Saturday, 28 September 2013

Montenegro - a small country with a big heart

The train journey from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro was scheduled to take ten and a half hours. It took a little more than twelve hours which included passing through some stunning mountainous countryside, seeing agricultural workers bringing down plums from their trees and much stopping and starting in a very smokey, non-smoking (!) train. Luckily I had bought fruit and other snacks the day before in Belgrade as the restaurant carriage only offered drinks. From leaving the train it was a short twenty minutes James Bond style, death defying drive along mountain top roads to the ancient seaside town of Budva.

View of part of Budva's old city from the city walls
Most of Budva's 18,000 inhabitants live in the new part of town but the real attraction is the Stari Grad, or old town which is full of narrow alleys, red tiled roofs, small eateries and historical churches. The churches cluster together in and adjacent to Trg (square) Izmedu Crkava. The churches of St. Troijka, built in 1804 and St. Sava which dates from the 14th century both feature beautiful frescos and other art work but don't take pictures or you will be given a severe telling-off! I especially like this part of the city with its view of the sea from the square, its almost tropical greenery and the ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church which dates from the year 840. One of the other highlights is a walk around the city walls which affords great views out to sea, some intimate views of the old city, especially its private gardens and roof tops. You can also see St. Nikola Island a short distance out to sea which can be accessed by boat or, I am told, by crossing a sandbank which appears at low tide. Stick with the boat I think.

The old city also has a gallery of modern art which had a temporary exhibition of sculpture when I visited and a small flea market selling an assortment of old postcards, tourist "stuff", a few antiques and various bits and pieces. Its worth a browse and I picked up a couple of 1930's postcards at one of the stalls.

Square in Budva's Stari Grad with ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church.
One of the great things about visiting a relatively small country is that it is possible to visit several places fairly easily. Whilst in Budva, I was able to arrange for a driver to take me to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, a distance of 30 kilometres and then on to the stunning Lake Skadar stopping at a couple of interesting places along the way. Hotels can usually arrange or recommend a good driver and will agree a price with you in advance.

Cetinje's main attraction is its monastery that dates from the 15th century when the city was founded by one Ivan Crnojevic who based himself on this high plateau when retreating from Ottoman invaders. The Turks managed to destroy the monastery three times only for it to be rebuilt on each occasion. On the day I visited some areas were off limits because of visiting dignitaries but I was able to admire the two small chapels to the right of the main entrance which are filled with Eastern Orthodox style icons. One of the chapels is said to house the right hand of John the Baptist and a piece of the crucifixion cross. Please note, modest dress is a must if you wish to visit here. An art nouveau style statue of Crnojevic stands guard on the city, just a short walk from the monastery.

Cetinje is also home to the National Historical Museum and Art Gallery. The museum consists of a series of adjoining rooms on the upper floor of the building exhibiting portraits of important moments and individuals in Montenegrin history as well as costumes, insignia, weapons and other items. The gallery is housed on the ground floor and was staging a temporary exhibition of a contemporary Montenegrin artist when I visited. Its permanenet collection includes icons, works by artists from across the former Yugoslavia, Montenegrin fine art and works by foreign artists including Renoir, Picasso, Chagall and Dali. Not bad for a gallery in a town of less than 20,000 people! In the space adjacent to the museum there is a huge relief map of Montenegro constructed by Austro-Hungarian invaders during the First World War. Also worth a look is the reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church a few hundred metres from the museum which stands on the ruins of the original structure.

Ivan Crnojevic statue, Cetinje

Reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church, Cetinje
From Cetinje it was on to the Lake, but with a very short stop at Rijeka Crnojevica on the way. Just 10 kilometres away from Cetinje and accessed by a winding asphalt lane coming down from the surrounding high ground, this little village is famous for its 15th century triple arched bridge across the river that shares its name. Once important as a crossroads of caravans and water routes, Rijeka Crnojevica now earns its keep primarily from tourists who come to see the bridge and to eat at the Stari Most restaurant owned by former football star Nikola Jovavonic. There are also a couple of other places to eat. The village is generally in need of repair and investment but one or two pretty houses remain and there is clear potential for future (sensitive please) development here. Incidentally, the place takes its name from the aforementioned Ivan Crnojevic who spent time here in the late 15th century.

