Thursday, April 17, 2008

Belgrade – the charm of living

The white color symbolized the south, that is, the sun, or light. That is why the Slavs, when they came upon the first town on their way, gave it the name of “the white town”.

Still standing Belgrade

“Happy is the people whose history is boring” said a great European philosopher. The citizens of Belgrade know that the history of their city was all but boring, and feel proud somehow – because their city has been coveted by many conquerors from times immemorial. Even today, the word “boring” is seldom heard in Belgrade.
The history of Belgrade has many layers: a layer of builders and a layer of destroyers, and again… The citizens of Belgrade keep a memory of the history of their home town, feeling proud somehow – because the builders won in the end and Belgrade gets larger and taller by the day.
Sometimes it appears that Belgrade is sprawling uncontrollably, but that is where its charm is: the mixture of styles, people and ideas has created a place where you could be surprised the moment your turn a corner. Both the builders and destroyers from the beginning of our story have left their marks, some of them insufficiently explored: don’t be surprised if you find a gold coin from the last century when walking along a path on Kalemegdan Fortress. That’s Belgrade for you.
There are many places where you can touch and smell history: the Belgrade Fortress on Kalemegdan has been added to for centuries. Everybody added something authentic, something of his own. Today it is a favorite promenade of the citizens of Belgrade and their guests: underground passages, old arches, Clock Tower, Nebojsa Tower, and the hidden, quiet Church of St Paraskewe on the way to the Lower Town. At the same time, from Kalemegdan, you can glance into the future. On top of one of the tallest towers there is an astronomical observatory open all day long and, immediately below it, Planetarium. The stars within your reach.
The streets around Kalemegdan had been cut a couple of centuries ago: King Peter’s Street – with the oldest café in Belgrade, with a funny name of “?”, and the cathedral – was built in the 11th century. A few yards farther, there is the Home of princess Ljubica from the 19th century. That’s Belgrade for you: centuries and eras placed side by side, in perfect harmony. Still, the history of Belgrade is not easy to follow. The city is still growing, changing its skyline and favorite colors: often, old beautiful facades are leaning onto modern buildings whose glass fronts mirror the caryatides. Even more often you’ll find fantastic, modern galleries and cafes inside old backyards. Not far from the National Theater, erected 150 years ago, you can see one of the most modern shopping centers, while the famous Victor monument looks at the Hyatt hotel across the river.
The history of Belgrade can be explored in many directions. No matter what direction you take, you will enjoy it. And you will come again, to hear and see some more of it. To add a line of your town.

Where people play for fun

Do you know how many gold medals, trophies and cups are to be found in Belgrade? Do you know how many champions and record-breakers there are in Belgrade? We haven’t managed to count them all.
In their everyday lives the citizens of Belgrade are real sportsmen: they observe fair play, cheer noisily and protest even more noisily. They are good at team work, but they like to win alone as well. They are not the most disciplined of trainees, but they are always in top physical form. At the same time, they are more knowledgeable about every sport than the national selectors of many a country in the world. Some of them have proved it.
This is a sports city – the host of many world, European and Balkan championships in many sports, the city of the winners, but the city that salutes the losers as well.
The first basketball match in Belgrade was played in 1923. The largest number of basketball champions, but also the volleyball champions (the gold medal in the Olympic games of 2000), water-polo champions (European champions in 2001) and handball champions are walking the streets of Belgrade at this moment.
Belgrade was an official candidate for the venue of the 1992 Olympic Games. At that time, many sports facilities for football, basketball, volleyball and handball, but also for water-polo, tennis and gymnastics, were either reconstructed or built from scratch. Not to forget table-tennis, shooting, athletics and martial arts facilities. At the same time, the city has gone “down to the river” by the construction of a number of extended bicycle tracks and by a “tidying over” of Ada Ciganlija, the large river island that has been connected with the mainland. Ada has been specially prepared: basketball courts, football and handball fields, beach-ball courts, rowing, bicycle tracks, free climbing, rollercoaster, bungee jump. They have even a couple of rugby teams. With the winning of the Olympic medals the sports activities in Belgrade you will find (at least) an Olympic size swimming pool, indoor or outdoor tennis court, miniature football fields, basketball and handball court or a modern gym. The citizens of Belgrade will tell you, jokingly, that every city blocks in Belgrade has a sports hall or at least a stadium seating all the citizens of the block. The largest stadium in Belgrade seats 60.000. The Pionir sports hall, the venue of many a fantastic and dramatic finals, offers 7.000 seats.
Belgrade is the host of many sports festivals: every year there is the traditional Belgrade marathon there, and the children marathon. Belgrade is included in the world’s challenge day drive.
Here you can, easily, almost at every corner, come across a group of children who will beat you in street ball, football, beach ball. They will certainly give you an opportunity for revenge, or at least a point of advantage. The citizens of Belgrade love challenge.

