Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The Danube has always been a natural geographic barrier in the Balkans, a watery frontier between two cultural worlds: the Habsburg to the north and the Ottoman territories to the south. Laurence Mitchell escorts us on a riverfront walk from Belgrade to Zemun through an area where empires collide.

article summary —

Take a stroll along the promenade at Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade’s Old Town and you will be greeted with a magnificent view. Immediately below, the Danube and Sava rivers merge in confluence, mingling waters that may have originated as a Bavarian rainstorm, Croatian dishwater or Viennese drizzle.

Look south from that Belgrade park and you will see a series of bridges across the Sava with traffic speeding to and from New Belgrade. Beyond the three road bridges are the hazy iron girders of Stari zeleznicki most (‘Old Railway Bridge’) with perhaps a train destined for Budapest or Vienna. Belgrade has always been a spot with far-flung connections.

The river itself will probably have a slowmoving dredger, low in the water, hauling sand for construction, and in summer there may even be a gleaming white cruiser full of camera-clicking tourists en route to the Black Sea. If the hour is approaching sunset and the weather is even half decent, you are unlikely to be alone. Inevitably, there will be groups of Belgraders sharing the view from Kalemegdan. There may be smooching lovers, teenagers sharing bottles of Jelen beer, strolling pensioners and middle-aged men engrossed in outdoor chess tournaments.

Walking north, you will soon pass Ivan Meštrovic’s Messenger of Victory statue — a naked warrior posed high on a plinth holding a sword in one hand and a falcon in the other. The gesture seems defiant, facing across the river towards New Belgrade, bare buttocks turned to the former Turkish fortress that is the park’s centrepiece. Continue further and the view north becomes surprisingly rural: a dense forest of trees across the water and, beyond, the suburb of Krnjaca. Extending to vanishing point beyond this last-gasp urban outpost lies Vojvodina province, stretching far beyond the horizon into Hungary and Romania with an unwavering flatness in which the curvature of the earth seems to be the only notable topography.

For a sharp reminder that you are in the centre of the Balkan region’s largest city it is necessary to turn and gaze upstream along the Danube. Beyond the high-rise canyons of Novi Beograd (‘New Belgrade’) and the swampy forested island of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo (‘Great War Island’) that squats midstream, incongruously pacific, it should be possible to discern a small hill with a lighthouse-shaped tower on top. This is Gardoš Hill in Zemun, a town, now virtually a Belgrade suburb, which lies on the Danube’s south bank just beyond New Belgrade. The tower, although often eponymously described by the mound on which it stands, is more correctly known as Sibinjanin Janko’s Tower (Kula Sibinjanin Janka) or Millennium Tower (Milenijumska kula). Certainly, the latter is apposite as the building was erected in 1896 to commemorate one thousand years of the Hungarian state — Zemun and Hungary were always closely linked.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 32.