Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Belgrade ,Serbia: When to go and what to do

Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and the national capital. 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. An eclectic 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.

With impressive views over the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress is home to several city museums, galleries, memorials, the planetarium, and zoo, as well as smart cafés, restaurants and paths filled with locals and tourists seeking tranquility in the city. The fortress's historic walls shape its exterior and interior, holding in elm trees and a well-kept park, which peacefully replace a long succession of rulers and their warriors.

Walking back into the city, along the pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, 19th century Belgrade architecture lines the city's most traveled shopping thoroughfare. In summer, the center of the street becomes an extended outdoor café. Restaurants and galleries are located on the side streets leading to and from Knez Mihailova, which ends up at Trg Republike (Republic Square). Now a popular meeting point surrounded by cafés and the grand buildings of the National Museum (under reconstruction currently, though with frequent exhibits in its atrium) and National Theater (home to the city's major opera, ballet, orchestra and theater performances), this square was the center of protest and revolution during the last decade.

Belgrade expands outward from there, east to the district of Dorcol and its fashionable cafés and restaurants on Strahinica Bana, as well as the artist's quarter of Skardarlija and its cobbled Skadarska street, where you can find classic kafanas (taverns) serving traditional Serbian dishes as musicians roam from table to table.

Extending south is Belgrade's business and government center, with the national parliament, city hall, former royal residence and the skyline-dominating Beogradjanka. The world's largest Orthodox church, St. Sava (open to the public during its continued construction), can be found just past that in a park along with the National Library.

In the Vracar district you can find Belgrade's stately urban residences, one of which now houses the Museum of Nikola Tesla, home to the influential scientist's legacy to electrical engineering. In Dedinje, a leafy suburb with embassies, ambassador's residences and the city's most expensive mansions, is located the Mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's former president-for-life.

Across the Sava River lies the Usce park, a spacious green space that holds the city's tallest building and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The park is a popular place for runners and walkers, as well as the many people who visit the restaurants, clubs and cafés located on the boats that are moored on the riverbanks. The boats stretch all the way up the Danube, inside Great War Island, to the city of Zemun, the former Austro-Hungarian southern stronghold.

During the summer, the city's population escapes to Ada Ciganlija, an island in the Sava that is home to a several kilometer long café-lined beach around its lake, an extensive system of parks and athletic areas, as well as more clubs that work through the hot summer nights.

The Kalemegdan Citadel (Belgrade Fortress) straddles a hilltop overlooking the junction of the Sava and the Danube. Religious landmarks include the Cathedral Church (Saborna Crkva). Go to the National Museum is interesting, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Ethnographical Museum. Well worth a visit is the Palace of Princess Ljubica (1831) with a good collection of period furniture. Skadarlija is the 19th-century Bohemian quarter with cafes, street performers, art galleries and antique shops. Near Kraljevo is the restored Monastery of Zica, now painted bright red as it was in Medieval times. It was there that the Kings of Serbia were crowned. The Kalenic Monastery is a fine example of Serbian style.

Cuisine varies greatly from one region to another. On the whole, the meat specialities are better than the fish dishes. National specialities: are Pihtije (jellied pork or duck), Cevapcici (charcoal-grilled minced meat), Raznjici (skewered meat), Sarma or japrak (vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice), Strukli (nuts and plums stuffed into cheese balls and then boiled), Alva (nuts crushed in honey), Lokum (Turkish Delight).

Cinemas stay open until 2300, restaurants until midnight and nightclubs until 0300. Belgrade has excellent nightlife with a range of performance arts to enjoy: Operas, concerts, theatre, many late-night cafes and clubs.

Shopping: Special purchases include embroidery, lace, leatherwork, Pec filigree work, metalwork and Turkish coffee sets. Shopping hours: Mon-Fri 0800-1200 and 1700-2000, Sat 0800-1500 (many shops are open all day Sat).

By Suzan Everton

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