The Nutshell Guide to Belgrade (2014): Top foods

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Serbian food is getting a lot of good press lately, and it is quite something: no good night out ever ends without a pop to a street food stall (pljekavica and burek are the most common), and the people tend to take their food quite seriously (not to mention plentifully). A mix of various influences, from Turkish to German, it tends to be on the  heavy side with lots of meat and cheese, especially when eating out. Vegetarianism is accommodated, much due to the popularity of fasts, but the food tends to be much blander.

Unfortunately, given the focus on restaurants, and the list sadly misses the home-made glories of sarma (stuffed pickled cabbage), stuffed peppers, podvarak (shredded and baked pickled cabbage) and prebranac (boiled beans) which never shine outside of a family dinner table and are marginally lighter. I also missed out most non-traditional places: although there are many decent Italian restaurants, and there is a fad for sushi and burgers, traditional food still dominates in terms of quality.

Burek from Trpković

There is no better way to start the day (or end a night), than by having 250g of burek (with cheese) in the morning, accompanied by jogurt (fluid yoghurt). The place to go is Trpkovic, which is easily recognised by the long queues. The family-owned bakery has been around since before WWII and offers many other (rather calorific) delights, including an outstanding poppy seed strudel drenched in honey. Proximity of the Manjež park helps to quickly enjoy your burek.

Pogačice from Čarli

Pogačice, are a childhood favourite due to their amazing layered texture and crunch.  At Čarli they come in two flavours, plain and with čvarci (pork rinds). Needless to say, both are a bit heavy on the stomach (despite their smallish size, two are quite enough) and best consumed with jogurt.

Turkish coffee from “?”

Although much as been said about “?” on this blog, it is still a must to have the turkish coffee on a morning while looking at the spire of Saborna crkva from the street garden or enjoying the coziness inside. If you’re more an espresso person don’t bother – Koffein and Moritz eis do a great one and are nearby and are quite nice places.

Cold meat and cheese platter from Dijagonala

Although its menu can be a bit hit and miss, Dijagonala’s cold meat and cheese platter is a must try for those interested in the true taste of Serbian countryside (albeit in probably the most urbane and well designed environment in town). All ingredients are sourced from nearby farms and served with mouthwatering proja (corn bread). The price is steep but well worth it – combined with a salad (and a nice quince rakija) this can make a lightish lunch while exploring Vračar and nearby Sveti Sava temple.

Veal goulash from Zaplet

Dijagonala’s predecessor and sister restaurant, Zaplet was and is one of the main innovators on Belgrade’s culinary scene by introducing sous-vide and many other innovative (but not ridiculous) takes on our varied culinary tradition and resurrecting of niche old fashioned favourites such as breaded brains and tripe. The true show-stopper on the menu is the beef goulash which is deliciously fragrant.

Teleća-Šopska-Karadjorjdeva combo at Madera

Madera has long held a place at the very top of Belgrade’s kafana scene, much thanks to journalist and sports celebs who frequented the place since its beginnings. Since the renovation, it has established itself as the meeting place of the Serbian elite and a place to go to see and be seen. Thankfully, the food has followed suite and it offers hands down the most coherent and consistently amazing fare in the city, with impeccable service. Although there are many innovative things springing on its menu, it is the place to traditional Serbian restaurant combo of Teleća čorba (veal broth), Karadjordjeva schnitzel (breaded pork fillet stuffed with soft cheese) and Šopska salad (tomato, cucumber and onion salad topped with soft cheese). Best enjoyed in the summer in Madera’s garden in Tašmajdan park.

Lamb or veal roast from Durmitor

Durmitor is an outstanding restaurant, a hidden gem in the concrete jungle of New Belgrade. The menu is great throughout (gills, schnitzels – you name it they have it) however the specialties are lamb and veal roasts. It is advisable to order them in advance while making a booking and enquring when thery will be ready, as the place is jam-packed with a mix of local businessmen and other punters.

Šampite and baklavas from Pelivan

Pelivan is the oldest and one of the few remaining traditional dessert shops in Belgrade. šampita is a bit of an acquired taste, as it is basically egg-whites mixed with enough sugar to leave you buzzing for a day and sandwiched in thin crust. Baklava is also amazing.

Žito sa šlagom from Petković

Petković is another old sweet shop in Belgrade and they offer a traditional serbian dessert of žito sa šlagom (grain pudding with whipped cream). Žito, although an acquired taste, is also very interesting as it plays a role in family rituals such as slava (family patron saint’s day) and funerals.

