All photographs in this post were shot using a Leica M6 and Summicron 35mm lens, on Kodak Portra and Ilford film
The capital of Serbia, ‘Beograd’, its name meaning “The White City”, has lived through the eras of modern mankind unlike any other city of Europe.
Now, in the 21st century, it is growing rapidly. The white façades have long been replaced by a smokey grey, and the city’s streets are getting noticeably busier day by day. So a walk through Belgrade can be compared to a walk through history of the Balkans: you’ll encounter architectural socialist landmarks, vast parks dedicated to writers and poets, ruins of bombardement, and flashing neon lights. Adverts displaying the partnerships of Russia and Serbia next to adverts for the next season of a series on HBO. Roma with donkey carts getting beeped at by BMWs blasting turbo folk music. Endless boozey party nights on rafts of the Danube or Sava and underground Jazz clubs.
All this and more is the city of Belgrade.
Me and my wife had a couple of hours to walk its main streets (between a wedding, jazz concert, and dinners), and this is a small portrait of some of its main streets and historical landmarks. We already know we will be back for more.
The city’s central square, Terazije (‘scales’ as in market scales, of Turkish origin) feels a bit like a broken time machine: you never know which era you will end up in. One side of the square is formed by Hotel Moskva, built over a hundred years ago to match the style of iconic palaces of Russian cities, and one of the city’s most admired constructions.
The vast concrete megablocks that throw their shadows onto Terazija square, were erected during the socialist era of Tito. They display a striking contrast to the palace of Hotel Moskva on the opposite of the busy square. Countless air-conditioners on ever so many windows make for a mysterious and comical curtain. You soon ask yourself what these buildings look like from the inside.
Just a stone’s throw away from Terazije is the republic square (‘Trg republike’), and its famous statue of Prince Michael riding a horse (‘Spomenik knezu mihajlu’). A meeting point for many who are about to roam the shopping street of Knez Mihajlova. Walking further in the direction of the old town – Skadarlija – you pass through a cocktail of odours: the smell of fresh popcorn and bakeries, grilled burgers, perfumes and exhaust fumes. Mixed together, they form the unique scent of the streets of Belgrade.
A couple of minutes by foot further, you finally enter the vintage neighbourhood of Skadarlija. Once a bohemian centre-part of the city, it now offers meaty meals in restaurants, with daily live music played by small acoustic bands to tourists and locals from far and wide.
Heading in the opposite direction from Terazije is the national assembly, across the street of which is a large green and the Old Palace (‘stari dvor’), which used to be the residency of the Obrenović and Karađorđević dynasties, the federal government, and finally (and currently) the city’s assembly.
Ever so often its grounds are (mis)used for political rallies and/or big celebrations such as New Year’s, and national sports achievements (examples: Djoković’s first grand slam win, Water polo silver medalists, the win against Germany two football world cups ago, etc.). Nearby is also the capital’s central post office. Carrying on, you pass several of Belgrades university faculties, museums, as well as parks of different sizes, commemorating poets and other heroes of the past.
Heading down Kneza Miloša, probably Belgrade’s busiest, noisiest, most polluted street, is no joy, whether in a car, trying to evade crazy taxi drivers, reckless rattling busses, careless side-stoppers and other drivers who are generally nuts… or by foot, where after a while the carbon monoxide levels in your blood stream soon reach hazarous levels. Nevertheless, there is several landmarks along this bustling street which are not to be missed: embassies, governmental buildings, and still untouched ruins from the 1999 NATO bombings. The presence of armed police and mysterious suited-up dudes wearing sunglasses adds to the charm.
It might take several attempts to appreciate and enjoy a city of such contrasts, at least it did for me. Eventually Belgrade will win you over. It is a city in transition with a bold past, bustling present, still unsure what it is really transitioning to. In whatever direction it ends up heading to, it won’t happen silently. We are looking forward to going back.