Arriving in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, I’m immediately struck by the grime.
Stray dogs wander the streets, graffiti covers the walls and buildings are tearing off at the edges like metal rusting near the sea.
This is not a city where money is poured into civic projects and small details are obsessed over. This is a city that is lived in – like a lounge room where magazines have been tossed on the table and a couple of empty water glasses have not been cleared away.
And Belgrade has seen a lot of living.
It was the centre of one of the most important prehistoric cultures of Europe (the Vinca culture), and over time has been ruled by the Celts, the Romans, the Slavs, the Turkish, the Bulgarians, the Austrians, and the Hungarians.
So many people from so many lands have walked across this ground. Now it’s my turn.
“Serbia is a poor country,” the manager at my hotel tells me over a local draught. (Why it’s not called Serbeera, I’m not sure – a missed marketing opportunity!)
“I don’t know why you come here. Why you here?”
It’s not the first time a local has asked me this since I arrived. Although Serbs are extremely patriotic and proud of their nation, they don’t understand the appeal for foreigners.
Even in Belgrade, tourism is limited and the idea of visitors – especially those from as far away as Australia – wanting to discover leads to confusion.
The greatest charm of Belgrade, though, comes not from the tourist sites but from joining in the living. The very thing that makes this city so rough around the edges is what also makes it so dynamic and void of sterility.
On my final night in the city, I find a table at a restaurant serving traditional Serbian food. It has as many seats inside as it does out on the street and, on this warm summer evening, there isn’t much space al fresco.
It’s just one of many nearby establishments too. On almost every block there are cafes, restaurant and bars full of locals.
From a western perspective, the food and the drinks are cheap and it’s the perfect way to watch the energy of the city flow around you.
I sit back and think about what I would recommend visitors to Belgrade do with a few days. There are some unique and special things which I will cover in more detail in coming days but these are the three free main ‘sights’ which should not be missed.
St Sava Cathedral
In the centre of the city is this impressive church – the tenth largest in the world (and the largest Orthodox)!
From the outside, St Sava Cathedral appears to be a true symbol of religious grandeur. But, if you go inside, you’ll see the reality.
Construction started on the building in 1935 but when Yugoslavia was invaded during the Second World War the walls were only about ten metres high and construction was stopped. The land was used as a car park by the Nazis.
It wasn’t until 1985 that construction started again and the building was finished four years later. But nothing was done to the interior – and still it has not been fitted out because of a lack of money.
So when you go inside, all you’ll see is a big empty shell with no religious ornamentation or images on the walls or the columns. There are neither pews nor even a finished floor to put them on.
All that are there are a simple cross and some small shrines for worshippers who can’t wait for the cathedral to be completed.
The term ‘Kalemegdan’ is used interchangeably in Belgrade to describe either the main fortress of the city and the large park which surrounds it (although technically it refers only to the park). This is the centre of old Belgrade – and when I say old, I mean old.
It’s believed people first lived here in the third century BC and ever since then it has been the most important part of the city and the last defence against constant invasions.
The current fort is from the eighteenth century but there have been some forms of castles or forts here for almost two thousand years.
The park and the fortress offer great views across the rivers and the city and it’s a popular place for locals to relax or have a picnic. There is also a zoo and, within the fortress, a very interesting military museum.
Skadarlija is the name of a street in Belgrade – only about 400 metres long but one of the most famous. It is the bohemian area of the city and is often compared in travel literature to Montmarte in Paris.
The street is on a slope, made of cobbled stones and closed to traffic. On both sides are cafes, bars and restaurants with little artist shops and market stalls.
It doesn’t take too long to explore it and this is probably the place in the whole city which will feel the most touristy. The thing is, though, it’s the locals who seem to come here the most.
My impression is that it’s a bit of a novelty for them to come somewhere like this for dinner or a drink in the evening, as much as it is for foreigners.