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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

Where Belgrade began

It's under the fortress (tvrđava) with its foundations that date back to 400 BC and were continuously overbuilt and expanded by countless rulers through the ages, where Belgrade's true roots are buried. Its location 125 m above the junction of the rivers Danube and Sava originally made it a strategically important base. Nowadays it's not only the Serbian capital's most famous landmark, but also a recreational space and an event venue. Although to be fully honest it's mostly the park Kalemegdan, which surrounds the ancient walls, that has been home to the Belgrade Zoo (Beogradski zoološki vrt) since 1936 and constantly welcomes fairs, festivals and concerts. This balancing act pretty much demonstrates how the city of Belgrade deals with its far from uncomplicated past and connects it with its eclectic present.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The park in turn is divided into Little (Mali) Kalemegdan adjacent to the city in the east and Great (Veliki) Kalemegdan on the southern side. Which is the perfect entry point coming from the city center, welcoming visitors with around 20 busts of famous Serbian personalities from art, science and politics that are spread all along the countless walking paths. Just be sure to rush past the kitschy souvenir stands along the way unseen to find the first two quite important monuments here. The Keys Handover Memorial (Mesto predaje ključeva 1867. godine na Kalemegdanu) marks the place where in 1867, after 400 years of Ottoman rulership, Prince Mihailo Obrenović received the keys to Belgrade by decree of Sultan Abdulaziz. And the Monument of Gratitude to France (Spomenik zahvalnosti Francuskoj) a few steps further, showing a naked woman with a sword rushing to Serbia's aid, commemorates the alliance with France in World War I.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Right above the Inner Stambol Gate (Unutrašnja Stambol kapija), even after more than 200 years you are still able to check the time on the Clocktower (Sahat kula) that was built 1740-1789 and has survived the eventful past of its surroundings pretty much untouched. Okay, it was renovated in the middle of the 19th century, but overall it's one of the few structures that the often war-stricken history of Belgrade has passed without any visible trace. Logical consequence or bitter irony, but quite significantly clearer traces of war can be found directly left and right of it – namely numerous exhibits of the Military museum (Vojni muzej) in the impressive building on your left, originally constructed in the 1920s as Military Geographical Institute. Now is the time in case you want to get away from the main hustle and bustle by taking a short walk around the eastern walls of the fortress. Simply follow the signs to the museum entrance, cross the main gate and stroll along the less frequented paths towards the Zindan Gate (Zindan kapija).

Underpassing the Clocktower instead you will reach the upper town (Gornji grad) of the fortress. The former residence of despot Stefan Lazarević, who in 1405 apppointed Belgrade as capital for the first time, is a wonderful green area ideal for walks or chilling in the sun. Or in the shadows. Or if physical stuff is more your thing, you can give archery a try here. In the center of the area Damat Ali-Paša's Turbeh (Damad Ali-pašino turbe), one of the very few surviving Islamic monuments in Belgrade, houses the remains of two Ottoman commanders. Also don't miss the pretty peculiar statue of Stefan Lazarević, a 3.2 meter high bronze sculpture by Nebojša Mitrić! Last but not least on the north corner of the complex, where the main entrance to the fortress was located in the ruler's days, the Despot's Gate and the Castellan Tower (Despotova kapija & kula) are also dedicated to Lazarević. For a mere 200 RSD you can enter and climb the tower to get a slightly better view and overview from the roof.

Be sure to take a little detour through the Despot's Gate and the adjoining Zindan Gate (Zindan kapija) to not only find remains of an old Roman fort in the fortress walls but also check out the beautifully overgrown Church of Roses (Crkva Ružica) just around the corner and down a few steps. Originally built as a powder storage, equipped with a bell tower following its recapture from the Ottomans and nowadays a popular wedding venue its special feature are the chandeliers made of weapons and ammunition.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The western side of the fortress heights offers a magnificent view over the Sava river and the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo) as well as Novi Beograd on the other bank. Especially in late summer afternoons the walls here are filling up with people watching the sunset with beer, wine and guitar. In the past, clever Belgraders used this place to listen to the frequent live concerts on the meadows of the lower town (Donji grad) down below. Every time hundreds of people gathered on the walls to enjoy artists like Billy Idol, Moby or Green Day for free – at least until 2014 when the city decided to close the fortress at such events and lock out the onlookers. But on June 18th, 2011 there were probably still a lot of spectators watching Amy Winehouse play her very last concert. It was supposed to be the start of her Europe tour, but after a disastrous performance the audience booed her off the stage. The following gigs were canceled and on July 23rd the singer died in London.

A few steps further one of Belgrade's most important landmarks (and T-shirt motives) is awaiting you: the 14 m high monument of the Victor (Pobednik) which was erected in 1928 celebrating the 10th anniversary of the breakthrough on the Salonika Front in World War I. The male bronze figure wearing nothing else than an eagle in his right hand and a sword in his left triggered one or two screams of terror when it was revealed. Which is why he was banished here from his original location at Terazije in the city center. As a Berliner with a love for Belgrade I actually would love to set Victor up with our golden Victoria.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Before you leave Kalemegdan for some hearty Serbian meal check out a variety of tours into the underground, including a military bunker from the 1950s, another one that used to be the trendy Club Barutana (still evidenced today by thousands of blackened chewed gums covering the ground) as well as the Roman well (Rimski bunar) that is actually not Roman at all and was built by Austrian troops in 1731. As a proper deep old well it’s obviously surrounded by countless legends. Some people claim for instance that this is where the ancient Greek hero Orpheus has entered the underworld whereas in 1882 a woman was imprisoned here after an attempted assassination of King Milan I only to be found dead herself shortly after – just like her guard. The Nazis suspected Yugoslav gold in its water and sent three divers inside that disappeared without a trace. Which is probably what a jealous husband had hoped for when he murdered his wife in 1954 and threw her into the spring. But 10 days later the body floated back to the surface. And now go enjoy some food!

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