25 April 2010

Back to Belgrade

I have a soft spot for Belgrade, home to numerous members of my family and a place I visit every year. But I'm aware that it can be an acquired taste, as much of its history has been obliterated by countless wars over the centuries. Its new town is a concrete city of communist-era tower blocks, like many in Eastern Europe, but the old town still has plenty of charm. I was hoping there was enough to captivate my husband, who was making his first visit and meeting my family, few of whom speak English. Just smile a lot and eat what's given to you, I told him, two things he was able to do effortlessly.

You can't help but feel a sense of responsibility when you show someone a place you love. I felt a bit like Rebecca West did in her monumental travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, when she hoped her husband would take to the Balkans the way she had. She was lucky, as was I. For a start, we were staying within metres of Sveti Sava cathedral, one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world and whose large domes form a major landmark of the city. Even though the interior is still unfinished, you can't help but be impressed by its scale and beauty.

As in most cities, there's a list of tourist sights you shouldn't miss. We wandered to the centre towards Knez Mihailova, a long, wide, pedestrianised street full of shops and cafés and which is rarely empty. It leads to Kalemegdan, the enormous park that sits at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Hundreds of Belgraders gather here after work to sit on the grass or stroll by the museums, cafés and the zoo. The most touristy patch is Skadarlija, a 19th-century cobbled area that was the bohemian quarter. Nice place to grab some lunch, which in our case was a huge plate of cevapcici, one of my favourite meat dishes.

After a day of being in the east, we took a bus to what was the frontier of western Europe. Zemun, which sits on the other side of the Sava, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918. Now it's a suburb of Belgrade, but the Austrian influence is unmistakable in the architecture. Things get more Slavic along the banks of the Danube, however, which is lined with floating restaurants and bars called splavovi. It's party central in the evenings, but on this lazy morning it was blissfully quiet and peaceful. And it was too early for mosquitoes, thank God.

All the touristy things done, we settled down to enjoy the family experience – plenty of delicious food, laughs, jokes and conversation that flowed in spite of my husband's lack of Serbian. As is his wont, my uncle brought out his guitar and we sang loudly and inexpertly along to English pop songs of the 1960s. (Funny how easy it is to forget the lyrics after several glasses of wine.) It was a fun couple of days, full of warmth and pleasant surprises for my husband who now understands why I have to come back to Belgrade every year.

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