An Afternoon Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
An Afternoon Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
It was yet another sweltering sunny day in Belgrade as Sladja and I rumbled through the city in a bus destined for the neighbourhood of Zemun. For the first time we were leaving downtown behind for a change of scenery and pace.
Nestled on and around the right bank of the Danube river, they say Zemun is the Serbian capital’s most distinctive neighbourhood. So distinctive, in fact, that many of its residents scoff at the idea of it even being part of Belgrade.
Indeed Zemun only found itself absorbed into the capital during the mid 1930s. And that was after an immense history in which the area fell under the rule of the Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians and Ottomans, among others.
Photo courtesy of Petar Milošević.
However, Zemun’s lasting impression came from The Habsburg Empire and this remains its predominant visual feel. Rustic, low-rise tiled roof houses huddle together to form a leafy district that feels like a small town, perhaps even a village.
Moreover, its location right on the Danube doubles down on the sleepy vibe. And it was right on the river that we jumped off the bus to begin our investigations. Immediately, I felt the calm of the place ooze over me as we made our way down Zemun Quay, a pedestrianised stretch that feels wonderfully untouristy.
An Afternoon Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
There were little boats bobbing from side to side and swans gliding soundlessly along the deep blue of The Danube. We passed a few people, some walking dogs, other simply taking in the air. But generally there wasn’t much foot traffic to speak of. Sauntering somewhat aimlessly, we passed a man tinkering with his boat. His movements were slow and careful, Zemun style one might say.
Here and there, we found ourselves tempted by various riverside restaurants. But actually we’d already devoured a hearty breakfast before arriving. Thus we continued on our merry way past a beautifully situated eatery called Marinero. Later, we promised ourselves, we’d find a place to settle for dinner and river views.
Soon, our walk took us to the entrance of the unusual Lido Pontoon Bridge. It was the Serbian First Pontoneer Battalion that erected this 345 metre, army-green structure back in 1966. I was expecting it to have been a strategic move in some conflict, but the explanation is a surprisingly positive one.
They built it in order to connect the people of Zemun to Lido Beach on Great War Island. This enabled residents, and indeed people from all over Belgrade, to come and enjoy a seaside-like experience at the height of the fierce Serbian summer.
Lido Pontoon Bridge.
Over the decades, the island turned into a buzzing little tourist resort. By the mid 90s it had grown into one of the Serbian capital’s summer hotspots. Around this time the Serbian Army became responsible for assembling and disassembling the bridge to mark the beginning and end of the summer season.
These days the army uses the annual bridge making effort as part of the training program for young recruits. Despite its many benefits you can never please everyone. The bridge is not popular with ferrymen, who for the rest of the year make money from taking people to the island and back. And indeed those whose boats get blocked in the arm of the Danube between the island and the bridge.
Great War Island stands at the mouth of the Sava River, just as it flows into The Danube. Its name references the fact that, since the 15th century, it has served as an important strategic point in a host of wars and conflicts. After all, this was a prime location as a defence point for the city. A good place, according to historians, for setting up cannons and giving hell to invaders.
I’m not sure what exactly I’d been expecting from the island, but I definitely felt surprised and even a little amused by just how blasé the local authorities have been about doing anything with it.
You’d never know this was one of Belgrade’s big summer hang outs. Strolling down the charming beach, I saw not one hotel or even guesthouses or rooms for rent. Nor were there any cafes, souvenir stalls or entrepreneur’s offering umbrella-and-chair-shade from the sun.
Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
Rather, it was all very DIY, just bring your own stuff and hang out where you please. As a result, many had come armed with their own tents and ice boxes stuffed with snacks and cold drinks. In all honesty the entire island felt a bit neglected. But it had genuine charisma, a throwback to a simpler time if that makes any sense.
Away from the main strip of sand, Sladja and I took a walk through the woods. Within a few minutes we’d left all the people behind, a favourite pastime of ours in the years that have followed this Belgrade adventure. With no idea where we were going, we eventually came across a little wooden sign nailed onto a tree. “It says Fried Fish 100 metres”, laughed Sladja.
So we carried on until Sladja and I came upon a large grassy clearing inhabited by a restaurant and scattered wooden tables and chairs. In true Great War Island style, the restaurant was little more than a few wooden shacks and some greasy stoves. But what a lovely corner hidden away in the woods on the edge of the Danube.
The fish smelled great, of course. But somehow we felt this was not the ideal place for our Zemun feast. So we made do with a couple of beers and sat watching the birds on the river and discreetly observing the people around us. Summer in Belgrade, baby.
Great War Island.
Back on Zemun Quay we resumed our wanderings along The Danube, but in the other direction towards the old town. And that feeling of a throwback summer experience continued with simple pleasures in lieu of sparkly attractions and fancy technology. First, it was an elderly gentleman feeding the pigeons. And clearly really enjoying it.
