Serbia: Tagging along to history

By Brett Atkinson

Belgrade makes a point of living its past every day, writes Brett Atkinson.

Belgrade offers fine views. Photo / Brett Atkinson
Belgrade offers fine views. Photo / Brett Atkinson

Belgrade taggers have a keen interest in history and long memories. Just over a decade after the Serbian capital was bombed by Nato, the most common graffiti in the city's leafy but gritty inner neighbourhoods is "1389", a reference to the Battle of Kosovo six centuries ago when the Serbs fought the Ottomans.

Another more recent date - "2008" - is often spray painted too, referencing Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia a few years ago. And amid the chronological commentary, an "Alcatraz" reinforces the ironic nickname of the city in the final years of the 20th century.

Happily, Belgrade is no longer a prison island isolated in modern Europe. Cool cocktail bars and sidewalk cafes stud the Art Nouveau apartment blocks of Strahinica Bana, sometimes dubbed the "Barcelona of the Balkans". The neighbourhood's also nicknamed, "Silicon Valley", but you'll struggle to find a single software developer in venues full of leggy examples of the benefits of cosmetic surgery.

For backpackers, Belgrade's nightlife is energetic, drawing international revellers to the floating nightclubs called splavs lining the riverbanks of the Danube.

Thumping turbo folk music - Turkish and gypsy melodies at 180 beats per minute - soundtracks the carefree abandon of a generation that came of age during Nato's 1999 bombing raids.

The same devil-may-care attitude actually saved the bridges crossing the Danube and Sava rivers from Nato's sorties. As word spread of the attacks, Belgrade's citizens mobilised for impromptu mid-river parties and concerts on the bridges linking the old and new city. Other areas of the former Yugoslav capital weren't so lucky and, amid modern Belgrade's architectural collage of Austro-Hungarian elegance and 1970s socialist hulks, several major buildings have been left ruined, poignant reminders of a recent history just a short flight from Europe's major capitals.

Belgrade's historical heart is Kalemegdan, perched high above the confluence of the Duna and Sava rivers. Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman histories all intermingle, but now the austere fortress and surrounding parkland are an inner-city escape for residents.

Hunched grandmas front simple stalls marketing the detritus of recent Balkan history. Tourist maps of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics mingle with enamel badges of Marshall Josip Tito's profile proclaiming the "XI Yugoslav Kongres". Serbian flags and Yugoslav Army caps reinforce the inner nationalist in every Serb.

While the mood is relaxed, it's probably not the place to kick off a debate on the merits of Kosovan independence. Governments in Washington, London and Wellington recognise Kosovo but Moscow, Beijing and, especially, Belgrade still find it hard to understand the concept.

Buried amid Kalemegdan's sometimes tacky display of souvenirs are quirky reminders of a turbulent period in Serbian history. From 1993 to 1994, Yugoslavia - by that time only including Serbia and Montenegro - experienced some of history's most extreme hyperinflation. Between October 1993 and January 1995, prices increased by a total of 5 quadrillion per cent. That's not a made-up word such as gazillion but a very real 5,000,000,000,000,000 per cent.

The average daily rate of inflation surged to 100 per cent and families had to develop strategies to lessen the impact of the economic meltdown. When workers were paid, children left school early to do the grocery shopping as even a short delay could wither incomes.

The world's highest denomination - the 500 billion dinar - was introduced and Kalemegdan's grannies will sell you one for €3 ($5.27). If you're lucky, it may even be the real thing.

In today's "New Europe", where former Cold War capitals such as Prague and Budapest are quickly morphing into economic clones of Berlin or Vienna, Belgrade's bold, brash energy provides a gritty and authentic counterpoint. Visitors are welcomed with legendary Serbian hospitality to an exceedingly affordable destination. A meal in the bohemian Skadarlija area - complete with Gypsy violins and platters of grilled lamb - will set you back $15.

If you're headed there next year, just be sure to factor in annual inflation of about 8 per cent. C'mon, it could be worse.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Belgrade is easily reached by train or bus from Zagreb, Budapest and Vienna. By air, the most convenient and frequent services to Belgrade are from Frankfurt or Vienna. See Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines or Jat Airways. Wizz Air is a low-cost airline linking London and Belgrade.

Further information: See serbia.travel and beograd.rs.

For an expat spin on the best of Belgrade, see hostel360.com.

Brett Atkinson funded his own travel to Belgrade.

- NZ Herald

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