Pohovane paprike and čevapi from Tri šešira

Although Skadarlija is probably the biggest tourist trap in Belgrade, I have a soft spot for ancient and gigantic Tri Šesira for not letting its standards slip with popularity. In the late summer the thing to go for is the starter of pohovane paprike sa sirom (breaded peppers stuffed with soft cheese) and ćevapi sa kajmakom (grilled meat with special cheese). Although there are better places to enjoy grilled food (e.g Naja or Jb) but the central location, nice setting and good enough quality make it great.

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Moskva snit from Moskva

Moskva is the only remaining Viennese-style cafe in Belgrade and is famous for its cakes. Although they tend to be on the heavy and sugary side, Moskva šnit (torte with cherries and egg cream) is the special and a favourite.

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Raspberry and dark chocolate ice cream at Moritz Eis

The newcomer on the list, Moritz has shot to the heights of Belgrade food scene for its great taste and amazing branding. Although there are no weak spots, I suggest going for raspberry and dark chocolate, especially given that Serbs are  (somewhat comically) proud of their raspberries.

Palačinke from Glumac

Hefty palačinke (crepes) from Glumac come both sweet and savoury and are a favourite amongst Dorćol youngsters returning from school. The most typical combo is banana, nutella and Plazma (Serbia’s national biscuit, modified from Italy’s Plasmon), while sour cherry, nutella and Plazma is my favourite .

Pljeskavica to go (all around)

One should not leave Belgrade without trying pljeskavica, essentially a very meaty hamburger which is probably the favourite street food in the region. There are many places that do them and as long you can see a queue in front of it means it is probably good. Most famous places in Old Belgrade are are Loki in Dorćol and Mara in Vračar. Typical toppings are chopped onion, urnebes (spicey cheese with paprika), kajmak ( a bit risky in the summer) and cabbage and sour cream combo.

Cooked rakija

My favourite winter warmer is cooked warm rakija – its caramelly taste and soft finish makes one impervious to the winter gloom and cold. Usually drunk around Christmas, the best rakijas are found at Kalenić, Srpska kafana and “?”.

Game goulash and pogače from Lovac

Lovac has a feel of a neighbourhood kafana in Vračar and is famous for its seasonal offering of game dishes (game goulash is my favourite). It also has the best bread basket in town with small pogače (thicker flatbread) which go wondrously with kajmak or urnebes as a starter.

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The Barbican – the idea

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I remember the first time a friend took me to the Barbican, and the giddy feeling of its otherworldliness. Since then I come back, relatively often, preferably on gray weekends, to admire its towers; gray on grey, gloom broken by its verdant palms, lake, fountains.

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The longer I stayed in London, the more otherworldly has the Barbican become to me, and the more attached I am to it – or at least the idea of it. It has risen in the throbbing, frigid, heart of London’s commerce, from the ashes of WWII. An avant-garde development, praising community, with the largest cultural centre in the middle, celebrating the post-war ideals of a more enlightened society. It looks incredibly quaint in today’s London, and indeed, Europe. The world of stratospheric rents, the world of deserted multi-milion “luxury developments”, the world of all the dumb money going into dig-downs, golden cars and Louis Vuiton bags. Probably, the most quaint thing about the Barbican is its ambition, unlike its equally tall recent neighbours, which only celebrate achievement.  I see it’s concrete  soaked with wish to soar above the society of the day, and to elevate it though culture, cosmopolitanism and shared purpose. Sadly, those ambitions seem to be no longer, either in architecture or politics, in England or elsewhere.

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Still there is the Barbican: the exhibitions, the plays and music, lake and towers, a monument to dreams past.

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I bi prajda (a sutra?)

Pre (sad vec) vise od 10ak godina, napisao sam tekst za “eminentni” časopis Vuk (list OŠ Vuk Karadžić) o prvom prajdu tj krvoprolicu na njemu i uzasnoj reakciji SPC koja j to krvoprolice podrzala. Moj otac je mrmljao (što baš o TOME?), urednica tekst nije objavila (nije bilo primereno) i meni je s jedbe strane bilo zao (tekst nije bio neki ali ono sto se desilo je uzas) a s druge laknulo (povezivati se sa borbom za LGBT prava u tinejdzerskom uzrastu u Srbiji, nije lako, kao što nisam osetio na sopstvenoj koži, ali sam nažalost itekako video na koži drugih). Iako sam uvek stajao u odbranu LGBT populacijr u razgovorima, to je verovatno bio poslednji pokušaj (polu)javnog angažmana.

