I’m standing in a building that, in any other city, would be shut down for health and safety reasons.
The lights are out, the stairs are crumbling, the walls are covered in graffiti, and the lift looks like a set from a slasher film.
But this seemingly abandoned tower (nicknamed “The Bigs”) is, I’m told, a seriously hot nightlife spot. I’m dubious at first.
I head up the stairs with my tour group, convinced we’re about to startle an unsuspecting granny. Instead, there’s a busy bar, a balcony where a bevy of twentysomethings sip on local beer Jelen, and a view over the Danube River that can’t be beat.
Clearly, this isn’t just any other city. This is Belgrade. A rep from Serbia’s tourism board tells me that many of Belgrade’s bars were hidden by necessity.
One such place is the World Travellers Club, a bohemian basement bar with no identifying signage outside. It’s been around for 13 years, and is decorated with a hodgepodge of donated furnishings.
It started out as a secret meeting place for dissenters of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic.Milosevic doesn’t get much love from the locals these days, either; he did a horrible PR job on the country, which under his rule during the Balkan wars became practically synonymous with ethnic cleansing.
There are those who, with a hint of bitterness, lament the collapse of Yugoslavia – an event they pin on the former leader.
“We had such a beautiful country. It used to span the mountain lakes in Montenegro and the vineyards in Slovenia.
Now, I can’t help but feel I’ve lost my country a little bit,” reflects my guide, Srdjan Ristic, as we drink our beers.
No doubt Milosevic made a poor heir to Josip Broz Tito, the former president who kept Yugoslavia unified for four decades.
The Tito Memorial Complex makes for a beautiful ode to the man who was venerated both at home and abroad.
Stacked throughout the place are the many gifts Tito received during his life, both from enamoured Yugoslavs and foreign dignitaries. Some items – like a 14th-century tanto sword – are invaluable.
The complex includes the leader’s mausoleum, known as the House of Flowers, so named for the wealth of blooming flora that engulfs his tomb.
The city’s history of course pre-dates Tito, spanning 7000 years.
Nothing is a greater testament to this than its oldest building, the Belgrade Fortress.
Its mishmash of architectural styles underscores the country’s legacy of perpetual conflict.
Belgrade has been conquered by the Romans, Huns, Goths, Ottomans and Hungarians, as well as enjoying a few periods of independence.