Belgrade. It’s an old city with a new vibe, and as we discovered during a whirlwind two days there, it is abuzz with creative energy, innovation, and tradition.
In one corner of town a woman wearing a babushka-style scarf sells lavender, white and cranberry-colored flowers at a market, alongside vendors peddling a bounty of cherries, strawberries, and green peppers. Just around the corner, in the up and coming Savamala district, young entrepreneurs mingle in an industrial-building-turned-cultural center that could just as likely be in San Francisco or Berlin. And, in the city’s sixth-century fortress, old men cluster around a park table, playing a heated match of chess, while a young couple embraces on a bench overlooking the city’s skyline.
Handing me a clear plastic bottle with the chapel’s likeness embossed on it, Jelena explains that the church had been built atop a spring that’s believed to be miraculous.
“People drink this water to purify their bodies. It’s said to have healing properties,” she says.
On a balmy, early-summer day, the chilled water is refreshing, and we sip from the dainty bottle as we walk the walls of the citadel, looking out toward the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.
“The rivers form a natural border,” Jelena explains. “The south side of the Sava is the Balkan Peninsula, and to the north of it, Europe.” In past times, this also delineated the boundary between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. “Even today, life in Belgrade revolves around the Danube,” Jelena adds.
Jelena mentions the City on Water project in the works with aims to revitalize and redevelop the Belgrade waterfront, while transforming buildings formerly used for industry into residential, cultural, commercial, and sporting centers.
Next, we’re whisked off to Belgrade’s hip Savamala district, an area that had once been neglected and industrial but is now being turned into cultural centers, and art galleries. There are bars and clubs with names like Mladost (Youth), Radost (Joy), and Ludost (Craziness), and the neighborhood is especially busy during our visit as organizers prepare for the next week’s annual Mikser Festival.
Turning our attention to Belgrade’s more traditional offerings, Jelena takes us to the grand Saint Sava Cathedral, which is currently being built and said to be one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. With its white marble and granite façade, the church’s appearance echoes Belgrade’s name, which translates to ‘the white city.’ I enjoy having the rare opportunity of seeing a church construction in progress, and as we walk the unfinished concrete floors of the interior, past churchgoers lighting candles, I try to imagine the vibrant mosaics that will soon adorn the walls.
On the way to lunch, we pass two government buildings destroyed during the NATO bombing of the city in the 1990s. Those televised moments had been my first introduction to the city, and it is jarring now seeing the still-bombed shells of these buildings in a thriving city.
“The structures were built by a famous architect and have protected status,” Jelena mentions. “Today, there’s also the question of what to do with the buildings. Because of their great location, there’s talk of restoring them and turning them into hotels.”
We arrive at Lorenzo & Kakalamba just in time to address our hungry bellies, but before we sink into the red and gold plastic-molded chairs resembling his & her derrières, we tour the restaurant, which serves a blend of Tuscan and southern Serbian cuisine.
There are sparkling Murano glass chandeliers, goat figurines dangling upside-down from the ceiling, and a glass window in the floor to watch the cooks whipping up the cuisine. But the bathroom offers some of the quirkiest surprises: his & her chastity belts framed in glass display cases, and a likeness of Santa, sitting atop the men’s facilities.
As each traditional southern Serbian dish arrives at the table, we discover that the restaurant’s food is not overshadowed by its elaborate interior. The fare abounds with cheese of all textures, flavorful vegetable combinations, and lots of meat. In keeping with my selectarian meat and gluten free-eating ways, I focus on the cheese platters, Ajvar, and salads, while Shawn also dives into the meat dishes. The food is rich and delicious, and well-complimented by a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the southern part of the country.
“In Serbia, a meal without meat is not considered a meal. You’ve probably noticed that much of our street food is based on meat – everything from Cevapi, to steak, and chicken wings,” Jelena says.
As the plate of homemade Sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with mincemeat) reaches the table, bubbly Jelena, cannot contain herself.
“This is a common dish in my family and it takes a lot of time to prepare and cook. My grandmother used to make it for me, and I’ve missed it. When I saw it again, I thought ooooh, I can’t wait.”
As we finish our meal and sip the last of our wine, Jelena says, “Life is good in Belgrade and people are happy here. We know how to please ourselves with small things. Friendship is important. I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now.”
Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Serbia.
Disclosure & Thanks:
This day’s tour and lunch were provided by the Belgrade Tourist Organization, to which we extend thanks.
A special hvala or Xвала to Jelena for coordinating all details of the whirlwind tour and for being our host extraordinaire, and to Lorenzo & Kakalamba restaurant, and Stanislava at the Nikola Tesla Museum.