Next, we let ourselves get drawn in by an ice cream vendor operating out of a little wagon under an umbrella. How could we not, on such a perfect summer’s day?
There was more bird feeding a little further downstream. This time it was swans and a local father with his two children. We sat next to them for a bit and chatted while the kids threw bread.
The little boy soon lost interest though; his attention gravitating towards the box of popcorn they’d just finished munching through. It was Frozen themed of course, as things often are. For just a moment I considered advising him to “let it gooooo” but then thought better of it.
Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
Branching off the quay into the old town, we paused to take in this quirky statue of John Hunyadi. I’d never heard of Hunyadi, a fearsome Hungarian knight celebrated as one of the most skilled fighters and smartest commanders of the medieval era.
Hunyadi’s legacy is that he led his forces to several incredible victories against the Ottomans, including the Defence of Belgrade in 1456. Unfortunately, he lost his life shortly after due to a plague that had broken out in his military camp. He died just outside Zemun, then known as Zimony, in the Kingdom of Hungary.
Zemun’s atmospheric old town is a delight. I’m talking leafy, narrow streets with Gothic Revival architecture set between cosy, cobbled, cafe-inhabited squares. This one is home to the pretty-in-pink Black Sheep Brewery. An idyllic resting station, I’m sure you’ll agree, for a cold craft beer.
Elsewhere, there were cafes, bars and restaurants galore on the picture-perfect Victory Square. It was obviously so well looked after with its hanging potted plants, classical street lamps and wooden shuttered windows.
Exploring Zemun, Belgrade.
We also saw the sleeping lion that was Zemun Market, home to rows and rows of empty stalls seemingly waiting to spring into life. On market day there are over 500 vendors here pedalling everything from clothes, toys, fish and fruit and veg, to flowers, plants, household goods and Frozen themed tubs of popcorn. That last bit was a joke (but may also be true).
Cutting into an innocuous side street, we chanced upon the baroque St Nicholas Church. Dating back to 1745, the churchyard was once home to a school. In fact, a man by the name of Joakim Vujić worked here as a teacher of foreign languages. Vujić went on to become a highly successful writer, actor and dramatist known today as The Father of Serbian Theatre. A nice little claim to fame.
The church was insanely busy, hence we didn’t have much time to explore. There was a service to honour Saint Matthew, so we had to follow the line of people streaming inside for the chance to grab a quick look at the stunning interior.
It felt like a tiny space, especially among the throng of bodies saying their prayers in front of the main altar. The iconostasis is majestic, richly carved and decorated with painted icons by the famed Serbian artist Dimitrije Bačević. Mindful that nearly everyone had come for the service, we cut our losses and headed back outside into the sunshine.
St Nicholas Church, Zemun, Belgrade.
On our way back to the quay, we paused to admire some impressive murals in and around Lazar Savatic Elementary School. One wall in particular stood out in a public playground. Not a bad backdrop for a game of basketball.
There was also a mural of the Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic. The image, we figured, shows him clenching his fist and teeth at having won an important point in a match. Or perhaps he’s just won yet another trophy. It’s a powerful piece of art, but one that reminded Sladja and I that neither of us are fans of the man.
It was late afternoon by the time we got onto the cobbled section of the quay that’s packed with restaurants. We were by this point starving, so all that was left to do was saunter past the various eateries and make our choice.
After looking at several places and their menus, we finally settled on a joint called Danube Story. It wasn’t too busy, so we picked out the perfect table with far reaching views across the river. First came the beers, then the careful choosing of our dishes.
Happily, it was an excellent feast. For starters, we went for the Shopska Salad and Roasted Peppers in Garlic Sauce. Both were gone in a matter of minutes.
For our mains, it just had to be fried fish. If memory serves us well we went for carp and catfish, served with bread, French fries and potato wedges. Drizzled in lemon, naturally.
We couldn’t have asked for a better end to our day exploring Zemun. With the sun melting into the horizon, we watched the colours dancing over the Danube as people came and went in both directions. Soon, we would have to go and seek out a bus back to our apartment. But not yet. Not until the pink, orange, yellow and blue had disappeared completely and the night swallowed up our river views.
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It is always a pleasure to follow your tours Leighton. Many times these explorations are spontaneous. You find delightful and interesting things to report on that most people would overlook. I recognized the shopska salad. A Bulgarian friend introduced me but she claims that the salad must be consumed with rakia brandy.😊😋😉
Thanks John, this was definitely one of those sides of Belgrade the casual visitor might not get round to. Having a local show me around definitely paid off 😉 As much as I loved the central sights, Zemun offers up a whole other vibe and change of pace.
Probably the best one yet in this excellent Belgrade series. the character of Zemun shines through, brilliant work Leighton as we have all come to expect
Cheers Stan! I’d say Zemun is Belgrade’s most charming neighbourhood. In the unlikely event we ever go back to Belgrade, we would almost certainly go for Zemun.
