Its name meaning “white city,” Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest cities. The first settlements date back to around 4800 B.C., and it became Serbia’s capital in 1405.
One of our first stops in Belgrade was the Nikola Tesla museum. Though born in Croatia, Tesla’s heritage was Serbian and the country is quite proud of their descendent. Tesla was one of the most prolific inventors in history, his genius spawning nearly 300 patents, as well as a great deal of what currently runs our modern society (AC, wireless transmission, brushless motors). The museum dedicated to him is small, containing a number of his personal effects, some original inventions and working models of a number of his more complex creations. Most spectacular, of course, is the large, functional Tesla coil, an impressively grand version of the transformer he invented in 1891. For the demonstration, they hand out several fluorescent light tubes to the audience and, after evacuating everyone with a pacemaker, flip the switch. The air hums, a bolt of electricity crackles out of the top of the coil, and the untethered light tubes all glow like light sabers in the hands of the participants.
Belgrade is quite a pleasant city for walking. Seemingly less touristed than some of our other stops, there was ample space to wander among the old buildings and churches without fighting for elbow space, or living in fear of a selfie-stick to the eye. This gave us plenty of time to wander Knez Mihailova, the pedestrian street with shops and restaurants, or to take in a couple of the truly spectacular cathedrals in the city. The Church of St. Sava is enormous; it is the largest orthodox church in the Balkans, and one of the biggest churches in the world. The church was first proposed in 1895, but the Balkan Wars and the First World War prevented its construction. When work started in 1935, progress was again halted by further conflicts, and it wasn’t until 1989 that the exterior was completed. Regardless, it’s an amazing structure and is slightly awing to step into, the still unfinished interior towering above your head. St. Mark’s Church, another towering affair and one of the largest in the country, is similarly beautiful, though a different style, and the simplicity of the unadorned ceilings inside seems to emphasize the height of the space.
Standing over the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, the Belgrade Fortress encompasses a big part of Belgrade’s history. One of the oldest parts of the fortress, the Nebojsa Tower is the only remaining medieval building within the fortress, built in 1460. It was originally built for defense, but during the rule of the Ottomans, it was transformed into a dungeon/prison, and today houses exhibits about its many years as a place of suffering. Elsewhere in the fortress, an air raid bunker, built in the 1950s in fear of Soviet attacks, provides a claustrophobic look at Yugoslavia’s military history and Josip Broz Tito’s rise to power. One of the areas I found most interesting was the gunpowder magazine, a former storage area that has been converted into a makeshift museum for 1st–4th century stelae, sculptures, and sarcophagi. While containing very little information on the items inside, it’s just a huge stone room with no cameras or personnel and not another soul inside, filled with these nearly 2,000-year-old artifacts. The absence of visitors suggested it’s not a very popular stop, but it provided us with a unique opportunity to really examine the old stone carvings. A couple small cathedrals exist inside the fortress walls as well, including St. Petka’s Chapel, whose detailed mosaics cover every inch of the interior, and Ruzica Church, with rather ominous fixtures made of presumably-inert ammunition that pay homage to its use as a military cathedral.
Our enjoyment of Belgrade extended even to the nighttime, when we’ve found some other cities to become a little too densely occupied, as the bar/club districts often lie in close proximity to the historic centers. Here, though, it was quite relaxing to wander the peaceful city streets, and we spent some time photographing the city’s Parliament and St. Sava Church, lit up beautifully against the clear, night sky. It was a tranquil way to spend our last night in Serbia.