Jedan dobar film, x pokušaja parade, n bezbednosnih procena i m tv gostovanja kasnije, imamo prajd (pod barikadama) i dobro je što ga imamo. Država (ili nažalost, vladajuća partija, ili još gore, Predsednik vlade +), su pokazali da su voljni da pokažu da će se suprotstaviti nasilju protov LGBT populacije, po bilo koju cenu. I to je, cak i pored mog cinizma, ogromna stvar. I svaka čast.
Ali u našoj euforiji (ili mizetiju, onih drugih nas) jedna stvar: prajd i hiljade onih propalih pre njega, su bezvredni ako nisu korak ka tome da će srpska država i društvo (sa ili bez trenutne vladajuće partije, ili svemogućeg premijera) da brane tudje slobode (seksualne, misljenja i sl.) i da se ljudskost ceni, ma kog optedeljenja bila. Ako se ovo završi samo kao jos jedan poen za Srbiju za (daleko, mitsko) pridruzivanje EU, ili za ovu ili onu organizaciju, ili za “gradjansko društvo” (da stranci ne misle da smo divljaci) prajd je besmislen. Zato se nadam da će uskoro, nabrijani 13ogodnišnjaci širom Srbije moći da pišu tekstove o društvenim pitanjima na koji god (ne-šovinistički) način i da će to biti samo malo više ok. Zapamtimo, to nikad neće biti lako – nema lakog puta da slobode i pravde.

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The Nutshell Guide to Belgrade (2014) : Sights

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Although Belgrade has been around for quite a while now (as a Neolithic village in Vinca, the a Celtic and then Roman fort, then a border city of many an empire, and finally the capital of Serbia) it has constantly changed, often violently, and the winds that sweep though the Danube valley constantly blow its people to and fro. Hence, somewhat surprisingly, there is precious little ancient on display (“old building” in Belgrade is from 19th or early 20th century), but plenty of eclecticism, as the city reinvents itself and maintains its various identities. Thus despite being ethnically relatively homogenous, it has a quite cosmopolitan air in all of its exuberance.

The recent past hangs in the air in both physically in the ruins of Generalstab and mentally, but in terms of trends (fashion, cultural, musical or gastronomic) Belgrade is in step with the times and even tries to punch above its weight for a cultural place under the sun with a strong street art scene and many a ambitious designer building on its tarnished cool.

To be enjoyed, Belgrade should be approached with an open heart and understood as a mix of cultures and influences, rather than a coherent whole: it has a chunk of a Middle-European lime tree lined streets and cafes, a scoop of a socialist crumbling grandiose projects, a whiff of a Mediterranean trading city, and a side of chaotic turbo-suburbs. Those into black tourism will (thankfully) only find a few obvious signs of destruction (Generalstab, Police buildings in Kneza MIlosa, the television building from the NATO bombing; remains of the old library and Staro Sajmiste from WWII). Despite what some of my friends thought, the other ruined buildings are due to neglect rather than direct war destruction.

Below are the must-sees in Belgrade (in order of importance), with a bit of history (more detailed explanations on Wikipedia, but the locals love chatting about history) and a few suggestions for where to rest. If you are staying in the city center, the city is walkable and all sites, apart from the Tito’s memorial and Zemun are within a 30-minute walking distance from Trg Republike. All of the main sites listed below can be crammed into a weekend visit for a keen and obsessive tourist (despite being a native I have a very touristy approach to Belgrade and having done it, I can vouch for it).

1. Kalemegdan

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By far the showstopper, the Belgrade fortress (known as Kalemegdan – “the field of war” in Turkish) has been the heart of Belgrade since its foundation. Perched on a limestone hill, it dominates the confluence of the Danube and Sava, offering sweeping views across the Panonian plane. It has been around since the Romans (white stones in the walls are from then) and has seen though many a ruler, before it became a romantic park. Not to miss are the statue of the Victor by Ivan Mestrovic (the greatest Croatian/Yugoslav sculptor), the observatory tower and Ruzica, Belgrade’s oldest church (note a chandelier made of WWI bullets and sabers). If you have some time, take a stroll below the fortress (where the medieval city used to be) and see the lapidarium in Barutana (statuary from the Roman times housed in the old gunpowder store) and Nebojsa Tower, which used to be a prison.  

