SERBIA – Belgrade
Right at the core of the Balkan peninsular, Serbia has repeatedly been at the seismic centre of European history. Fascinated by the region as a whole, I studied Serbian at university and got to spend time in the country’s capital Belgrade on a summer language seminar. The faculty took us on several excursions around Serbia to learn more about the country and its history and culture, including a day spent exploring the Serbian capital. Back in London, a Serb classmate of mine had told me a lot about the city, so I was excited to see it for myself – and being particularly nostalgic during lockdown seemed like the perfect time to revisit Belgrade!
At a glance:
Republic of Serbia / Република Србија (Republika Srbija)
Capital: Belgrade (Београд (Beograd) in Serbian)
Currency: Serbian Dinar (RSD)
Area: 77,474 km2 (88,361 km2 including Kosovo)
National Day: February 15th
National Anthem: Боже Правде (Bože Pravde) – God of Justice
Highest Point: Midžor – 2,169 metres (7,116 ft) (Velika Rudoka – 2,658 metres (8,720 ft) if including Kosovo)
Famous for: monasteries, legendary hospitality, music festivals
- Dimitrije ‘Dositej’ Obradović (writer, linguist)
- Novak Đoković (tennis player)
- Mileva Marić (mathematician, Einstein’s first wife)
- Petar Blagojević (suspected 18th century vampire)
- Serbia is one of the world’s leading exporters of raspberries and plums. In 2018 some 135,000 tons of raspberries were shipped from Serbia, worth some $261 million and making up almost 30% of the entire global market.
- Sitting at a strategic point where two of Europe’s major rivers meet, there have been human settlements around what is now Belgrade since at least 7000BC. During this time, the Serbian capital has been fought over in no less than 115 separate wars and has been completely destroyed an astounding 44 times!
- The Cathedral of Vaznesenja Gospodnjeg in Čačak, central Serbia was first founded during the early 12th century before being converted into a mosque by Ottoman authorities in the 1560s. Thanks to political uprisings and changing borders, the building spent decades being changed from a mosque to a church and back – some sources claiming this happened at least ten times before 1840!
- Some of the first-ever officially documented reports of vampires came out of northern Serbia during the early 18th century – even the word ‘vampire’ originally entered English from the Serbian ‘vampir’. The practise of killing suspected vampires by driving a stake through their heart is also a well-recorded Serbian superstition
- Serbia first entered the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. Their debut entry, ‘Molitva’ by Marija Šerifović won the competition, giving Serbia the most successful debut of any country at the contest ever! As of 2021, Serbia has competed at Eurovision 13 times and has qualified for 10 finals, with 4 of these songs placing in the Top 10.
Serbia’s sole official language is Serbian, which is mutually intelligible with Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin. During the 20th century, these 4 South Slavic languages were collectively referred to as Serbo-Croatian though nowadays each form is regarded as distinct. Europe’s only diagraphic language, Serbian is written using both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets with all Serbs being able to understand and use both – interestingly, the use of Cyrillic is often seen as more official and traditional, while Latin is growing in popularity thanks to its ease of use with technology. As you’ll see both scripts in use around the city, here are some Serbian phrases written in Cyrillic for you to try out in Belgrade and throughout the Balkans.
|How much does this cost?||Колико кошта ово?||ko-lee-ko kosh-ta ovo|
|Do you speak English?||Да ли говорите енглески?||da lee go-vo-ree-teh en-gles-key|
|I don’t understand||Не разумем||ne ra-zoo-mem|
|Accordions give me anxiety||Хармонике ми задају стрепњу||khar-mon-nee-keh mee za-da-yu strep-nyu|
Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport is the largest airport in Serbia and is located approximately 18km from the city centre. While there’s been talk about building a train line between the airport and central Belgrade, currently the only public transport links are bus routes. If you can, aim for a bus heading to Trg Slavija as this makes for a great place to start exploring Belgrade.
