Belgrade is the gritty capital of Serbia. Its streets are lined with potholes and decaying apartments. If you like large Communist apartment blocks you’ll love Belgrade because they’re everywhere. However, in a strange way these add to the city’s charm. It’s a city with character. After all isn’t the point of travel to see different places? If you want prosperity stay at home. If you want an edgy, intriguing city brimming with history with history come to Belgrade.
Belgrade was heavily damaged during the Second World War, which meant it was reconstructed by the Communists who built their trade mark large scale apartment blocks. They are on literally every street and the first thing greeting you upon entering the city. This impact can be seen on the countryside too. My train would regularly pass giant abandoned factories standing alone in fields, silently rusting away. Belgrade is the only city I passed through that did not have an old medieval section. If you want to see Communist cities in practice (which as a history lover I did), then Belgrade is the place for you. In no other city that I visited did Communism have such an impact. While the city seems ugly at first, after the first day it starts to grow on you. In fact I quite enjoyed the city and found it to be something like a diamond in the rough.
The centre of the city is overlooked by Kalemegdan Fortress. This is the ruins of a medieval fortress now lined with trees and containing a beautiful open park. There’s nothing quite like resting from the 30 degree heat in the shade of one of the parks many trees. There are also fantastic views overlooking the Danube. The park/fortress is very large so it’s quite easy to spend a day wandering around its many ruins.
It is also host to Belgrade’s Military Museum. This is a large and intensive overview of soldiers and wars in Serbia dating back to Roman times up until the NATO bombings in 1999 (the exhibition on this emphasises how small and helpless Serbia was compared to NATO while ignoring the cause of the bombing, that is the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. But then again what else is to be expected?) One place to avoid is the Museum of Frescos. It’s a tiny boring place with dull and rather rubbish frescos. However the best place to see is Tito’s Mausoleum. Tito was the Communist ruler of Yugoslavia from 1945 to his death in 1980. He requested that he be buried in his former villa on the outskirts of Belgrade. The Mausoleum is surprisingly low key and quiet. A common feature of all of the former Yugoslavia is the uncertainty over how to treat its Communist past. There is not the clean break that other Eastern European countries made. For example there is no Museum dedicated to Communist crimes. Communist partisans who fought the Nazis are praised in language that doesn’t seem to have changed since Tito’s time. How to deal with its history is a difficult task for all of former Yugoslavia to sort out.
One of the best things about Belgrade is that it is incredibly cheap. It was probably the cheapest city I visited. It is also almost completely tourist free. It’s as off the beaten track as you’re likely to get. Unfortunately this does mean few people speak English, though usually just enough to get by. One major problem is that Serbia doesn’t use the same alphabet as us; rather they use the Cyrillic one. This does mean street signs often resemble gobbledy-gook. None of the menus were in English so I basically had to order blind (which can be fun in its self). The food is cheap and delicious though there were fewer restaurants and more fast food joints (though they did sell Serbian food). The people were also incredibly friendly. I ordered a burger and the man insisted on having a friendly conversation despite only having 3 words of English.
Belgrade is not your typical tourist destination, though therein lies its charm. It has none of the overpriced tourist traps or the crowds. Instead you get to see the genuine side of the city, warts and all. If you want to see a city with character with an edge, one that isn’t glossed over or resembling home, then you should head to Belgrade.