Belgrade and Surroundings

Belgrade, Serbia

July 12th - 17th, 2021

This was my first trip in 2021 and my first new country in almost a year. I had returned to Europe at the beginning of June, after having spent the winter and spring in Hong Kong, thus avoiding the worst of the lock-downs during that time in Europe. And since I am fully vaccinated it was time to start travelling again.

I left on a Monday afternoon for the 1.5 hour direct flight from Munich to Belgrade. Serbia currently requires a negative PCR Covid test result within 48 hours of departure for all arriving passengers, including the vaccinated ones. Only people who've received their vaccine shots in Serbia are exempted from the testing requirement. Although they are quite strict in this manner, the rest of Serbia appears to treat the risk of infection rather casually. There are signs everywhere that face masks are required indoors, but no one seems to take this seriously and it's not enforced. Those few people who did wear a mask in shopping malls or the hotel, seemed to think that having the mask cover your chin provides adequate protection.

I stayed in the very grand Metropol Palace Hotel in the city center, and the next morning I started to explore the city by foot. My first destination was the nearby Serbian Eastern Orthodox temple of Saint Sava, which is one of the largest church buildings in the world. Construction was started in 1935, but the building was only completed in 2004, and work on the mosaics inside continues to this day.

The outside of the building, while impressive due to its size, is not particularly remarkable, but quite the opposite is true of the inside. The huge interior space of the temple is entirely covered in stunning gold mosaics, a truly extraordinary sight to see. 

Belgrade is a fairly walkable city, although in July walking can be a bit tough - it was 39 degrees on my first day there. Nevertheless I made my way by foot down to Belgrade Fortress, which is located on top of a 125 meter high ridge overlooking the confluence of the Sava river and the Danube.

The earliest fortifications here were probably built by Celtic tribes in the 3rd century BC. Due to its important strategic position Belgrade has been one of the most fought over cities in the world. The city has suffered through 115 wars, was sieged countless times and was razed 44 times throughout its history. Today only the outer walls and a number of defensive towers remain of the huge fort, and it has been turned into a beautiful city park.

From the fortress you have great views overlooking the confluence of the two mighty rivers. 

The city center has a number of monumental 19th and early 20th century neo-classical buildings such as the National Museum and the National Assembly Building, which used to house the Parliament of Yugoslavia. 

St Michael's Cathedral, located in the old part of Belgrade close to the fort, is an elegant building completed in 1840.

Serbia is a landlocked country in the Balkans, which shares borders with Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Bulgaria. In the south of the country is the semi-autonomous region of Kosovo. Part of Yugoslavia until its break up in 1993, Serbia has had a controversial history since then, first for its role in the Yugoslav wars with Slovenia, Croatia and Bonsia between 1991 to 95, and then as a target of NATO bombings in 1999 in response to the conflict in Kosovo. Today the relationship with its neighbors appears to be quite good. Serbia remains somewhat stuck between East and West, as its progress towards EU membership seems to be stuck, partly because of the continued issues around Kosovo. None of the people I talked to here, were particularly optimistic about Serbia's near term future, and many young people look for opportunities to leave the country. 

Located right next to my hotel was the beautiful TaĊĦmajdan city park, which is dominated on one end by the impressive sight of St. Mark's Church, a Serbian Orthodox church completed in 1940.  

In the park you can also find a small but moving memorial for the children that were killed in the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade. The statue depicts the youngest among them, 3 year old Milica, who fell victim to shrapnel from a cluster bomb. The inscription at the bottom tells you how Serbians feel about the bombing to this day.

Golubac Fortress:
After two days of exploring the city, I had booked two private day tours through Viator to visit some of the sites near Belgrade. My first trip took me to the formidable Golubac Fortress, located about a two hour drive south of Belgrade.

Golubac Fortress is a medieval castle built in the 14th century on the bank of the Danube on a site which was previously a Roman settlement. The fortress stands at a strategic location where the widest part of the Danube enters into the narrow Iron Gate gorge. The intimidating looking fortification with its 10 towers has been beautifully restored in recent years. Because of its important role in controlling the river traffic, the fort changed hands numerous times between Serbs, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Hungarians and Austrians throughout its long and violent history.

There is a small but interesting museum inside the castle, and you can climb some of the towers for great views over the Danube, which is 5 kilometers wide and forms the border between Serbia and Romania at this point.

Lepinski Vir:
The tour continued along the Danube to a fascinating place, I had never even heard of before. Lepinski Vir is an archaeological site, which was discovered in 1960 during the preliminary works on a hydropower station. When serious excavations started in 1965, it became clear quite quickly that this was an extraordinary find, that would change the known history of iron- and bronze age civilizations in Europe. Lepinski Vir established the Iron Gates culture (9,500 -6,000 BC) as one of the earliest permanent human settlements in Europe. The original site was flooded when the power station was completed, so the excavated foundations were moved slightly higher up the river bank and later protected under a large glass structure, which is open to visitors.

The adjacent museum displays many of the extraordinary objects found here, ranging from sophisticated tools and intricate jewelry to large stone sculptures. The stone monument on the left here, may be the oldest piece of large sculpture art ever found in Europe.

Before returning back to the city, we finished the tour with a drink of homemade honey-slivovitz at a beautiful garden overlooking the Danube.

Ravanica and Manasija Monastery:
On my second day trip I visited two ancient monasteries and a very impressive cave. Our first stop was a Ravanica Monastery, located about an hour and a half south of Belgrade.

Due to the constant threat of Turkish invasions and raids, many medieval monasteries in Serbia are surrounded by enormous defensive walls, making them look more like fortresses than religious places. Manasija Monastery is one best preserved examples of this. Founded in the early 15th century, the huge walls and towers dwarf the small monastery church inside. Unfortunately it had started to rain quite heavily by then, so my pictures are a bit dull and grey.

Following a wonderful local lunch of freshly caught and grilled trout with traditional Serbian bread, we continued to visit Resava Cave, which is one of the many enormous cave systems in the karst stone area in this region. It was quite an impressive cave with some very large halls and huge stalactites.

The next day I flew back to Munich. I really enjoyed my time in Serbia. Belgrade itself is not the most beautiful city you'll ever see, but having been located at the crossroads of so many competing empires for so long, it has so much history and quite a few interesting buildings. And the castles and monasteries in the surrounding area alone made it worth the trip.

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