What to do:
Surrounded by a mishmash of building styles, Trg Slavija is infamous for traffic congestion as 8 roads converge on the roundabout making it one of the Belgrade’s busiest intersections. For a much calmer introduction to Belgrade head up the hill towards the green dome of the white Hram Svetog Save or Temple of Saint Sava, which at over 77 metres tall is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Construction on the gigantic neo-Byzantine cathedral began in 1935 but was halted thanks to the outbreak of World War Two and the subsequent socialist government, meaning it remained unfinished till 2004. Visible from all over the city, head inside to marvel at its cavernous interior and opulent mosaics, some of which were only finished as recently as 2020. Heading back towards the centre, the Former Yugoslav Ministry of Defence was repeatedly targeted during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the damage can still be seen in its ruined brown façade. Declared a cultural monument in 2005, these buildings represent a part of the city’s history that is still raw for many Belgraders, so the macabre interest of outsiders isn’t appreciated and taking photos here is strongly discouraged.
Continuing further towards the city centre, Tašmajdan is a popular city park that opened in the 1950s. If you’re feeling adventurous, parts of a network of caves that were recently rediscovered under the park are open to the public, or you can stroll around the leafy green spaces which provide a break from Belgrade’s constant buzz. As you wander around admiring the many statues, fountains and memorials, you’ll spot the towering Serbo-Byzantine turrets of Crkva Svetog Marka reaching up over the tree-line. Modelled after a 13th century monastery, the church may look ancient but was finished in 1940 and at the time was the world’s largest Serbian Orthodox church. Leaving the park behind, take a moment to admire the pale neo-Baroque Dom Narodne Skupštine, the seat of the Serbian government, before walking 15 minutes to the square considered by many to be the spiritual heart of Belgrade: Trg Republike. Presided over by a statue of Prince Mihailo, the narrow but lively square is a popular meeting place and surrounded by some of the city’s most notable buildings including the grand façade of the recently renovated National Museum of Serbia, and the carved stone front of Narodno Pozorište, Serbia’s national theatre.
Despite its millennia long history, thanks to frequent sacking and sieges most of Belgrade’s Old Town or Stari Grad only dates from within the last 200 years. One of the older buildings you’ll spot as you wander the narrow winding streets is Princess Ljubica’s Residence,a traditional-looking white stone mansion that was built in the 1830s for the family of Serbia’s ruling prince. Nowadays, it houses a branch of the Belgrade City Museum and is kept as it would have looked when Ljubica lived here, including her fine period furniture and carpets. Across the street, the elaborate spire of Saborna Crkva Sveti Arhangela Mihaila is one of the few buildings left in Belgrade that dates from the early 19th century. The cathedral’s fine interior was decorated by some of the most well-known Serbian artists of the day and many of the nation’s heroes are also buried here. Just around the corner, Knez Mihailova stretches for a kilometre through central Belgrade and is considered one of south-eastern Europe’s most beautiful pedestrian streets. Lined with elegant and ornate 1870s townhouses that now host boutiques, cafes and restaurants, Knez Mihailova buzzes with activity both day and night and makes a great place to sit back and people watch.
Walking down to the end of Knez Mihailova, the sprawling green space that greets you is Kalemegdan, the largest park in Belgrade and also part of the mighty Belgrade Fortress complex. Dramatically perched at the edge of 125-metre-high cliff and covering some 160 acres, this massive citadel has plenty for visitors to explore. Take in the towering stone fortifications such as the 15th century Despot’s Tower or examine centuries of warfare at the Vojni Muzej or Military Museum. As well as being steeped in history, Kalemegdan is also the perfect place to enjoy some of the best views in Belgrade. A particularly good spot to admire the skyline is by the monument Pobednik, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Erected in 1928, this bronze statue atop a column commemorates Serbia’s victories in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century. Further along the ramparts, you can also take in an awe-inspiring view over Ušće,the confluence of the River Danube and River Sava – a suitably magnificent place to contemplate your day in Serbia!
Imposing and historic, Belgrade is a complex city that has been shaped by tumultuous forces, even within living memory. But proud and defiant, the remarkable Serbian capital refuses to be anything less than magnificent and deserves greater recognition as one of Europe’s major cities. I spent a lot of time in Belgrade and it left its mark on me, but even a day spent exploring this city is certain to leave a lasting impression!
A really big thank you to Ana, Laura, Inka, Sasha, Nadine, Kasia, Eli, Lorenzo, Dariya, Olga, Simona, Metodija and everyone else who made my time in Belgrade so memorable. A big thank you as well to Snežana, Zora and everyone else at Filološki Fakultet Universiteta Beograda who worked so hard to make Skupa Slavista 42. such a success, and of course my Serbian tutor Jelena for putting my name forward for the scholarship – Хвала Вам лепа!
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