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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

The home of Serbia’s bohemian

What do guitarist Jimi Hendrix, former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov have in common with the Serbian arts and culture scene of past and present? No, not that they're all dead (two of them aren't even). It's actually a Belgrade street, made of cobblestones that the colorful and creative life has been walking on for 200 years now. And even if such pavement has its obvious pitfalls (especially for people wearing high heels) it's an undeniable must-visit. Just accept it. And no worries, you‘ll be in the company of various local and international celebrities.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

It's neither boulevard nor avenue nor expressway, but merely "an ordinary, steep, winding alley in the middle of Belgrade". At least that's how the Skadarska street (also known as Skadarlija) introduces itself on a sign at its initial intersection with Simina and Zetska. It's the words of Bosnian artist and cartoonist Zuko Džumhur, just one of the countless imaginative spirits who have eaten, drank and created in this street. And that is exactly what gave the Skadarska its nickname "Montmartre of Belgrade" very early on – after all, it's been home and workplace to a similarly illustrious community as its Parisian counterpart. This comparison even received official validation in 1978 when both quarters were twinned. In addition to Hendrix, Brandt and Karpov the list of big names that have walked the Skadarska through the decades includes "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, actress Gina Lollobrigida and US president #46 Joe Biden.

But of course Belgrade's 2nd most important tourist attraction (closely following the city's fortress) isn't only an open air museum with a bohemian past. And if you are the proud owner of a sensitive nose (or simply hungry) you will easily find your way to the other significant feature of the Skadarska: its numerous kafanas. This originally Ottoman term describes the traditional restaurants in the formerly Yugoslav countries, their menus combining warm meals, alcoholic drinks, domestic coffee and often enough live music. No surprise that according to legend this is where iconic director Alfred Hitchcock threw his diet to the Košava wind. However, it's notably obvious that with tourism on the rise the authentic facades of these rustic restaurants have received a somewhat more international upgrade, in the form of quite persistent restaurant scouts jumping at you, oversized menu displays with photos of the various culinary delights provided and (last and definitely least) slightly to considerably higher prices. Nonetheless, it remains an indisputably great place to experience genuine Serbian cooking, eating and living, often enough up until the early morning hours.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The Skadarlijan history begins around 1830 when more and more Sinti and Roma started to settle here. However, during the urban development plan of 1854 their dwellings were replaced with fortified brick houses that were soon populated by artists, craftsmen and minor officials. The name "gypsy quarter" still remained for a little longer though. It was not before the turn-of-the-century that the bohemian character started to develop, most of all after the popular Dardaneli hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1901. Since it was situated right next to the National Theatre (on the site of today's National Museum) it had been home to countless (now homeless) poets, actors and singers that decided to move over to the close Skadarska, filling inns and kafanas like Dva Jelena (Two Deers), Tri šešira (Three Hats) and Zlatni bokal (The Golden Goblet) that are still existing nowadays. Many of the prominent guests like poet Gustav Krklec, singer Silvana Armenulić or writer Momo Kapor turned their art into currency and paid bills for food and drinks for example with poems written on the menu or on napkins. I wouldn't recommend trying that today though. Not that I have...

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The name of the street actually goes back to an underground aqueduct that was used to divert the Bibija stream from the surface down underground in the late 19th century. The largest of the resulting chambers was named after the now Albanian city of Shkodra (Skadar) which in return gave the Skadarska its name in 1872. A rich history like this obviously comes with heritage and responsibilities which is why the Skadarska even has its own code that all establishments must adhere to. Among other things it stipulates which dishes need to be served and what the waiters' uniform and the tablecloths should look like (try to spot the pattern). And above all of it waves the official "bohemian flag". Featuring the insignia walking stick, carnation and top hat it is being hoisted every year in late April/early May in front of Zlatni Bokal to commemorate the beginning of the summer season. It's always quite a festive little ceremony with celebrity guests and music. Since the summer of 2017 the flagpole has an even prettier backdrop, namely a drinking water fountain in ancient design, provided by architect Uglješa Bogunović and sculptor Milica Ribnikar-Bogunović in 1966 and based on an Ottoman fountain originally located here.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Being the artistic epicenter it was and is, it's needless to say you can also scout the quarter for authentic regional paintings as souvenirs. The small antique shop Ninke for instance not only sells the usual old glasses, cups and candlesticks, but also numerous works by painters from Belgrade and all of Serbia, most of them from the northern village of Kovačica which is known for its naïve art and depiction of everyday scenes. But you can find more contemporary pieces by graduates of the Belgrade University of Arts as well. A second port of call for art lovers is just a stone's throw away. The gallery AS, founded in 1989, is closer to venue standards and in addition to paintings by various Balkan artists from just as many decades it also offers hand-made frames. Over and above collectors' havens like these it's also the former home of writer and painter Đura Jakšić (1832-1878) that upholds the artistic character that has shaped this street. After Jakšić's death the flat building with the number 34 became a meeting place for young poets and in 1968 it was restored in collaboration with numerous renowned artists. Nowadays it serves as a location for literature, theater, music and art events.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Once you have had your fill of the rich Serbian food, the traditional live music and the artsy stuff you will find the necessary peace and quiet on the last third of the Skadarska, known as the "atrium". Here the huge walls of a former brewery are now painted with colorful pictures of old Belgrade and filled with a couple of trendy and cozy bars that are perfect for a rakija or two. A personal favorite of mine – also for lavish cocktails and hot chocolate at very moderate prices – is Kaldrma (cobblestone) Bar. Founded only a few years ago, it has already become an institution and gives the centuries-old street a modern and creative twist. From the adjoining terrace with an oriental touch you also have a wonderful view of how the partying and strolling community often enough has a tough time with the cobblestones.

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