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.
Like this? Check out my many articles from across Belgrade.
You may also enjoy my pieces from all over Serbia.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
Your Belgrade posts are bringing me wonderful memories. I only spent 12 hours in Belgrade but that was enough to leave me with pleasant memories. The fortress was the highlight of the day 😊
Hey, thanks for following Leighton Travels and leaving a comment. I’m glad you got to see a bit of Belgrade during your whirlwind visit. Hope you enjoy the rest of the series!
I can’t wait 🙂
Great post Leighton. You can really get a feel for the place by reading your descriptions. Seems the value of a place or country was determined by the number of times it was conquered and fought for. Pity for so much death and destruction. Loved the sunset watch place and those little churches are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Happy Sunday. Allan
Thanks Allan, appreciate that. There is so much to the fortress, visually and with its history, that it wasn’t hard to be inspired for this article. The churches are particularly atmospheric and with such magnificent art. If one only has a day in the Serbian capital, it would be wise to spend at least half of it in and around the fortress.
Incredible views both inside and out. Loved the small churches – so beautifully adorned. Far more than you’d expect for their size. The bare chested caretaker was unexpected. He didn’t appear to mind if you took his picture. A bit shocking. In spite of him, I’d still go there in a heartbeat.
A bit naughty of me to grab and use a shot of the caretaker I guess. All part of the fortress “charm” though I suppose. And yes, even he couldn’t take away from the appeal of the place.
Ah, the history, your colorful writing, the fabulous photos – exactly what we love in a blog. If you don’t already teach history, you should. You have a knack for making everything interesting. Thank you for sharing another great post!
Ah that’s a very kind comment. Have never taught history, nor did I make much of an effort with it as a student. But in recent years I’ve come to really appreciate the stories behind the places I visit. I think sometimes the test is to provide a deeper than usual overview without sending readers to sleep. Thanks again!
You do it well, my friend!
Another enjoyable tour around Belgrade. Loved the sunset and your walk along the ancient walls. Also the ceiling of the small church is magnificent.
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Marion. Have a great time in Poland!
With the amount of spots you visited (and the two days it took), I take it that Belgrade Fortress is ENORMOUS! No wonder it’s so popular, from its sweeping views on top to the stunning interior of the Little Rose Church. I’d never heard of the fortress before, but I’m mentally making note when I head over to the city someday!
Hey hey, it is enormous you’re right. I think a lot of people just go for those main viewing platforms. But there is so much to see if you really go exploring.
Your time in Belgrade is obviously very special to you. It’s great when you can connect a place with an especially good period of your life. You will always view it with affection.
Very much so. Although with Belgrade we ended up living there for a year when COVID screwed up our plans. Living and working there was a whole different kettle of fish of course and altered my view of the city. But still, nothing can take away from that first fortnight as a wide-eyed visitor. Thanks for reading!
What a fascinating fortress with marvellous views, Leighton. It looks like a great place to spend quality time with family and friends. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks Aiva, I’m glad the charm of the place came through in the post.
It looks like you took the scenic route to the Belgrade Fortress. I can see why this is a popular spot to watch the sunset. The views are beautiful and what a great picture of you and Sladja. The Little Rose Church looks spectacular. They did a great job with the renovations and restoring it after the war.
Thanks guys, appreciate your positive feedback. With the amount of times Sladja and I will be back to Belgrade over the coming years, I know it’s a place we’ll return to again.
It looks amazing, and those sunset views are just beautiful. What an impressive place the fortress is, and I can tell by the way you write about Belgrade that it’s special to you 🙂
Thanks Hannah, it’s a fascinating and underrated city.
Belgrade Fortress has such an interesting history, and the landscape looks amazing!
Thanks Allie! The fortress is definitely top of the Belgrade list I’d say, especially if you’ve only got a few days.
All around fantastic read on this chapter in Belgrade! The history of the fortress is almost overwhelming from its front row seat through so many centuries. And being able to catch that moment with the sunset behind you must have been pure magic. And the churches were absolutely stunning. I just can’t get over the incredible detail on the inside that you would never guess was there from the outside.
Hey Meg, yes both churches are small but just packed with art from head to toe. I’m glad you enjoyed exploring Belgrade Fortress!
Very informative and entertaining post; I love the sunset photos. Well done!
Thank you! The fortress is definitely Belgrade’s premier site I’d say.
I realized reading this that I know absolutely nothing about the sordid history of Belgrade. The sunset pics from the fortress and dinner are lovely, but the two churches look really beautiful. Maggie
I think Belgrade’s history is a real black hole to most people outside The Balkans. Myself included, until of course I went to visit. Thanks for the catch up Maggie! I’m working through the WP reader myself now after some days of neglect.
This brings memories of our time in Serbia. Belgrade was a very sad site when visited after the war. Thanks Anita.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment Anita.
Look at those entrance doors into the fortress! And so many people there to watch the sunset … and a beautiful one I must add (lovely soft colours)! Great pictures (oh well, except maybe for the shirtless guy) – such great views from the fortress. And I like the eateries – looks like the perfect places to enjoy a drink after a day of exploring!
Hey Corna, glad the fortress appeals. It’s an easy place to love really and few people come away disappointed. Thanks for taking the tour with me!
So sad that most of the notable structures and stories are from wars, forts, military history. A grand fortress, nonetheless, and you’ve filled in the details. I was pleased to see the sculptures of the writer and poet, similar to some remembrances in Prague.
Yeah I was also happy to see those guys honoured, especially the ladies man poet 😉 It’s good that there are a few things outside the subject of war and death.
Brilliant series of posts, you’ve piqued my interest in Belgrade. The topless caretaker made me chuckle. You’d never get that at, say, a National Trust place would you? Imagine the horror! Quite taken with the young ‘uns turning a coin with military uniforms and the old weaponry, very enterprising.
People are the heartbeat of places and you capture the people you meet along the way very well, in words and images. Very enjoyable read.
Yes indeed, I’m trying to imagine the resulting investigation of that guy turning up for work at some stately home in Lincolnshire. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series Helen, thanks for your kind words. Sladja and I eventually wound up living in Belgrade for a year, so they’ll be a second string of articles to put out once this batch is done. Slowly, slowly.
Wow, what a neat place! I enjoyed learning about it, this is a piece of history (and the world) that I know next to nothing about.
I think the basics of Serbia history is something that has escaped most of us. It was great to explore this underrated city and put together the key pieces of its narrative. Thanks Diana!