Travel Report: Exploring Belgrade Fortress.
Exploring Belgrade Fortress, Serbia.
When I look back on my first visit to the Serbian capital, it doesn’t get any more nostalgic than Belgrade Fortress. This is one of the country’s most iconic and historic sites. A majestic beast of a cultural monument with a killer location perched above the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers.
According to some historians, a fortress first stood here all the way back in the 3rd century BC. The entire population of the region, they say, lived within its stone walls. Later, those good old scoundrels The Romans moved in and built a headquarters from which they could set their sights on “the barbarians” of Central Europe.
Keeping track of who came and went over the centuries is a bit of a head scratcher, even for a history enthusiast like me. The Germanic Goths later gained control of the place, then it was The Huns. In fact, some experts claim the remains of Attilla the Hun himself lie somewhere deep under the fortress. I guess we’ll have to take their word for it.
In The Middle Ages the landlord was a Byzantine emperor, Justinian I. Then came The Bulgarians for three centuries. It subsequently changed hands so many times it’s almost impossible to follow. Though I do like the one about the Hungarian King Bela I giving the fortress to Serbia in the 11th century as a wedding gift. His son, you see, had married a Serbian princess.
Exploring Belgrade Fortress.
A sizeable chunk of its history lies in the hands of The Turks, who took over in 1521. They remained (largely) in control until The Ottoman Empire eventually lost its grip on the region in 1867.
In modern times the fortress took a battering from Austro-Hungarian gun boats during World War I. In the Second World War occupying German forces carried out archaeological digs and even rebuilt a few sections. However, the Allied Bombings of April 1944 put an end to their plans.
In the 1950s major restoration work began, in addition to further archaeological work, leading to the 1979 move to protect it as a cultural monument. Today this ancient site is arguably Serbia’s most popular attraction, especially at sunset when the views over the city and its rivers can be magnificent.
Keen to see this panoramic for ourselves, Sladja and I made our approach through Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade’s largest green space and the gateway to the fortress. Along the way, we stopped to admire several sculptures, such as this tribute to the writer Borisav Stanković. Famed for his stories depicting the people and landscapes of South Serbia, his most celebrated book is the 1910 novel Impure Blood.
Adventures in the Serbian Capital.
Another sculpture that caught my eye represents the Serbian poet Vojislav Ilic. Respected across the country for his chiselled verse, the ladies of Belgrade adored him for his equally chiselled features. Indeed the statue’s base comes with the inscription To Vojislav, from The Board of Girls, 1903. He passed away in 1894 from tuberculosis at the tender age of 33.
Closing in on the entrance to the fortress, we soon arrived at the grandiose Monument of Gratitude to France. Unveiled in 1930, it champions the French soldiers who died defending Belgrade in The First World War. The statue shows a female figure with clenched fists accompanied by the message “Let us love France as she loves us”.
And then we were ready to enter the fortress, the moody sky giving us hope that a dramatic sunset lay ahead.
The fortress is divided into two parts, the so-called Lower Town and Upper Town. For sunset, we were heading to the latter, which soon saw us pass under the Clock Tower (Sahat Kula).
The Turks added this Baroque style tower sometime in the mid 18th century. It has few references in print, the most notable coming from the renowned Turkish explorer and travel writer Evliya Celebi. He wrote: “You can hear the bells from afar, even when you are a day’s distance from the fortress”.
Exploring Belgrade Fortress.
Quickly, I realised how busy it was getting. People were pouring into the upper walls in order to gain a good vantage spot ahead of time. Beep beep, sounded the irksome electric trains that buzzed past us every few minutes.
Our journey to the top took us past the Military Museum, an exhibit that houses over 3000 ancient objects, including Roman swords and Greek helmets. Outside, along the lawn leading to the museum entrance, there was a sizeable display of tanks, cannons and projectile launchers.
Moreover, a pair of entrepreneurial young locals had gotten themselves dressed up in old military uniforms for some kitschy fun. A photo for some loose change, was the deal, and I was more than happy to oblige.
A short while later, I felt relieved to find a few sections of the upper wall that weren’t too busy. Thus we were able to pick out a free space, our own little Belgrade sunset window.
The sun was already beginning its sleepy descent. Pleasingly, the sky began breaking out into discreet shades of blue, grey, orange and pink. Not too shabby.
Adventures in the Serbian Capital.
It was wonderful to just sit there and watch it all unfold. At that moment, in that place, it felt to me as if Sladja and I were in exactly the right spot at the right time, with the right person.
With the sun gradually dipping into the horizon, we sauntered over to the fortress’ largest viewing platform, home to the towering monument Pobednik (The Victor).
It stands in honour of Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires during The Balkan Wars and World War I. The bronze creation shows a naked man, a falcon in his left hand, a sword in his right. I’ll leave you to deduce which one symbolises peace and what represents war.
Deigned by the architect Petar Bajalović and modelled by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, it took 15 years to make before its installation in 1928. Originally, the monument was supposed to stand on a square in the city centre. But that idea had to be abandoned when the public reacted with a barrage of complaints. One of which, was the fact that The Victor’s tackle, so to speak, was clear for all to see. I guess he is much less scandalous up in the fortress.