Where people live for fun

History tells us that during the Austrian reign there was a law in Belgrade forcing the citizens of Belgrade to attend balls and other festivities under the penalty of a fine. But, that’s history.
In the first half of the 80s, one of the favorite souvenirs that the citizens of Belgrade presented to their guests was a completely black picture postcard, with the letters Belgrade by Night written on it. That’s Belgrade sense of humor. But, that’s history. Belgrade is awake. The friends and the guests of Belgrade often say that Belgrade by night is unlike its daily edition: some of the citizens of Belgrade are only to be seen at night.
The night life begins, in fact, already in the afternoon: every evening an exhibition is opened in downtown Belgrade, or a promotion is held. You will meet all those people, always ready for new trends and streams, at least once again during the evening. Not because Belgrade is a small town, but because an average citizen of Belgrade, who wants to see everything he wants to see in a single evening, spends no more than twenty minutes at a given place. Then he moves on. That’s rhythm for you.
Start toward Skadarlija first, the old bohemian part of the city still jealous of its charm. The Skadarlija Street is the place where some of the most beautiful verses of their poetry were composed. Many world-famous writers grew up there; many a great story was first told there.
They are proud of their cuisine: in the last couple of centuries, from each guest or conqueror they took best he had and built it into their menus. You can’t say you’ve been to Belgrade unless you have tried “pljeskavica”, “kajmak”, “riblja cobra” or “pecenje”.
Belgrade has been fostering the tradition of the good classical jazz for almost forty years now. Jazz clubs are still numerous and most of them offer live music every evening. At the same time, their DJs are always in the know: everything you could hear in a London club or at a concert in Paris last night you hear in Belgrade tonight.
Every place has a feature and a charm of its own, and you can never know which one will be “in” tomorrow. So, book your seat in time.

The touch of Belgrade

The artist of Belgrade often leaves Belgrade, but for a short time only. They say there is so much inspiration here they have to escape it for a time, to let the impressions settle down. During their stay away from Belgrade, they conquer the world with their works and return home as if nothing has happened. They still sit in their favorite cafes; they still buy bread from the same baker and associate with the same friends.
Everyday, in Belgrade, a couple of new exhibitions are opened, or new books, journals or conceptualist artist promoted.
The local cultural scene has often been in the lead: Atelje 212 is the first theater in Eastern Europe that had Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on its repertoire in 1956. In the 60s, it was there that BITEF (the Belgrade International Theater Festival) was born. It is still going strong. For decades now, the National Theater, one of the oldest theaters in these parts, has been staging quality and interesting classical plays, ballet and opera performances, in cooperation with the home and foreign directors, artists, singers. At the same time, the home writers have always had their chance on the stage of the Belgrade Drama Theater, the Center for Cultural Decontamination and the BITEF avant-garde theater. The local scene is the Great Mess where the world’s great names, such as Emir Kusturica, Dusan Kovacevic, Goran Paskaljevic, Biljana Srbljanovic, Vladimir Velickovic, as well as the names of some new, young artists that you will as yet hear about, are constantly circulating. This city is proud of having been the place where Ivo Andric, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, as well as Borislav Pekic, Mica Popovic, Danilo Kis and Nadezda Petrovic, have lived for a time.
The Belgrade Film Archive, with a film showing theater of its own, is the largest film archive in Europe and the world. Also: the seats of the theater are very same seats used by film directors and actors whose works have changed the course of film history.
Belgrade is, at the same time, a festival city: International Short-Length and Animated Film Festival, FEST, BEMUS, the BITEF Festival of New Theatrical trends; the Low-Fi Film Festival, BRAMS. Each festival is an important event for the city.
The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Applied Art, National Museum, Nikola Tesla museum, Ethnographic Museum, Automobile Museum, Railway Museum, Yugoslav Gallery, the Gallery of Science and Art, Theater Museum – these are the places you must pay a visit to. Don’t forget – entry into Belgrade galleries is free. Art can be accessed by everyone. One thing is certain: should Belgrade recognize an artist, you can be certain that very soon the whole world will recognize him. Here you have a unique chance of foreseeing the future.
Belgrade is one of the spiritual centers of the Balkans: the Temple of St Sava in Vracar is one of the largest Orthodox temples in the world and one of the largest projects Belgrade has recently undertaken and accomplished. At the same time, many small, sometimes even hidden churches, like the Church of St Paraskewe on Kalemegdan, beautiful painted with frescoes, give a complete picture of the spirituality and tradition of the people and of Belgrade. The Cathedral, one of the best known symbols of Belgrade, was built as early as 1837. On the other side of the street is the Serbian Patriarchate, the spiritual and religious center of Serbia. The Orthodox religion, known in the world as the Orthodox Christianity, is the dominant religion in these parts. The amalgamation of the Orthodox Christian thought, the Byzantine culture and the Slav soul can be experienced in the smallest of temples, gazing into the frescoes of rulers and saints, painted over the centuries.