Back on the road, there is a panoramic viewing point allowing for exceptional views of Lake Skadar and offering an opportunity for the thirsty to have a tipple. A local "entrepreneur" has set up an open air bar selling his own wines and spirits and inviting visitors to tell him which country they come from. At the time of my visit he had received visits from 81countries and was keen to show me his hand written records of who came from where and when! The first visitor from a country receives a small bottle of home made plum spirits. I wasn't his first UK visitor, but he did give me some delicious fresh figs grown on his own land. A bit of a character you might say. I didn't get his name, so let me know if you have it!

House is Rijeka Crnojevica

Open air bar above Lake Skadar
Lake Skadar makes up 391 square kilometres of the 400 kilometres Skadar Lake National Park. It is surrounded by Montenegrin mountains on three sides and by Albania to the east. It is home to one of the largest lakes in Europe with 40 different kinds of fish and a major bird reserve. Two thirds of the lake belong to Montenegro and the remainder to Albania. On the day I visited, there was a slightly dark and cloudy sky which added to the other-worldly atmosphere. The darkness of the landscape illustrated perfectly how this country got its name - the black mountain. The area around the lake is extremely green and forested and it is easy to imagine earlier times when great armies crossed this land, people lived in tribal communities and there was even more wildlife here. 

I stopped for lunch in the town of Virpazar by the lake and arranged to go on the water for an hour or so. At high season there are a number of locals taking tourists out in boats of various sizes but I had the Lake almost to myself and felt very small on this huge and almost silent expanse. 

View of part of Lake Skadar
The final stop on my short tour of Montenegro was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kotor. The city sits at the very end of the Boka bay and beneath the towering Mount Lovcen. I know that its towering because on the first day I took all 1,440 steps to the citadel at the top for a stunning view of those red tiled roofs and the deeply blue bay. On the way up I visited the small but beautiful Chapel of our Lady of Salvation. Built in the 16th century by survivors of the plague its a good resting point on what can be a very demanding ascent. Remember to take water  with you, otherwise you may have to pay inflated prices from casual vendors on the way up. Relieved to make the top, I couldn't resist taking a picture of the Montenegrin flag flying over the city and the bay, as proof that I'd made it!

The old city itself, encased by 4.5 kilometres of walls (twice the size of those at Dubrovnik!), has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it with strong Italian influences, narrow alleyways, washing hanging between buildings, wooden shutters and a church around every corner. When exploring the city it is hard to believe that in 1979 an enormous earthquake levelled huge parts of both Kotor and Budva, killing 94 people, injuring many and leaving over 80,000 homeless. Due to the amazing perserverance of local craftsmen both cities have been totally restored, piecing together fallen buildings bit by bit over the last few decades.  

The thing I liked best about Kotor was wandering the narrow alleyways, discovering yet another church from the 15th or 16th century, a small craft shop or tiny cafe or restaurant. St. Tryphon's Cathedral, a survivor of several earthquakes has both romanesque and baroque features as well as holding a number of religious artefacts in its small museum at the upper level. In the basement there are also remnants of Byzantine influenced frescos from the 14th century. 

Outside the city walls, there is a small produce market selling local fruits and vegetables including more of those fresh figs mentioned earlier. There are also some good cafes along the water front and the long promenade along the bay. Ice cream is available everywhere and I can confirm that its good. As in Budva, there are many Italian restaurants in Kotor, serving pretty much the same menus and of course, many fish restaurants. The Italian influence is also noticeable in the Kotor dialect which is peppered with Italian words - people greet each other with "ciao" in this city. There is a tourist information point just outside the walls where you can book a one hour walking tour of the city with one of the knowledgeable guides who will talk about the history and culture of Kotor.