For the animal lovers there is a pretty (and pungent) zoo, interesting more for the setting in the fortress, than for the poor animals. 

2. Dorćol

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In the 19th century Dorćol (“cross roads” in turkish) used to be the Turkish and Jewish part of town. During post-Ottoman modernization, it developed into a grid of tree-lined streets. Nice to stroll around and people gaze it has a genteel feel, although the natives, “Dorćolci”, maintain the illusion that they are quite a rowdy bunch. It is best to start from are the Student park and the University house (Captain Misa Buidling) with its romantic oriental details, see the old Belgrade stock exchange (now Etnographic museum, with a nice museum shop and not too dull a collection), go down Kralja Petra, past the Jewish Community building and turn left into Jevremova street to see Bajrakli Mosque (16th Century), the only surving mosque from the Ottom times (many others having been levelled during modernisation in late 19th Century). Also of note a dervish tomb next to the Natural Sciences Faculty and Vuk and Dositej Museum (a Turkish era building with a garden which used to house the first university in Belgrade). Finally Skadarlija (aka “The bohmeian quarter”) is a bo+it of a tourist trap and is really only a short, cobbled, street with old kafanas. It is nice to visit in the evening to hear the live music playing and to see the copy of Sebilj fountain, a gift form the city of Sarajevo

3. Saborna Crkva (the Cathedral) and Kosančićev venac

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Across Knez Mihajlova (the main axis of old Belgrade) from Dorcol, area around Kosancicev venac used to be the Serbian part of the city. Appropriately the area around it houses the Belgrade Cathedral (in pleasant Austro-baroque) and the patriarch’s court. Next to the church is the oldest surviving Belgrade kafana (cafe/restaurant) “?”, so named due to clergy’s request to be renamed appropriately for its sacred location. Across the road, in Balkan style, is Princess Ljubica’s house where this first in the remarkable line of estranged wives in Serbian political history used to live. Further down Kralja Petra, down the stone paved road is one of the nicer views over New Belgrade and the art-nouveau house of Mihajlo Petrovic Alas, a famous mathematician. If you walk to the left you will find the (badly-marked remains) of the old National Library that was fire-bombed by the Nazis on 6th April 1941, and with which perished many medieval manuscripts and historical documents. The crumbling square offers a nice view of the cathedral spire and is one of the rare remains of what Belgrade used to be like in the 19th century.

4. The axis: Knez Mihajlova/Terazije/Kralja Milana/Hram

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The main pedestrianized promenade in old Belgrade, Knez Mihajlova is the axis of Belgrade life and a meeting place since the olden days. Although there are few remarkable buildings apart from the elegant city library by Kalemegdan (housing the remains of the Roman Forum of Singidunum) and pretty beaux-arts Academy of Arts and Sciences in the middle, there are plenty of galleries worth popping into (Zepter Museum and the SANU gallery being the pre-eminent) and even more cafes to lounge and watch the Belgrade fauna going about its business.

Trg Republike is the focal point of Belgrade life and is flanked by the National Theatre and the National Museum. The museum is in the process of renovation for the past 11 years, however it does house a few exhibitions and is worth a look, if for nothing than for Mestovic’s Caryatids. In the middle of the Square, a site of many celebrations and protests in the past 20 years, is the equestarian statue of Prince Mihajlo, a moderniser who managed to wrest Serbia from the last clutches of the Ottoman empire in the mid-19th century.

Following the course of Knez Mihajlova, towards the Vracar hill and St Sava Temple, are Terazije, the former main square. Hotel Moskva, a beloved art-nouveau building, with the most famous (and still decent) cake shop in Belgrade (try Moskva šnit) dominates what used to be the main town square and that now is graced by an awkward looking stone fountain that was brought from the princely grounds of Topčider.

Further on are Beograđanka, Belgrade’s first sky scraper, JDP (Yugoslav Drama Theatre, the preeminent theatre beautifully rebuilt by Zoran Radojčić and Dejan Miljković) and the mess of Slavija square in whose middle are the remains of the first socialist thinker in Serbia, Dimitrie Tucović. Up though the leafy Sveti Sava street is the temple of St Sava. Still in the process of building, the project has been around for a century, constantly stalled by wars or inclement politics. The temple is supposedly built on the spot where the remains of St Sava, Serbian medieval saint and educator, were burnt.

