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!


  1. I love Dorian Gray. What a fantastic place. As for places to stay, I recommend you (if you're planning to come to Belgrade again) to rent one of apartments in Belgrade. I prefer short term rentals to hotels and hostels. I found a great apartment through

  2. I'm looking for a good spot for my Any tips?