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 VraÄar. 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.