Montenegro's flag flying over the city

Aerial view of the old city of Kotor 

Finally, no trip here would be complete without some time on the water. For 20 Euros I was able to take a boat trip from to Perast and to the tiny island of Our Lady of the Rock. Perast is a tiny town that hugs the bayside with its elegant balconied Bujovic Palace which houses a maritime museum, a string of cafes and restaurants and boats that will take you to the aforementioned island. The island itself  is manmade, initially from the hulls of scuttled hips reinforced by boatload after boatload of stones. The original chapel was dedicated in 1630 and then enlarged in 1725. The interior of the church has 68 paintings by local artist Tripo Kokolja (1661 - 1713), all of them biblical scenes. Even smaller than the island holding Our Lady of the Rock, is the natural reef just across the water, shrouded by cypress trees and home to the Benedictine Monastery of St. George.

Montenegro may be a small country but it is rich in unspoiled scenery with a great relaxed feel and very welcoming people. I might well be back!

Benedictine Monastery of St. George
You can see more pictures from Montenegro here.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Serbian modernism - a forgotten heritage

Like many European countries, Serbia (then as part of Yugoslavia) was a centre of immense creativity and artistic endeavour during the 1920's and 1930's. Writers, artists and above all, architects gathered in Belgrade and other cities in the newly formed country and although much has been lost or damaged, a great deal of their legacy remains today. This post will cover a few of my favourite examples of Serbia's remaining modernist architecture.

During the 1920's, Belgrade underwent rapid development in response to significant population growth. A battle ensued between supporters of the more traditional national style and those who advocated a move to modernism. The modernist camp included many young newcomers to the city, several of whom joined the Group of Architects of the Modern Movement of Belgrade (GAMM) which was formed in November 1928. The founding members were Milan Zlokovic (president), Branislav Kojic, Jan Dubovy and Dusan Babic. Each occupied positions in academia or in the city authority whilst also working on their own projects. GAMM was a loose organisation and the four held their meetings in a range of cafes (good choice!) The group survived through its own financial contributions and the pooling of a percentage of any winnings from architectural competitions. Costs were kept down by co-operating with artists Sreten Stojanovic and Branko Popovic, mixing art and architecture in a number of exhibitions.

Over time, more young architects became attached to this movement, including Dragisa Brasovan who joined the group in 1930. Born in Vrsac, Serbia in 1887, Brasovan was already a successful architect when he joined, having worked previously in the historical style. A number of his buildings still survive in Belgrade and I was able to see two of them on my recent visit.

Apartment block, Brankova Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1932.
His apartment block on busy Brankova Street, with retail properties on the ground floor and residential above is one of my favourite modernist Belgrade buildings. I especially like the central recess with its balconies (at least one of which has been filled in - grrr!), the clean lines and curves, reminiscent of some of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus apartment blocks and the triangular glass and metal art deco feature at the top of the recess. Francuska Street is home to another Brasovan designed apartment block. In slightly better condition than the Brankova Street beauty, the upper floors appear to have been re-clad in recent years in lighter colours, whilst the top floor looks suspiciously like an addition to the original building - but I am happy to hear otherwise if readers know better? I like the striped pillars on the balconies of this impressive corner block.

Apartment block, Francuska Street, Belgrade. Dragisa Brasovan, 1931.
One of the richest areas for modernist architecture in Belgrade is a small circus called Kosancicev Venac Street which faces the entrance to another treasure trove - Marsala Birjuzova Street. The circus features three modernist apartment buildings on separate islands, each with a cafe at ground floor level. My favourite of the three, and possibly my favourite building in Belgrade, is the Miladin Prljevic designed apartment block pictured below. A seven storey building at its tallest, it includes art deco style portholes on one aspect, five parallel columns on the main aspect and those pull down shutters that can still be seen on many buildings in Belgrade. Unfortunately it also features a number of ugly air conditioning units but even these cannot detract from the grandeur of Prljevic's work which was completed in 1938.  

Apartment block, Kosancicev Venac Street, Belgrade, Miladin Prljevic, 1938.
Just across the road in Marsala Birjuzova Street there are several buildings worthy of a visit. Two are of particular interest. At number 21, is the Lektres building, designed by GAMM founder member, Dusan Babic. Built in 1931, drawings for this apartment block were included in the First Yugoslav Salon of Contemporary Architecture in Belgrade in the same year. One contemporary critic noted that "a constant exploration and development can be felt" in the design. Today, the Lektres building is in dire need of a clean, but its asymmetrical facade, with decorative features on one side and its large decorative panels between the windows of the apartments still demand attention. 

