million people live in the wider cosmopolitan area. Belgrade is an ideal size city. It’s small enough to be easily managed, although that’s relative.
Unfortunately, Belgrade doesn’t have a metro system, which means that moving around the city can be time consuming and difficult because of heavy traffic. At the same time, Belgrade has a thriving cultural scene with many theatres, festivals, concert halls and also the world famous night life.
The tram number 2 encircles the centre of Belgrade. This is where you will find the most interesting sites. You can also walk everywhere within this relatively small area which contains the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
SAINT SAVA CHURCH
The Saint Sava Church is dedicated to the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an important figure in medieval Serbia. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha burned Saint Sava’s remains in that location in 1595. The church is still under construction.
Slavia Square is the busiest and most important of Belgrade’s central squares. In my opinion, it’s also the ugliest square in the city and perhaps the ugliest of all similar squares that I’ve seen in various European cities. To describe a particularly unsightly part of any city to my Serbian friends, I would say: “It’s like Slavia”. It’s unfortunate that such an important part of the city remains so neglected, although some effort to improve the square’s image has recently been made.
They constructed a big new fountain in the square’s central area in 2017. It certainly looks better now, although I don’t think that the fountain was the perfect choice. To get an idea of what they could’ve constructed instead of the fountain, they should’ve travelled to other European cities, to see what they’ve done. The most prominent building in the square is Hotel Slavija.
KING MILAN STREET
King Milan Street is the main street. It runs from Slavia Square to Terazije and it contains several important landmarks. This street is slightly dull in my opinion. There are no restaurants, bars or coffee shops, only shops. But, considering its importance, there are plans for its revitalisation and return to its former glory. Nevertheless, you can still have an enjoyable walk there.
YUGOSLAV DRAMA THEATRE
As you move along King Milan street, you will come across the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. Although Yugoslavia disappeared nearly 30 years ago, the theatre retained it original iconic name. It was founded in 1947 as the representative theatre of new communist Yugoslavia. It is still a veritable cultural institution today.
The 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 finished in 1974. At the time when I lived in Belgrade, the building housed the famous “Robne Kuće Beograd” department store, where you could buy everything. No equivalent department store exists in Serbia now.
FORMER ROYAL COMPLEX
The Old Palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty. It’s the Belgrade City Hall now. The palace was built between 1882 and 188, in the style of the 19th century academism, but it was damaged in both World Wars.
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, they significantly changed the architecture of the building. They demolished the auxiliary buildings and also the building of the Maršalat in 1957.
Sadly, the former royal complex consists of only two buildings today, the Old Palace and the New Palace.
The New Palace was the royal residence of the Karadjordjević dynasty. It’s the seat of the President of Serbia now. 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 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. It was the official royal residence between 1922 and 1934, when the royal family moved to the new royal complex in Dedinje.
Certainly, two buildings from the former royal complex are beautiful, although they are the pale shadow of the complex that existed before the Second World War.
It’s a shame that after the war, the new communist government didn’t restore the complex according to its original design. Additionally, it’s criminal that that they additionally destroyed some of its parts.
Terazije is the official city centre. In 1947, the new communist government remodelled the square to accommodate the 1st May military parade. They removed a beautiful fountain and tram tracks, plus they constructed new “modernist” buildings. In my opinion, it was one more criminal endeavour that left an ugly mark on the city.
The Hotel Moscow is one of Belgrade’s most recognisable buildings. Constructed in 1908, originally it operated as a 36 rooms inn, within the multi purpose Palace Rossiya. It was the major investment of the Russian Empire in the Kingdom of Serbia. It’s a four-star hotel today.
The Terazije Fountain was originally built in 1860 to celebrate the return of Prince Miloš Obrenović and his second rule. During the reconstruction of Terazije in 1911, they moved it to Topčider. The city authorities reinstalled it in 1975, in front of the Hotel Moscow, although not in the original place.
The Albania Palace, built in 1940, 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 was in the exact same spot previously.
The Neo-Baroque Krsmanović’s House, in 34 Terazije street, was built in 1885 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.
A document, creating the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was signed in this building on the 1st December 1918.
The Serbian Parliament 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, historic and artistic value, it was declared the 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
Nikola Pašić Square is named after the famous Serbian 20th century politician and Prime Minister. It was built in the 1950s, during the massive Terazije reconstruction project. They called it Marx and Engels Square until 1992, in honour of the famous communist theoreticians.
The monument to Nikola Pašić was erected in the early 1990s.
The Trade Union Hall is a big building that dominates the square, together with one of Belgrade’s largest fountains. Built in the socialist realism style, with late modernism influences, it housed many political and cultural events. It became the cultural monument in 2013.
