By; C. Holley
If “Beo-” means white, and “-Grad” means city, what would you expect of a “White City” then? It’s open to a multitude of interpretations, but Belgrade, Serbia, known to locals as “Beograd”, does ask that question of anyone who bothers to be curious. Few of the buildings here are white in all actuality. September’s skies are consistently blue causing even the mighty Danube itself to appear a touch green with envy as it snakes past. The people are anything but pale skinned, due to a blend of many eastern and southern influences, and a steady supply of sunshine. Guinness here is its customary rich black, although it does have a creamy top, and the flag is one third white. Red Star Belgrade usually shine on the football fields of Serbia and Europe. But after much exploring and meandering through streets wide and narrow, nothing jumps out at the observer to scream the answer. After spending three weeks there it had sparked some curiosity in me.
There’s no obvious reason as to why Belgrade is called the white city. Most of the buildings are young by European standards, being no more than a couple of centuries old, although the name itself can be traced back to 878 A.D. Perhaps, back in that period most of the building work was carried out using white stone. Unfortunately, there aren’t many physical remnants of that bygone time because throughout history this particular city has been a battleground! It is believed that Belgrade, by which ever name it was known as in former eras, has been fought over up to 115 times, and was destroyed on at least 40 occasions. It’s real history is only on paper now and in legend as opposed to being standing in stone. Similar names can be found at varying stages in history, like ‘White Serbia’ and ‘White Croatia’ which both existed as ancestral homelands of Serbs and Croats. In modern times we can look to Belarus, ‘White Ruthenia’. Some theorize that the ‘White’ referred to in all of these place names is representative of unbaptised or non-Christian populations. For anyone who is a history buff, I do not have answers to all of the questions, but I learned quite a bit about this wonderful city, and here are some of my observations and experiences.
Belgrade’s historical piece-de-resistance is the fortress at Kalemegdan. At a point where the Sava river joins the Danube on its long journey, there is a high natural outcrop from where a large part of the surrounding countryside can be lorded over. This point was an ideal location for a defensive fortification. The area is known to have been inhabited at least eight millennia ago and the first solid stone construction was done by Celtic tribes. This building work was continued by the Roman legions. From then on Belgrade Fortress was attacked, destroyed and rebuilt scores of times in the centuries that followed.
The current structure at Belgrade fortress is mostly from the 18th century and displays predominantly Ottoman and Austrian design. Within this sprawling complex sits a military museum, a zoo, two churches and many interesting architectural features. But most impressive is the commanding view it offers of the blue Danube and Sava rivers, western (new) Belgrade, and many points beyond. So why not pay a visit? Attila and the Huns did, and the Hungarians. Byzantines and Bulgarians invaded. So too did the Nazis in World War II, and reportedly destroyed up to 50% of the city. [Despite some understandable dislike of the German nation since wartimes, the following comment I witnessed from a young Serbian man when told by a woman that she came from Germany; "We love Germany, they gave us the Third Reich!"] Even NATO paid a few flying visits to Belgrade in 1999!
In earlier times the forces who invaded and attempted to take over Belgrade did so mainly because of it’s location within the heart of Europe. As is the case with most European cities, Belgrade boasts a wealth of palaces, museums and places of worship, and also some large government monstrosities with a bit of Soviet input in the design. So many different cultural influences on one city leave it with a hodge-podge of structures and facades, with very little consistency. One thing for sure is that lots of Belgrade’s buildings now house cafes and restaurants, which seem to form possibly the most important aspect of daily life here. It must be asked though, “Where do they find so many people to sit outside coffee shops any time of the day or evening?”
Is anybody at work? In a random count that I did, the two men sitting outside one particular cafe were well outnumbered by fourteen young ladies. As Belgrade is not quite a tourist hub like Amsterdam, Prague or Krakow, most of the people shopping and mingling on the city streets are locals. It is definitely not a poor city. Very few beggars can be seen on these streets, and they are easily outnumbered by exotic cars. An occasional Bentley or Ferrari is not out of the norm. Top of the line jewellers and clothing outlets dot the busy city center, keeping the ladies looking immaculate. Not too far from all the sparkle, glitz and glamour however is a reminder of Serbia’s recent troubles. In 1999 NATO dropped bombs on the city due to political unrest, and several of the stricken government buildings still stand as they were left after the attacks. The reason given why these wounded hulks haven’t been taken down and rebuilt is a lack of state funds. Outside one of the damaged properties an armed soldier is usually posted to keep tourists from taking pictures of the crumbling remains.