I enjoyed your stroll around Zenum and those photos of the little boats in the bay almost look like oil paintings! It’s strange that the island has remained undeveloped though as a few cafes and bars would have been nice to come across without making it over touristy. Your dinner with those fish dishes looked mouth watering too and the perfect way to round off the day.
Hey Marion! I’d definitely recommend putting Zemun onto any Belgrade itinerary as it offers up a fine contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Thanks for exploring with us.
Looks like a lovely afternoon to explore Zemun. I love all the little boats in the Quay and how happy that man looks while feeding the pigeons. What better way to end the day than by having a delicious dinner while enjoying the views.
Thanks guys, Zemun is a very unBelgradey Belgrade neighbourhood in many ways. Everything goes a little slower, which is nearly always a good thing.
I can see why Zemun considers that it is a place unto its own. It looks like a quaint laid back vibe where anything goes, as long as you do it quietly. Love the shadow photo. We often take these as well. As to Novak, what little respect I ever had for him disappeared in the whole Australian Open fiasco. The sense of entitlement in this individual is truly grating. Hunyadi looks like a fierce warrior, for sure. I would not wish to meet him on a dark street. Thanks for taking us along Leighton. Allan
Both Sladja and I are a hundred percent with you re Novak. This can be a touchy subject within Serbia where he is viewed as a kind of god by many. I’d like to see Hunyadi play him at tennis, that would be a fun watch I reckon. Cheers for exploring Zemun with us Allan!
How do you tear yourself away from such a place? Amazing that the beach is not commercialized. The residents must be strongly united to keep business interests from trying to exploit the peace and quiet. Usually you’d have somebody blasting music to attract crowds. Here you have people blasting serenity. You don’t see that very often. I want to go back. There are too many places that I want to see more of. My only complaint is with all that beauty, you couldn’t include a picture of Sladja.
Glad you liked the look of Zemun Memo. I can’t believe it’s coming up to three years since we went exploring. I’d like to think we have a return visit in us somewhere down the way.
Love this day adventure and all the amazing sights and photos you posted.
Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread!
Looks like a great place to spend an afternoon. It reminds me of Isla Mujeres, just off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
Wow, I’ll have to take your word for it as we’ve never been to Mexico. I love the idea of the Serbian capital having a Mexican flavour to it. Thanks for reading and commenting!
A very cute town, the relaxing calmness from being near the water, and cold beer, what’s not to love!
Absolutely Lyssy, appreciate you taking the time to read and comment with all your jet-setting. Hope you enjoyed Paris and London!
Loved both although it is good to be home and get back into a routine 😃 I’m excited to eat some nutrients again 😂
Sounds like a decent “city village”, and like you had a very decent day exploring it.
Zemun is lovely, I’m sure one of these years we’ll be back to peel away a few more layers. Thanks for reading!
Beautiful photographs, love those blue skies 🔆
Thanks for stopping by Cherryl!
I had no idea just how large Belgrade was, but it appears that there’s a lot to see in the city, as well as its metropolitan area! Zemun is a combination of nature and quaint village living (especially with the half-timbered homes), and it appears to be a more-local site to visit. Definitely outside the usual tour of the city center!
Spot on Rebecca, our biggest Belgrade regret is that when we returned to live there we chose the city centre instead of Zemun. Thanks for your ever welcome thoughts!
What a lovely walk you have taken us on today! I think I could go for a day by the seaside there in that beautiful area 🙂
Thanks for exploring Zemun with me Meg, hope all is well with you guys. Summer is fast approaching!
The Great War Island looks really relaxing, and a perfect area to go to on a nice day!
Hey Allie, thanks for checking out this piece! I’m glad the rustic charms of Great War Island appealed to you.
I want to go! Again, you have inspired my wanderlust.
Thanks for exploring Zemun with us!
Wow what an amazing place to discover. I’d like to visit, but not be anywhere near all those pigeons haha!
Luckily it’s just that tiny bit of the promenade. The rest of Zemun’s charming sights were pigeon free.
Oh yes, Zemun looks like a lovely town I would definitely enjoy … must be because of the presence of water ☺️. And I like the accommodation – a tented holiday … sounds perfect to me! And Leighton, you know that you’ve just won me over with that ice-cream picture (can’t wait for warmer days)! Looks like a really nice place to wander around – thanks for all the lovely pictures!
Hey Corna, glad you think Zemun is as charming as I do. Definitely a place that comes alive in the summer. A whole different kettle of fish in the winter.
An unexpected peaceful place so close to a busy city and even the Danube looks calm. I’ll have to keep this one in mind 🙂 Maggie
Thanks for checking out Zemun, Maggie!
How nice that Zemun was pleasantly untouristy, especially along the scene Danube. A relaxing exploration.
Thanks for joining us Ruth. The Danube is such a magnificent river, it was nice to add another Danube town to my collection.