Serbian flag at Belgrade's harbour

How Belgrade has found its place in my heart.

I arrived in October 2015 with three heavy bags and my Nikon camera. My ride from Budapest left me in front of a rundown building in the centre, near the offices of the oldest Serbian newspaper Politika. In true Balkan fashion, my Airbnb hosts welcomed me warmly, offered me water, coffee, a beer. We chatted like old friends in true coffee-culture fashion on the balcony with our drinks about France, Serbia and life in general.

Kalemegdan from the other side
Kalemegdan from the other side

The city is a brilliant, messy mix of architectures representing its chaotic history. The oldest religious building is a mosque located in the district of Dorcol which exists since Roman times. The Western bank of the Sava river is a temple of concrete architecture and brutalist style as if Yugoslavia had never ceased to exist until the old town of Zemun brings you right back to the Austrian empire. The Eastern bank is an ode to interwar Europe with delicate statues overlooking long avenues, forgotten art nouveau villas and royal palaces turned into public institutions. And, in the middle of it all, high modern buildings with glass walls and too many supermarkets.

Knez Mihailova in Belgrade
Knez Mihailova in winter © Marion Dautry

The Perfect Three-Day Stay in Belgrade

Restaurants and cafés are buzzing with chatty crowds. Bad food is hard to find. There will always be a place somewhere ready to satisfy your cravings at any time of the day, be it a greasy slice of pizza or barbecue meat chopped, minced, covered in buttery kajmak or stuffing a grilled flat piece of bread. Coffee, white wine and rakija, the Balkan brandy, come with a glass of water. A lifetime is not enough to try out all the cafés and bars in the city but you can surely try. People-watching is everyone’s favourite Monday-to-Sunday activity.

Terazije in Belgrade
Terazije with my Zorki camera © Marion Dautry

Belgrade can be messy. The never-ending construction work is exhausting. Finding your way in New Belgrade requires the Power of Three. Slavija Square is lethal. People always want you to wear slippers at home, get married and close the window because of the deadly draft promaja. The politics and the waste of public money is infuriating. Old ladies call you “son” even if you’re a grown-up woman. Sidewalks are just traps. They moved the main train station from the centre to the middle of nowhere. They smoke inside.

Two girls chilling out on Kalemegdan, Belgrade
Chilling out on Kalemegdan, pic with my Lomography Diana f+ © Marion Dautry

But Belgrade crawls under your skin. Its parks. Its shops. Its vibrant atmosphere. Its people both exasperatedly apathetic and inspiringly overflowing with ideas and projects. Cheating the system is a national sport. Serbs pride themselves in being good hosts and they make it their duty to make sure your stay will be as perfect as possible. They will take you in. Green market’s ladies call you “little mouse” and always give you extra apples and parsley. Your friend’s mom calls to check up on you every now and then and makes sure you eat chicken soup in winter to fight the cold. The nightlife is so diverse you will always find something that suits you. 

You didn’t know you needed cevapi and Plazma shake in your life until you tried them.

A cup of coffee in Belgrade
Belgrade coffee culture © Marion Dautry

In just a few weeks after my arrival, I made friends and became an habitué at the bar downstairs, at the shop around the corner and at the burek place called “Sarajevo” a few hundred meters away. The best in town. I always joke that it’s the smell of burek that led me here.

When I exit the bus after a several-hour-long ride to a neighbouring country to cover one political mess or the other at five o’clock in the morning and see the morning light reflecting on the windows of the Design Hotel Mr President, I feel like I am back where I belong. The golden hour is equally stupefying. The sunlight has a peculiar hue here.

The national library of Belgrade
The national library of Belgrade at sundown © Marion Dautry

I sit with friends I have almost just met and discuss the deep meaning of life with no boundaries. I wriggle my toes still recovering from a wild night of clubbing. I have “my” spot at Papergirl coworking space. There is a new film festival starting this week. Three photo exhibitions to check out. The next Sofar sound concert is approaching. Time fits and starts. There are days I feel like I have been living here for a decade.

The famous bonfire of Devet Festival
The famous bonfire of Devet Festival © Marion Dautry

Sudbina, destiny, brought me here. I say that sometimes and people nod with a look of understanding. They know it makes sense.

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