If interested in medieval art, Gallery of Frescoes houses reproductions of Serbian and Byzantine medieval frescoes and will give you a glimpse of the architectural treasures of central Serbia without leaving Belgrade.

5. The Power Quarter: The Parliament, Royal Palaces and Tašmajdan

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Taking left from Terazije is Nikola Pašić square and the Serbian parliament. The construction of the neo-baroque building took almost 40 years until it was finished in 1938 to house the parliament of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The building is notable for both its architectural detail (note Toma Rosandić (another Croatian master sculptor) horse statues) and its stormy history. The most recent memorable episode happened on 5th October 2000 when it was stormed and set on fire during the anti-Milošević riots. 

No less violent is the history of the royal palaces in the part across the road. The Old Court now houses the Belgrade City hall, while the New Place houses the Presidential office. The park was also a site of one of the many regicides in Serbian history, when in 1903 Obrenović dynasty was deposed and replaced by the rival Karađorđević family. Both buildings sustained massive damage during WWII bombings.

Across Takovska street from the Parliament and behind the monumental post office building, is Tašmajdan park and the church of Saint Mark. The church is modeled after Serbian medieval monasteries and houses the remains of the most powerful of Serbian medieval rulers Car (Emperor) Dušan. The park, at the site of an old cemetery and a stone quarry, is overlooked on side by the NATO-bombed TV station, which still remains in ruins, as a memorial to those who perished during the raid.

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Down Kneza Miloša street, at the corner with Nemanjina street are the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the New Generalštab (Army HQ, designed by Petar Dobrović), the most photogenic of the ruins from the 1999 Nato Bombing. Due to the lack of funds and high architectural value necessitating costly renovation, the hulking building is still awaiting the re-build, although one tower of the building is still in use.

6. Tito’s Memorial and Dedinje

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A bit further from the genteel Dedinje hill is the site of the Museum of Yugoslav History, which often hosts exhibitions about the social history of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito, the life-long president of SFR Yugoslavia and a remarkable character. The museum and the adjoining plateau are remarkable monuments of the elegance of socialist-modernist architecture. The museum complex also includes Tito’s memorial, which is located in the “House of flowers” which used to be a glasshouse in his residence, overlooking the Vračar hill. Tito’s estranged widow, Jovanka Broz is also bured next to him.

If you have some time on your hands, next to the museum complex is the Partizan Stadium (Partizan is the bitter (and currently better) rival of Crvena Zvezda (Red Star), which it recently is beating in the Belgrade derby). The stadium (aka Stadion JNA [Yugoslav National Army stadium) used to host the one of the largest annual ceremonies in Socialist Yugoslavia, celebration of relay handover to Tito for his birthday on 25th May. A bit like the Olympic torch, the relay, designed by sculptors, would travel through Yugoslavia in the olden days carried by hands of the proletariat and end up in Belgrade, where with much pageantry, it would be handed over to Tito (or his successors).

Dedinje is dotted with both the old money pre-WWII villas (many of them in process of being returned to their owners) as well as kitchy monstrosities of the Milošević-era nouveau richesse. The most awful is the villa of Karić family, which has a triumphal arch and a number of lion statues.

On top of the hill, is the summer palace of Karađorđević dynasty. Beli Dvor (White palace), which is synonymous with the palace, is an elegant necolassical building, however the main attraction is the lovely terrace of the Royal Court, built in neo-Serbo-byzantine style by the White Russian emigrees, looking towards Topčider and Košutnjak and the court church. Entry is with a tour only over the weekends (as the heir apparent lives in the palace) so make sure to check if there are tours available

7. Savamala, Beton hala and Ušće 

 
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For the past 5 years, old town district of Savamala, on the banks of Sava river, between the Central train station and Kalemegdan ,is the place to be for Belgrade’s hipsters creatives. Drawn by the crumbling charm of grand 1920s buildings of this once-prosperous part of town (derelict Hotel Bristol hosted royalty before WWII, now it is a cheap drinking den), designers and artists, started the gentrification process. Many of them related to the Mikser festival (annual hipster-fest of art and design, centered around Mikser House, a cafe/club/design shop) Now the Emiratis have decided to redevelop the industrial parts of the area, and it is changing rapidly. Many buildings of note are related to Luka Ćelović a major benefactor of Belgrade University and founder of the Belgrade Zadruga (Belgrade cooperative bank), which is housed in the beautifully domed and recently renovated eclectic masterpiece in Karađorđeva street. It currently holds the plan for the future of Sava mala, the Belgrade Waterfront project, which is of contested architectural quality and has suspiciously little to do with the spirit of the present day Savamala.

