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Belgrade's irresistible energy

The capital of the former Yugoslavia mixes the sleek and modern with graffiti and farmers' markets.

"Yankee Go Home.” For a declaration that’s been around since the United States’ 1960s incursion into Vietnam, the hastily scrawled phrase seen from Bogotá to Basra still has the power to surprise in the 21st century. Especially when it’s daubed in metre-high letters on a rusting Danube river barge in the fading half-light of a Belgrade dusk.

Just over a decade after the Serbian capital was bombed by Nato, passionate memories of the spring of 1999 definitely linger, and Belgrade remains tellingly unlike any other major European city. Sprawled raffishly around the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the capital of the former Yugoslavia is an energetic collage of elegant Austro-Hungarian architecture, boxy Communist-era apartment blocks and the occasional Nato-destroyed building left in situ to reinforce recent history. Multiple bridges span the Danube, but unlike any Nato-enhanced structures dotted around town, the crossings remained intact during 1999’s airborne sorties.

As word spread of the impending attacks, Belgrade’s citizens quickly mobilised for impromptu mid-river parties and concerts on the bridges linking the old and new parts of the city. Party like it’s 1999, indeed. The same devil-may-care attitude now infuses Belgrade’s modern nightlife scene, with international revellers flocking to the floating nightclubs, called splavs, that line the banks of the Danube. With the thumping turbo folk music – Turkish and Roma (gypsy) melodies at an amphetamine-fuelled 180 beats a minute – no one should mistake Belgrade for buttoned-down Vienna or classical music-laden Prague.

But concealed in Belgrade’s compelling architectural mishmash are some authentic Central European gems. The main shopping precinct, Knez Mihajlova, is lined with high-ceilinged art nouveau apartments, and the cobblestoned and bohemian Skadarlija area mixes bars and restaurants with wandering Roma bands and the occasional sleek and modern bistro.

Walk an extra 100m, though, and gritty Belgrade re-emerges at local markets selling domácí (homemade) produce including pastel-blue duck eggs and rustic and robust rakija (fruit brandy), usually distilled by the grizzled old buggers hawking the unmarked bottles. Sometimes parts of the city feel like the world’s biggest and grungiest farmers’ market, a DIY legacy of the self-­sustaining isolation of recent decades.

Along with the occasional anti-US proclamation, Belgrade’s recent isolation is another favourite theme of the city’s taggers and graffiti artists. Walls in the tree-lined suburb of Dorcol are daubed with the epithet “Alcatraz”, a bleakly ironic nickname for the city and also one of the main supporter factions of the Fudbalski Klub Partizan Beograd. Dorcol’s main drag is Strahinjica Bana, nicknamed “Silicon Valley”, but you’ll struggle to find a single software developer in showy venues full of leggy examples of the benefits of cosmetic surgery.

Spending time sipping on a mojito in a trendy tapas bar creates a pretty good facsimile of a Barcelona of the Balkans, but the illusion is soon shattered by a band of entrepreneurial Roma on their daily horse-drawn expedition to collect waste paper and cardboard from some of Belgrade’s ritz­iest residential addresses. The onto-it Roma then flick it to nearby pulp processing mills, apparently all with the non-interventionist blessing of the city council.

Another common alfresco commentary from Belgrade’s busy taggers is “1389”, a reference to the Battle of Kosovo six centuries ago when the Serbs fought the Ottomans. Another more recent date – 2008 – is often included as a spray-painted counterpoint, referencing Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

Around Kalemegdan, Belgrade’s fortress combining Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman histories, hunched grandmas front simple stalls selling Serbian flags and Yugoslav army caps that reinforce the inner nationalist in every Serb. Although the mood is relaxed and welcoming, it’s probably not the place to kick off a debate on the merits of Kosovan independence. Governments in Washington, London and Wellington recognise the new state of Kosovo, but Moscow, Beijing and especially Belgrade still have a hard time understanding the concept. An expat friend, who was seduced by the city’s irresistible energy and is now a Belgrade resident, reckons the Serb psyche can be summed up in two words: blood and honey.

“They’ll try and drown you with hospitality and be the most loyal of friends, but you never want to get on the wrong side of a Serb.”

The city’s many spray-painted references to “1389” also reinforce that they tend to have very long memories. Buried amid Kalemegdan’s sometimes tacky displays of souvenirs are quirky reminders of an especially turbulent period in Serbian history. From 1993 to 1994, Yugoslavia – by that time only including Serbia and Montenegro – experienced ­history’s most extreme hyperinflation.

Between October 1993 and January 1994, prices increased by five quadrillion percent. That’s not a made-up word like gazillion but a very real 5,000,000,000,000,000%. The average daily rate of inflation surged to 100%, and local families developed unique strategies to lessen the impact of such an economic meltdown. When workers were paid, children left school early and were immediately sent off to secure the week’s grocery shopping. Even a short delay could wither the value of a family’s income. The world’s highest denomination currency – the 500 billion dinar banknote was subsequently introduced, and now Kalemegdan’s enterprising grannies ­will sell you one for just three euro.

And is the money real or not? Who cares, when the rest of this city is so authentic and addictive.