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Serbo Journal

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LA Times Travel to Serbia


So ... this is Serbia?

Politics and history can't be ignored, but Belgrade is reinventing itself. The new reality: bucolic parks, sophisticated cafes and clubs set against the hum of a vital city. At a cafe in the city's train station, I got a dark look when I remarked on the clerk's perfect English. "You're in Serbia, not on Mars," she said mirthlessly.

I may have deserved the rebuke, but my mistake was understandable. Western visitors who gleaned most of what they know about this country from news reports during the 1992-95 Balkan wars are bound to be pleasantly surprised at almost every turn in the Serbian capital.

The conflict brought an estimated half-million refugees to Belgrade, and NATO bombing in 1999, aimed at stopping Serbian aggression in the province of Kosovo (now a U.N. protectorate), destroyed parts of Belgrade; some of it is still in ruins. Accused war criminals, including Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, remain at large, dimming Serbia's hopes of eventually joining the European Union and entrenching its image as a pariah.

Last month, Montenegro voted for independence from Serbia, joining Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia in rejecting the Belgrade-based union of Balkan states previously known as Yugoslavia, once the dominion of spectacular Adriatic coastline that drew tourists. But U.S. tourists certainly haven't flocked here. Few guidebooks cover the city, and those that do damn it with faint praise. "Belgrade may not be the most elegant of capitals, but it has a vitality undiminished by years of power cuts, sanctions and international isolation," author Laurence Mitchell writes in "Serbia: The Brandt Travel Guide."

Still, the dauntless Serbian tourism organization has gone to work touting the attractions of Belgrade's cafe life, secret bars and late-night clubs, drawing partyers mostly from neighboring Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia.

The message it's trying to spread to Europe's flush youth: Belgrade is now as hot as Prague once was, only cheaper and less touristy than the capital of the Czech Republic. Never mind club crawling. I wanted to find out how Belgrade had fared in the wake of wars and to see the sights of this once-stylish old-world capital set around a hilltop citadel overlooking the Sava and Danube rivers.

But I worried about safety - needlessly, it turned out - in a perennially poor and politically volatile country still rankling over what it deemed a betrayal by allies during the American-led NATO bombing campaign. So, when Polly Platt, an American friend who lives in France and has family in Belgrade, told me she was coming to Serbia, I took the opportunity to travel with a companion.

You can't visit the Balkans without exposure to the region's tangled politics, as Polly and I discovered during the $15 cab ride from the airport to downtown. Along the way, we went through New Belgrade, which grew up on the western side of the Sava River during the communist era, when Yugoslavia was led by strongman Marshal Tito (born Josip Broz).

Now a business center, New Belgrade has the city's ritziest hotels and high-rise apartment buildings, a new sports stadium and convention center. We passed a shopping strip the driver called "Little China," home to Chinese-Serbs and the former site of the Chinese Embassy destroyed during NATO bombing in May 1999. Serbs bristled when the U.S. later termed the destruction a "mistake," and anti-American demonstrations erupted in Beijing.

A handful of bridges spans the Sava, providing good views of the vast plain to the north where the river joins the mightier Danube. Both banks of the Sava are lined with floating restaurants, or splavovi, and on the eastern side of the confluence, the Kalemegdan fortress rises, aptly described by journalist Rebecca West in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia," published in 1942 and still one of the best books on the Balkans.

"Ever since there were men in this region this promontory must have meant life to those that held it, death to those that lost it," West wrote. "Its prow juts out between two great rivers and looks eastward over the great Pannonian Plain that spreads across Hungary towards Central Europe."

I chose a hotel near Kalemegdan, which is now a park. At the recently privatized Moskva, Polly got a single for $65 and I had a double for about twice that. This turreted, green-roofed Art Nouveau landmark was built in 1906 at a wedge-shaped intersection with a fountain where sports fans congregate to swap soccer and basketball cards. It has a sidewalk cafe and a first-floor restaurant known for its band and its Viennese pastries.

The low-ceilinged lobby got an unlovely renovation during the communist era, but the rooms upstairs are large and old-fashioned, with stiff antique settees that recall Serbia's sporadic periods of domination by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and folk-craft carpets reflecting five centuries of vassalage to Ottoman Turkey.

It was a five-minute walk from the hotel to wide Republic Square, the city's nerve center, site of the demolished Istanbul gate and October 2000 demonstrations that sparked a bloodless revolution unseating Yugoslav Federation President Slobodan Milosevic. The square is surrounded by the pervasive architectural mélange that gives Belgrade its eclectic but tonic air.

At its northeastern corner are the 19th century national theater and early 20th century museum. Ongoing renovation has closed all but its temporary exhibition gallery and foyer, where there's a double row of striking Art Deco caryatids by Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. (More of his work is on display in Kalemegdan park.)

In front of the museum is a valiant equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic, who ruled Serbia when Turkish forces were finally expelled in 1867, only to be assassinated a year later. The dirty steel-and-glass Press House, erected in the 1950s, looks across the square at Baroque confections from the Austro-Hungarian era and the early-Modern Yugoexport building. In Republic Square, visitors discover that Belgrade's vitality is no empty claim. People press into shops in subterranean galleries and along Kneza Mihaila, the city's main pedestrian artery. The workday starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., giving Belgraders long afternoons for endless rounds of Turkish coffee in open-air cafes.

