So why were all those big shots conquering Belgrade? What is it they were after? A smart looking 30-and-something brunette from NYC is frowning at the map on her iPhone suggested by New York Times. We have just entered Kalemegdan. Natasha and her fiancé Stephen flew in from Zurich last evening and the first thing they want to see in Belgrade, after Natasha had her single espresso, is Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan.
For a moment I am tempted to answer that with ‘hidden treasure, loads of gold, what else’. And then I get it, in split second. It is really not that obvious. Even when you know history it is not clear what the empires and armies were doing here so often for so long. Until you set your foot on Kalemegdan. Until you take a view from Belgrade Fortress with your own eyes.
I decide to say nothing. Instead, I take the NYC couple right to the spot with the best views. Panorama over two rivers. Smiles on their faces. Wind in their hair. His arm over her shoulders. Natasha and Stephen get it. They enjoy it. They are now ready to hear the story.
The story starts a long long time ago. Before the ancient Romans. I am like Americans when it comes to Romans, in everlasting awe. Stephen is also fascinated with Romans and he tells me about the Roman heritage in Germany, of which I knew almost nothing. We get to barbarians (oops, we kept ancient jargon) and Byzantines. Then a Serbian prince, at last, in 15th century. What a renaissance persona! A christian knight poet who fought the Mongols in service to Ottoman Sultan!
Mehmed the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent deserve the stories of their own. Belgrade is almost as good a setting for some of these stories as Istanbul. Mehmed sieged Belgrade in 1456 in what turned to be a milestone victory for Christian forces over Ottomans. Did you know that Noon Bell, in all Christian churches in Europe, celebrates exactly this victory ever since?
Suleiman the Magnificent was the sultan who conquered Belgrade, on his campaign towards Vienna. And remained amazed with Belgrade Fortress and its setting. He called it Contemplation Hill. Stephen laughs as he found a parallel with Washington’s Capitol Hill. We talk a bit about politics. And agree on some points. Natasha is laughing and saying that Stephen and I are naive.
Next we get underground. The place was a military secret until ten years ago. For some 20 years after the Cold War officially ended. Hmm, this is indicative….Natasha is thrilled! Another story of big gun international politics is unrolling. Inside, we are trying to picture how it was for the soldiers who were here on duty. Imagine, on a normal spring day in 1950es, the fortress Kalemegdan park is in bloom and the unsuspecting visitors are enjoying their morning walks. The soldiers are hidden in this bunker, ready to shoot big canyons should the Soviets invade. Wow.
Stephen looks at his watch. Time to find place for lunch. Already? Our 2.5 hours on the Fortress and Kalemegdan just flew.
We walk by the Zoo and head to Dorćol. A charming neighborhood to stroll before we have a delicious lunch at Klub Književnika.
The couple visited Belgrade in June 2017. The real names have been changed.