Situated at the historic borders of eastern and
western empires, Belgrade has been shaped by its history, each leaving traces as
new generations continue to build and fight over this highly prized city.
Unraveling the mystery and attraction of Belgrade means looking at this history,
while enjoying and getting caught up in its passionate demeanor.
Conquered and rebuilt by Celts, Romans, Slavs, Turks, and Austro-Hungarians, the Kalemegdan
Fortress anchors the city to its strategically important position at the
confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Once a battleground, it is now a
peaceful retreat from a bustling city. From its walls you can see the modern
regional economic center of New Belgrade rising across the river and feel how
important this crossroads city is.
Back in the city, cafés are packed with lively people, unloading leisurely onto
the sidewalks during the summer months or packed in heated conversation during the winter.
mix of architecture marks new trends next to Belgrade's heritage, and a city
that has always led change in the area continues to progress. Just as it has to
its many inhabitants, Belgrade will amaze and surprise its visitors as it goes
through yet another rebirth.
Instant weekend: Belgrade »
Perched proudly on the Danube, the Serbian capital does day and night equally brilliantly
By Richard Green
Why should I go?
Because it has about the best nightlife in Europe: cosy cafes, terrific bars concealed within ordinary residential blocks, glitzy glamour joints and pulsating nightclubs that are magnets for the best DJs around. One night in Belgrade and you’ll be won over by the disarmingly friendly locals, all on supercharged joie de vivre
It’s also a fascinating daytime city, with a commanding position on the Danube, a sprawling citadel, lots of unusual sights, great restaurants and good shopping. And it’s cheap and untouristy. For now, at least. Hurry and you’ll get there before the Eurovision Song Contest does, this April. After that, my hunch is that Belgrade will shuffle onto the city-break map of Europe in style.
What do I do?
Start at the Kalemegdan Citadel, for an elevated view of the Danube and its confluence with the Sava. The park here is beloved of Belgraders, who come for their first snog, to push prams and to relish the changing seasons. Outside the gate is the smart, baroque main shopping street, Kneza Mihailova. Do call in at the intriguingly named “?”, a magical old bar/cafe/restaurant that serves formidable gibanica (Serbian pie made from filo pastry, cheese, eggs and sour cream) and great plum brandies (the national drink).
For some quantum quirk, there’s the Nikola Tesla Museum (Krunska 51; 00 381 11-243 3886; www.tesla-museum.org
; 50p), dedicated to Serbia’s hero of science. Don’t miss the hourly demonstrations of his inventions, including the electric motor, radio and remote control. At the most hair-raising exhibit, visitors are left holding an unattached neon light next to a 10ft-high Tesla coil that produces half a million volts. Lightning forks dance between two metal spheres, like a scene from Carry on Screaming, then the neon in your hand flickers on at full strength. Disconcerting, but fun.
Where do I stay?
The 17-room Hotel Admiral Club opened in 2006 in a neoclassical villa, and has large rooms and antiques. A more central and snazzy alternative is the Aleksandar Palas (Kralja Petra 13-15). Or try the grand old Balkan Hotel which is central, with sunny rooms. A great option would also be the Moscow hotel centrally located in Belgrade’s main street.
Where do I eat?
For traditional Serbian food in a magnificent setting, try the Terrace restaurant (328 3011) inside the citadel – great views, live folk music, and main courses, including a “gypsy’s barbecue”, from £9.
Jutting out into the Danube, down a gangplank and past some geese, is the wooden and wonderful Stara Koliba (311 7444, www.starakoliba.com
). Specialising in seafood, it’s the best of the many floating restaurants on this stretch of riverbank. Danube perch with sour cream costs £12.
How do I get there?
For now, the only nonstop flights to Belgrade are from Heathrow, with British Airways (www.ba.com
) or JAT (www.jat.com
Serbia's coolest festival - Exit »
It started as a student protest and is now one of the coolest parties in Europe.
Put your hands in the air for Serbia’s Exit festival
By Fleur Britten
It’s nearly 5am, and Eric Prydz is DJing to a 25,000-strong crowd, dancing in the dry moat of a spectacular hilltop fortress in Serbia. Everyone is having it — girls in bikini tops sporting advanced mullets, boys with T-shirts off and bleached mohawks; all with trophy sunglasses at the ready. The energy is atomic, the scene epic.
