Any instructions for use of a city are precious, if they are not purchased at the airport or on the street; a local guide would be needed to take you through the underground tunnels of capital cities. The best option is to “purchase” a resident of that city, who knows all the secret passages. This is no easy feat in Belgrade, as Belgrade can be sullen and grey; it is a large city with all sorts of people in it, who could easily make you stray off the right path.
Belgrade changes its appearance and its behaviour in line with the seasons, especially in the summer, in August, when you bump into tourists in their flip-flops, when there is plenty of spaces to park and it appears like a well-thought out set designed for a documentary film. In autumn, it is sleepy, the way Momo Kapor describes it, with the wind carrying a mixed aroma of ajvar, fast and expensive cars, fallen leaves and grumpy people in public transportation. In the spring, it flourishes as your juices start to flow, too; young women are promenading their light dresses, young men their new tattoos, everyone is looking for advertising leaflets for summer vacations. But winter is the time when you need to be in Belgrade, in this enclosed bee hive brimming with passion.
In the winter, it looks like a city that has locked its gates so only the select few can enter. When you say skiing, you mean Switzerland, but if you have not sleighed down the slope of Košutnjak, you have not known thrill. If you have not celebrated the New Year’s Eve with Slovenians in Skadarlija, you have not seen merry tourists; if you have not caught a love at first sight in a night club, even just for a moment, you have not known a morning smile. Winter is when the juiciest, most bizarre topics are discussed in pubs, loans are repaid in a hurry, theatre shows are recommended (make sure you catch “Judgement day” in Yugoslav Drama Theatre), football player transfers are analysed, rakija is poured, books and perfumes gifted. Belgrade can pretend that everything is alright, even when it is not itself. Of course, there are slavas, celebrations of each family’s patron saint held for friends and family; they are discussed both the day before and the day after, but with a small dose of snobbism: “We really didn’t feel like going, but we had to – and we ended up having a great time”. Russian Salad is a special winter-time delight, home-made, prepared in huge quantities because the stuff you can get in supermarkets is atrocious, probably the worst product on offer in megamarkets which have, it is quite befitting to say, taken over our town.
The season of the so-called major concerts is mostly something to avoid – there are plenty of them, but this is the time when the former capital of SFRY attracts all those coming from the little countries that have hatched from it, looking to fatten their wallets. However, there are good gigs at clubs, the “Ptica” is a must-visit. In winter, Belgrade’s bloodwork changes, as those we dubbed “the brain-drain” in the nineties return home for holidays, bringing gifts for their relatives and spending their money earned in Canadian companies, at the same time restoring their mental health. They are merry and joyous, which gives you a chance to get a whiff of those gastarbaiter feels.
In the winter, emotions simmer, it takes forever to get a taxi and the best break you can get is in the Serbian History Museum. It won’t cost you much to climb to the top of Dom Sindikata, either, where you can listen to jazz and eat frybreads. But here, you truly do need a guide, to show you which passage to enter and which lift to take. Even though this all sounds complicated, it is fairly simple, just like Belgrade in the winter itself.
Residents of Belgrade are artists of everyday life, capable of building a snowman even when there is no snow.
By: Aleksandar Đuričić