Talk to Belgrade

One of the most often used phrases of the citizens of Belgrade is “No problem”. People with this attitude, although it may sound paradoxical, can really accomplish a lot.
In recent years, Belgrade has erected, established or renovated, a considerable number of congress halls, media centers, Internet cafes and the media meeting the world standards: Center Sava, Intercontinental and Hyatt Regency are some of the most often visited places in town.
Many of their business partners from abroad, many delegations, friends of Belgrade and Serbia, are convinced they are capable of organizing every meeting or gathering at the world level. That’s why they are in Belgrade now, investing into new business. Many world-famous companies have decided to place their representative offices for Eastern Europe in the true sense of the world. Great companies, like Microsoft, for instance, are the partners of their Government and governmental institutions, seated in Belgrade.
The Belgrade Fair is still one of the largest in the region. Every second or third week, managers, manufacturers and partners from all over the world gather there presenting achievements in the areas of technology, electronics, fashion, agriculture or publishing. During the winter these activities are arrested for a while and the Fair hands over its exhibition halls to the big, traditional Winter Fair and the laughter children.
The citizens of Belgrade don’t care much long-lasting meeting. They love challenge, problems, quick agreement and objectives setting. After that, they like to celebrate the agreed-upon deal. The way it’s done in Belgrade, of course. Don’t be surprised if the only answer you get is “No problem”. That’s the way it is, as each and every problem can be solved.
Business news spreads quickly: one always knows the best man for the particular job – and who to avoid having anything to do with. But the latter cannot survive in Belgrade for long; the city soon reject them, shakes them off and offers new, better quality people.
This is a university city of unbelievable potential: every year, thousands of students get their college diplomas. These young people are completely ready for work and cooperation with the world. At this very moment, many of them are winning awards at prestigious competitions as designers, programmers or scientist.
The ex students of Belgrade, the people of world today, who had spent several past years abroad, specializing in their fields of interest, are returning to their city, Belgrade, with the intention of showing the world how a modern city, the city with a soul, can do business and function. This is what they are showing you at the moment.

Find your Belgrade

The streets of Belgrade are full of people, day or night. The citizens of Belgrade are ready to work all night so they can start, from early in the morning, strolling around the city, seeing friends, taking and exchange ideas - “listen to the idea that will change the world” – and then implement the ideas.
You cannot explore Belgrade in a few days. It slips away, hiding a thing or two internationally. This is why people return to it, a number of times. Next time it will be different, larger, and taller. In the meantime, it’ll change some habits, perfect some others.
Find your own favorite place in Belgrade. Don’t be satisfied with a recommendation only – often the citizens of Belgrade are not even aware of their beautiful, quiet places, radiating warmth and harmony. They are not aware of them because they have become accustomed to them – they see them every day. So, make your own choice: the Kalemegdan Fortress, Skadarlija, Tasmajdan, Kosutnjak, Avala – the last one outside the city limits, an excellent place to relax – the Zoo, Ada Ciganlija, Senjak, the Sibinjanin Janko Tower in Zemun, Gardos – these are just few of the places, city blocks you must visit to get the feel of Belgrade. The Belgrade marketplaces; flower shops; bakers, wine cellars – all of them give each new day a special exotic fragrance. And a different fragrance every day.
The shopping centers; shopping malls where you will always find the latest in world fashion; bookstores; galleries; museums; theaters; antique-shops full of their, but also foreign, history; churches; temples; parks.
The Belgrade multiplex and regular cinemas are almost always full – the citizens of Belgrade gulp the movies, talk about them, see them several times, until the film repartees become a part of everyday slang. The success of a film is not measured by box-office return but by the number of repartees that remain after the film has been forgotten.
And don’t be surprised should a waiter or a salesgirl recognize you after a couple of years, or remember what it was you had ordered or bought last year, the last time you were in Belgrade: the citizens of Belgrade are good at remembering their guests, and even better at remembering their “usual”, and the best at remembering who it was you had come into café or a restaurant with last time.
And remember, the moment you master “hello, how are you? Feel like a cup of coffee” in Serbian, you have become a citizen of Belgrade.

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