No. 42 was once an elegant house. Its crumbling façade exuded an air or mystery and romance. As I stood on its cracked marble doorstep I felt I had arrived home.
For sixty years, No. 42 was the home of my Serbian great grandmother, Granny Spasa. Like today’s Belgrade, Granny Spasa was original, colourful, beautiful and never, ever dull.
A visit to modern Belgrade is full of surprises, beginning with the drive from the airport. My guide was Milo, a handsome young charmer with hedgehog hair who wore a bright blue leather jacket.
Milo drove his 1960’s Mercedes as if he were practicing for an F1 race, speeding to the heart of a city along tree-lined boulevards. Here, many buildings are scarred by bomb damage, and some have been reduced entirely to rubble. These sights are sad reminders of Serbia’s recent war troubles. To make matters worse, many ancient Ladas and Skodas still dominate Belgrade’s streets, making the air harder to breathe.
And yet, such problems are quickly forgotten when one encounters the joyful vitality of the new generation of Belgradians. Serbs, I would discover, party hard. One guy told me: “Darling, if you have any trouble with men, you tell me and I deal with them” – “Deal with them?” – “Never you mind, this is Serbia, it’s the jungle.” I had the chance to reflect on that statement later.
I wasn’t thinking about men as I went up to my great grandmother’s wonderful apartment. The next-door neighbor told me that Granny Spasa loved fish so much that she used one bath as a fish tank, dipping in when she was ready to cook and eat a particular specimen. She kept the other as a bathroom as her washroom, thank God. The hot water came from a small boiler tank, sometimes leaving one with a lukewarm bath; fine for fish, but not so good for humans. Luckily, five star hotels like the Hyatt and Hotel Yugoslavia don’t have this problem.
In the town restaurants, gypsies play romantic music on accordions and you are treated to delicious Serbian specialties such as Cevapcici with Ajvar (Serbian meatballs with red pepper sauce) or Pasulj (Serbian bean soup), Gibanitiza (Cheese pie) and so on. After getting through such a menu, I had to dance it off.
This is how I found Black Panther, a nightclub located on a barge in a district called Splav. I was told that guns are sometimes fired in the air there, but assuaged by assurances that this sort of thing is done only for show.
Nightclub barges in Splav have different atmospheres, but male exhibitionism is the dominant theme. In Splav’s car park there’s evidence of local gangster activity, Ferraris, BMWs and other flashy cars decorate the place.
One guy I met had three phones. He told me that if he came in twirling a trio of phones, it would make him look richer and give him a better chance to get a good table. “If you don’t show off, you are a loser!” Milo explained to me.
I quickly discovered that one must turn a Serb guy down about 20 times, since persistence is is considered natural. Local women are used to this, and I must mention that a Serbian friend of mine was shocked when, in London, an English guy she had turned down for dinner never called her again.
If you must escape the wild party scene, I recommend a café with a panoramic view of both old and new Belgrade at the fortress Kalemejda. You can drink the best fresh peach juice and admire St. Petka Orthodox chapel below you.
If you prefer to stay on the go, you should know that ice cream stands are to Belgrade what hot dog stands are to New York. Serbian ice cream is reputed to be the best in the world.
Sightseeing is great here: beautiful architecture created by the Austro-Hungarian empire sets the tone, but there is also a fascinating contrast when you look at the monstrosities built in the periods of Tito’s communism. Large parts of the city has been left untouched since the days of communist state control.
For a bit of glamour, visit the royal family’s White Palace (they came back to the throne recently and do tremendous charity work for their country), which sits across acres of beautiful gardens decorated with statues by famous Croatian sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. Inside the palace you will find paintings by Poussin and Rembrandt.
One of the most beautiful rooms in the Palace is the Basement. Also known as the Room of Miracles, it is decorated in the style of the Moscow Kremlin’s Terem Palace, and the vaults and walls are painted in the theme of the Firebird legend, as well as motives from Serbian national epics.
Tito’s mistress, Davorjanka Paunovic, is buried in the grounds of the White Palace. It is rumoured that Davorjanka was poisoned by a rival. “Perhaps love in Serbia really is a bit of a jungle,” I thought to myself when I heard her story.
In the new democratic Serbia a cultural boom is starting. A friend of mine who makes documentaries tells me he is spoilt, because every week a new TV channel seems to open and everyone wants to commission his programs. The National Theatre, Rade Serbedzja is setting the pace with new productions that rival the best of London’s West End.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond is rumored to have been inspired by a Serbian double agent Dusko Popov, a businessman who did secret missions on the UK’s behalf. Dusko was a famous playboy, nicknamed Tricycle (he was a fan of ménage a trois – I wonder if he walked into bars with three phones). Having heard this story, I think I understand why James Bond seemed more macho than your average English civil servant.
My advice readers is to check out Belgrade before its too late. This is one of the few places in Eastern Europe that is still largely unwesternized and untouched by both Americanization and Brusselization. You could call it Eastern Europe’s Wild West. The pioneering spirit abounds, but there’s hardly anything dangerous about it to the average tourist.
Belgrade is the city Granny Spasa adored (she refused to move even at the height of war), and now I know why. It’s affordable, romantic, happy, hedonistic, and visitor-friendly.
I fell in love with Belgrade, a city recovering from its own heartache, and you will too.