Belgrade has survived a millenia of both Attila the Hun and Slobodan Milosevic. But Belgrade knows how to party! Cafes and bars are full of young Belgradians (is that a word), maybe Serbians would be a better term? Basically, it has the Mediterranean lifestyle and vibe without the coastline. Likewise, coffee is serious business here too!
Coffee was brought here by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Obviously, it bears a strong resemblance to Turkish coffee. The first coffee house in Belgrade opened in 1522. And much like the rest of the world, at least the coffee drinking world, local roasters, like Przionica are the rage. They say the viscosity of the kafa bears a strong resemblance to Turkish coffee.
The green markets are held daily. Again, like the other Mediterranean countries, they eat fresh food here, nothing preserved or frozen. Zeleni Square, where I am residing in the Hotel Moskva, hosts the most interesting market. Homemade rakija, their “moonshine’ is sold in recycled glass jars. It is described as dangerous but delicious! Basically, it is a fruit brandy, and can be made from quince, peach, pear, or apricot. The Serbian national version, called sljivovica, is made from Damson plums, and is the most intense. Honey can be added to “soften” the blow.
For breakfast, burek is the new breakfast burrito. Believe it or not, it is sold by weight. Available in both sweet (fruit and cheese) and savory (meat, spinach, cheese, mushroom) versions, it is covered with crunchy layers of flaky pastry. And it is washed down with a liquid yogurt drink, a rather intense combination that seems to work.
Balkan cuisine is pork, and more pork, not a place for vegetarians. Mostly, the meals consist of hearty stews, grilled meats, along with salad, bread, and condiments. Many of the dishes are both Turkish and Greek influences, torten and schnitzel. The breaded pork escalope, Vienna style, is popular. Turkish baklava is also part of most menus. So, the food is rather old fashioned, but fresh and high quality.
A most curious dish is the hamburger’s illegitimate brother, pljeskavica, a Belgrade staple. The biggest are the size of dinner plates. The “burger” is garnished with pickled cabbage, onions, chili, mustard, mayo, tomato sauce, and spicy cream cheese. In other words, it is a big, wet mess.
Partying here is a water sport, meaning the bars and clubs are located on or near the rivers, the Sava, and the Danube. The permanently moored boats provide year around parting, despite what is garishly known as turbo-folk music (loud and obnoxious). Unfortunately, smoking is still tolerated almost everywhere.
Noted residents, past and present include Nikola Tesla, Atilla the Hun, Novak Djokovic, Josip Tito, Slobodan Milosevic, Jelena Dokic, and Jelena Jankovic. I guess if you cannot be a tennis player, you must end us a despot?? BTW, guess who is pictured on their 100 RSD note? Yes, Tesla, not Djokovic.
As a legacy to the Ottoman occupancy, the kafana is a traditional café, now achieving cult status among the younger people. They tend to be smoke filled dens with coffee, beer, and rakija. They also dish up Serbian classics, like pork sausage with white beans and grilled, skinless sausage.
I was told never to mention war here, since the Yugoslav wars lasted for a decade until 2001. “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” in the words of Elaine Benes and Jerry Seinfeld.
A visit to Marshall Tito’s mausoleum is obligatory. The big man rests in an aptly gigantic tomb in peaceful surrounds. Also on display are thousands of elaborate relay batons presented to him by young ‘Pioneers’, plus gifts from political leaders and the voguish set of the era. The mausoleum is attached to the fascinating Museum of Yugoslavia.
Another must do is dining at Three Hats or Tres Sesira. It is over 150 years old, and people like President George Bush and Mayor Willy Brandt have dined here. Located in the Bohemian Quarter of Skadarlija, It opened in 1864. And a live orchestra program of “starogradska” music at night. By the way, it got its name because a craft workshop by the same name was previously located here.
Belgrade, or Beograd means white fortress. As I recall, Saint Petersburg, Russia is also called “white city” for its summer lights displays. Belgrade is known as the city of gritty exuberance.
Not for the faint of heart, the Skull Tower is a giant structure in the city of Nis with over 950 skulls embedded in the walls. The skulls come from Serbian soldiers who were blown up by their own commander after being outnumbered by the Ottomans during the First Serbian Uprising in 1809. Perhaps this is where King Leopold of Belgium learned his ruthless behavior?
While the entire Serbian force was killed, the blast did manage to destroy many Ottoman soldiers while they were approaching the city. As a result, the Ottoman Empire built the tower from the skulls of the fallen rebels as a way to warn future rebel forces. It is now seen as a symbol of independence by the Serbs. Less than 60 skulls remain.
If you told me that someday I would visit Serbia, I would never believe you. And of course, now, during the war in Ukraine, Serbia is a Putin-friendly country. They have not instituted a “no fly” zone, much like Belarus.