I think the most appropriate description I can give of Belgrade is that it’s an incredibly liveable city. Most – in fact all – of the cities we travelled through in the former Yugoslavia fit that description, if I’m honest. But it’s especially apt for Belgrade. And I don’t mean ‘liveable’ as a euphemistically polite ‘pleasant but boring,’ either: it’s a fascinating, lively, energetic, and above all welcoming spot.
As a location that’s only recently made a reappearance on NATO’s Christmas card list, Belgrade still bears visible scars of recent turmoil in the region. The former home of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence (or the Serbo-Montenegrin one, if you prefer not to accept ‘Yugoslav’ to refer to that particular coupling post the exit of all the other SFRY states) was on the losing side of an argument with the US Air Force in 1999, but still stands today, minus an overpass and some exterior – and, for that matter, much interior – brickwork. A monument to mistakes of the past, I suppose, patrolled by a lone soldier whose presence evokes either defiant preservation or embarrassed regret, depending on your interpretation of current Serbian attitudes toward recent history.
Aside from that reminder, however, the city streets have a relaxed but quietly vibrant feel. The pace of life is comfortable and unhurried – unquestionably the right attitude in the forty degree heat of Serbian summer. But Belgrade is definitely an extrovert – a city that enjoys life, and wants you to as well. Most of our days had a fairly gentle start: we were pretty enthusiastic partakers of the local café culture, and I was most certainly not averse to a breakfast of cake and espresso on many a morning (or early afternoon). Possibly followed by some coffee and confectionary for morning tea or brunch. (The Serbs are particularly expert at combining pastry and minced meat, too. So there might have been a few of those consumed also. Especially given the ridiculously low prices, at which I could do little but laugh.)
As for actual stuff we did in this excellent city? Belgrade Fortress, at the junction of the Rivers Danube and Sava, is an impressive edifice – especially lit up at night – and its past, about which I admit knowing very little, is an impressive reminder that Serbia’s history is not entirely defined by the last twenty years. The Museum of Yugoslav History was a slightly odd but nonetheless worthwhile visit – basically a monument to Marshall Tito, focussing on his mausoleum. The Aeronautical Museum was entertaining, mostly for the collections of “and here’s what’s left of some cool American stuff we shot down with our rusty old MiGs and leftover Soviet hand-me-downs.” The botanical gardens were somewhat barren and joyless (and under reconstruction), but they fully redeemed themselves by having a beautifully decaying greenhouse (unfortunately closed at the time) and, even better, a half-constructed then fully-abandoned concrete amphitheatre which you can climb all over. (The latter even had a faded Yugoslav flag in the basement, for that extra historical street-cred.)
By day, the island of Ada Cingalija, in the middle of the River Sava, is a brilliant spot to sit out the heat of the summer sun, with its riverside beaches and bars and forested greenery. (And its floating shacks on the northern side, of whose owners I am not in any way insanely jealous.) By night, the party moves back into town – and while we didn’t pull many all-nighters ourselves, it’s obvious that Belgrade fully deserves its reputation as a highlight of Europe’s social scene. Its bars are the equal of its cafés, and being right smack bang in the middle of a region whose specialty food is greasy minced meat in whatever form you can shove it in your pie hole, how could it not have a big appetizing late-night party scene to precede those inevitable late-night big appetizing greasy foodstuffs?
But mostly, we weren’t too concerned about running around and seeing every last sight on the tourist map, or checking out all the trendiest night spots. We took it easy and just enjoyed ourselves. It’s an approach Belgrade seems to encourage, and that suited me just fine. As I have no doubt it will next time I’m in town. Which will be whenever I next have the chance.