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The Passion of Balkan Nights

The Passion of Balkan Nights

By Dragan Popovic

If someone were to ask you to write a text about what you would show a stranger in three days in the "Balkan Inn" - as Belgrade is sometimes referred to - what would you write with certainty that you have not made a mistake. I was recently asked this question by my affable brother-in-law Enrico, an Italian by descent, who abruptly decided to spend "some time" in "the Balkans". In a wink of an eye, I felt like a clumsy collector in a crowded antique shop, his gaze following his thoughts, sliding across shelves laden with objects that spread the reminiscent scent of past times. I contemplated that the best way to present "one's town" would be to wander from one restaurant to the other (since restaurants in themselves are specific cultural monuments - standing testimony of a specific time) and "pour out" a heap of necessary (and unnecessary) information on this and that street, building or people who have marked "every building block of this country". That is where one gets to breathe in the smells, absorb the colors and feel the emotions of the "city on two rivers" in the best and most comprehensive manner. "I've seen the same crowdedness in the streets day and night only in Belgrade and New York! What kind of magic is this?" questioned my inquisitive brother-in-law expressing his first impression of our inexhaustible charisma. The things my zealous Italian "absorbed" in a few days in Belgrade were also confirmed by the most renowned world agency, Lonely Planet. This travel guide recently published its prestigious annual list of the world's top 10 party cities - those that offer the most comprehensive entertainment. In a tough competition, followed by Montreal and Buenos Aires successively, Belgrade ranked first place! We have become a travel brand: the restaurants, bars and clubs of this Balkan capital have seduced numerous leisure travelers. Nightlife in the capital of Serbia incorporates everything states Lonely Planet - from jazz clubs, through places where one can dance tango or salsa all night long, to Irish pubs or classical discotheques. Apart from the above mentioned three cities, Dubai, Thessaloniki, La Paz, Cape Town, Baku, Auckland and Tel Aviv also appear on this list. My recent unexpected guest, whom we promptly named Batica (Little Brother), also "fell" for pljeskavicas with kajmak in Skadarlija. He was definitely swept of his feet by my graceful sister and, as he later confessed, by the fisherman's cabin Reka on the Zemun quay. Also charmed by Belgrade, an Austrian chronicler wrote way back in the 18th century: "Life in German Belgrade was not monotonous; one could rather say it was noisy& The population spent much time in inns, canteens and taverns, where they spent all their earnings. People easily took money on loan and when they could not fulfill their liabilities, they simply disappeared from Belgrade&" Belgrade taverns and restaurants attract the attention of European tourists who wish to unwind in one of the 1000 restaurants, cafes, pizzerias, pastry shops (according to unconfirmed data from the Statistical Office this number is actually close to 4000)&World gastronomes claim our food is based on a combination of French, Austrian, Greek and Turkish cuisines. Experts and gourmets claim that it is simply Serbian cuisine!

As a cynical travel writer used to say, paraphrasing the words of the famous architect Corbusier, three metropolises of dubious beauty positioned themselves on three of the world's most beautiful locations: Rio de Janeiro on the exotic Copacabana Bay and on the infinite Pedra Branca and Tijuca forests; Istanbul, a town with two faces embracing two continents, on the majestic Bosphorus; and Belgrade, the city of light, on the banks of two rivers - the Sava and the Danube. Even in this context (whose assessment concerning "dubious beauty" is rather problematic, to say the least) Serbia has landed in good company. All the rest I leave to the judgment of those who have visited these exotic cities. Belgrade is one of the oldest cities in Europe. It is located in South-East Europe, in the heart of the Balkans: at a distance of approximately 600 kilometers from Vienna, 400 kilometers from Budapest and slightly over 600 kilometers from Thessaloniki. Rising and preparing to grow into a serious river deep within the European continent, the rebellious and untamed Danube attains its true features only upon reaching our city - turning into a fierce and powerful prince embracing his beautiful bride, the quiet and docile prima dona Sava. Thus embraced, intensely and passionately they rush towards their eternal destination - the Black Sea. Settlements on location of today's Belgrade date way back to the prehistoric Vinca, nearly 5000 years BC. The town was founded by the Celts in the 3rd century BC, before it became the Roman settlement of Singidunum. The name Beli-grad (White City) was first recorded in 878 AD and the town became the capital of Serbia in 1403. "What is most unusual about the history of Belgrade as a town is that it practically ends where the true history of modern Serbia begins. One could talk about the Roman Singidunum without mentioning Constantinople, about the Austrian Alba Graeca without taking notice of Vienna and about the Turkish Belgrade without taking Istanbul into account. No matter how much the town's destiny was defined in Rome, Constantinople or Vienna, it existed on its own account. No matter whom it belonged to and who it was inhabited by," wrote Borislav Pekic, one of the symbols of Serbian literature, commenting about the town in which swords crossed again and again throughout a historical span of over 1000 years. According to historians, the Austrian rule of Belgrade during the 18th century was marked by the town's transformation: it lost its Turkish- Oriental features and took on the character of a Central European city. The rise of national consciousness and events that have gone down in history as the "slaughter of the knezes" led to the First Serbian Insurrection in 1804. This was a specific bourgeoisie revolution in itself, triggered shortly after the French Revolution. The era of the modern Serbian state is considered to have started in those years. In the second half of the 19th century the town underwent a process of urbanization and further Europeanization. The Knez Mihailova Street held a central position: it was the shortest connecting road between the fortress and the town. It became the most significant commercial and business center and has retained that role to this very day. Connoisseurs say that one can only come across such a natural blend of oriental passion and European sophistication in Belgrade. Standing on the path of many conquest expeditions, from both the West and East, it was destroyed many times only to rise again like a phoenix. That is why it lacks the continuity of style in architecture and the elegance of some European towns. Nevertheless, it entices with its sense of hedonism. If you are interested in history, you will travel through a period of nearly two thousand years in just a brief walk from the Kalemegdan Fortress, one of the most interesting town monuments whose construction dates back to the Roman rule (1st century BC), through the Cathedral and Princess Ljubica's Residence, to the New Belgrade blocks, whose architecture clearly indicates that Serbia has stepped deeply into the new millennium.

