Whichever way you arrive, the first sight of Belgrade takes your breath away, the ‘White City’ rising like a sphinx above the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Up on the hill, the iconic spire of St Michael’s, the Orthodox cathedral, dominates the old town but all eyes are set on the citadel spreading along the ridge, 125 metres above the valley.
This strategic location fired up battles and invasions for almost 2,000 years, razing the city to the ground 44 times, but in the new independent Serbia peace has come and the old fortress sprinkles towers, turrets and walls in the wonderful oasis of Kalemegdan, the city’s central park. Birds twitter all around and there are statues and flower displays, grand staircases, fountains and gates, a few crenellations, a couple of museums and churches and lots of winding paths and shaded seats where locals come to chat or play chess. Visitors stroll along the beautiful cliff top promenade to enjoy the views, the modern city in the distance, the bridges, the cruising boats anchored along the Sava, the green waters of the Danube flowing around the Big Island’s nature reserve. Excavations have revealed the presence of the Vinca, one of the oldest prehistoric cultures in Europe, the Celts, Romans and many others, but surviving fortifications only date back to the 18th century, rebuilt by Austro-Hungarian and Turkish rulers.
The ‘old town’ is even younger, claiming 200 years at the very most, but is stylish and colourful with tree-lined streets, outdoor restaurants and stunning buildings ranging from Romantic or Renaissance style to neo-Baroque, Art Nouveau or early Deco, in white or pastel hues. The wide pedestrian street Knez Mihailova is everyone’s favourite, the place to meet friends, enjoy a drink or browse the luxury shops before heading to the vast Republic Square. There you can gaze at the equestrian statue of 19th century ruler Prince Michael, the National Theatre and the National Museum containing some 290,000 exhibits from around the world. Most valuable is the Miroslav’s Gospel, the oldest Cyrillic manuscript of its kind, with 362 illuminated pages dating back to around 1180.
Belgrade has myriad churches, including Saint Sava rebuilt in the 20th century and now one of the largest in the world, honouring the country’s medieval patron saint and founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Saint Sava is set on the Vracar plateau but nearer to the town centre is an elegant cluster of former palaces, now turned City Hall and Presidential Seat, enhanced by lawns and flower beds. Look out for the House of the National Assembly across the park, pristine white and fronted by sculptures of ‘Black Horses Playing’.
Relaxed and cosmopolitan, easy to walk around, Belgrade is a delightful capital, from the gently buzzing centre and waterways to the lovely Botanical Garden or the secluded Bohemian District around Skadarska Street. Once home to gypsies, this steep cobbled lane is full of old charm, a hideaway for writers, artists and savvy visitors. There are intriguing paintings and trompe l’oeil, antique and ethnic shops, small galleries and inviting flower-draped terraces serving delicious food and wine at affordable prices. Guitar, harmonica, violin or tamburitza, traditional music sounds in every corner, late into the night but a world away from the throbbing nightclubs and floating restaurants along the Sava. Meanwhile on the cliff-like ridge, all is quiet and the old citadel glows high above the mighty rivers.