A bit further down river is Beton hala, which used to be an industrial port storage, but is now home of some of Belgrade’s swankiest cafes and restaurants. The river promenade passing by Beton hala stretches around 7 km and links Ada Cignalija and Gale Muskatirovic sports center (which has Belgrade’s hottest gym, perched above the Danube). For the sporty ones, I can highly recommend going for a run there at dusk as the sun sets and colours go crazy over the rivers.

The promenade on the New Belgrade bank of the Sava, passes some of the most remarkable socialist-era architecture: Ušće tower (former HQ of the communist party, bombed in 1999 and ironically redevelopped as office space), Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) (amazing collection, sadly closed for refurbishment for the past 7 years), SIV (now Palace Serbia, a marble behemot housing many ministries and the former seat of the Yugoslav government), and formerly grand, now-closed, hotel Jugoslavia.

Up-river are the remains of the Old art deco fairground (Staro Sajmište), the first development on marshy the left bank of Sava and, during WWII, the site of a notorious Concentration camp, in what was the independent state of Croatia (NDH) where many of Belgraders (including much of the sizable pre-war Jewish community) lost their lives. The spot is marked by a monument.

Both sides of the rivers are packed in the summer with revllers going to «splav»s, clubs on river floats that stay open until wee hours

8. Zemun 

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An Austro-hungarian border town, Zemun has been annexed to Belgrde with the construction of New Belgrade, however Zemun still has a distinct small town look and feel. There are many nice restaurants with live music on the bank of the Danube and the view from the Millenium tower (constructed to mark thousnad years of the Hungarian state in its southernmost city) is worth the hike. Like Dorćol, Zemun has a very stong sense of hyper-local patriotism, with many Zemunci being famous for their toughness, a reputation much stengthened in the 1990s when many of its sons became prominant mafiosi (many of them interred in the beutiful Zemun cemetery)

9. Niche appeal

Of course, there are few other more niche sites to visit if you were to extend your stay:

- Architecture buffs could benefit from driving around new Belgrade to visit Genex Tower (the brutalist western gate of Belgrade), peculiar buildings aroung Jurija Gagarina street and Sava Center, a conference centre/cultural centre.

- Those more interested in the Serbian history could venture to Topčider park, which was the royal grounds during the Obrenović dynasty and houses a museum of the Serbian uprisngs in the old Balkan-style palace and also has a pretty stone church.

- Further afield is Avala, which has a Mestrovic WWI monument dedicated to the unkown soldier and also has a (bomberd but now restored) Avala tower, which offers amazing views over Belgrde and Central Serbia. 

-On particularly warm summer days, visiting Ada, a sports centre with an artificial lake is a good idea, both for the possibility of a dip in its murky (but cleanish) waters and watching sculpted bodies of Belgrade’s image conscious youth.

-Those into seeing how Belgraders live day to day, should visit a fresh produce market (Kalenic and Bajloni are the most popular) and maybe take a bus to one of the residential suburbs (all are safe).

- Those who despise urbanism should visit the warren that is Kaludjerica, and unplanned suburb of haphazard houses and aesthetically dubious houses.    

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The Nutshell Guide: Belgrade – listicle extraordinaire 2014 – Cafes

Having my life compressed to a string of weekend getaways (many of them back home to Belgrade), I have become more convinced of the worth of the most august of all writerly forms – the listicle. When an indecisive tourist traveller needs to know where to find the best coffee/ice cream/quick bite in an unfamilliar town nothing saves more time than an authoritative voice to guide him to the Olympian heights of “authenticity” from which the said traveller can scoff at the inellegant masses drinking and eating in tourist pens and not “getting the most out of (wherever)”.
Thus if you are in Belgrade, worry not – here is your salvation if you are seeking best places to affirm your conossieur consumer status and maybe have some fun in the process.

Best cafe: Centrala
(Corner of Simina and Knjeginje Ljubice)
For the past few years, Centrala has been reigning supreme as the best cafe in Belgrade – usually inviting the most cultured clientele in Belgarde but not descending to snobbery or exclusivity. Given my love of the place, I would venture to say that it encapsulates what many an old Belgrader would (inaccuratelly but idelaistically) define as “the true spirit of Belgrade” – a mixture of easy elegance, humourous warmth and unfussy cultural savvy – all in a leafy Dorćol setting.

