Belgrade, literally translates as the “White City”, matches with its freezing weather during the day we came – around -2ºC with snow flakes. Yet the frosty atmosphere didn’t chill our passion to be immersed in the New Year exhilaration. Such gritty exuberance and the twinkles of evening lights make the city appear to be one of the impressive places in the Balkans. While it anticipates for a rosier future, the statues and varied styles of architecture speak of the past and the steady transformation of this “White City”: the Austro-Hungarian relics blench with the modern cafes and brand shops, and the bygone-era culture coexists with the city nightlife.
Located at the confluence of two major rivers, this is also where the River Sava meets the Danube. After the sun lost its colour and darkness cloaked at around 5pm, I, despite continual fall of snow, meandered along the rivers with schoolmates during the New Year’s day. Follow the golden Branko’s Bridge, you could hear a pin drop except our wandering footsteps and chorus of Cantonese New Year songs, just for feeling less frozen. It stood still, symbolised Old and New Belgrade. I grasped my camera, and captured the glamour of Belgrade’s landscape that can last forever in my lens, while conquering wind howls and overcoming icy sensations at the same time. The crisp air just chilled my fingers soon even with a pair of gloves, leaving me teeth-chattered. Each of these photos, taken from the district of Old Belgrade, was my labour of love. Across the River Sava were myriads of communist-era blocks and modern buildings of New Belgrade. The city lights from those buildings dazzled like diamonds, and splashed like pearls that coloured the dark sky and reflected upon the rivers. The lake glistened, mirroring the luminescence from the bridges, restaurants and infrastructure in the other side. Amid the start of the rule of Federal Yugoslavia, it was the source of pride of the communist government to convert this marshy land into a socialist capital through radical urbanisation. Nowadays New Belgrade, born from the ashes of World War II, gradually thrives as a financial centre with diversifying businesses and multifarious infrastructure. One, the Ada Bridge, which was designed to reduce traffic flow in the city centre and the Gazela Bridge starting in 2004, illustrates the prosperous side of the capital.
As we wondered where the locals were in the first evening of New Year, our bus soon arrived at the Republic Square where the National Museum and National Theatre were located near. Established right after the demolition of the Stambol Gate in 1866, the Square reminded the Serbs of the bloodshed centuries ago about the Turks execution of non-Muslim subjects in front of the place. It was also where the attack on Belgrade occurred during the First Serbian Uprising in 1806. Just beside the Square, the bronze statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic stood still on a horse, with his hand pointing to Constantinople, showing the Turks to leave. It was erected in credit of the Prince’s expulsion of the Turks and liberation of the remaining seven cities in 1867. Today in the New Year, under the beam of light flickering from the lamps, the daring prince looked even more grandeur in front of our own eyes, and stunned us after we comprehended his courageous, powerful character.
Next to the Republic Square, we all took a wander down the Knez Mihailova Street in pleasure, which is one of the city’s most precious monumental complexes. This grand thoroughfare continue following the design of the Roman city of Singidnum. Nowadays, Austro-Hungarian style of mansions are squeezed between the academic-style villas that were built by the wealthiest families at the end of 1870s. Although its original appearance still endures in contemporary days, the purpose of such neo-classical architecture is not the same anymore. Rather than for the upper class’s residential living, it however became a lively pedestrian boulevard filled with sequences of grandiose coffee houses and multifarious sidewalk stalls of sweet snacks and wonderful ornaments. Wooden market houses and shop fronts were a blaze of colour; so too were the smiling people wearing bulky yet well-tailored coat, for their slow stroll with their loved ones. On the main pedestrian zone, the youngsters and the elders were relishing the decorations of the Christmas tree and the laser lights that illuminated surrounding buildings, giving them an over-worldly feel. Some delightfully gathered New Year gifts into their leather bags; some were hand-in-hand, murmuring to each other tenderly without noticing anyone; while others, like us, travelled in groups with friends that altogether burst into constant cheers. Meanwhile, standing under the shade of historical houses were the roadside stall owners, either serving the travellers from different nationalities or promoting their items to the passer-by. Postcards and magnets of the breath-taking city views, as well as hosts of Serbian folk music CDs just caught my glimpse.
When I busily carried my shopping bags, at the heart of the city centre, we took delight in each discovery, little-by-little. With our greetings Screna Nova Godina (Happy New Year in Serbian) to everyone encountered, the impressed locals eventually hugged and wished us a pleasant stay in Belgrade. The next thing that lured us was probably the savour of the aroma of traditional delicacies. The mingling smell of pljeskavica and cevapci began emanating from these restaurants and floating in the air. Potent mixture of onion, spice and pepper, as well as the dishes of dried fish and grilled sausages just tingled my nose. I hold my breath and relaxed my pace, how much those sights, smell and sounds added vigour to this city. What a bliss when the locals were exchanging presents in a frenzy of joy after having a palatable banquet, under the sea of blooming lights and the romance of snowflakes falling.
What highlighted the New Year celebration was the live performance besides the National Assembly of Serbia, which was constructed in the neo-Baroque style with Renaissance elements. As we all waited in line to watch the performance, the stage was already filled with constant flurry of excitement and there was a hum of voices when more people filed in. Rock music, rumbled like thunder, roared through the Kralja Milana Street for miles. Every time the bass drum was deafeningly struck, I could vividly feel the vibrancy of repercussion. The electric air became alive along with our upbeat feelings, and the stage was flashing with the backdrop of kaleidoscopic patterns of beams, pushing the atmosphere to the fullest. No matter the tranquil landscape scenery near to the Rivers or the powerful rhythmic display of rock swirling, they all signified a great start of the New Year, in this diversifying “White City”. ♦
Next travel post: A day in Novi Sad