In the number of inhabitants, the city - with a population of nearly two million - ranks fourth in Europe, coming right after Istanbul, Athens and Bucharest. It incorporates sixteen municipalities. With nearly 250 thousand inhabitants, New Belgrade is the largest and the Serbian capital's business center. It includes modern business facilities, congress halls, sports centers and all major hotels headed by the prestigious Hyatt. Several bridges connect the left and right bank of the river Sava, i.e. old and New Belgrade and Zemun. Two of the largest quarters stretch across the old town core, representing its traffic-free pedestrian zones - the streets around Knez Mihailova Street and the bohemian restaurant quarter Skadarlija& The most prominent park is located within the Kalemegdan Fortress, the town jewel. Many people visiting Belgrade ask where to go and what to visit during their brief stay. They are interested in the history, monuments, cultural events, nightlife, chance encounters with "pretty girls passing through the town" and in all the unimagined charms hidden in this Balkan crossroads. My enthusiasm to show Enrico "as much as possible" melted away after the seven restaurants we dropped by "for a quick drink". Nevertheless, we could not miss visiting one specific place that goes way back into history, Belgrade's oldest restaurant - The Question Mark. Lodged modestly in a one-floor building, located at the very end of Kralja Petra Street which separates it from the Cathedral, the Question Mark represents a genuine museum of Serbian history. It was built way back in 1823 by Prince Milos Obrenovic. At the time, common folks commented in whispers that the Prince engaged "craftsmen from Greece" who built their structures in Balkan style. In 1826, Ecim-Toma Kostic, a famous healer from the Second Serbian Insurgence (who was said to have healed Prince Milos himself) opened an inn in the ground floor of this building, naming it Ecim-Toma's. From 1878, when his heirs sold the place, the inn switched owners and names. It was first called Kod Pastira (At the Sheppard's) and was renamed Kod Saborne crkve (At the Cathedral) fourteen years later. However, the church authorities raised their voice against the name. Secular authorities followed suit claiming the name was in conflict with the Ordinance on Restaurants. Hence, it was immediately abandoned. The owner put up a sign with a question mark (?) temporarily, but it remained hanging at the entrance to this very day. In 1834 the first billiard table was set up in the inn, as well as the first reading room of the Srpske novin newspaper. Naturally, what is most important is that the restaurant offers an abundance of Serbian specialties, known and unknown: proja (cornbread), crevca (chitterlings), cvarci (cracklings), kavurma, prebranac (baked beans), dzigernjaca (liverwurst), kobasice (sausages), pihtije (aspic), rastan (collared greens), domaci sir (homa-made cheese), cevapcici (grilled minced meat rolls), svinjski papci i kolenica (pork trotters and knuckles), podvarak (stewed sauerkraut), lekovacka muckalica (muckalica Leskovac) and many more delicacies of Serbian cuisine. We sit down at a free table in a room by the bar. Judging by its height, one could say it's more of a sofra (low round dining table) than a classical table. The three-legged chairs we are rocking on give the impression that we have just entered the 19th century and are awaiting the arrival of the famous Serbian scholar Vuk Karadzic himself, who used to visit this place with his friends in the 1830s. The old Serbian prepecenica (double distilled plum brandy) we are sipping out of shot glasses is definitely intoxicating Enrico. The murmur of the guests, people from all walks of life, shows that the restaurant is still a cult meeting place. Painters, writers, journalists, musicians, lawyers and ordinary drunks indulge in the specialties of the house with relish. "Fuck, very good grapa you Serbs have," comments Enrico over the lavish appetizers in his broken newly-learned Serbian. Moderately tipsy after two whole hours of unwinding, we stroll in a leisurely manner down Knez Mihailova Street towards Republic Square. In its very center, between the National Museum and the Kod konja pastry shop, stands the monument to Serbia's scholar and reformer Prince Mihailo, who was killed viciously at Belgrade's Kosutnjak park. Behind him stands the most prominent museum in Belgrade, the National Museum, founded in 1844. It holds collections of over 400 thousand exhibits, including numerous foreign masterpieces. The famous 12th century manuscript Miroslavljevo jevandelje (Miroslav's Gospel), the most significant monument of Slavic literacy in the Cyrillic alphabet, which was kept in the Chilandari Monastery until 1896 when it was presented to King Aleksandar Obrenovic during his visit to Mt. Athos, is also part of the Museums collection. The magnificent edifice of the National Theatre was built to the left of the monument to Prince Mihailo. If too is a special tribute to the then assassinated Prince, who started its construction, but did not live to see it completed. Towards the end of the past century, i.e. some fifteen years ago, certain enterprising Belgraders turned Dorcol's Strahinjica Bana street into a snobbish meeting place. It was soon named The Silicon Valley. Ultra modern cafes, coffee shops, luxurious restaurants, colorful pastry shops, fast cars and fast men became the brand mark of the "valley of promise" for many frivolous girls with artificial curves, who sought "overnight glory". Hence, the once peaceful and secluded street, full of greenery, where elderly Belgraders sought refuge from the noisy and inflated Skadarlija, disappeared as if it were wiped off a movie screen, remaining vivid only in the imagination of its aged inhabitants.

