Belgrade revolves around Stari Grad, its endearing old town—but did you know there are two more ‘faces’ to Serbia’s capital city? Curious to learn more about New Belgrade and Zemun, we joined an iBike Belgrade tour for a history lesson on two wheels.
Transparency: We were guests of iBike Belgrade on our cycling tour in March 2019. As always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.
“He who was lucky enough to wake up this morning in Belgrade shouldn’t ask for anything more in life. More than that would be immodest.” And with that, our cycling tour of New Belgrade was over.
Our guide, Oggy, borrowed his parting words from Serbian journalist and broadcaster, Duško Radović. It was a poignant finish to our Riverside Tour of Belgrade. For all the tumult, chaos and upheaval the city has been through, a message beckons tourists to the former capital of Yugoslavia: Belgrade will never be perfect, but it will never be boring.
I don’t think I’ve ever visited a city as complex and difficult to grasp as Belgrade. Over its history, Belgrade has been flattened and rebuilt 40 times, and has served as the capital of no less than 10 different states. It takes real talent and patience to be able to condense the history of Belgrade into a digestible format. Oggy, our iBike Belgrade tour guide, was apparently born for the job.
Not surprising for a city with so much going on, Belgrade is huge in geographical terms as well. With our bicycles, we covered more ground in three hours than we could have ever hoped to conquer on foot. Getting out of the Old City also gave us a taste of Belgrade’s less touristic side, and a better feel for the local culture and rituals of daily life.
Our iBike Belgrade tour centred on the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube—really the heart of the city itself. Belgrade is the only European capital that has access to two major rivers, which has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Strategically located at the point where Central Europe and the Panonnian Plain meets the Balkan Peninsular, Belgrade and Serbia have served as a borderline between empires, territories and cultures for eons. The same geography that allowed Belgrade to prosper also made it vulnerable to invading forces.
Belgrade’s twin rivers, arms outstretched, embrace in the northwest corner of the city, under the watchful eye of Belgrade Fortress. Savamala, one of the oldest neighbourhoods, winds south from the fortress along the Sava, eventually leading to the train station.
This is where our iBike Belgrade tour begins. Now crowded with historic facades, warehouses and homes, it’s difficult to picture Savamala as the boggy marshland it once was. In recent years, Savamala has flourished as a cultural hub. A lot of Belgrade’s best street art is concentrated around Savamala, along with cafes, galleries, and independent cultural spaces.
We arrived early so we could admire some of the murals and grab a coffee. And we’re glad we did, since Savamala’s days might be numbered. Sadly, the area is facing an unknown future: A controversial urban renewal project has already catalysed many changes in the neighbourhood (including the relocation of the train station and soon, the bus station), and even Savamala’s historic buildings are under threat.
The other side of Belgrade
With our bikes in hand, we bid Old Belgrade farewell and crossed into New Belgrade. The Brankov Most (Brankov’s Bridge) is the main artery over the Sava and was built on the foundations of one of Belgrade’s oldest bridges. As we waited for the bicycle lift (the only one in Belgrade) to deliver us from street level, we heard the incredible story of how Brankov Most outlasted the war. In the face of NATO bombing, residents of Savamala and other parts of Belgrade turned out to line the bridge, creating a human shield.
Unlike in Serbia’s northern Vojvodina Province and cities such as Novi Sad where cycling is the norm, bike riding is not as popular in Belgrade. For a start, the capital is hillier, but it also lacks infrastructure. With Oggy leading the way to the best bike paths and quietest streets, we managed to have a smooth cycle.
Following the river south, our first stop in New Belgrade was the beastly Staro Sajmiste. The semi-abandoned concrete tower was built in the interwar period as part of a fair ground that was supposed to showcase diversity by bringing together different cultures and ethnicities to display and trade local products. Just a few years after it was completed, however, it was co-opted and used as a watchtower for the Sajmište concentration camp.
An estimated 23,000 people lost their lives on this site in New Belgrade. Most of the camp structures were dismantled after 1945, but the tower was left behind.
No one dares to touch Staro Sajmiste lest it inflame old wounds, so the land remains empty and the tower derelict. A small memorial plaque behind a restaurant on the opposite side of the road is all that’s left to answer the question: ‘What happened here?’
Coca-Cola Communism & Yugo-Nostalgia
As we continued cycling, we noticed the landscape change immediately. Buildings became more sparse; roads and pathways widened; empty green spaces opened up. Concrete apartments clustered into numbered ‘Bloks’, each designed to be self-sustaining, rise and fall at every perfectly measured intersection of gridded roads. Hulking socialistic buildings loom, each one casting a cold shadow.
This is New Belgrade in a nutshell.
Granted this isn’t the part of Belgrade most tourists are attracted to, it is the perfect place to learn more about the history of Yugoslavia. Facing the Palata Srbija square on, we discussed ‘Coca-Cola Communism’ (a nickname given to the system in Yugoslavia because it was apparently far less restrictive than in the USSR), and ‘Yugo-Nostalgia’, a not-so-rare sentimentality for days past.
The Palata Srbija was constructed as a seat for the Yugoslavian Presidency. Inside, rooms for the six republics were designed with floor space proportional to each state’s territory. Along with the adjacent Ušće Tower, former Communist Party headquarters, and the Hotel Yugoslavia, Palata Srbija was meant to be part of Belgrade’s grandest ensemble of public buildings.
The death of the Yugoslavian leader and the changes it precipitated meant the buildings never really lived up to their intended function or reputation. Unlike Belgrade’s Avala Tower which has become something of a community space and tourist landmark, Palata Srbija and the other buildings in the area are phantoms and no-go areas.
Zemun: A village swallowed by a city
It’s incredible that through all this flux, pockets of Belgrade have endured relatively unscathed. Zemun, a fishing community on the Danube that was later incorporated into Belgrade, is quite literally a village that was swallowed up by the city.
Pulling into Zemun after a long ride along the waterfront, you would have been forgiven for thinking it was a Sunday afternoon and not a Wednesday morning. Zemun looks and feels more like a medieval town in Transylvania than a suburb of the biggest city in the Balkans. All residents, it seemed, were out in the square sipping coffee or shopping at the market, drinking in the first rays of spring sunshine.
This third ‘face’ of the city is another totally unique area we would have overlooked had it not been for our iBike Belgrade tour.
Before we headed back over the river to Savamala, we stopped at one of the cafes on the Danube waterfront so that Oggy could give us some pointers about other things to see and do in Belgrade.
What you can expect from an iBike Belgrade tour
- In-depth, objective information. iBike guides are all locals or long-time residents of Belgrade who know the city and its history inside out.
- A safe and enjoyable ride. Belgrade is relatively bike friendly, with cycling paths and bike lanes on most major roads. Once you get out of the centre, traffic isn’t so bad. Depending on what itinerary you choose, most of the terrain is flat or lightly graded, which makes cycling easy and enjoyable. The Riverside Tour covers a fair distance, but you don’t need to have a high level of fitness to join.
- Quality gear. Bikes for all heights are maintained by in-house mechanic. It’s not mandatory to wear a helmet in Belgrade, but you can take one if you want.
- Flexibility. Summer and winter itineraries may differ, with the option to go swimming in the lake during the warmer months as part of the Riverside Tour.
As well as the Riverside Tour, iBike offers alternative group and private itineraries to suit different interests. If you don’t fancy a tour, iBike also offers a bicycle rental service.
You can find the iBike Belgrade office at Braće Krsmanović 5.