* Wedding day

ON our first morning in town, a beautiful Sunday, Polly and I began walking along Kneza Mihaila but got only as far as the fountain in front of the hotel where 100 couples were parading toward City Hall for a mass marriage ceremony, an annual spring event in Belgrade. Like a spread in a bridal magazine, the women proudly modeled white gowns and seemed in no rush to get to City Hall, where I hoped an ambulance waited because, by my count, every 10th one was about to give birth.

When we reached the city's domed cathedral, we found another wedding in progress, this one featuring a couple and all the "dark magic," as journalist West put it, of the Orthodox rite. Polly, who was married in the Orthodox church, wanted to stay until she saw the priest place crowns on the heads of the bride and groom and lead them, swinging a censer, around the church while dour statues of saints silently approve from the gold-encrusted iconostasis.

Polly had family business and left me to wander the old town on my own. I started with lunch in the courtyard of the ? restaurant, which bears a punctuation mark for a name because ecclesiastical authorities protested when the owner tried to call it the Cafe by the Cathedral. It specializes in traditional Serbian cuisine, which means flat, unleavened bread, salads topped with shavings of zesty cheese and myriad varieties of grilled meat.

I pondered the English menu, which listed such entrees as "tripe with calf's head" and "young bull's sex glands," then ordered grilled chicken, followed by a slice of delicious, honey-soaked walnut cake.

Nearby, I found the Palace of Princess Ljubica, onetime home of the wife of Prince Milos Obrenovic, also part of the Obrenovic dynasty. (He was twice Serbia's ruler in the tumultuous 19th century, during which he won his country limited autonomy from the Ottoman sultan.) The handsome, white two-story building is a schizophrenic blend of Turkish and Western European décor. Next to a room with low banquettes and tables, lacking only a hookah to complete its Orientalism, is a parlor with prim divans and armoires that would have pleased Queen Victoria.

* Complex history

THE Serbs arrived in the Balkans at the beginning of the 7th century and enjoyed a golden age during the early medieval period. But on June 28, 1389, they were defeated at the Battle of Kosovo by the Muslim Ottoman Empire as it encroached into the southeast corner of Christian Europe. For the next 500 years, with occasional interludes of Austro-Hungarian rule, Orthodox Serbia suffered under the Turks. In Western Europe, Serbia was seen as a wild frontier, crossed by crusaders on their way to the Holy Land but basically left to go it alone under the heavy thumb of the Ottomans.

This is the very least a visitor needs to know about Serbia's confounding history while walking through Kalemegdan park, a desperate battleground between the Muslim east and the Christian west that now seems a peaceful Belgrade playground. There are statues and flower beds, kissing couples, baby carriages, accordion players, benches overlooking the confluence, tumble-down walls built by the Turks and a Baroque Austrian clock tower.

I toured the park's Military Museum, fronted by a collection of World War II tanks and guns that children climb and dangle from in heartening fulfillment of the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares.

Handicraft vendors, selling embroidery, wood carvings and vintage bric-a-brac, line the park's main walkway. One man specialized in old currency, which reminded me of how Serbia was ravaged by hyperinflation in the 1990s. In those days, a 500-billion dinar bank note (with 11 zeros) was introduced and was worth half its value by the end of the day.

I bought a beautiful 1931 1,000-dinar bill decorated with a picture of Serbian Queen Maria. It was too big for a wallet but eminently suitable for framing. The rest of my four-day stay in Belgrade passed agreeably with an expedition to the open-air Bajloni market, a one-stop shop where you can find underwear and plumbing supplies and fresh cherries.

I sat in quiet Student Square just off Kneza Mihaila, then toured the nearby Ethnographic Museum, devoted to Serbian folk crafts, costumes, customs and architecture. In the up-and-coming Dorcal neighborhood, I strolled along Strahinjica Bana, lined with trendy bars, restaurants and cafes, many of which opened during NATO bombing, when Belgraders congregated in the streets instead of hiding.

Now the area is known as Silicone Valley - for the enhanced breasts of women in rhinestone-studded jeans and stiletto heels who hang like ornaments on the arms of men generally thought to be Serbian mobsters. Polly and I ate dinner at Dva Jelena, one of about a dozen traditional Serbian restaurants on Skadarska Street serving the inevitable grilled meat and Montenegrin red wine while a loud band played folk tunes.

Another night with some of Polly's friends we had fresh fish at Stara Koliba, a splavovi reached by a long boardwalk, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube. When I asked the waiter whether we should watch for alligators, he returned the joke by saying that they were only a problem before the war.

Young Serbs seem more than ready to put the past behind and get on with life. But it's harder for older people with longer memories. Polly and I had tea one afternoon in the apartment of Joca Lalosevic, her 79-year-old cousin and an eminent Belgrade physician with a gentlemanly air. Unlike others his age who justify Serbian aggression in the 1990s by citing the ethnic Serbs' history of victimization, he has no illusions about the recent past.

To him, Milosevic was a gangster. But he also remembers how Serbia stood alone in the Balkans against the Germans in both world wars, spilling its blood for the Allies. His kindness never flagged, but when I asked him what he thought about the U.S. now, he paused and said, "We liked Americans very much until the bombing."

I had to listen hard to hear that. I had to look closely at both smooth and lined faces in this miraculously thriving city. I had to make the mistake of thinking Belgraders didn't speak English or walk their dogs in Kalemegdan park without stumbling over land mines. But in the end, that's why I came to the city - to see the other face of a coin I used to think was the same on both sides.

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