“It’s like Gladiator,” whoops my Irish neighbour. Sunrise peeks through onto a clear indigo sky and, all around, the rave whistles scream and the hands reach higher. Three policemen get up and dance on the stage and the crowd explodes into cheering and clapping. Nobody quits until gone 9am. “Nothing can touch this,” says the Irish guy. “DJs don’t often get a chance to play like this — it’s just the biggest tracks all the time. Mental!
As the one-time black sheep of Europe, Serbia might not seem an obvious party destination, but the Exit festival in Novi Sad — Serbia’s second largest city — is slowly changing that. Exit’s cool credentials are attracting party people from all over Europe. At this year’s event, held last month, more than 150,000 revellers raved for four days at 27 stages, with more than 600 performances (from Franz Ferdinand and superstar DJs to top home-grown talent), all within the 17th-century Petrovaradin fortress, overlooking the Danube.
With scenery like that, hotel rooms at £30 a pop (sweaty tents are non-compulsory) and proto-Ibizan beach parties on the Danube, Exit is more like a holiday than a festival. “It’s more than a music festival,” says co-founder Bojan Boskovic, 28. “Exit has a much broader meaning.” Its roots are political — and for that, it’s more like the ideological festivals of the 1960s. The first Exit, in 2000, was a 100-day student protest, with gigs, theatre and parties, against the Milosevic regime. It proved instrumental in his downfall — hence the name Exit. For many of the “citizens of Exit”, to miss it would be like skipping family Christmas and staying in on New Year’s Eve. It’s also their only festival — there’s no festival fatigue in Serbia.
With Milosevic gone, the demos may have died down, but Exit’s political agenda is still paramount. This year’s campaigns were to liberalise the Serbian visa regime (it’s near-impossible for Serbians to travel) and to increase awareness of sex trafficking of Balkan women. Ask a first-timer about Exit’s political origins, however, and you can expect a blank expression — the politics is very much “come and get it” (from a designated tent) nowadays. Most people just want to party.
“The Serbs are seriously up on their music,” says Englishman Paxton Talbot, who has run the Dance Arena since 2001. “Milosevic turned a blind eye to club culture because it kept the gangsters — and therefore the police — up and running. It’s ironic that it became part of the mechanism that ultimately overthrew him.” The Serbs are pro-clubbers. “Balkan madness,” one local calls it. “It’s a real two-fingers attitude. Partying is our way to forget all the shit.”
And it’s one cool crowd. Okay, there is also a minority faction of overcooked cheap Russki types (Lycra, yellow hair, eye shadow), but the hot look right now is neo-1980s — asymmetric hair, chopped-up tops, wristbands, retro plastic beads — kids who look as if they’ve stepped straight out of Spitalfields.
There’s just one thing missing, though — aloofness. Within half an hour of arriving, we’ve been bought a beer, taught the Serbian for cheers and offered endless cigarettes (they smoke constantly). One guy invites us to a barbecue to see the countryside. “We’re not killers,” he says. It’s at those epiphanal sunrises that the real draw of Exit dawns: inclusivity. There might be a VIP area, but, apart from government ministers, an Olympic sportswoman and some wannabes who paid for the privilege, there’s not much going down. It’s in the techno-filled moat where togetherness hits and boundaries are dissolved. Old Yugoslavia is reunited, new friends are made — even the cops are welcome. “Exit is really a community thing,” says Srdjan, 37, a designer from Belgrade. It’s something that DJ Preach felt last year: “People were unified by the music, hands in the air and screaming for more,” he says. “I felt at some point we were all from the same family.”
The buzz of Exit is spreading — MTV has moved in (it has its own stage now), the international DJs are all vying for that sunrise slot, and now, we in the UK are onto it. This year, 5,000 Brits made for a vocal minority. “It’s class,” says Dave, a student from Glasgow. “The weather’s great, the people are friendly and the line-up is wicked. What more could you want? I’m definitely coming back with more people next time.” Emma, a surveyor, says: “This place is cheaper than Peru.”