Babic was born in Banja Luka in 1896 when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna before working in Sarajevo for the municipal construction bureau before coming to Belgrade in 1928 - just two years before helping to found the GAMM. At least one observer described him as being quiet, calm and composed in contrast to his co-founders who may have had more compulsive personalities! 

Another apartment block in Marsala Birjuzova Street, this one the work of architect Djuro Borosic and completed in 1932 is also attention grabbing. The series of balconies and decorative stripes on the facade give some clues to its original splendour, but like its near neighbour the Lektres building, it needs a good clean and the ground floor level graffiti removing. It also has a number of the dreaded air conditioning units on display on the front of the building and satellite dishes on the roof. Whilst walking through this area, I noted the similarities to Bucharest and the wonderful collection of modernist buildings in that great city.

Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street. Dusan Babic, 1931.
Apartment building, Marsala Birjuzova Street, Belgrade. Djuro Borosic, 1932
The apartment block of Dr. Duric, designed by Branislav Kojic and located in Prizrenska Street, is regarded as one of the best examples of modernism in Belgrade. Located on a very tight and sloping site adjacent to the busy Terazije Square and with a view of the River Sava on one side.  The balconies and the portholes on the rear of the apartment block again give this building a Bauhaus feel and like several buildings from this period, has retail spaces on the ground floor with residential accommodation on the upper floors. A number of passers-by stopped to see what I was photographing when taking pictures of the block. One or two paused and showed interest, whilst others merely rolled their eyes or shrugged their shoulders wondering what the fuss was about - evidence of the lack of knowledge about the built heritage of this city.

Apartment block of Dr. Duric, Prizrenska Street, Belgrade. Branislav Kojic, 1933
The Albania Palace stands just a short walk from Kojic's apartment block. It was completed in 1940 under the direction of Miladin Prljevic and Dorde Lazarevic based on a 1938 project by Branko Bon and Milan Grakalic. At 53 metres tall, it was the first high rise building in Belgrade and remained the city's tallest building for some time. It takes its name from the kafana that previously occupied this space and is an important building for a number of reasons. The Red Army and Yugoslav partisan forces placed the red flag there on October 20th 1944 when the city was liberated from German occupation  whilst in the 1950's the facade was decorated with banners carrying slogans and portraits of former Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito. The Palace, with its slightly concave front marks the beginning of Terazije Square and also of Knez Mihailova Street - the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare and remains an important point of reference and orientation.

Albania Palace, Belgrade. Branko Bon, Milan Grakalic, Dorde Lazarevic and Miladin Prljevic, 1938-40.
The examples so far quoted are all in Belgrade, but Novi Sad, just one hour further north, and Serbia's second city also boasts some significant modernist buildings. The Tanurdzic Palace at 1-3 Modena Street was designed by architect Dorde Tabakovic. Commissioned by merchant Nikola Tanurdzic, it was built between 1933 and 1934 with an extension being added in 1939. This five storeyed building in the busy commercial centre of Novi Sad still looks extremely modern today with its visually pleasing lines, curves and colours standing out on the main thoroughfare. Part of the Palace is currently covered in scaffolding. Let's hope that nothing is going to be done to spoil this beautiful building through "improvement". 

Tabakovic was born in 1897 in Arad, Romania to a Serbian family. He studied in Budapest and Belgrade and designed a number of residential buildings across the Vojdovina province as well as a children's home, a library and several Serbian Orthodox churches. His father, Milan was also an architect who worked across what is today northern Serbia as well as Banat in Romania.

Tanurdzic Palace, Novi Sad. Dorde Tabakovic, 1933-34.
The Tanurdzic palace is a large building, but it is dwarfed by Novi Sad's other significant modernist building - the Palace of the Danube Regional Government, designed by our old friend Dragisa Brasovan. The largest and most expensive of his works, Brasovan was directly appointed to design this regional government building following an abortive design competition in 1930 which failed to produce a winner. The next few years saw financial crisis and political instability in the regional government and it was not until 1936 that Brasovan completed his designs and work began.