Republic Square contains some of Belgrade’s most important public buildings: National Museum and National Theatre and also the Prince Michael monument.
The 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 Ottomans from Serbia and liberation of seven remaining cities still under the Ottoman rule within the Serbian territory at the time.
You can see the names of these cities on the plates on the statue’s pedestal. The prince points his hand towards Istanbul, thus telling the Ottomans to leave.
The National Theatre was built in 1869, as a typical theatre building at the time. In terms of its Renaissance conception and decorative finish, it was similar to La Scala in Milano. Its current look is from 1922 and it has nothing to do with its original appearance.
The theatre houses three artistic ensembles under its roof – drama, opera and ballet. Today, it’s a symbol of the Serbian culture, tradition and spirituality.
The National Museum of Serbia is the largest and the oldest museum in Serbia, originally built in 1903 for the Fund Mortgage Bank. Established in 1844, the museum moved to this building in 1950. Its collection contains over 400000 objects, including foreign masterpieces.
PRINCE MICHAEL STREET
This is the main pedestrian street in Belgrade and it is protected as one of the oldest and most valuable city landmarks.
It contains buildings and palaces built in the late 19th century.
The major reconstruction of the street took place in 1987, when they transformed it into a pedestrian street.
The works took 6 months and the new pedestrian street was inaugurated in October 1987.
The Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts was built in 1924, in the academic style with elements of secession. It houses the Academy’s library, one of the richest in Belgrade, and also the archives with numerous materials on the Serbian history.
The Delijska Fountain, named after the street at that time, was built and demolished three times in the 19th century.
The current fourth version of the fountain was made during the reconstruction of Prince Michael street in 1987. It’s not in the same place as the previous ones and it’s not architecturally identical, although it retains some elements from the older versions.
In recent years, the city authorities have been gradually transforming the historic area into a pedestrian zone.
The works are ongoing, with projects to pedestrianise a much bigger central area.
PRINCESS LJUBICA’S RESIDENCE AND CATHEDRAL CHURCH
Princess Ljubica’s Residence, built in 1830, is one of the best preserved examples of the civil architecture from the first half of the 19th century. The Turkish bath – hammam – was added in 1836. Today, the building houses a small museum.
The Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel was built in 1840 and it is one of the most important places of worship in the city. It was declared the cultural monument of exceptional importance in 1979, as one of the few preserved monuments from the first half of the 19th century.
The Belgrade Fortress consists of the old town and Kalemegdan Park, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The fortress is the most visited tourist attraction. Whoever visits Belgrade, also visits this magnificent site.
Skadarlija is the second most visited tourist attraction in Belgrade. The street has partially preserved the ambience of the traditional urban architecture. It’s also known as the main bohemian quarter of Belgrade, similar to Montmartre in Paris, but on a much smaller scale. You can find some old and excellent restaurants that offer traditional Serbian cuisine there.
SAINT MARK CHURCH
The Saint Mark Church was built in 1940, in the Serbo-Byzantines style. It’s 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. Serbia was a major power in the Balkans under his rule.
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. Thus, the church’s main entrance is in line Resavska street.
It is considered as one of the most beautiful constructions of the sacred architecture in the Serbo-Byzantine revival style and it was modelled on the Monastery Gračanica.
After decades of neglect, Belgrade is rapidly changing. The city authorities have restored many streets and have painted many facades. One of the most ambitious projects is the Belgrade Waterfront, on the right bank of the Sava river, behind the former Central Railway Station. At the time of my visit, they completed two buildings.
But, I have slightly mixed feelings about this project. While I think that it certainly makes sense to develop that part of the city, otherwise derelict for decades, perhaps this particular project was more suitable on the other side of the river, in New Belgrade.
Anyway, it is too early to say anything at the moment, let’s see the final result in several years.
As part of this project, they closed the main railway station and moved it to another location. The station building will become a museum and they will also reconstruct the square in front of the station.
Belgrade needs a lot of care. Essentially, Serbia is a poor country and as per the World Bank, GDP per capita was US$ 5180 in 2017. Certainly, there is a lot of work to do, but there is no money. When you move around the city, you will see a lot of buildings in a very bad state.
Perhaps, there is a degree of attraction in this decadence that makes Belgrade unique and very different from other European cities. But this also points out that Serbia is cheap, although I’m sure that one day when all buildings are freshly painted, it will be similar to Vienna, beautiful but soulless and much more expensive.
Certainly, Belgrade is a heroic city and I am proud to call it my Belgrade.