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In Belgrade, a new day

The city's past is visible in bombed-out buildings left unrepaired, but the vibe is hip, not tragic, and travelers are trickling back.

September 23, 2007|Michael Levitin | Special to The Times

Belgrade, Serbia

It's Saturday night and I'm pressed against a crowd of singing, swaying, Champagne- and cocktail-toting Serbs outside one of the nightclubs on Strahinjica Bana, a street in the hip Dorcol district. A rock concert echoes up the hill, convertibles are thumping past, and the buzz feels more like Berlin, London or Barcelona than a war-torn capital in the Balkans.

But raucous nights like these are normal in the hard-partying resurrected city that is Belgrade.

"So many clubs have opened in the last few years," said Vladimir, a guy standing in the crowd. "Now you can go anywhere and do anything. A lot has changed since Oct. 5."

He meant Oct. 5, 2000, the day masses of nonviolent protesters assembled outside Belgrade's Parliament and ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, replacing him with a democratic, Western-backed government. The country has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

Strahinjica Bana, along with other hopping nightspots like it, has become a symbol of the resurgent capital. With an international theater festival this month and the renowned Belgrade Jazz Festival in October, Belgrade is reinventing itself as a fresh, dynamic cultural destination in Europe. That's one reason -- after a decade of bloody Balkan wars and NATO's 78-day bombardment of the city in 1999 -- travelers are starting to trickle back in. About 280,000 visited last year, more than triple the number since 2000.

I came here in spring, after dealing with crowds in Croatia, because I wanted to see a city that so far has been spared the tourist-catering atmosphere.

Today's news reports from Serbia (and the Balkans generally) focus almost exclusively on two things: Belgrade's lagging efforts to capture and extradite its war criminals and the country's stubborn, even militant refusal to grant Kosovo independence. With 20% unemployment, an economy battered by sanctions and the nation considered a pariah by the West, these weren't exactly touristic waters.


It was a bright morning as I carried my pack up one of the steep, winding streets that led away from the bus depot and followed signs pointing toward the Old Bohemian Quarter. Construction workers of various-looking nationalities were shouting over a racket of jackhammers. Old-fashioned bakeries and shops overflowed with customers. At the top of the hill, elegantly dressed patrons sat at cafe tables on the sidewalk of a gritty boulevard, opposite a McDonald's, which seemed to confirm I had landed someplace between a classical, enlightened Europe and a post-Soviet consumer blitz.

Belgrade has always been engaged in a volatile tug-of-war between East and West. Built on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the "White City" stood as an enduring, strategic crossroads separating Europe from what lay beyond it. Thracians from the southeast Balkan peninsula, Celts from Northern and Central Europe and Romans settled here.

The Slavs, from whom Serbs and most nationalities across Eastern Europe descend, came in the early 600s; during the next centuries, Serb dynasties fought against Byzantines, Hungarians and the Turks, who finally defeated them at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, initiating 500 years of Ottoman rule.

The country that once produced leading European figures in the arts and sciences has been cut off from the West for so long -- decades of Marshal Tito's "new way" communism, 11 years of Milosevic's autocratic rule and now seven years of punishing sanctions -- that even Americans, despite our country's lead role in the 1999 NATO bombardment that killed hundreds of Serb civilians, get a friendly nod.

On my initial walk through Belgrade, the past came alive in the rich array of architecture: the spartan, brick-wall design of the 17th century Bajrakli Mosque and the neo-Renaissance and Modernist structures dotting the downtown area, as well as the immense marble-white church of St. Sava (modeled on the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul), whose exterior was finished four years ago.

When I eventually reached the polished cobblestones and suave outdoor eateries on Skadarska Street in the Old Bohemian Quarter, I discovered the hotel prices were anything but bohemian. I continued through to the leafy Dorcol district and checked in at the cheaper but respectable Hotel Royal.

Like the now-gentrified Bohemian Quarter (a former gypsy settlement of shacks and cheap cafes that drew artists and writers there in the early 20th century), Dorcol also means a lot more to Belgrade's past than its present nouveau riche night life suggests. Once a cluster of medieval homes that sloped down to meet the Danube, the neighborhood was remodeled with palaces by the Austro-Hungarians, destroyed by the Turks and rebuilt last century in a grid-like pattern with modern buildings that have sapped some of its mystique.

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