With night falling over Belgrade Fortress, we made tracks to another fine viewpoint, the open air Kalemegdan Terrace bar and restaurant. It was a simply wonderful place to rest our legs and grab a caffeine injection for the long walk back to our apartment.
Exploring Belgrade Fortress.
The restaurant is one of the city’s fanciest eateries, with a history dating back to the 1930s. The outdoor terrace meanwhile seats around 100 people, so it often gets booked up for special events, such as weddings and company parties.
The sunset experience at Belgrade Fortress had definitely been a winner. However, there was still so much more to see. Hence we came back the next day for a deeper look. It was another fine afternoon, while this time we were able to get onto the Upper Town walls for more fantastic views.
We also paid a small fee to enter the so-called Roman Well. Located in the Upper Town’s southwest segment, its name is actually a bit of a misnomer, because it isn’t Roman at all.
Rather, the Austrians built the well sometime in the early 1720s so that their troops would have regular access to running water. One theory is that they named it so to express their desire to match and even surpass the achievements of The Romans.
Unfortunately, the well turned out to be a resounding failure. Some historians reckon the Austrians gave up when they realised there was no direct route to the River Sava. Consequently, they abandoned the project and used the place as a dungeon in which they could house prisoners.
The (not) Roman Well.
From there we explored the various pathways as we found them, one of which led to a splendid gate and a further angle of the Sava. It was lovely, a genuine postcard scene should we ever want to design our own. That’s Nebojša Tower visible through the arch, a mediaeval building that now serves a small museum.
But I’d be lying if I said the whole fortress was like something out of a glossy magazine. Indeed the more we explored the more we came upon derelict sections reduced to mounds of rubble. And not so much as a safety barrier in sight. In fact, one precarious, crumbly ridge simply had a sign saying Yeah this is dangerous, whatever happens is on you.
Elsewhere, spidery graffiti (not the pretty, creative kind) marred much of the stonework. There was also a fair bit of trash, with discarded chocolate wrappers and plastic bottles lying around.
Furthermore, there wasn’t much charm about the caretaker at the entrance to Despot Stefan Tower. Topless, gruff and with an unpleasant odour that had us both wincing, we couldn’t hand our money over fast enough and trot up the stone steps.
The tower was built in 1405, just a few years after the city became the capital of Serbian Despotate. It takes its name from the ruler at the time, a certain Stefan Lazarević. As one of the most fearsome warriors and skilled knights of the era, he also went by the name of Stefan the Tall. Fittingly, the tower that bears his name offers more impressive views.
Exploring Belgrade Fortress.
Next, Sladja and I were privileged to visit two spectacular churches, starting with one of Serbia’s best loved houses of worship, Ružica Church. Located in a ridiculously picturesque garden square in the eastern outer Bailey, we arrived to find a wedding photo shoot underway. Figures.
Also known as Little Rose Church, the original building that stood here dated back to 1403, before the Ottomans demolished it in 1521. Much later, in 1869, a new church sprang up, but once again history was not kind and various World War I attacks left it in an absolute mess. Finally, it was a case of third time lucky when a full reconstruction took place in 1925. And that’s the gorgeous structure we see today.
We could have heard a pin drop as we entered the interior. Designed by the Russian-Serbian architect and painter Nikolay Krasnov, it is a visual delight. There are exquisite chandeliers made from military weapons, rows of candelabras and a sweeping iconostasis.
The painter Andrej Bicenko, meanwhile, added most of the paintings over a thirteen year period. Among them, I saw Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and portraits of King Peter I of Serbia and Nicholas II of Russia.
Next, just a few minutes away on foot, we came upon the equally splendorous St Petka’s Chapel. Located on an another idyllic square, it opened in 1937, built in the style of a Serbian medieval church.
St. Petka’s Church.
Its big draw (other than being exceptionally beautiful) is that it stands above an ancient spring dating back to The Middle Ages. What’s more, there are plenty of people who believe the water here has miraculous healing powers.
As a result, people flock to the church from all over The Balkans and beyond. That afternoon, as we wandered the church admiring its fantastic mosaics, we spied a pair of wardens busying around filing bottles for purchase. Kerching.
Petka (Paraskeva of the Balkans) was a female saint of the 10th century, born near present day Istanbul. At a young age she left her wealthy landowner parents for an austere life dedicated to god.
Petka’s travels saw her live in Constantinople, Jerusalem and an isolated convent on the River Jordan. Like most Serbian Orthodox churches, the chapel in Belgrade celebrates her saint day every year on October the 27th.
Outside the church we drank in more views of the surrounding scenery from our elevated perch. All the while, a local musician competed for our attention with the rich, reedy tones of his accordion.
It had been quite the adventure hiking around the fortress. Tired and thirsty, we headed for Boho Bar to reflect on the day over some cool drinks. With soft electronica on the airwaves and comfy chairs, bean bags and even chair swings at the bar, this was an even fancier cafe than the one we’d been to the night before.
Exploring Belgrade Fortess.
Sometimes the big sights of a city can disappoint. Often, things can be horribly overpriced and there are just too many damn people around. But none of this applied to our experience at Belgrade Fortress. We just walked right in for free and for the few bits we needed a ticket for, it was a matter of small change. Moreover, the fortress is so vast you can nearly always get away from everyone. My kinda place.
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