The most striking feature of this building is its monumental 180 metres long horizontal body, rounded at one end and complemented with a slender vertical tower. It was Brasovan's original intention to clad the facades in red brick but the client demanded instead a white stone from the Adriatic island of Brac. 120,000 square metres of the stone were required to complete this task. The plainness of this enormous white building is broken by the curve and the tower but also by some of the art deco influenced decorative features on the doors and the windows as well as the parallel piped forms on the tower. Construction was finally completed in 1939, almost a decade after the project was first mooted.

Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad. Dragisa Brasovan, 1936-39.
Detail of doorway, Palace of the Danube Regional Government, Novi Sad.
There are many more examples of modernist architecture in Belgrade and possibly others elsewhere in Serbia and readers are invited to share their knowledge of them. I would like to note my thanks to Milan Prosen and Davor Salom in putting together some of the details for this post and also to direct interested users to an excellent website - Nothing Against Serbia, which is an excellent source of information about Serbian architecture generally. Ljiljana Blagojevic's book Modernism In Serbia is a probably the bible on this subject and was also extremely useful in identifying, dates, architects and other data.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like these:
Belgrade, secret star of the Balkans
Modernism, an elegant swimming pool and Red Vienna
Modernist Riga - architectural treasures from the 1930's 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Serbian sojourn - north to Subotica and some stunning art nouveau

Front entrance to Raichle Palace, now the Modern Art Gallery, Likovni Susret
Subotica is a city of just under 100,000 people, located in Serbia's northern most province of Vojvodina. The border with Hungary is just a short distance away and until the end of the First World War Subotica (or Szabadka in Hungarian) was part of that country. A strong Magyar influence is very visible with street signs in both Serbo-Croat and Hungarian, more than 30% of the population speaking Hungarian and most of all in the city's truly stunning art nouveau architecture from the beginning of the twentieth century.

 I first became aware of this architectural treasure trove of a town about five years ago when I happened on a picture of its synagogue (more of which later) and I have wanted to visit since then. Well just last weekend I fulfilled that desire and saw not just the synagogue but many of Subotica's art nouveau buildings, the most striking of which is the Raichle Palace at Park Ferenca Rajhla 5. Built in 1904 to the designs of architect Ferenc Raichle as his home and architectural studio, he combined expensive materials and vibrant colours to produce an art nouveau masterpiece. The facade of the building stops visitors in their tracks as they gaze at the riot of colour and decorative detail, not least the external lobby and entrance portal. The rear of the building is also beautiful although comparatively sober with its blue decorations on a cream background and is easily viewed from the courtyard of the Boss Cafe at the rear of Raichle's former home.

Today the Palace is home to the Modern Art Gallery - Likovni Susret which means that its possible to see the interior of this wonderful building - and also to take photographs. Although many of the original features have been lost there are still glimpses of the past and the ceramics, Murano glass mosaics, wrought ironwork, woodcarving and stucco. When I visited there was an exhibition of contemporary art, but the Palace is the star of the show and a small exhibition on Raichle on the first floor helps visitors imagine the splendour of his work.

Raichle Palace, Ferenc, Rajhla 5
The Hungarian legation stands just a few doors away from the Raichle Palace. Formerly known as the Salomon Sonnenberg Tenement Palace it was built in 1909 and designed by architects Izidor Strassburger and Lajos Gombos. I always associate the word "tenement" with low quality social housing and it seems strange to link it to the word "palace", but palace this certainly is. I especially like the doorway with its strong colours, "chess board" decoration on the upper pillars and metalwork over the glazing. The building also features Zsolnay ceramics - another tell tale sign of Hungarian influence. Photographs of the exterior are allowed but don't get too close to the door or look as if you might go inside, or the polite but stern security guard will ask you to move away.

