Serbia: where East really does meet West
Serbia was seen as the aggressor in a conflict which was never really properly understood by the West. It was certainly the keenest of the former republics to hang onto Yugoslavia, and as a result ‘Jugo-nostalgia’ – a yearning for the old, settled and relatively prosperous days of Tito – is big in Serbia these days. The last edition of our guide was dedicated to a ‘the survival of Yugoslavia as an independent, non-aligned and federal state’ – words that ring a little hollow now but which go down extremely well in present-day Belgrade.
Around a fifth of all Serbs live in Serbia’s capital: a big, vibrant city that makes an ideal place for a weekend away – easy to get to, with lots to see, a fascinating historical backstory and a buzzing centre whose mixture of grand nineteenth-century buildings and utopian 1960s-style blocks forms an appealing arena for an affable throng of shoppers, drinkers and diners with whom it’s hard not to fall into step. It’s highly affordable too – and likely to remain so unless the Serbs realise their dream of joining the European Union.
Nowadays, Belgrade feels like a city very much at ease with itself and looking to the future. But it wasn’t always so, and to properly understand the city you have to go to Kalamegdan – the sprawling fortress that commands Belgrade’s heights, and which was for hundreds of years the furthest outpost of the Ottoman empire. In those days it was no exaggeration to describe this city as the place where East meets West. Belgrade’s position at a junction of different languages and religions, and its undisputed strategic importance, are the reasons for its unfortunate destiny as a city that has seen war more often than peace: the first shots of WWI were fired here, and during the last couple of millennia the city has changed rulers no less than 60 times.
South of here, another river island occupies a quite different place in the hearts of Belgraders – Ada Ciganlija – where they go to swim, to eat, to dance and to generally forget about history altogether. Known simply as ‘Ada’, the river is dammed here to form a placid lake, and just a mention of the place can invoke a misty-eyed yearning in most locals. Come on a summer weekend and you’ll fight for a place on the sandy beaches that line the river and island, not to mention a table at the numerous outside bars and restaurants. During the week or at any other time of year it can be a magical spot, with free bikes to explore the path that runs around the lake.
Not far from Ada, the green and rather posh residential area of Dedinje was once home to the Yugoslav royal family, and you can still visit the palace of Prince Milos, in the lush Top č ider Park . It’s also the location of perhaps the most Yugoslav sight of all, the flower-filled mausoleum of Josip Tito – a solemn place that’s still very much visited by those who feel those years were the best in the country’s recent history. It’s a period that’s documented in exhibitions either side of Tito’s tomb and in the museums in the grounds. The only difference from when I was here last is the addition of the president’s third wife Jovanka, who died in 2013, and the ruins of Tito’s villa visible through the trees – destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999 after it was adopted by Milosevic as his residence. (There are similarly ruined buildings elsewhere in the city, deliberately left as a reminder at how misunderstood the Serbs believe they were during the war.)
What Tito would have made of south Belgrade’s other major sight, the Hram or Temple of St Sava, is anyone’s guess. Dedicated to the patron saint of the Serbs, whose remains were notoriously burnt on this spot by the Turks, this vast church was begun in the 1930s but during the Tito years the project was mothballed, and the foundations served as a playground for local kids until the rise of Serb nationalism in the 1980s. Since then the walls have risen rapidly, and although still far from complete, you can peek inside for a glimpse of the huge dome and concrete shell (which in time will be covered by the world’s largest mosaic). Visitors can also see the finished crypt below, which gaudily celebrates the Serbian kings and saints and their most famous places of worship. It’s a popular and, for Serbs, a highly significant place, ironically funded by personal donations during one of the most isolated and economically deprived periods in the country’s history.