This is just the sort of thing you need to see at your very first tourist site in the very first city of your journey. Perched at the top of the ruins of the Kalemegdan fortress, peering down at the rubble-peppered grass below, you could hardly criticise them for the rather alarmist sign. The Kalemegdan fortress looks out over the whole of Belgrade, and even with the hysterical signage it was the best place to stand to see what exactly there is to Serbia’s capital city.
The fortress’s location makes a lot of sense if you read up on Belgrade’s history; high up is certainly the best place to put a fortress when there were marauding Huns, Turks, Christians and Austrians about. The reason they wanted Kalamegdan, and Belgrade as a city, was that it was in a particularly useful situation.
Why was it so advantageous to be at Kalemegdan? Well whilst tottering around on the rubble, we noticed in the distance the different colours in the water below. Belgrade sits right next to the meeting of two mighty Balkan rivers, the Save and the Danube. Both have their own histories in the region, and this brown murky patch amongst the island of trees notes when the Save flows into the Danube. The Danube then continues on through Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine and Romania where it finally empties into the Black Sea. Naturally being in an area where two important rivers meet made Belgrade prime real-estate for anyone of a conquering disposition.
The Kalemegdan fortress is just one of a number of examples of Belgrade’s ability to do nothing in halves. The city is also home to St. Sava’s temple, the biggest Eastern Orthodox church in the world. And really there is no other way to describe it other than fantastically huge. This was the first Eastern Orthodox church that I had ever seen up close, and it was an education in a part of Christianity I had never really known much about. Inside, the ornate gilding, red carpet and grandeur mixed with a heady waft of incense: it was a world away from the plain white walls and simple drapes of my early Church of England school chapel experiences. The grandeur didn’t diminish when you leave the building. Sitting in the surrounding park and listening to its bells is a challenge to your eardrums, and trying to pose for a photo in front of it is asking to be swallowed up in a mass of gleaming white brick and rolling green domes.
As we continued with our wanderings about the streets of Belgrade, we soon realised that even they were enormous. Trams clashed with cars and cars played mind games with pedestrians in the four lane traffic. Although a green light for pedestrians usually implies a safe chance to cross a road, in Belgrade it appears to be a signal to motorists to see how many people they can knock down.
We saw Belgrade’s government building, and like most significant buildings we saw on our travels it was plastered in scaffolding. We went shopping, we munched endless pastries from any pekara we could find. In amongst the high rise office blocks and Soviet-era concrete, we found beautiful pieces of old Serbia. One of these is the ‘?’ tavern, which I would recommend to anyone in Belgrade with an appetite. With warped wooden floors and small tables where locals enjoyed beers and heavy traditional Serbian dishes, it was a great place to while away an evening in Belgrade. And, if you have the guts, try their delicacy, charmingly translated as ‘young bulls sex glands’ on the menu.
So, what to make of Belgrade after only 2 days? After such a short visit there is nothing I can say would truly do it justice. Although the people of Belgrade were some of the friendliest on our trip, it was definitely a hard place. It’s blocky Soviet architecture has sadly overtaken over its beauty. But with the St Sava’s and Kalemegdan park and fortress, the green islands and the Sava and the Danube, there are areas that are as stunning as any we were going to see on the rest of our trip.
As we sat having breakfast at the station cafe, we watched our train to Sarajevo being loaded up with bottles of water and food for the nine hour journey ahead, and the stray dogs playing together in the puddles. I felt like we’d hardly stopped for breath, but what I’d seen of Belgrade was that it was a tough, exciting city with a strong Balkan feel, but with a European mindset for its future. If I came back in a few years time who knows how that would have changed…