Entrance to the former Sonnenburg Tenement Palace, now the Hungarian Legation
Before the Second World War, Subotica had a considerable Jewish community. The current community president estimates it to have numbered about 4,000 whilst I have seen references to 6,000 on various websites. Today there are about 250 community members. Yad Vashem refers to 4,000 Subotica Jews being murdered either by the German occupiers or in death camps between 1941 and 1945. Many of the survivors chose to emigrate to Israel after 1948, leaving just a remnant.

The community may have been decimated but it has a proud legacy. This includes one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in the world. The Subotica synagogue was built in 1902. It is one of very few surviving pieces of art nouveau religious architecture. The central dome is an imposing 40 metres high. There were once seats for 850 men with a further 550 seats in the women's gallery, demonstrating the former size and confidence of the community. The interior is decorated with highly stylised floral motifs including tulips and carnations as well as with peacock feather designs. These are typical Hungarian art nouveau features whilst the green and yellow dome is reminiscent of many buildings in Budapest, including the Decorative Arts Museum.

Subotica Synagogue
Sadly, the synagogue has been in a very poor state of repair for many years. Restoration work is being undertaken and the roof is now secure but the interior is in a shocking state with many of the decorative features in danger of disappearing. Funding has been secured to carry out some of the required works but the president of the community told me that at least a further 2 million Euros will be needed to complete this important project. Come on wealthy donors - this is a unique part of European Jewish heritage that must be saved.

The architects of this unique building were Marcell Komor and Dezso Jakab, both Jewish and both pupils of Hungarian art nouveau master Odon Lechner. Not only were they able to combine the dual identities of Subotica's Jews in the synagogue design - Hungarian and Jewish,  but they also made use of ground breaking modern steel structures and a self supporting dome. The stained glass windows, also in danger of being lost were the work of Miksa Roth whilst Zsolnay ceramics were used on the roof and the facade. Today the synagogue is rarely in use and the community holds services in another nearby building.

I began this post with a reference to the synagogue and my long held desire to visit. I was thrilled to be able to see not only the exterior, but also to go inside. But I was also filled with sadness at its poor condition and at the empty rows of seats still in place in the women's gallery (most of the men's seats are gone) and the appalling loss of this once vibrant community.

Bimah and Ark, Subotica synagogue
Just opposite the synagogue is another of Subotica's art nouveau treasures - the City Museum. Commisioned by Doctor Miksa Domotor and built as a house for his family in 1906. It was designed by the Vago brothers, Josef and Laszlo and carries the bird motifs for which they were famous. In later years it was home to a printing company but was taken over by the city in 2008 and since then has been the Subotica's City Museum. Domotor was an interesting character himself, researching serums and carrying out work to combat both diptheria and trachoma. He was also involved in businesses including seltzer water and marble production as well as editing a magazine on bee-keeping!

Detail of the former Domotor Palace, with bird motifs of architects Josef and Laszlo Vago

And then there's the City Hall. This massive structure was built between 1908 and 1912. and covers over 5,800 square metres with a highest point of 76 metres. Another Komor and Jakab design, it was built between 1908 and 1912. It combines art nouveau features with references to Hungarian folklore and includes ceramic floral motifs, wrought iron work and beautiful stained glass windows. The City Hall is at the very heart of Subotica and as well as fulfilling a civic purpose it is also host to cultural activity, the city archives, shops (including what may just be the only McDonalds in an art nouveau building!) and a bank. Komor and Jakab also designed several of the art nouveau structures at nearby Lake Palic, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit in addition to the former Subotica Commercial Bank Palace.

Detail, City Hall
Side door, City Hall
As well as being home to some fantastic architecture, Subotica has also been home to a number of famous people. Award winning writer Danilo Kiss was born here in 1935, the child of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin Orthodox Christian mother. Kiss survived the war, although many of his relatives did not. He died unexpectedly in 1990 but is one of Serbia's most well known authors. Clearly a literary town, poet and prose writer Dezso Kosztonlanyi was also born here in 1885. He used the city as the model for his fictional town Sarszeg in which he set two of his works. On a different note, the Visit Subotica website claims horror film star Bela Lugosi as one of its sons although other cities also claim him.