Best drinks: Meduza
(Jevremova 6)
Ensconced on another leafy street close to the Bajrakli mosque, Meduza has a similar feel to Centrala (even hosting photography exhibitions) but is much less busy and offers a variety of delicious G&Ts. Founded by an expat from Barcelona, it has a cosmopolitain feel, super friendly staff and hosts budding djs and quiz nights. What more can you want?

Best coffee: Pržionica
(Dobračina 59b)
Following the European craze for artisan coffee, Pržionica delivers very solid coffee in a well designed (although tad pretentious) setting of a converted warehouse. On a sunny day it is amazing for people watching: while sitting on delapidated steps you can savour both the Ethiopian brew of the week and überhipness of the patrons.

Best afternoon hangout: Comunale
(Karađorđeva 2/Beton hala)
A very decent italian restaurant/cafe, Comunale attarcts a slight less botoxed crowd than its neigbours and is a perfect spot for enjoying the sunset and the flow of joggers and strollers along Sava, all with well made Aperol spritz.

Best ice cream: Moritz Eis
(Vuka Karadžića)
Before Moritz Eis, Belgrade was sorely lacking in consistenlty good gelato. Founded by a very stylish Austrian, Moritz not only offers scoops of joy to cool warm summer days (raspberry and dark chocolate are a must), but is also a trove of modernist furniture. To topo it off, the coffee is excellent.

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Cry Wolf

I distinctly remeber, two years or so ago, that I was complaining about Peščanik (a recently disrupted indipendent editorial portal) to a friend of mine. I found their commentary on the state of Serbia out of touch with reality, esentially a, crying wolf. They saw Serbia under DS (the main democratic, liberal Party) as if it were still under Milošević – a land of contolled media, full of ethnically intolerant corrupt politicians just waiting to clamp down on them, while I found the situation quite a bit different. Although the media was massively influenced by either the government or opposition money, there was a reasonably large spectrum of opinion (if not of quality), with one a few popular tabloids spacialising in smear campaigns about the Government. The politicians were corrupt, but the issue of “not dealing with the past” (meaning war crimes against Bosniaks, Croats and Kosovo Albanians and independence of Kosovo) was overblown – there was a decade long process of pubilcally dealing with these weight issues which gave a good majority of Serbs at least an understaning that there were many contentious and criminal points in Milošević’s version of events. Another issue was the site was abounding in a particularly wet type of quasi intellectual commentary where much sorrow and disgust was expressed, with little explanation of what is to be done, or even the high moral standards that the issues were judged against. Finally and most importantly, I thought that the worries of their articles were simply paranoid as I could not imagine Serbia returning to the “dark age” of press censorship and journalist trials (let alone belligerence) like during the last years of Milošević and the Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić. I thought that the civil society in Serbia was powerful enough to fight that type of extreme encroachment, and that the potentates of the EU would come down strongly (using their various funding sticks) on any government that would attempt it.
Now, Peščanik’s site is down probably because of a well researched article about the dubious PhD of the Minister of the Interior and Vučić’s right-hand man Nebojša Stefanović, and I now know I that I was very wrong about the last point. A cynic would say that a large part of the then-vocal civil society only does something for foreign funding or is co-opted into SNS government (Minister of Culture whose remit covers the media is a liberal public intellectual Ivan Tasovac), while the small valiant part (notably mostly not employed by NGOs) writes blogs and shares news as a part-time job. The EU seems the happiest that it has ever been with a Serbian government probably because Vučić’s control of the parliament and essentially pragmatic (if authoritarian) approach to Serbia’s tangled politics. For those less in the loop, this is also not the first instance of (shadow) censorship – many (tragi)comical Putinesque PR stunts of Vučić have been removed for YouTube and many minor blogs blaming the government for bad response to the recent floods have been removed.
Attack on Peščanik, warts and all, is the first major attack on a well known media outlet which is worrying as the only non self censoring mainstream medium is Danas, which sadly does not have a large reach. Even if Peščanik is restored, which I hope and think it will, this should be a catalyst for the minority that cares to start shoreing up the defences of free speech and democracy in Serbia, not only on the Internet but in public. It should also teach us a lesson that democracy and freedom can only be protected from within and that foreign funding are concern truly fleeting. Finally I hope that this will also make us realise that the liberal civil society needs to adapt to its governments and fight for its rights in different ways. We should start kickstarting media outlets and creating own shows. We should start writing well researched analyses explaining problems in Serbia rather than bemoan our sad fates. None of these would be enough, but would be a good training in becoming better citizens.

