Belgrade, the Serbian capital which is known to have the best nightlife in Eastern Europe, bristles with life after dark. Nights here are filled with a medley of soundtracks — the thumps of bass, the tinkle of glasses and the sound of gaiety. However, there is more to Belgrade than bass, booze and blondes. On my recent trip to Serbia, I discovered just that.
The Republic Square in the centre of the city, 50 m from my hotel, is the site of some of Belgrade’s most landmark public buildings — the National Theatre, the National Museum and the statue of Prince Michael. The fusion of styles here include baroque, art deco and art nouveau. The misfits, of course, are the blocky Soviet-style architecture from the country’s communist days. A few miles away, Belgrade Fortress sits at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. The beautiful blue Danube river runs from the Black Sea through Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna. While cruise boats glide on this river today, it was once an arterial highway from Asia into central Europe.
After the sun sets, I walk to Beton Hara, a promenade on the banks of the Sava river which boasts of fine restaurants. The atmosphere is lively, with strains of music wafting out of most joints. While coffee forms an important part of the town’s food pyramid, rakija, a Serbian brandy made from distilling fermented fruits like apricot, must not be missed. The most potent and pleasing is the home-distilled plum rakija. In dairy, there is yogurt, kaymak (thick cream) and cheese. The bread is crusty and smeared with kaymak and ajvar (roasted red-pepper sauce). At the base, there is meat — pork, veal and lamb and chicken. For vegetarians, there are spectacular salads on the menu.
The next day, during a walk, I stop at one traditional kafana (coffee house). I ask the locals: “Who is your favourite Serbian of all time?” There is a unanimous answer: “Nikola Tesla!” He invented alternating current (AC) electric power systems. Tesla, the unit of magnetic induction, has been named in his honour. Nikola Tesla museum gives an insight into his life and experiments in the field of electricity and radio transmission.
Belgrade’s most popular attraction is the Church of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox church in the world believed to be built over the remains of Sava, the Serbian prince and Orthodox monk, and one of the most important figures in Serbian history. It looks majestic from outside. Inside, the crypt frescoes make it stunning.
On my way back, I am entranced by the architectural design of The Moscow Hotel, one of Belgrade’s finest examples of art nouveau. At a 10-minute walk from Republic Square lies the Bohemian quarter of Skadarlija, which is all about jollity and music quartets with double basses. I spend my last evening in Zemun district on the banks of the Danube river. This was a separate town that was absorbed into Belgrade in 1934. It is packed with colourful buildings, old churches and funky graffiti. Sitting by the waterfront and watching the swans at sunset was a fitting end to my Serbian trip.
(Rishad Saam Mehta is the author of Hot Tea Across India, Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet and The Long Drive Home)