I have never seen the particular appeal of Soviet architecture. In Berlin, the rundown prewar buildings wilt, but the Communist-era bastions endure with grim and solid fortitude. They are the housing projects on the outskirts of the city with a bad reputation for neo-Nazis, they’re the anonymous gray lengths of Frankfurter Allee or the blocky rows of balconies made of prickled concrete that only ever seem to be decorated with dying red geraniums.
In Belgrade, these buildings of a bygone time are almost whimsical. The ones capping corners curve, leaning in at odd angles. They feature functional-looking, yet utterly superfluous girding or iron-work, and even when they’re geometric, there’s something just slightly off about them – they’re too long or too squat, every apartment has a different set of windows, or there’s a sudden shock of glass in a surprising location. Plenty of these buildings are deserted – many don’t look architecturally sound – and there’s something eerie about the alien-looking metals and alloys butted up against gracefully swirling slabs of concrete that house nothing on the inside.
It was mesmerizing to walk around Belgrade’s crumbling streets and stumble upon these concrete treasures wedged between the small, 19th century Neoclassical buildings in the city center and the newer facades going up all over the place. It seems that all of Belgrade is under construction – whole streets are being ripped out, clusters of girders yawn to the sky wherever you look, and the skyline itself is marred by endless rows of cranes. Nowhere is the divide between this new construction and the old Belgrade more visually striking than along the waterfront, where a bird’s eye view shows the surreal discrepancy.
Daniel and I had just finished a fifteen-mile walk down the Danube – from our hotel near the city center through the Bloks of New Belgrade and nearly all the way to Zemun. It had been a beautiful day – full of hazy sunshine and an easy breeze, just warm enough to make us drape our jackets over one arm. Before taking a late lunch at one of the many restaurants along the water, we’d stumbled into a market where we’d picked up a kilo of smoked pork. Now, its heady, smokehouse scent was like a trail of perfume we couldn’t shake.
It made us hungry, even though it seemed like all we’d done in Belgrade was eat. Of course, the other thing we’d done was walk. And walk and walk, working up an appetite. Footsore and close to the hotel as we were, we swung back into the neighborhood of Dorcól to visit our favorite cake shop before dinner. Mandarina’s cakes are beautiful and whimsical, slick with glaze and brightly-colored dusts and glitters. As an added bonus, they are also delicious.
Would you think badly of us if I said that the minute we left Mandarina, we stumbled into a baklava shop that reminded us of an old Jewish New York deli with its dark green marble countertops and yellowish light, and that we couldn’t help but buy some of those syrupy sweet bites? Or that we’d gravitated to the woman selling soft-serve on the riverbank earlier that afternoon and devoured it down to the last cone crumb, much to the swans’ chagrin?
No? Then I’m sure you won’t think badly of us being ravenous after all that for the dinner we ate at Zavičaj, a place that advertises itself loudly as an “ethnic restaurant” in a way I tend to mistrust. But the food was good – hearty and traditional, with a focus on slow-cooked meat and potatoes, peppers, and the ubiquitous cucumber-tomato salad of which every country seems to have a variation. And the ice-chilled vial of honey-plum rakija made me wish we’d tried more.
Going home that night, I’ve never walked slower, my belly so full of food, my feet so tired from having covered such distance. And even then, every corner offered a curious bit of architecture to take in or a new street to explore.
In many places, Belgrade is like a city that everyone forgot but time. No one has bothered to remove the abandoned buildings, so they just continue to sit beside the newly-built ones, not revealing their barrenness until you’re close enough to see the yellowish neglect streaking down the windows. Other times, it’s more apparent in the visible traces of Belgrade’s recent, turbulent history.
And yet, there’s also so much youthful energy in the Belgrade being built. Many of the places we went felt new – or even were new, like Addict Coffee, which had opened a few weeks before we arrived and was serving top-notch third-wave coffee. There was Endorfin, a gastropub with an excellent selection of craft beers, and D Bar, where the vibe was lively, but I foolishly let the bartender talk me into a too-sweet whiskey sour made with Jack. And there was Supermarket Deli, where we ate a tasty English breakfast with a very non-English Serbian sausage and fluffy, buttery nuggets of salty bread.
All of these places were meticulously designed to look edgy and hip, yet I somehow came away feeling that the city was like a teenager trying on someone else’s clothes in search of their own identity. As though they’d read about what the cool kids were doing without thinking about the unique perspective they had to add to the conversation.
Even at Enso, where the interior design was impeccable and our seven-course tasting menu was expertly prepared and paired with an excellent local Serbian red, the menus inexplicably came on an interactive tablet. The digital interface was jarring, more suited to an American chain restaurant than a fine dining establishment, and in the end, the staff found that diners couldn’t figure out the tech, and ended up taking orders the old-fashioned way.
Interestingly enough, it seemed that this was the locals’ Belgrade, not just one designed for tourists – though these are the impressions of just four days, limited to a small section of city. The places where an older, less “designed” Belgrade seemed to come through most were in the barbeque stands, similar to Berlin’s take-out döner restaurants, where three to four line cooks cram inside small rooms, frantically throwing slabs of meat on a hot grill. Workers come by and pick up plastic bags filled with orders – presumably lunch for the crew – as single diners stand outside at the wooden tables scarfing gigantic sandwiches.
We ate at two of these joints – on our first day and on our last. Freshly landed, we wandered out in search of lunch and found ourselves drawn to the unmistakable smell of coal-cooked barbeque. We split a ćevapi sandwich stuffed with cabbage, onion, pickled beet, tomato, lettuce, sour cream, and, of course, ćevapi – “little fingers” of minced beef, lamb, and pork. When flattened into a massive patty, the same meat mixture is called pljeskavica, the Serbian version of a hamburger. That was the last meal we ate in Belgrade, ordered from from a disgruntled, jowly dame whose eyes seemed to be in a permanent, peeved roll, at a grungy shack that looked as though it might burst into a grease fire-fueled flame at any second.
She slapped condiments onto the fluffy lepinja bread like she was beating the bottom of a misbehaving child: roasted red pepper avjar, thick, dense kaymak cream, something from an unmarked bottle that tasted an awful lot like McDonald’s Big Mac secret sauce, raw onions, tomatoes, and cabbage. We scarfed it down in the middle of Slavija Square in front of the seedy edifice of the Hotel Slavija, its curtains yellowed from decades of cigarette smoke, right across from a brand new high-rise in glittering steel and glass.
Where to eat in Belgrade
Mandarina Cake Shop
Beautiful, whimsical, delicious cakes, to eat in or take away. Enough said.
Balkan Baklava & Döner
11000 Carice Milice
So syrupy and sweet, just the way baklava should be.
Addict Coffee Shop
Really excellent third-wave coffee from Sapid Roasters – try the drip, or the espresso if you plan to never sleep again.
Mitropolita Petra 8
Beautiful restaurant, lovely ambiance, and excellent food, perfect for fancy dinner night. Do the tasting menu – highlights of our meal included rabbit confit with carob ice cream and pickled vegetables, crème bruléed parmesan custard, and the sublime plum dumpling that accompanied the fish.
Braće Jugovića 3
Gastropub with a great selection of local craft beers and pretty good food to boot.
I can’t quite vouch for the cocktail I had here, but the interior is well done, and the ambiance is cozy and hip.
Topličin venac 19-21
Solid breakfast recommendation with a spacious, bright interior.
Gavrila Principa 77
An “ethnic” Serbian restaurant. Okay, so the décor seems designed specifically for a busload of tourists looking for “the real deal,” but the food we ate was excellent, very filling, and well-priced.