Belgrade. For a Western-raised mind like mine this name for many years evoked pictures of war and bombs, of aggression and dictatorship. And so when, in 2006, I first went to Belgrade, that grey and grim epitome of all things negative, I was anxious to see, hear and feel what it was really like.
Arriving by car from Zagreb on what was once called the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity the further I ventured into Serbia the more I felt like this, yes, this was the Balkans. A strange place shrouded in clichées and stereotypes, a different world so near to my native Germany and yet so far, where road signs give you directions you cannot read and where you ask yourself, the nearer you get to Beograd, whether coming here might prove to have been a mistake.And there in the distance I could make out something: a grey high rise building, shaped a bit like an Arc of Triumph or a gate, the windows glistening in the afternoon sun. Lowering my eyes I saw more high rises, smaller but just as grey. The traffic picked up. Cars were whizzing past me, from brand new models to old and tired ones which at home would have been pulled off the roads two decades earlier. The buildings were covered in huge advertisements (to disguise their ugliness?) telling me to buy the ubiquitous Coca Cola and never-before-seen products like Chipsy crisps. I followed the road straight ahead towards the centre, no, towards the centar.
And then a bridge, a river and finally the first view of Belgrade proper: crossing the Sava, the confluence with the mighty Danube on my left, it stretched out over a hill straight ahead. Buildings and more buildings, their facades blackened by decades of traffic. Inbetween the golden bell tower of the Orthodox cathedral. In the distance the ruins of a fortress. And in the middle, standing tall above everything else, a black tower.
As I took in this panorama my mind started to race. Was this the Heart of Darkness I had expected after ten years of Western propaganda? I let the name roll over my tongue, over and over again: Bel-grad, Be-o-grad. The name was certainly the same, there was no doubt. But what I saw and what I had expected to see did not match as easily. Before me lay a city full of energy, full of life. I could feel it and I was enthralled. I couldn’t really point out what it was that so touched me. I just knew that this was indeed the White City, a place I wanted to get to know better, where I wanted to live.
When I think back now I can’t help but smile. Belgrade has changed my life over the past few years. I walked the streets, I lived there. And it all started on that day back in 2006 in this most unlikely of places where I first had the one sensation that so many people described before: to unconditionally fall in love with a city. Hvala ti, Beograde!
Disclaimer: this text was first published on Enter Serbia.