Serbia’s capital city never bears its name better than when it is covered by a thick blanket of snow. A perfect time to travel to Belgrade for winter lovers!
Did you know that Beograd – Belgrade, in Serbian – means “the white city”? The most common theory says it is because its fortress of Kalemegdan looked white to newcomers arriving from the Pannonian plain and the rivers. But come winter and the first snowfalls and the name takes on a whole new meaning.
The entire city is covered in white, thick blankets of snow. Everything seems to go slower, and indeed everybody is walking more carefully. The iced streets are trickier than usual. Cold, wet heaps of snow are falling from the roofs. The trees look like giant cotton plants hardly supporting the weight of the myriad of snowballs stuck on their branches.
Warm and cosy in Belgrade’s cafés
In the centre of the city, the Christmas decorations look more timely, framed by piles of snow and stalactite descending from roofs, door frames and balconies. The big Aviator coffee on Terazije has never appeared so cosy with its busy baristas pouring delicious hot coffee in cups and preparing tasty snacks and warm soups. The customers are chatting comfortably in the big chairs by the window or typing furiously to meet their deadlines, hunched over their laptops on the wooden tables.
Inattentive people taking photos with Santa’s sledge on Republic square become collateral damages of teenagers’ snowball fights. The many cafés around offering hot chocolate, tea and mulled wine are so tempting. Leila Records in Dorcol and Polet in the nightlife hotspot of Cetinjska are the perfect places for a cup of red (or white!) mulled wine. In the evening, good company and live music will make you forget the negative temperatures!
In summer, all the terraces of the city are packed with groups of people, friends and families, enjoying the warm weather. Come winter and you could expect people to stay home but no: in Serbia going out to meet with friends, family, acquaintances, business relations, is a serious thing. A lot can happen around a cup of coffee! So even during hard snowfall on a Sunday, be sure you will never feel alone wandering in the centre of city and warming up in one of the many cosy cafés in town.
Wandering on the riverside
It is Saturday and I have decided to take the day for myself, meet with friends and be one of the first to enjoy the snow. I head out towards New Belgrade and Hotel Yugoslavia, a common meeting spot on this side of the city and an interesting landmark of brutalist architecture.
The long walk from the Brankov bridge to Zemun, one of the must-do when visiting Belgrade, is a different experience when the snow is falling and the temperature dropping. There are way fewer people on the way and you do not have to constantly watch out for bikes. Dogs are overjoyed and running everywhere. The smallest ones disappear into the piles of snow they have just jumped in, coming back carrying some of it with them, trotting gayly around, shaking it off. Kids are having the best of time on their sledges, going down the small hill at the Zemun train station monument. I even cross path with a merry toddler sitting on a sledge pulled by an adorable husky, the little company lead by the kid’s father.
New Belgrade has a different look today. It does not seem like an overwhelming urban centre covered in gigantic residential buildings when everything around you is so white it is hard to distinguish the sky from the ground. From Gardos, Zemun looks like a small mountain village with red roofs covered in snow.
Belgrade, unlike many cities I have lived in, breathes. People go out and enjoy the vast green (white) areas, no matter the season. Children have space to be active and their parents don’t miss a chance to let them enjoy outside.
I inhale the cold, wet air and try to keep the snowflakes out of my face. I can take the same walk a thousand times, use the same paths, I have never grown tired of them. Standing on the hill of Gardos, facing the river in Zemun, looking over the Danube from Kalemegdan are experiences that never get old. That’s the magic power of Belgrade.
Idleness on the splavs
Some of the “splavovi”, the permanently docked boats which are known to be typical of Belgrade’s summer nightlife, keep working during winter. I sit in Savana surrounded by the usual African masks and next to a big fat Christmas tree. My “hot chocolate” is, in fact, a chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream sprinkled with white and dark pieces of chocolate. My feet slowly warm up in my shoes and my hat and scarf drip melted snow while drying on the heater. It is not so cold now. The Danube river behind me is flowing fast. My friend reminds me of a few years back when the temperature dropped so low it froze. For now, the swans, ducks and gulls that inhabit the area seem to cope pretty well with the temperature.
What’s the date?
There is time before Christmas, but the massive decorations have been out for more than a month now (don’t get me started on the tender and the way the city spends people’s money). Serbia being an Orthodox country, it follows a different calendar. Chrismas is celebrated on January 7th and New Year’s Eve is on January 13th. However, the 31st of December has become the main party date and I cannot wait to come back from France and celebrate with my friends. Serbs certainly know their way around fireworks and they flock by thousands to gather around the gigantic church of Sveti Sava to admire them.
January 7th and 13th are just other occasions to party hard, which no one here will complain about. It’s particularly great for visitors trying to hang onto the winter holidays spirit!
Belgrade’s authorities are convinced that having as many Christmas decorations as possible and for as long as possible will attract hundreds of thousands of tourists in the city. It is also making a few people very rich thanks to shady tender. Nevertheless, if you feel like catching late end-of-the-year spirit, come to Belgrade and you will find Christmas decorations and Christmas market even in February!