Getting There - Aneel's Travelogue

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Belgrade Underground Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, 01 July 2014 8:57pm

We started our first day in Belgrade with a walk up the hill to find the start of our walking tour beneath the hill. Belgrade has a very long history, which has accreted, layer over layer. So to get a feeling for it, we had to go underground.

We started at a city library building. We passed through one of the rooms in the library which held a great exhibition of paintings by Javor Rašajski of hyper-realistic owls and strange objects. It turns out that painter is also an ornithologist and the author of an illustrated guide to the birds of Serbia. In the basement there's a small auditorium with theater-style seating... and a collection of Roman ruins. The centerpiece is a section of Roman walls with an ancient lead water pipe. In many places, these objects would at least be roped off, but here they're right out in the open.

Our next stop was from the Yugoslav era. Belgrade was originally important in pre-Roman times because it stands at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. There has been a fortress on the hill overlooking the rivers since at least the 3rd century CE. Today, it's called Kalemegdan, and is mostly parkland and Austrian-era (1718-1738) walls. When Yugoslavia was loosely aligned with the Soviets, but resisting taking direction from Stalin, the government was concerned about a Soviet force attacking the city to assert their power. They dug out a secret bunker under the Kalemegdan, with walls that could be collapsed outwards to reveal anti-aircraft batteries. This was done in such secrecy that only the army knew about it until very recently. We got to tour the corridors of the bunker, where two small squads of soldiers could have resisted capture for weeks with the supplies in the bunker.

Also in the Kalemgdan fortress was our next stop: the "Roman Well". Which is neither Roman, nor a well. The Austrians dug out this deep excavation hoping that they'd hit water and that it would serve as a well for the fortress, but they couldn't dig deep enough to hit the water table. They had to settle for a large cistern that collects rainwater. The "Roman" name may refer to the Austrian claim to the "Holy Roman Empire" title, or to actual confusion about how old the structure was.

Next up was another Austrian excavation: a large domed chamber carved out of the rock at the bottom of the fortress hill that was used to store munitions. A decade ago it was one of the trendier nightclubs in Belgrade, but, due to concerns about the safety of the structure when subjected to pounding bass night after night, the nightclub has been moved outside to the courtyard. Now it houses a collection of Roman artifacts, including a number of grave stele and altars.

Our last stop was a wine cellar/tavern. For centuries, Belgrade has been a hub of commerce along the rivers, and one of the common trade goods was wine. Between delivery and onwards shipment, it was stored in underground chambers near the riverside. Some of these are still used, and others are just cool dark spaces to have a drink and escape the heat of the day.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the Belgrade Auto Museum, which houses a lot of vintage cars. There were some people there working on one of the Rolls Royces, which is having some transmission problems. I was amused to see a Ford Prefect.

We had dinner around the corner from our hotel at a restaurant specializing in local cuisine. The hostess suggested that the mixed grill was too much food for me, so instead I had the pork loin with bacon and kaymak—clotted cream. Delicious, but perhaps still too much food for me...