No other European capital has been conquered 40 times or involved in 110 wars. Belgrade has been ruled by Celts, Thracians, Romans, Avars, Slavs, Ottomans, a self-declared royal family, communists, Serbian nationalists and democratic wannabes.
It’s a city where cigarettes, coffee, rakija (brandy) and meat are staples; where well-heeled women in designer coats are as plentiful as men in track pants; and where the young have spurned politics and nationalism for hedonism and loud music.
The heart of Belgrade is in the Old Town where, up on a rise, is a street called Strahinjica Bana. It is known as Silicone Valley for the number of young women with hyper-inflated breasts and lips. Down by the river, Sava Mala is its antithesis. At the turn of the 20th century the area was home to Serbia’s elite. Then it fell into disrepair. For decades it was where mechanics fixed cars in tin-shed garages squeezed between townhouses and grand buildings blackened by a half-century of fumes from ageing trucks.
But the young and creative are claiming the area, setting up dance clubs, bars, and new venues such the Mikser House – whose gourmet food, books and clothes by young designers would not be out of place in a Melbourne lane.
Between 1991-1999, wars tore Yugoslavia apart. The nation of different ethnicities and religions was created in 1918 and cemented in 1946 by the post war communist government of Slovene Croat Josip Broz Tito. Yugoslavia eventually included Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and two autonomous provinces – Vojvodina and Kosovo. It was a nation of south Slavs, created to present one strong, united front.
My guide Mirjana is an IT worker in her late-30s. She shares a tiny flat with her parents. On weekends she takes visitors on free tours with Belgrade Walking Tours, to improve her English. She hopes it will lead to a better job.
On the day we met, it rained heavily. She had an umbrella and more than once it inverted and broke. We were forced to run from doorway to doorway for shelter. I urged her to throw it away but she refused. I later learned it was the only umbrella she owned. Poverty in Belgrade is expansive and deep.
We visited a gallery of medieval church frescoes with centuries’ old art painted on doors, timber, and stones showcasing significant works from around Serbia that survived more than 400 years of oppressive Ottoman rule.
The next day I walked through the centre of Old Town to meet Ranka, a history academic from Belgrade, who agreed to show me her favourite parts of the city.
Ranka knew immediately I was a tourist and introduced herself in perfect English. “I think we shall begin at the bottom of this street,” she said as she led me to a busy road. Thus began my architectural tour.
Belgrade is filled with glorious baroque, neoclassic, romantic and Art Deco era buildings and almost all are in terrible state. Some are covered in chicken wire to stop bits falling and hurting pedestrians. The buildings would be beautiful, if there was money to fix them.
“That’s the oldest residential building in Belgrade,” Ranka said pointing to an old two-storey Austro-Hungarian building that is now a bakery selling cheap white bread. It had a tiled roof that sagged in the middle and looked close to collapse.
It was built opposite the city’s old Jewish quarter sometime between 1718-1739 when the Austrians ousted the Ottomans in the first Austro-Turkish War in Serbia. Two decades later the Ottomans were back in control.
We walked to Kalemegdan, a Roman fort that sits on a hill above the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. (Kale is Turkish for fortress and Megdan is Turkish for battlefield.)
The Romans built the fort in the second century and rebuilt it several times after enemy assaults.
Between the 16th-18th centuries Serbs, Austrians and Turks added to it so that today it is a vast collection of buildings with long defensive walls, some of which are propped up by puny wooden supports. The fort houses a large military museum that documents the city’s violent evolution.
“You know there has been a war in Belgrade every 50 years,” Ranka said during our walk. I didn’t know.
Ranka is just one of many Serbs whose lives were drastically and shambolically altered by the most recent war.
“I had plans for my future but those plans were stolen,” she said. Many men Ranka’s age left Serbia to avoid the war and did not return. Their absence created a new demographic: single women who were denied the opportunity to love, marry and have children.
As I walked to my lodgings, I knew Belgrade would not be making quick economic progress.
Sanctions imposed on Serbia in the wake of the war, failing infrastructure, deep economic malaise, an official unemployment rate of 21 per cent and political corruption hold the city, and country, back.
There is little hope the chicken wire will come down anytime soon to reveal the Old Town’s buildings’ original beauty.
But that suspension between what has passed and what could be makes Belgrade all the more fascinating.