Belgrade, Serbia — AT a cafe in the city's train station, I got a dark look when I remarked on the clerk's perfect English. "You're in Serbia, not on Mars," she said mirthlessly.
I may have deserved the rebuke, but my mistake was understandable. Western visitors who gleaned most of what they know about this country from news reports during the 1992-95 Balkan wars are bound to be pleasantly surprised at almost every turn in the Serbian capital.
The conflict brought an estimated half-million refugees to Belgrade, and NATO bombing in 1999, aimed at stopping Serbian aggression in the province of Kosovo (now a U.N. protectorate), destroyed parts of Belgrade; some of it is still in ruins. Accused war criminals, including Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, remain at large, dimming Serbia's hopes of eventually joining the European Union and entrenching its image as a pariah.
Last month, Montenegro voted for independence from Serbia, joining Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia in rejecting the Belgrade-based union of Balkan states previously known as Yugoslavia, once the dominion of spectacular Adriatic coastline that drew tourists.
But U.S. tourists certainly haven't flocked here. Few guidebooks cover the city, and those that do damn it with faint praise. "Belgrade may not be the most elegant of capitals, but it has a vitality undiminished by years of power cuts, sanctions and international isolation," author Laurence Mitchell writes in "Serbia: The Brandt Travel Guide."
Still, the dauntless Serbian tourism organization has gone to work touting the attractions of Belgrade's cafe life, secret bars and late-night clubs, drawing partyers mostly from neighboring Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia.
The message it's trying to spread to Europe's flush youth: Belgrade is now as hot as Prague once was, only cheaper and less touristy than the capital of the Czech Republic.
Never mind club crawling. I wanted to find out how Belgrade had fared in the wake of wars and to see the sights of this once-stylish old-world capital set around a hilltop citadel overlooking the Sava and Danube rivers.
But I worried about safety -- needlessly, it turned out -- in a perennially poor and politically volatile country still rankling over what it deemed a betrayal by allies during the American-led NATO bombing campaign. So, when Polly Platt, an American friend who lives in France and has family in Belgrade, told me she was coming to Serbia, I took the opportunity to travel with a companion.
You can't visit the Balkans without exposure to the region's tangled politics, as Polly and I discovered during the $15 cab ride from the airport to downtown. Along the way, we went through New Belgrade, which grew up on the western side of the Sava River during the communist era, when Yugoslavia was led by strongman Marshal Tito (born Josip Broz).
Now a business center, New Belgrade has the city's ritziest hotels and high-rise apartment buildings, a new sports stadium and convention center.
We passed a shopping strip the driver called "Little China," home to Chinese-Serbs and the former site of the Chinese Embassy destroyed during NATO bombing in May 1999. Serbs bristled when the U.S. later termed the destruction a "mistake," and anti-American demonstrations erupted in Beijing.
A handful of bridges spans the Sava, providing good views of the vast plain to the north where the river joins the mightier Danube. Both banks of the Sava are lined with floating restaurants, or splavovi, and on the eastern side of the confluence, the Kalemegdan fortress rises, aptly described by journalist Rebecca West in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia," published in 1942 and still one of the best books on the Balkans.
"Ever since there were men in this region this promontory must have meant life to those that held it, death to those that lost it," West wrote. "Its prow juts out between two great rivers and looks eastward over the great Pannonian Plain that spreads across Hungary towards Central Europe."
I chose a hotel near Kalemegdan, which is now a park. At the recently privatized Moskva, Polly got a single for $65 and I had a double for about twice that. This turreted, green-roofed Art Nouveau landmark was built in 1906 at a wedge-shaped intersection with a fountain where sports fans congregate to swap soccer and basketball cards. It has a sidewalk cafe and a first-floor restaurant known for its band and its Viennese pastries.
The low-ceilinged lobby got an unlovely renovation during the communist era, but the rooms upstairs are large and old-fashioned, with stiff antique settees that recall Serbia's sporadic periods of domination by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and folk-craft carpets reflecting five centuries of vassalage to Ottoman Turkey.