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Belgrade 2014: A winter portrait

Pogled sa Terazija

I always disliked going back to Belgrade in winter: grayness of the weather usually only exacerbated the decrepit look of the facades around the city. Furthermore, the lack of summer terraces, would not only condemn us to trawling the streets to find anywhere decent to sit, but, a place, once found, would be enveloped in smoke and all conversation would have been drowned in the din. Thankfully, the smoke would not have been to big a difference from the smog and fog that would inevitably linger over the city center. Winters in Belgrade were never nice.

Sadly, this hasn’t changed much and yet another year of sluggish growth, high unemployment, general malaise and the coup in the city hall meant the city only stagnated (although the weather is unseasonably nice). Buildings, even the newly renovated ones are scrawled with graffiti, once again in vogue, especially amongst the annoyingly persistent football hooligans. Ceca, a convicted criminal and admittedly, the most popular Serbian cultural export, sang at the official New Years’ eve celebration, thereby showing us that no matter how much of a crook you are, the state will be happy to celebrate you.  Over the holidays, the respect of other people’s personal space (by say, not blowing off their legs with a firecracker) has become rare, especially amongst the god-fearing crowd that gathered to celebrate Christmas and launch pyrotechnics to shame a smaller army in front of the half-empty Sveti Sava church.Finally, and most tragically Trg Republike is now crowned with a very large and shockingly obvious strip club, while two major museums are still closed and nothing is done to change that despite the fact that someone is getting quite a bit of money from the scaffolding on the facade of the National Museum.

Of course, there have been some improvements (Crowne plaza opened and looks nice, and soon Radisson Blu will be finished), however, as always, not enough. There is a lot of hope about the new waterfront project, however given the amount of spin it generated; it is not inconceivable that it might come to nothing.

Have we seen worse? Of course we have. Do we deserve better? Stupid question – no such thing as “deserving” in politics, or in life, for that matter.  We need to do things(work? vote? Protest?) for it (as in: our individual lives – let’s park the national wellbeing, and other loftier ideas for the moment) to get better. That is done by some (shout out to cool kids in Savamala, or Przionica, or Square Nine, or Zaplet, or Beton Hala), but not enough by others: the intellectual “elite” that prefers giving quasi-intellectual statements (the crowd remained strangely silent about Ceca or the strip-club), most “investors” (e.g. the team behind Hotel Jugoslavia who left it to rot only to redevelop it as a shit hole) and, well, the good old political circles, which are more inbred and bizzare than ever. Serbia in general, and Belgrade, still lacks motors for growth on the top and no amount of posturing (or farce) will change that. What will change that is, sadly, not the change in the vox populi (that hardly ever changes on its own), but the rise of new, creative and shrewd thinkers  (politicians, artists, entrepreneurs) who would have money behind them. We simply need smart people (Serbian or otherwise) who will put their money on the line in Serbia. We have enough of brains without the brawn – “experts”, of varying skills, are at best used as bayleaf in our political concoctions and at worst become disgruntled “analysts”. Brawn without brains – we have far too much of that.

In terms of practical policies, what we need is a further improvement of the investment climate and breaking up of the lobbies (e.g. the import one) to attract capital. One good sign is that even those who made fortunes in looting the state silverware (or other generic crime) in the 90’s are now pro-investment (in agro for example), probably after having realised that there is not much more to steal. The other is that it seems that Serbia’s budding mittelstand is becoming more politically involved and independent (as evidenced by the proposed economic policies). Finally, the increased global connectivity makes it easier for those who are not yet ready to take a plunge and move (back) to Serbia to engage with the possibilities here. Alas, there is quite a way to go and many lobbies and vested interests to tackle. However, without making Serbia profitable for smart business (software! skilled services! tourism!) there is a slim chance that our policies will ever be smarter.

Despite being optimistic about Belgrade and Serbia because of the numbers of young people who decided to pursue their ambitions in innovative/available ways here (from working in call-centers to developing apps) it is always a let-down to see that big headways, the ones needed to free us from this stagnations, are not made. We are still at the stage where dramatics is considered politics.

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