Our reputation for travelling the furthest for the maddest parties is consummate here — and you can spot the Brits a mile off. At the Exit camp site (brilliantly efficient, by the way), a British reveller is being treated for alcohol poisoning after his mates tied him to a tree and poured a bottle of vodka down his neck — all the while dressed as monks. Miodrag, who runs the on-site drugs awareness tent, says: “I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit in the tent, but the craziest shit comes from the Brits.” Amazingly, the Serbs don’t seem to mind. “British people know how to club,” says Jelena, a 27-year-old medical student. “They have really good fun.” It’s the cross-cultural exchange that the Serbs really hanker after. “Finally, it’s a chance for us to meet foreigners,” says Igor, from Belgrade. “We were isolated for 10 years.” With the current visa situation, things aren’t much better.
When it’s finally all over, at 11am on Monday morning, Senada from Novi Sad is the last to leave the site. “I am very sad,” she says, “because without Exit, we are an empty city.” So stick it in your diaries, but hurry — there’s a 5,000 cap on UK ticket sales, to keep it “multicultural”, or as the organisers put it: “We don’t want it to become a yob fest.”
Belgrade among the top 10 James Bond locations »
Belgrade and Zagreb: From Russia With Love
When From Russia with Love
was filmed, Yugoslavia was seen as a shady communist destination. Now, post-independence, both of the locations are tourism hotspots - Belgrade, the resurgent capital of Serbia, has become famous for its nightlife, and Zagreb, Croatia's capital, is accessible on no-frills flights.
The Exit Festival, held in a fort in the city of Novi Sad near Belgrade, is a great excuse to explore the country. It is one of the best in Europe, hosting many of the same big-name bands that trawl the Continent during the summer months. Combine this with some time in the capital to get an idea of why the young people of Serbia had a reputation for partying while the bombs fell outside.
Croatia's many tourist hotspots are well-documented - ancient Zadar, the national parks epitomised by the waterfalls of Plitvice, history and villa culture in Istria and the wonderful islands that pepper the Dalmation coast between Split and Dubrovnik.
The Cold War and post-Cold War terrorism theme has also taken Bond to Russia and potential rogue states from the former USSR such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, both featured in The World Is Not Enough. Central Asia is enjoying growing interest from tourists keen to explore the Islamic architecture of Uzbekistan and the dramatic landscapes of Krygyzstan and Kazakhstan, despite (or thanks to) the efforts of Borat.
Bargain Balkans: Head east for the slopes »
Don't let the credit crunch cramp your style this winter: there is still sensibly priced skiing to be had in Eastern Europe – but make sure you know what you are in for.
By Stephen Wood
It was a vintage year for Balkan skiing. In 2005, Serbia was back in the mainstream, featuring in the Thomson ski brochure thanks, in no small part, to Serbian-born Stevan Popovich, a 20-year veteran of the UK travel trade. In the same year, the other truly Balkan ski destination – in the sense that, like Serbia, it has slopes in the Balkan Mountains range – began once more to make inroads into the budget end of the UK market: as Andorra lost ground, Bulgaria gained it.
Not coincidentally, I skied in the two countries that year. And both trips were memorable, even if the skiing was not very stirring. The visit to Kopaonik, Serbia's main ski resort, and to the capital, Belgrade, was full of incident. In the "new frontier" economy after the fall of Milosevic's post-communist regime, the few were suddenly making money, the many were trying to follow suit, and only the senior apparatchiks were still playing by the rules. At Belgrade airport's petrol station, the forecourt attendant bizarrely tried to charge me more than the amount displayed on the pump; and a representative of the state tourism organisation – such a cowboy that it was amazing he didn't wear chaps – commandeered my hire car and proceeded to spin it twice on the snowy roads of Kopaonik, avoiding the parked cars only through extraordinarily good luck.
The skiing was pleasant and peaceful: the part of the slopes on which mines had been dropped by Nato aircraft during the Kosovo war was closed (as it still is, I believe). The central part of the resort, a purpose-built ski village modelled on the defensible monasteries of medieval Serbia, absolutely beggared belief. When I look back on the trip, during which I became hopelessly lost in a blizzard in Belgrade, it seems like a fantastical dream.
