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Underground. Belgrade goes under.

A city underground. This idea was developed by Emir Kusturica – filmmaker born in Bosnia, raised on Islam, later converted to Christianity and self-proclaimed Serbian – in the movie Underground (1995), which showed the eventful recent history of the former Yugoslavia in a tragicomic point of view, with the protagonists create their own world underground to protect their interests, forgetting about the events above the ground. This is some kind of Plato’s cave where they live isolated while about the Nazis invade the territory, later Tito regime during the Cold War and finally the Yugoslavian war.

Located strategically between western and eastern territories, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers and by the Adriatic, Aegean and Black seas, probably is the European city that has been devastated and rebuilt again the most. Serbian capital has been occupied about 38 times in the past 300 years. Austrians, Serbians and Germans have created all kind of structures in the territory that Belgrade occupies.

The insides - a tangle of tunnels, shafts, caves and bunkers - have always been there, preserved during all these wars and also created because of them. Most of the historical center is on archaeological sites and hundreds of meters of tunnels were built for many reasons, during thousands of years.

Since 2012, some of these secrets can be revealed in Belgrade - even most of them still remain closed to the public – in a trip through subterranean routes. Total, there are about 140 structures certified officially nowadays, which are allowed to be visited.

But for now is almost impossible to know how many elements can be found underground. One person that knows this well is Zoran Nikolic, cowriter of Beograd ispod Beograda (‘Belgrade under Belgrade’) where he reveals the secrets that he now also shows as specialized guide around this area.

Under the library in Belgrade

By the start of Knez Mihailova street the City Library can be found, located in a building that used to be the most famous hotel in Belgrade. In the underground floors there is the Roman room, with well-conserved rests of an old fortress and a collection of Roman sculptures and graves. The room is used for lectures, music concerts and other cultural events.

Under the Belgrade fortress

Kalemegdan, the great Fortress of Belgrade, is one of the seven fortifications that stand by the Danube, along Serbia and at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Here is where, according to the legend, Attila was buried. The fortress along to the Kalemegdan Park, become the most relevant historic-cultural complex in Belgrade.

Under the ground there is Barutana cave, a former Austrian military warehouse now used as archaeological museum, including pieces from Singidunum, the antique Roman city that used to be where Belgrade is now, including sarcophagi, tombstones and altars.

Bellow the park there is also a fascinating bunker, from the last days of the Soviet Union. Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavian head of state, wanted to built a bunker after World War II to protect Belgrade of a possible Russian invasion.

Near the fortress, artificial caves where used as food warehouses. Nowadays, restaurants and cellars are located here, where there is never a need for air-conditioned.

Under Tašmajdan park

One of the most significant parts of the route is under the centric park of Tasmajdan, right bellow the Serbian Parliament. Bellow asphalt and concrete layers there are caves built by the Romans that were used centuries after for many purposes: during the Great War they were a warehouse for bombs and during World War II they were used as hidden headquarters by the Germans.

Picture from wikimapia.org

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Belgrade In Three Itineraries

In truth, Belgrade has not been fairly treated by history, as the peoples, cultures and religions that passed through the city left more of a trail of destruction than a positive, lasting historical footprint. Surprisingly, however, Belgraders have chosen to preserve the vestiges of those civilisations that occupied and also ravaged the city.

Former Singidunum

A Celtic tribe first settled Singidun (meaning “round fort”) in the 3rd century BC, on the site of the extant Kalemegdan Fortress. Subsequently, the Roman army arrived and changed the name to Singidunum, which endured until the city became Beograd in the year 878.

Remains of the fort built by the Celtic tribes, as well as some dating from the Roman period, can still be seen in Kalemegdan Park, where the original garrison was sited. Sections of an aqueduct, cisterns and some stretches of the wall stand side by side with an unusual mixture of buildings from different periods, such as those from the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian periods, which we will be looking at in a moment.

No fewer than 18 Roman emperors were born in Serbia; no wonder, then, that the Roman legacy still lingers in parts of the country. Notable examples are Viminacium – present-day Kostolac – or Felix Romuliana, situated near the archaeological site of Gamzigrad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007.

In Belgrade, the two museums you cannot fail to visit if you want to research the country’s Roman heritage are the Belgrade City Museum and the National Museum of Serbia.

Ottoman Belgrade

Traces of the Ottoman period can be seen in the 15th-century stone paving of Skadarlija, Belgrade’s best known pedestrian precinct in the Bohemian Quarter. Here, things get into full swing at nightfall when the numerous restaurants, taverns and cafés are frequented by Serbians and foreigners alike, eager to taste the cuisine hot off the fire. Notable dishes include sarma (vine leaves stuffed with meat and vegetables), kebab (meat on the skewer) and baklava (the famous confectionery of honey-rolled nuts), liable to transport diners back to Belgrade’s Ottoman past.

Of the 273 mosques that once existed in the city, only the Bajrakli Džamija mosque, dating from 1575, is still standing. Having survived the passage of time, partial destruction and other attacks, it was rebuilt and is now open to Belgrade’s Muslim community.

Several Ottoman vestiges can also be seen in the aforementioned fort in Kalemegdan Park, including the Sahat Tower, with its striking clock, and the Tomb of Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha, housing the remains of the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and “Conqueror of Morea” (the Byzantine name for the Peloponnese), who ruled from 1713 to 1716.

Belgrade also features a very interesting museum for those wishing to find out more about the city’s Ottoman legacy. This is the Galeriji Fresaka (Gallery of Frescoes), with its exhibition of over 1,300 frescoes, which are actually copies of icons found on Serbian monuments dating from the 11th to the 15th century, some of which are Byzantine in style. Some of the icons have been destroyed in their original location, while others have fallen into disrepair.

Austro-Hungarian Belgrade

Perhaps the entire heritage of Belgrade’s Austro-Hungarian past, which lasted from 1867 to 1919, can be summed up in one word – Zemun. This is the name of an unusual district which did not become part of Serbia until the outbreak of the First World War and which breathes an atmosphere unlike that of any other district in the city.

But the whole ensemble of eclectic art dating from the period 1860 to the late 1920s, in addition to neo-Renaissance historicist architecture, abounds along the pedestrian precinct of Kneza Mihaila, Belgrade’s major thoroughfare and shopping area. Stretching for one kilometre, it features striking mansions from the late 1870s, as well as bookshops, fashion stores, cafés and souvenir stalls where you can soak up the vibrant everyday activity of Belgrade.

Another lively spot in the city, and also a meeting point for Belgraders and foreigners, is Trg Republike (Republic Square), with its emblematic “Horse”. Executed in 1882, this equestrian statue of Mihajlo Obrenović III (Prince Michael) commemorates his expulsion of the Turks. Behind it stands the aforementioned National Museum of Serbia, due to open to the public again in April 2016 as it is currently closed for renovation. 

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Text and photographs by Ana Isabel Escriche (Planeta Dunia)


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