Some are blocked by wooden fences or draped with advertising banners to keep the curious, and the shutterbugs, from seeing the total scale of the destruction. Nonetheless it is an eerie feeling to see battle scars on an otherwise prosperous and appealing cityscape. Some of the Belgrade natives that I met freely shared their recollections of those days of devastation. As a people, just like dozens of times throughout history, they refused to wave the white flag and they soldiered on until the present day. Perhaps that perseverance is now in the blood that runs through their veins. Belgrade’s confrontational history is reflected somewhat in the passion and aggression displayed in it’s football culture. The city has six football teams who compete in Serbia’s top division, the SuperLiga.Many of these supporters genuinely hate the players, fans and colours of their neighbouring rivals. Sometimes even when their national team is playing they can’t put their club differences aside for the common cause. Having had a personal experience of attending one local derby game, the evidence is there to be seen. Skinheads waving neo-Nazi flags, and trading some rather questionable chants at the opposition. Riot police are a normal sight at games!
The two most successful of Belgrade’s football teams are Red Star and F.K. Partizan. Between them it’s estimated that they command up to 80% of the total football support in all of Serbia. These Goliaths have reached European Cup level, with Red Star having been Champions of Europe and the World on one occasion. The tragic Manchester United team of 1958, who were known to the world as “The Busby Babes” played against Red Star on 5th of February that year on what is the current home ground of F.K. Partizan. The next day eight of the dazzling players lost their lives when their plane crashed in Munich, Germany on the way home.
The trophy rooms of both clubs are stunning with their collections of awards and memorabilia from decades of triumphs. Tennis is becoming increasingly popular due in no small part to the exploits of local boy Novak Djokovic, currently the undisputed king of world tennis. I watched him win the U.S. Open final on TV while I was at his own restaurant ‘Novak’, and the fans were ever so slightly partial!
Meanwhile basketball is gaining ground all over Europe, high five to that, and is never too long off the TV screens as the Serbian national team played recently in the European championships. At the time of writing, the Serbian men’s volleyball team had just won the championship of Europe, and the last twenty four hours had sounded like a car horn that got stuck. Street cafes usually have TV screens set up outside during big sports events for all to watch. Betting shops too are everywhere, taking care of any cravings for a little flutter. What sets Belgrade apart in a way is that it isn’t yet on the Amsterdam to Berlin to Prague to Krakow to Budapest backpacker circuit. The big word being ‘yet’. The college kids aren’t coming here in droves, yet! The hostels are in place and many are brand new, but aren’t as busy as places like Madrid or Prague, yet! McDonalds and KFC are open and ready to take your order. Prices in Belgrade are generally lower than in Western Europe. Smokers can purchase ten packs of cigarettes for the price of one pack in Dublin.
Technology is top-notch, wi-fi is everywhere, and most people flash a Blackberry or an iPhone. Who would expect any less of a city which proudly has The Nikola Tesla Museum, where the urn containing Tesla’s ashes can be viewed, along with some of his personal items, and numerous models of his inventions. Most of his other works and possessions are stored privately at the museum. Tesla was an ethnic Serb and a genius who made some of the world’s most important inventions, and arguably foresaw the technology which we now know as wireless communication and internet. The great man was rewarded by Serbia when his image was printed on the one hundred dinar bank note.
The “White City” is just brilliant! It’s a place that is hard to leave behind. The welcoming feel that it has and the fact that it’s safer than most other cities, endears Belgrade to every visitor who takes time to absorb its atmosphere and spirit. It will become more crowed soon, full of travellers looking for something a bit out of the way. When Ryanair adds it to their list of destinations, this will be another option for the weekend-away crowds, for a cheap birthday or bachelor party. Hopefully that won’t happen for a while so that visitors can still have the experience of actually getting far away from the maddening crowds, to soak up some genuine Serbian culture and warmth. The people who call Belgrade home truly take pride in asking foreigners what we thing of their city, and want us to see as much of it as possible. For me, the hospitality I received at both Time Hostel and at Montmartre Hostel was above and beyond what is normal. These people are the reason that the “White City” of Beograd, Srbija definitely does make the grade!