Belgrade

Serbia's capital Belgrade is a city where old and new, architecture and nature intermingle at the confluence of two rivers.

A common feature of cities that go way back in history is that they are located near water. So it's not difficult to imagine why Belgrade, situated at the confluence of two rivers, suffered so many invasions throughout history and hosted first one culture and then another in rapid succession. Deemed a gift of the gods to the Earth in the Stone Age, the Sava and the Danube were this city's eternal guarantee of survival. What then? Then came the Celts, the Romans, the Bulgars, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, Austria, Yugoslavia and Serbia, all of whom left traces here.

Its almost six-thousand-year past spread out beneath your feet, Belgrade is a city that has defended itself against countless threats, holding its own against time, governments and natural disasters. A city whose nobility lies in its rebellion against authority. With its social and touristic fabric, it has drawn a lot of attention recently and makes an attractive alternative for travelers who expect something different from the usual touristic offerings.

PLACE OF ESCAPE
Speaking of cities whose history dates far back, cities that have managed to defend themselves against dozens of wars, albeit in tatters, a person has trouble deciding exactly where to start. I would suggest that you take a chronological approach and begin with the Kalemegdan, which dates to the 1st century and is regarded as the city's historic center. Originally built by the Romans in the first century A.D., Belgrade Fortress was later restored many times, most notably by the Byzantines and the Ottomans. By the 1980's the area around it had been turned into a park and the fortress itself converted into a haven both for foreign tourists and for locals looking to spend a quiet weekend. With its fortress and military museums, the Cvijeta Zuzoric for art buffs, its zoo and its restaurants, Kalemegdan is a must-see if you go to Belgrade.

Gazing down on the city from above, the fortress makes an impressive appearance rendered even more interesting by a folk  legend which has it that the hill is covered with dungeons dating back to the Roman period. When you enter the fortress, you can see for yourself the Roman Well, whose existence corroborates the legend. If you drop a coin into it, you won't be able to hear it hit bottom. What could be better than a bottomless well for making wishes? If you're going to spend some time in Belgrade, you should also see Kalemegdan by night. With the illumination, you'll feel you're visiting a completely different place.

AN ARCHITECTURAL FEAST
If you head straight for the heart of the city, it makes sense to follow the Knez Mihajlova, an avenue closed to vehicle traffic. You can't miss it. There is one thing almost all the world's big cities have in common: a central pedestrian zone. In Belgrade this is the Knez Mihajlova or, if you have a map in English, Prince Michael or Mikhailo Avenue, the venue of choice for shopping or a coffee break. For one thing, if you've gone into the city, you don't have to choose a street or a direction because there's something to see no matter which way you go. Belgrade boasts examples of every architectural movement that has ever swept Europe. Classical, neoclassical, Baroque… you can even find Art Nouveau buildings here. Consequently, wherever you happen to be in the city you should not only watch where you're stepping but also look up as you walk to see the facades of the buildings above the shops and cafes. Skadarlija (Skadarska Street in the old city), the Old Palace, St. Michael's Cathedral, the Vuk Foundation, the old post office on Kosovsa Street, St. Mark's Church, a work of the Petar and Branko Krstic brothers built over the former Gracanika Monastery, the Serbian Parliament building and Sveti Sava Temple are just some of the must-see buildings that have managed to survive.

A CITY REBORN
Belgrade's network of streets and squares was entirely re-designed in the 19th century and the areas around the squares reorganized like those of other old European cities. The oldest of these squares is Republic Square, created by demolishing the 18th century Stambol Gate built by the Habsburgs. The National Theater, designed by Alexander Bugarski, and the statue of Prince Mikhailo Obrenovic by the Florentine architect Enrico Pazzi might also be of interest to those who want to explore the city in more detail. Unfortunately most of the buildings in this part of the city were irreparably damaged in the Second World War and, deemed beyond restoration, were eventually razed. Some of the old
bomb depots on the other hand were converted into kebab shops, and the bomb shelters taken over for other purposes. When you to go Belgrade you are not going to believe that this was once a city where black-market kerosene was sold in cans. Its once dark nights are full of life and gay adventure now.

NIGHTS ON THE DANUBE
Once a separate city but joined now to the Serbian capital, Zemun is a popular town on the banks of the Danube. Beyond the fact that it's the talk of all Europe, hilltop Zemun is a perfect choice for those who have come to tour Belgrade. Outside yet near the city, it boasts Baroque architecture, narrow streets and 18th century houses. And of course the 'splavovi' or floating nightclubs that host around 280,000 tourists a year. Some of them also serve dinner, but most people go just for the entertainment while floating on the river. The splavs could be said to be Belgrade's answer to Paris's Bateaux-Mouches. I would recommend that you board one to watch the sunrise or sunset in Belgrade.

TASTES OF BELGRADE
But let's turn now to my favorite part, the food. Like Balkan cuisine, Serbian fare exhibits traits of Ottoman and Germano-Hungarian cooking. The kebabs known as 'Cevapcici' are the most popular. This is a cuisine big on meats and sauces in general. For breakfast you can eat savory 'burek' or 'pogacice' and sample the delicious jams. For lunch I would recommend something light like one of the two soups, supa or corba, and for dinner a traditional 'rostilj', or grilled meat with beer.

In step with the times, Belgrade has shed its weary past and thrown itself night and day into the arms of the new age. By its real name, Belgrade, the White City, it awaits those who prefer to visit cities not overrun with tourists.