The annual International Book Fair has been running in Belgrade for 54 years now. I have been visiting it for nearly three decades. In the past, when I was a student and had no car, I would ride to the Mostar intersection by streetcar and then walk leisurely along the rails, past the abandoned factory halls with a view of the Old Mill and the BIGZ building, and end up at the Fair. Later on, I always parked opposite the Fair, behind Nana, a once popular nightclub by the marketplace (that used to promote Belgrade's jet set) and then descend down the crooked steps to the streetcar rails. Although everyone speaks and brags about lifting some book at the Fair each year, I never dared do such a thing. I like to peek into this "great garden of dreams", the collector's Heaven, nestled right by the Sava river which surrenders its destiny, along with its lush banks, to the untamed Danube, merging into a vast Balkan ocean. I would first go to the "largest hall", where I would find my friend Dejan Bulatovic, aka Krki, who advanced from a street salesman to a reputable publisher and exhibitor. Filled with a feeling of special importance, I would then "sail down the rapids" between the stands, both big and small, obsessively touching the books (still bearing the smell of fresh printing ink) as if they were newly discovered amulets& Enrico follows me around like a shadow, filled with reverence and amazement. He marvels at the number of colorful stands and visitors from around Europe and is amazed by the fact that every fifth person is eating a pljeskavica while strolling among the stands. The smell of fresh printing ink and pljeskavicas with onions render an unimaginable blend of color and smell. He frowns and smiles at the same time. During the days of October when the Book Fair is on many languages may be heard in the Serbian capital: German, English, Greek, Italian, Spanish& It's nice to be in Belgrade in the fall. When you face the street opposite the Fair you can see the trendy Senjak and right behind it Belgrade's snobbish hillock - Dedinje. Today, like in the past, Dedinje is a magnet for the nouveau riche and all parvenus who wish, at any cost, to get an entry pass to the Belgrade jet set through this once prominent outing spot. A half-hour brisk walk from the Fair to Boticeva Street in Dedinje is sufficient to reach the House of Flowers where Josip Broz Tito was buried. Surrounded by thick greenery, the once "Forbidden City" where the House of Flowers is located still looks like a part of town where one "seldom drops by". One does not come to Dedinje "without connections": you either come to visit someone or you are a spy! However, this does not refer to the House of Flowers, whish symbolically represents a monument to a communist era in which comrade Tito, leader of the anti-fascist struggle and of the socialist revolution, ruled for nearly forty years. This is a location most frequently visited by tourists. According to the administration of the Museum of Yugoslav History, which incorporated the House of Flowers, the memorial was visited by over 20 million people in the 30 years since its opening.

