How to describe Belgrade . . .
This is one of the funkiest cities I have been to—as cool as Montreal, Canada, as cool as Bucharest (but with more options) and more interesting than any city I’ve experienced in Europe so far.
I am living in the neighbourhood of Upper Dorćol, an area full of choice and interesting venues, as well as an artistic spirit. Non-touristy cafés and restaurants line the streets in this old area of Belgrade, and not far from here (about a five-minute walk) is a pedestrian/touristy area—the Skadarlija Quarter–chock full of Serbian restaurants and cobble streets. While I claim the latter is touristy, there are also many Serbians who flock to this area full of traditional Serbian restaurants, and it is not anywhere as touristy as the area around Republic Square. This is not a surprise as now, in summer, a number of terraces are decorated with bright flowers, most notably fuschia and red, and the contrast between these and the light grey of the streets makes you feel as if you’re in a great painting.
Below Upper Dorćol is, of course, Lower Dorćol. This seems to be an up-and-coming hipster area, and the neighbourhood boasts unique cafés and the beginning of an artistic community. I will be writing more about this neighbourhood at a later date as I find hipster culture—though often given a bad rap—intelligent and an ironic comment on contemporary society. I look forward to spending more time here, and I’m delighted to have found hipster pockets in almost hidden areas (behind buildings and main streets) in Upper Dorćol, too.
Belgrade is a city of juxtapositions. Most notably, in Dorćol, beside buildings covered with graffiti are other spotless new buildings that indicate the area is quickly becoming gentrified. But this contrast is not an anomaly. Turn around the corner of a relatively fancy street in the area of the Republic Square and you might find streets and buildings as “run-down” and full of character as some of the old buildings in Dorćol. Beside breakfast and lunch places that boast affordable meals for approximately $6-8 CAD, you can also find high-end specialty restaurants. Turkish cuisine, especially desserts, are common and speak of the longstanding Turkish influence here. They stand beside restaurants offering Serbian cuisine, cuisine flavored with an Austro-Hungarian touch, and many cosmopolitan restaurants.
Perhaps the best surprise here is that this city, as I have experienced it, is super safe. It is a relief to be able to walk at night around my neighbourhood and others, and, by all accounts, the crime rate is very low in this country. This is a pleasant change after having travelled for so long in Caribbean countries where, for the most part, evening strolls are not an option. As well, though not gushingly friendly, the people I’ve encountered in Belgrade are polite and friendly (especially restaurant staff), and I’ve noticed that if I try to speak some basic phrases in Serbian, such as dobar dan and hvala (hello and thank you), the reception is even warmer.
What surprises me, too, is the amount of knowledge people here seem to have about both Serbian and international history. When people engage in a conversation with me and ask what I think of their country, I am almost always offered information about Serbia’s history (extensive, in fact), and most people know exactly where Newfoundland is. They tend to know a lot about world history. I find this stands in contrast to the knowledge many have, or don’t have, in my home and places I have lived in Canada (with Toronto being somewhat of an exception). The general population in Belgrade (as well as other parts of Serbia) seems to be highly educated and well read.
A good dose of air-conditioning is needed in the summer here, though. The temperature has been consistently around 40 degrees for the last week, and, without something akin to a Caribbean breeze (this place is land-locked), Belgrade can become very hot. However, since this is a café culture, you can pop into numerous places in the middle of the day’s heat for an air-conditioned reprieve. This all said, though, Belgrade, in this regard, is no different than Montreal or Toronto.
A belief in colour seems to govern the city, or at least the various communities within the city. In this sense, the spirit of Belgrade reminds me of the pride people take in some areas of the Caribbean in creating an ambience for the public and boasting bright colours that relieve any sense of drab. Or perhaps there is something akin to Amsterdam here where a belief in aesthetics governs day-to-day life.
One thing that is very interesting, too, is the fact that there are numerous cafés here which do not offer food but simply coffee and other drinks. Combined with the huge amount of restaurants here, little cafés dot the streets creating the aura of a city very much alive with a street culture. I find this to be a relief having lived and travelled in various places where people are tucked away into their homes come early evening. For example, this is the case with Corner Brook, Newfoundland where I live. There are maybe 2-3 seating areas outside in the town, and, very early in the evening, people take to their homes. There is really no sense of public community on the streets. Perhaps in a certain way, then, Belgrade reminds me of the best of the Caribbean, such as Kingston, Jamaica. While it can be lonely to live and travel alone in a city, there is no real sense of loneliness here. One can find life teeming well after dark, and there is chatter and laughter consistently along Belgrade’s streets.
I am told, too, that the city will be different in the fall—perhaps even for the better. Many people take holidays this time of year in Belgrade, heading to such places as Montenegro, where beaches and the coast offer relief from the city’s heat and where people have family and many friends (Montenegro, of course, was part of former Yugoslavia). As well, there are a number of tourists in Belgrade at the moment who will largely return to their homes by early fall. What this means is that the city will return more to “normal.” For example, the national theatre, which is closed during summer, will be running again in September. The university will be in full swing. And I’m sure the arts will be even more alive in what is already an artistic centre.
I am wondering at this point why Belgrade is not more of a tourist destination for Canadians. Maybe the country’s recent history has given it a bad, uninformed rap? Or maybe, quite simply, one is almost always seeking out a beach for the summer months? I don’t know. What I can say is Belgrade has something that I hoped I would encounter on my travels somehow. I feel excited to wake up in the morning and take to the streets. I don’t know where to begin first. Also, if I have a moment’s nostalgia for country or smaller towns, I know I can hop a very affordable bus and arrive in a different kind of Serbia within an hour.
Belgrade is a great spirit to encounter.