Detail, former Subotica Commercial Bank Palace
Walking around this small but beautiful city it was possible to get just a glimpse of how life might have been back in the last few years before the First World War when many of the events that were to turn Europe into a battle field for decades to come were yet to take place. The achievements of those years are still visible in the built heritage. More people should visit.

For more pictures of Subotica please click here. And thanks to Elinor in Budapest for some of the architect's details!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Belgrade - secret star of the Balkans

Belgrade is one of the less well known European capital cities. If Britons know about it at all, it is either  for the wars of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990's or for the city's famous football clubs - Red Star  and Partizan. More recently it may have been noticed a little more as the home town of world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic. However, there is much more to Belgrade than that and it may just be one of Europe's best kept secrets.

First things first. No trip is complete for me without having visited numerous cafes to sample the coffee and local cakes. Belgrade has a cafe on every corner...and several in between! My favourite in Belgrade is Smokvica, which occupies a courtyard and an old villa in Kralja Petra street (of which more in a moment) where I enjoyed a rich cheesecake with some sour cherries and strong coffee. Perfect. I also happened upon a very sweet treat - Balkan Baklava, a Turkish owned shop at Carice Milice 15. As well as doing a brisk takeaway trade, there is a small sit down space and overcome by temptation I enjoyed a little of the excellent pistachio baklava with a Turkish coffee. Both Smokvica and Balkan Baklava are places to return to should I come back to Belgrade.

Balkan Baklava, at Carice Milice 15
Kralja Petra street runs across Knez Mihaila street, the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare and shopping street and is in the oldest part of Belgrade. This one street boasts a couple of museums, a good juice bar,    Dorian Gray anther good cafe/ restaurant decorated in belle epoque style but with an Oscar Wilde theme(!) and some great architecture. Numbers 39 and 41 are excellent art nouveau buildings, dating from 1907. Number 39 is the only fully intact example of the work of architect Stojan Titelbah and was built for Jewish merchant Aron Levi. Titelbah fought in the First World War and was sent to Corfu. Suffering from depression he committed suicide there in 1916, aged just 39. Number 41 is the work of architects Andra Stevanovic and Nikola Nestarovic and is widely known as the house with green tiles due to its striking green ceramic upper facade. Both buildings feature classic art nouveau elements and would not be out of place in Vienna, Budapest or several other central European cities.

House of green tiles, Kralja Petra, 41
Belgrade is also home to a very large number of modernist buildings dating from the 1920's up until the late 1930's. I intend to write a separate post on Serbian modernism (Novi Sad also boasts a couple of excellent examples of this genre) but can't resist sharing a couple of photographs here. Both are of residential units and at the moment I do not have the dates of architect's details for them, but both are a feast for the eyes. The first is an apartment block also in Kralja Petra Street with retail on the ground floor including a shop that bears the legend "Body Orange Underwear". There is a sunbed place close by! The other is one of three blocks that stand on a small circus leading into Marsala Birjuzova street and which has some classic art deco/ modernist portholes as part of its very streamlined design. The picture I have included here shows some of this detail as well as, alas the obligatory air conditioning unit eyesore on the building's facade.

Residential modernist block with ground floor retail. Kralja Petra Street
Detail of modernist building opposite Marsala Birjuzova Street.
Marsala Birjuzova Street is the location of Belgrade's last remaining functional synagogue. My time in the city coincided with Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish new year and there were several people in the synagogue courtyard when I visited. Among them was Davor Salom one of the community's leading lights and local travel guide. He told me that the community today numbers about two thousand members of varying degrees of observance and including those who trace their Jewishness through their fathers or who have married Jews. The community may be small but it is extremely active with a range of religious and social activities on offer, one of Serbia's best known choirs - the Baruh Brothers Chorus, a Jewish theatre and a number of educational programmes. Much of this activity either takes place in or is  organised from the community's main building which is in, yes you've guessed it, Kralja Petra street.

As in many European cities, the Jewish community here was once much larger but was decimated in 1942 by the German occupiers. Most of the Jewish male population were executed by shooting in reprisal for resistance activities whilst the women, children and elderly were incarcerated at a camp within the city boundaries and murdered in mobile gassing units that were driven through the city each day. A number of Jewish sites remain in the city and these will be covered in a further post which will look at Serbia's Jewish communities in more detail.