When you enter the city from the north, you will be greeted by the dignified and smiling Zemun - the capital of Belgrade, as poet Rasa Livada used to call it obsessively. Zemun is characterized by the baroque splendor of Central European tows and a lavish mixture of history and culture. In the 18th century, after 200 years of Turkish rule, Zemun returned under the auspices of Christianity and underwent the greatest economic development it had ever experienced till then. Lying on the border of two powerful monarchies, Austria and Turkey, as well as on the border between the East and West, the town became one of the most significant trade centers in this part of the world, with all sorts of goods streaming in and out of town and tremendous wealth pouring in. Apart from the National Theatre which has been named Madleniannum some years ago, very few institutions in this area can boast about their tradition as much as a certain restaurant in Zemun which has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Located on the bank of the Danube river, beneath Gardos where the ferry used to dock, Arkadije Bokalic opened a inn in his house and named it pretentiously Zlatni saran (The Golden Carp). Passers-by, fishermen and farmers waiting for the ferry in order to cross from Srem to Banat gradually started gathering around the furnace in the very middle of the inn, sipping rakija or wine. This became a tradition which turned into a tribute to all sorts of things. Few people believed at the time that Arkadije and his business spirit would help make this part of Zemun the true tourist destination it is today, a hundred years later. From the Usce (confluence of Belgrade's two rivers) to the Siroke staze, covering a lenght of nearly ten kilometers, the Danube quay hosts numerous floating and luxurious restaurants - H2O, Bibis, Marinero, Platani, Kod kapetana, Stara carinarnica, Dusa Dunava, Familija, Reka& It would be negligent to speak about Zemun without mentioning Gardos, the hill towering over the Danube, adorning the entire riverbank on the Srem side. We board the boat tied up in the marina between the Harbor Master's Office and the Platani restaurant and race across the river towards the Veliko Ratno island with Lido beach at full speed. During the summer its beautiful beach, full of bathers, shows off its lavish charms. The thick shade and trees "splashing" the riverbank give a mere hint of the paradise both Zemun and Belgrade have to offer.

Making a tour of Belgrade without visiting St. Mark's Church would be a major mistake. It is located only a few hundred meters from the Parliament of Serbia, one of the most beautiful buildings in the Balkans. The church lies on the brink of the Tasmajdan Park which is most beautiful in springtime with romantic couples sitting on the benches or kissing by the church, unaware of the fact that another loving couple, killed brutally in 1903, lies buried in the church crypt. He was the last King of Serbia, a member of the Obrenovic dynasty, and she was his wife, Queen Draga. The tragedy, which has been haunting the Serbian throne like a curse for quite a long time, took place opposite the Parliament of Serbia, in the majestic royal palace, i.e. the so-called Old Palace, which is now home of the Belgrade Town Hall. A group of conspirators headed by mayor Gavrilovic carried out a coup d' etat and killed the King and Queen. Their massacred bodies were thrown from the palace balcony onto the sidewalk so that all Belgraders could see that a regime had come to an end. The couple was buried in the crypt of the St. Mark's Church with practically no honors. While we stand in front of the silent monuments of the royal couple, as I speak about this small historical plot, Enrico shakes his head worriedly, seemingly full of understanding both for the royal couple and the officers who committed the gruesome act. "Good for him," I though. "He does not lack Latin wisdom either."

A text about Belgrade could go on and on infinitely. A new page could emerge every day. However, it is impossible to put into an essay or a review what one can absorb with his soul and his eyes. Hence, I would rather end this text abruptly by quoting renowned poet Dusko Radovic, a man who had the strongest feel for the most delicate vibrations of our city's soul: "He who had the fortune of waking up in Belgrade this morning may be considered to have achieved quite enough in life for today. Any further insistence on anything more would be immodest."

Other stories you will enjoy:
A Food Lover's Guide to Belgrade
A Little Heart to Heart
Vantage points of Belgrade
7 Kafanas You Have to Visit in Belgrade
The Oldest Houses in Belgrade
The Passion of Balkan Nights


Linda W
2012-04-25 15:05:45
Loved the part about the book fair; I just hope this will continue on with the advent of ebooks. Regards
The Passion of Balkan Nights

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The Passion of Balkan Nights

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