Belgrade on a bicycle

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Belgrade, Serbia. A place that surprised me. Surprised me as I had assumed it would be a concrete city. Yes, there was a lot of concrete (and many reminders of the Nato bombing of 1999, see photos below), but it's also a city of culture, history and beauty - both natural and man-made.

Belgrade is built on a hill on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers and has therefore been a city of geographical importance for the many civilisations who have fought over it for centuries... the Romans, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, and - more recently - as the capital of Yugoslavia until its dissolution in 2006.

It's not surprising then, given its rather colourful past, that Belgrade is a city of such evident divisions. The concrete communist buildings and wide avenues of New Belgrade are a stark contrast against the impressive facades of Stari Grad (Belgrade's Old Town), Skadarlija (the Bohemian district) and the historical reminders of Belgrade's Austro-Hungarian past (the impressive and crumbling Kalamegdan Fortress).

We decided the best way to experience the concrete jungle of New Belgrade was to hire a local guide (a 26 year old history student who clearly remembers the day Nato started bombing the city) and set off on a six hour tour of the area by bike. While the old part of Belgrade, including the Kalamegdan Fortress, is situated on top of a hill, New Belgrade is surprisingly flat. It's also unsurprisingly grey, pretty barren, and styled in a brutalist, communist fashion.

Cycling past the Genex Tower in New Belgrade

That said, we did get to see historical landmarks including the Hotel Yugoslavia, where the Queen once stayed, and the Genex Tower. These sites are impressive, but a little reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Crossing the river to Old Belgrade though, through the sculpted lakes by the Sava River, is something completely different. The beautiful old cobbled streets, local Austro-Hungarian restaurants and river-side cafes of Zemun are definitely worth a visit.

The concrete columns of the Genex Tower - the top was supposed to be a revolving restaurant when it opened in 1977

Perfect setting for a zombie movie - the Hotel Yugoslavia. Diectly hit by two Nato missiles in 1999, it is soon to be developed into a luxury hotel, shopping and residential complex

On the bike ferry across the Sava River to New Belgrade
My favourite area of Belgrade though was one particular street - Skadarlija, the Bohemian Quarter of Stari Grad. This street is sloped, cobbled, and filled with local restaurants - each with bands singing traditional Serbian folk songs. This is a place for eating, people watching and drinking Serbian beer and plum brandy.

The Bohemian Quarter of Skadarlija

Pit stop - local Serbian beer
However, many of the Government buildings in Old Belgrade, where the Police headquarters once stood, are now dramatic reminders of the city's fairly recent tumultuous past. Life goes on around these missile-hit piles of bricks as usual, but they act as stark memorials to the old days of Yugoslavia.

The old Police Headquarters - amazingly part of this building (not shown in picture) is still being used as office space

Onto the food. When I asked our guide, various waiters and our hotel host what traditional Serbian fare consisted of, they all gave a one word response... 'meat'. Any kind of meat, grilled, fried, stewed. The favourite, veal, was often served stuffed with a local unripened cheese - Kajmak- rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. 

It's a cuisine that draws influence from across the Mediterranean (especially Greece) and Turkey too, so kofta-style kebabs are commonplace. The pastries are also incredible, with small bakeries on every corner selling Borek (stuffed, fried pastries) or Sarma (a kind of cheese, filo pie).

Veal soup. Delicious

Another type of 'Sarma' - this time, stuffed vine leaves served with soured cream

Veal stuffed with Kajmak cheese

Grilled chicken and potatoes with a token lettuce leaf

A speciality in most local restaurants - hot, spicy green peppers. Either served raw, grilled, or marinated with vinegar and garlic. Super firey.
So, Belgrade, worth a visit? Definitely, it's probably one of the most interesting and diverse cities I've visited to date, you can fly direct and it's cheap once you get there. You can also make it a stop over on a Danube River cruise.

We travelled with Lufthansa from London, via Munich. Direct flights are available with Jat Airways. Our bike tour was arranged through I Bike Belgrade and cost about £15pp, including bike hire, afternoon tour, boat transfer and drink by the river.


Ralph said...

Hi Cornflower,

great story about a great city!Happy to hear you enjoyed the bike-tour!


Owner / founder iBikeBelgrade

Jess said...

Food looks amazing! It's one of my favourite parts about travelling by bike - finding all those places off the beaten path that you wouldn't be able to get to otherwise. I've been all over Europe with my folding bike, but I'll definitely have to look into the Balkans - I just never thought of it as a cycling destination.

arnaud jacquin said...

Great post and great photo of the old Hotel Jugoslavia in Novi Beograd. I am just back from a 10-day stay in Belgrade and want to go back soon. The food was amazing as always. How can a simple salad of tomato, cucumbers and spicy peppers (Srpska salata) possibly taste so good over there? Not to mention the Kajmak, mladi sir, yogurt, sour-cherry struedel, and grilled meats...

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