A Balkan Treasure: It Lacks the Luxuries of Other Capital Cities, but Belgrade's Creative Energy Is Infectious, Writes Michael Coveney

Article excerpt

Some places grow on you because you grow into them. So it is with me and Belgrade--capital city of former Yugoslavia; of former Serbia and Montenegro; and soon to be of Serbia, possibly without even Kosovo--which I visited last weekend for the seventh time since 1975.

The dissolution of Josip Broz Tito's federation, followed by the wars of the Nineties and the continuing air of political uncertainty and economic regression, do not suggest a thriving business destination, let alone a tourist's pleasure park.

But Belgrade has seeped into my soul, nagging away at me with its clanking trams, its broken pavements, its frayed fabrics and general air of tough stoicism. I also like places that I have good reason to visit, and the best reason for visiting Belgrade is Bitef, its international theatre festival, now in its 40th year.

The festival was born of the spirit of Tito's Yugoslavia, facing both east and west in the cold war--symbolised by an early Bitef collaboration between the Polish avant-garde guru Jerzy Grotowski, advocate of a "holy" theatre, and the Living Theatre, a bunch of American hippies who terrorised their audience with nudity. That spiritual conflict between communism and free enterprise still defines Belgrade's visual aesthetic.

In New Belgrade on the south side of the Sava river, which runs through the city and into the Danube, glass monoliths erected in honour of Delta Holding and Samsung rub shoulders with the Hyatt Regency and InterContinental hotels in a green parkland that stops abruptly in front of towers of rabbit-hutch apartments.

No other European city wears the imprint of tragic history so brazenly. The Nato bombs of 1999 destroyed the Yugoslav army headquarters and the ministry of internal affairs. Both ruins still stand--neither razed nor repaired--like woebegone architectural "concepts", and are occasionally used as film locations.

One big old hotel in Belgrade, the Metropol, is not an exercise in European communist retro, as some cosmopolitan postmodernist might think, but the real thing: a monument of faded grandeur, with its old wooden lifts and musty carpets, and its photographs on the walls of Tito shaking hands with world leaders. It exudes an unmistakable aura of sad magic.

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And the city's greatest park is a peaceful military outpost--the Roman fortress of Kalemegdan, which dates from the 1st century AD but bears evocative accretions from Belgrade's roll-call of invaders: the Byzantines, Serbs, Turks, and the Germans of the Second World War.

It is not fanciful to suggest that the citizens of Belgrade live closer to their own political reality from day to day than we do to ours. It is a condition of their existence. Jovan Cirilov, the founding director of Bitef (with the late Mira Trailovic, a huge woman who was a Serbian Boudicca swathed in Paris fashions), recalls that when a Russian stage company visited in 1968, during the suppression of the Czechoslovak uprising, students paraded parodically outside the theatre in a cardboard tank.

In 1980, shortly after the death of Tito, I saw a production of Hamlet that became, effortlessly, a play more about the dead king than the vacillating young hero given to muttering aloud. …