The synagogue was built between 1924 and 1925 and is set back from the street in a courtyard sheltered by trees. Despite it being tucked away, it is a large, imposing building in the neo-classical style. The interior is simple with a separate women's gallery on the upper level and a bimah decorated with golden stars topped by a large golden Magen David.

Synagogue interior, Marsala Birjuzova Street
Belgrade is home to a large number of landmark religious buildings of many denominations - including a mosque which serves the city's Muslim community. there are also halal shops and restaurants. Perhaps the most architecturally impressive religious building here is the Church of St. Sava. Construction began in 1935 but controversy over its design and the interruption of the Second World War in 1941 made for very slow progress. Progress stopped altogether during the communist years until 1985 when it resumed under the direction of architect Branko Pesic. Again disputes arose since the design did not follow traditional Serbian Orthodox strictures and the overall structure was not completed until 1989 when the huge main cupola was put in place. It took a hydraulic press to achieve this and to put in place the 12 metres high golden cross on top of the cupola. Religious or not, St. Sava's is impressive as an architectural achievement. It dominates and is visible along the boulevard that stretches from Terazie to the church itself. The interior is yet to be completed but the church is in use and attracts many visitors, both worshippers and tourists.

Church of St. Sava
Belgrade's Museum of Contemporary Art which houses a huge collection of 20th century works of Serbian artists is currently closed for renovation, but there are still some little gems that are worth a visit. Artist Petar Dobrovic was born in Pecs, Hungary 1890 to a Serbian family. Dobrovic experimented with various styles including Cubism and Impressionism, always working in strong, vibrant colours that also show influences of Fauvism. The Petar Dobrovic Gallery at Kralja Petar Street 36 is currently exhibiting a number of his landscapes. Several are of the Serbian wine region of Fruska Gora as well as   of different parts of Dalmatia, including Dubrovnik.

The gallery is on the top floor of the Aero Club building which dates from 1934 and boasts the original lift. Having failed to get a response from the doorbell on the ground floor I decided to take a chance, went in through the open ground floor door and kept climbing until I found the gallery. It was well worth the effort and once there the staff were extremely friendly and welcoming - a trait exhibited just about everywhere I went in Belgrade.

Dobrovic had an interesting life. Following the First World War, much opposed to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he established the Serb-Hungarian republic of Baranja-Baja, with himself as president. This was a short lived project and when it collapsed he fled to Yugoslavia. The Hungarians sentenced him to death in his absence. Painting must have seemed a safer profession after that. 

File:Petar Dobrović, Autoportret, 1932.jpg
Petar Dobrovic, self-portrait, 1932
OK, so that's cakes, architecture and art - three of the key elements for any time I spend traveling. A fourth is jazz...and Belgrade has that too. Serbia has a number of jazz festivals during the summer months, but jazz lovers also have the chance to visit Ptica, a tiny club on Cara Urosa street, which has live jazz at weekends. The club is a small and cosy space where the walls are covered in jazz memorabilia, the service is very friendly and there are also outside tables during the summer months. On the night I went along, I caught a set from a local jazz trio that would have been well received at any London jazz venue - a pianist, saxophonist and drummer. However, the star of the evening just had to be the seven or eight years old daughter of one of the musicians who had her own small trumpet and who from time to time stood in the line-up and pretended to be playing, making appropriate facial expressions, counting the bars until before "coming-in" and then standing with a particularly cool "engaged" look between playing!

I didn't get our young jazz musician's name but she is typical of the quirky, friendly atmosphere of this city. This includes cafe staff, the lady who sells the ice cream near my hotel on Knez Mihaila Street, the woman at the Jewish Community building who gave me two free books to make up for my not being able to visit the exhibition at the museum and the security guard at the theatre who came out to speak when he saw me taking pictures in the lobby and suggested a number of places I might be interested in.

And to finish off - a little more quirkiness. Floating umbrellas from a street full of bars and some interesting sweets from another, somewhat football focussed baklava store.  

Floating umbrellas
Baklava for Galatasaray fans!