food / travel

Beauty From The Ashes - Belgrade, Europe's Most Overlooked Capital

Everything is illuminated
Everything is illuminated
Matthias Gretzschel

BELGRADE - "Go to Republic Square first, and then walk along Knez Mihailova Street, that’s Belgrade at its most beautiful..."

With the counsel of the young woman at Reception, a rickety Dacia taxi gets me from the residential neighborhood of Senjak – pretty, but with some parts in urgent need of a facelift – past office buildings, showcase constructions from the Socialist era, vintage hotels, and department stores, to the heart of Serbia’s capital.

On this grey September morning it starts to rain, but thankfully there are umbrella sellers on every corner. The grandeur of the 19th century National Theater and National Museum buildings lend Republic Square a definite presence, heightened by an equestrian statue of Mihailo, King of Slavs, who reigned from 1050 to 1081 and famously battled against the Byzantines.

Renowned for its large collection of artifacts of both cultural and historical interest, the National Museum has however been closed for renovation for years – so I miss seeing the famous gold ritual mask found in Trebeništa (Macedonia) along with other 6th century BCE treasures from the grave of a local ruler.

The pedestrian zone around Knez Mihailova is only a few steps away from the square. On the ground floors of the often grand 19th century and Art Nouveau buildings flanking the small streets are chic cafés, bookshops, art galleries, and fashion boutiques along with a branch of the Goethe Institute where German courses are given.

It is definitely worth sitting in one of the cafés – they’re called "Kafanas" here – to watch the wide variety of people passing by, from young female students who stop to check out the clothing on racks outside boutiques to businessmen with slicked-back hair talking into their smartphones.

But one thing you don’t see, the occasional backpacker or German excepted, is tourists.

With a population of around 1.7 million, Belgrade is one of Europe’s largest cities. Settled for 7,000 years, it’s also one of the oldest European cities. And currently, it’s one of the least-known cities in Europe – a fact inexorably tied to recent history: the Balkan wars of the 1990s. So instead of being a well-known tourist destination, what is unquestionably one of Europe’s most historic and interesting cities is little more than an insider tip.

There are traces of history, recent and old, everywhere. On Knez Mihailova Street is the palace housing the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU). In 1986, a SANU Memorandum listing Serbian grievances sparked a nationalistic fervor that eventually led to the splitting up of Yugoslavia.

In 1941, after the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, the academy was where Radio Belgrade was set up to broadcast to German soldiers. The love song now known as “Lili Marleen” became famous during the war because the station played it so frequently.

Historical treasures, modern illuminations

At the end of Knez Mihailova is the Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park, a huge space built up over many centuries in a location as beautiful as it was strategic: the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

From the heights of the old citadel there is a breathtaking view of the two rivers, with what looks like swathes of pristine nature along the Danube to the right, and Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) – built during the Tito era – rising up from the banks of the Sava to the left.

The taxi driver is somewhat surprised by the fact that I want to be taken to Tito’s grave, of all things: hardly anybody asks for that anymore, he says. The former Yugoslavian ruler Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) is buried in a white marble mausoleum in a winter garden in the “House of Flowers” located in an upscale neighborhood. Until 1990, there was an honor guard at the grave of the man who today is seen by some nationalists as having betrayed the Serbian cause.

Unlike Tito’s Mausoleum, there’s a lot of activity at the Nikola Tesla Museum in the elegant neighborhood of Vračar. Although the famous Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer (1856-1943) never lived in Belgrade, documents and other estate items were sent here after his death. In 2003, the museum’s archives became a part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World program because of the seminal role Tesla the engineer and inventor played in the history of electrification.

Another Belgrade must-see is the monumental – and still unfinished – Cathedral of St. Sava that can be seen from all over the city. Construction on what was meant to be the largest Greek Orthodox Church on the planet (and is one of the ten largest churches in the world) began in 1935, but work was interrupted during WWII and virtually all of the Communist era. Construction began anew in 1985, and the exterior – covered in white marble and approximately the same size as Hagia Sophia -- has now been completed. The interior, once it is completed, will be able to hold 12,000 people.

The cathedral’s huge cupola is just one of the things effectively lit at night in this city: nearly all the beautiful building are, and contribute to the significant charms of Belgrade after dark when a plethora of appealing bars and restaurants beckons.

The young crowd likes it best down by the riverside, where the bass notes of music emanating from innumerable floating clubs and discos can be heard far and wide like a kind of announcement that this city so rich in history, destroyed and risen from the ashes so many times, now has yet another incarnation: one of the hippest party cities in eastern Europe.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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