Bulgaria, later in the year, was a nightmare. I travelled on a long, potholed road to Bansko, whose up-to-date lifts and new apartments have changed the old face of Bulgarian skiing, represented by the hardy and perennial resorts of Pamporovo and Borovets. But as it turned out, Bansko was only 25 per cent ski resort; a further 35 per cent was a gloomy town of grinding poverty with "greeters" outside the bars and restaurants trying to pimp foreigners in; the remaining 40 per cent was a building site on which furnished studio apartments costing less than £35,000 were being built and sold by (among others) an estate agency called Bulgaria4Sale.
To say that I took against the place would be an understatement. The lifts were indeed new; but they were running at about half the normal speed to save electricity. The only thing that really impressed me was Bansko's brilliant marketing strategy of getting a five-star Kempinski hotel at the new lift base, to give the resort spurious credibility as an investment opportunity.
Bansko is no doubt more civilised now than when I was there; but knowing my fierce prejudice, Popovich didn't try to talk it up much. "Bulgaria has improved in recent years, but there hasn't been a revolution: it isn't Austria all of a sudden." Popovich, now senior product manager for Central/ Eastern Europe with the tour operator Inghams, did emphasise that Bulgaria has been consistently popular among his company's clients – so much so that, in the early 1990s, Borovets was Inghams' third best-selling resort. "I have a close relationship with the customers, and know how much repeat business there is to Bulgaria. Some go four or five times. Borovets and Pamporovo have doorstep skiing, and are ideal for beginners and lower intermediates. For more challenging terrain they go to Bansko."
To my surprise, Popovich says that the problem with Bulgaria is that it is now threatening to become too expensive. In preparation for joining the eurozone, its currency is now linked to the euro, and rising in value. At the same time the resorts (primarily Bansko), having installed new equipment, are looking for a payback on their investment: they want to increase prices. Which is problematic when UK skiers, who make up a significant proportion of Bulgaria's business, regard it as a "good value" destination.
Ask Popovich generally about Balkan skiing, on which he is a seasoned expert, and he becomes somewhat evasive. But that is for political reasons. The wars in the former Yugoslavia did great damage to Serbia's ski business (Kopaonik is right on the Kosovo border) and virtually killed off Bosnia-Herzegovina as an international destination, despite the Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo in 1984. They also made "Balkan" something of a dirty word. Although Popovich is clear that Romania and Slovenia are Balkan ski destinations – "They're both in the Balkan peninsula, aren't they?" – he understands why they don't emphasise the fact.
Serbia is obviously close to his heart, and it is a disappointment that Kopaonik no longer features in UK ski brochures. "When we reintroduced it with Thomson in 2004/5, it was good value and sold well. At first we used BA flights into Belgrade, which was not ideal: the transfer was too long. For the second season we had a charter into Nis, which was much closer. But Kopaonik's bed base proved a problem: accommodation is limited, and the National Park location hinders development."
A further difficulty was Serbia's visa regime, which made travelling abroad difficult. As a result, Kopaonik's prices were effectively set by the home market – at too high a level for budget skiers from the UK. The charter flights couldn't be filled, and after three years, Thomson dropped the programme.
Popovich also regrets that UK ski companies haven't been able to exploit Bosnia-Herzegovina's skiing, which he says is "probably the best in the Balkans, and potentially better value than other destinations". First Choice, he says, did consider a charter flight to Sarajevo; and more recently, BA's direct flights into the city sparked interest. But with BA pulling out this winter, that has come to nothing. And political difficulties caused by the location of Sarajevo's slopes – split between Serbian- and Bosnian-controlled territories – remain a serious obstacle to development.
The farther flung Balkan skiing destinations – Romania and Slovenia – also meet with Popovich's approval. He describes Slovenia as "phenomenal: it's a mini-Austria but very reasonably priced. Its good summer business makes continual investment possible, and the main skiing resort of Kranjska Gora constantly upgrades its lifts and hotels." And he rates Poiana Brasov in Romania, which also features in the Inghams brochure,even more highly.
The decline of sales to Romania is a puzzle to him. "I don't understand why more people don't go there. Poiana Brasov is a purpose-built resort set in a beautiful bowl; it is reasonably priced and has modern lifts, including a completely new cable-car this year. And the standard of skiing tuition is extremely high. In Romania, as in Bulgaria, skiing instructors have to get a university degree first, before doing their ski training, which helps to make Poiana Brasov an ideal learn-to-ski destination."