Sunday, 3 May 2015

Tito's Belgrade: Europe and Balkan simultaneously

After arriving at Belgrade railway station early in the morning, we took a taxi to our apartment. Based on my research, the apartment was supposed to be located in a central part of Belgrade, not far from the city castle and other local attractions.

As the taxi wound its way through Belgrade's streets, my heart slowly began to sink: we seemed to be heading farther and farther into nothingness. It seemed like my research left a lot to be desired – we were going to be stranded in an apartment in a strange and intimidating East European city in a deserted part of town!

Central Belgrade at night with a view of the Sava River
Thankfully, that was not the case once we explored the area around the apartment. We were indeed staying in a decent location, with the Danube River freely flowing behind the building and Belgrade city a short walk from the front.

Since this was the first 'new' (not previously visited by me) city on our itinerary, we had not yet overdosed on any of the 'standard' attractions offered by most European cities: castles, cathedrals and shopping! So, after getting out bearings it was time to go out an explore Belgrade!

Belgrade is an ancient city. Archeological evidence suggests humans occupied lands around Belgrade 20,000 or more years ago. Singidunum, Belgrade's name while it was part of the Roman Empire, was granted city status by Roman officials way back in the Second Century AD. Later the city became known as 'White City' or Bel Grad.

The Stambul (Istanbul) Gate of the Belgrade Fortress
Belgrade's geography – the city is sited at the meeting point of the Danube and Sava Rivers – partly explains the city's long history and strategic importance. Belgrade has been occupied by 40 different armies and substantially rebuilt 38 times! Recent history has Belgrade as a part of the Ottoman and Austrian empires until it became the capital of a Serbian kingdom in 1918. Following the end of World War Two in 1945, Belgrade became the capital of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia. Finally, in 2006 Belgrade became the capital of independent Serbia.

Belgrade's military importance is reflected in the Belgrade Fortress.

A part of the Kalemegdan Park which near the Fortress
The fortress sits on a site overlooking the confluence of the 1,900 km Danube River with the 990 km Sava River. The heights surrounding the fortress provide a great view of the rivers and Belgrade's Stari Grad (New City) district. The fortress is surrounded by a beautiful park, the Kalemegdan. The park was used by soldiers waiting for the enemy prior to battle. The name reflects the deep Ottoman Turkish influence on the city. Kale means fortress while megdan means field or square in Turkish.

On a nice day, a relaxing morning at the fortress and the park is a wonderful way to get a feel for the city. There are street stalls souvenirs and a military museum in the area too.

The Church of Saint Sava
Other sights in Belgrade include the Church of St. Sava. One of the largest orthodox churches in the world, the church is built on the site where Saint Sava's remains were burned in 1595 by Ottoman authorities during a Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule. Though not old, construction was completed less than a decade ago, it is a grand monument and reflects the importance of the Orthodox church in the lives of ordinary Serbs.

Marshall Tito (extreme right) with Yugoslav resistance fighters during World War Two
Off interest to those who grew up in the midst of the Cold War, is Marshal Tito's grave. Called the House of Flowers, the mausoleum is adjacent to the Museum of Yugoslav History.

Josep Broz Tito (1892 – 1980) founded modern Yugoslavia and held its various republics, including Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, united during his lifetime. Not long after Tito's death Yugoslavia descended into a complex orgy of bloodletting pitting distinct ethnic and religious groups against each other. The former Yugoslav republic is now divided into several small states, i.e. Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Montenegro.

Tito's grave located inside the House of Flowers
Belgrade is a friendly city, recovering from the stigma of being home to some of the world's worst war criminals. Despite Belgrade's current homogenous ethnic and cultural mix, the city displays unmistakable glimpses of its diverse past. Belgrade was an unexpectedly pleasant experience – and cheap to boot. Based on my experiences, Belgrade is a strong contender for my future travel dollars!
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at