Our first day in Belgrade was a little hit-and-miss, but we soon found our groove and had fun exploring this city of contrasts. There’s so much history in Belgrade and it’s been layered on, partially destroyed, rebuilt according to the tastes of the rulers of the day. I found the remnants of the Ottoman Empire particularly fascinating and an early stop was at the 19th century residence of Princess Ljubica. Not what we might think of now as a palace or chateau, the residence is relatively modest. It hasn’t been restored to an exact replica of when the ruling Serbian Obrenović family lived there (1831-1842), but rather has rooms furnished with objects belonging to the Obrenovićs and other wealthy Serbian families which reflect the changing/Westernizing of tastes of the period. The blending of east and west and the effects of moderization and trade is fascinating to see. I particularly enjoyed the portraits and displays of clothing reflecting a clear, but waning, Ottoman influence. For less than $2 apiece (200 dinar), the princess’ residence is more than worth it. The bargain prices in Belgrade are a treat!
We explored the small religious museum adjacent to the monastery next door to the residence (some nice items, but nothing that inclined us to linger) and I enjoyed a quick circuit of the beautiful Saborna Crkva Sv. Arhangela Mihaila (Church of St. Michael the Archangel). David, unfortunately, couldn’t go in because he was wearing shorts. This was an unplanned stop or he would have been better prepared. Churches in Eastern Europe are often more strict about dress codes than in Western Europe (where proper dress is still appreciated, if not required).
The top tourist destination is the Kalmegdan Fortress which sits between Kalmegdan Park and the Sava River. We spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the ruins and taking in the views from the fortress walls.
The Military Museum attached to Kalmegdan Fortress on the park side is also worth a visit. Exhibits span medieval times to the present. The more recent exhibits were particularly interesting to us. Among other items were an American pilot’s jacket recovered when he was shot down and a piece of a NATO plane. Descriptions of “NATO aggressors” failed to acknowledge any bad acts on the part of Serbia and made it sound as if NATO planes dropped bombs on Serbian civilians entirely out of the blue and for no reason whatsover. While there are undoubtedly at least two accounts of nearly every war, it bothered us to see a class of school children visiting the museum and learning such a one-sided view of history. We saw similar, if sometimes opposite, tellings elsewhere in the Balkans and it seems to me that failing to acknowledge the full picture of the events surrounding hostilities only encourages the perpetuation of grudges and grievances.
Another day, we explored the Sava riverfront beneath the looming defensive walls of Kalmegdan Fortress.
We took refuge from the heat and enjoyed a delicious seafood stew, fried perch, and a local beer on the open-air deck of a riverfront boat restaurant named Vodenica.
As fascinating as anything we saw, was simply wandering the streets of Belgrade, trying to read the Cyrillic signs, talking with (and asking directions from) those people we came across who spoke English. People were uniformly friendly and helpful and several expressed surprise to learn we were Americans and sincere curiosity as to what we thought of their city. (On hearing us speak English, everyone assumed we were English.) All expressed pleasure at our enjoyment of our time in Belgrade. When I commented on that to our hostess, Vesna, she said it was unusual to find Americans in Belgrade wandering on their own. As she explained it, the only Americans they usually saw were “big groups of old people” from Danube River cruise ships. She said the groups just follow a guide so people don’t really interact with them.
Our last sight-seeing must-see was the still-under-construction St. Sava Cathedral. To get there, we opted to give the local trolley system a try. Mystified by the system we enlisted the aid of a waitress at a local café we’d come to enjoy. Despite her instructions, we tried to board in the wrong place (just across the street from the boarding area), but were kindly allowed on board by an off-duty driver (no doubt frustrated by our failure to comprehend when he tried to point us in the right direction). When he finished with his break, the driver drove us the twenty yards to the trolley stop to pick up the others who were waiting where they should. Oh well, we got first pick of seats right up front…which was a good thing since the trolley soon filled to standing-room only as we made our way down the boulevard to our destination.
The trolley let us off just across the street from St. Sava at a bustling, major trolley stop. The sheer size of the cathedral is stunning and we marveled at the approach. Having read about a dress code, I watched to see what would happen to 3 young people: 2 men in racerback tank tops and a young woman in miniskirt and tank top. Sure enough, they were turned away.
The inside of the cathedral is still under construction and very simple at this point although lapis and malachite columns already in place give a glimpse of future opulence.
After the cathedral, we visited the small St. Sava Church just beside it. It’s a beautiful little gem and we tried to imagine the huge cathedral decorated in like style.
All in all, we enjoyed Belgrade and were glad we added this relatively short stop to our Balkan exploration. We were also satisfied with the time we had there and looking forward to our next, much-anticipated stop, Montenegro.
April 4-7, 2016