See also

Wizz Magazine, October 2012

BELGRADE - There's a whole other world beneath the streets of the Serbian capital; we take up a torch and explore.

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24 Timmar I Belgrad, Vagabond Magazine, September 2012

Article 24 Timmar I Belgrad in Swedish Vagabond Magazine

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Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln

Report broadcasted on 16th August in magazine show Radio Forum on WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln)

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Bon Voyage - Discover what lies beneath Belgrade

Article by Jackie Ready

“I’ve ruined my Cavalli shoes.” My guide Goran peered at his dust-caked designer soles through blue curls of cigarette smoke. We had just emerged from the gunpowder storage chamber underneath Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Citadel, and his eyes had already adjusted from velvety gloom to the dazzling afternoon sun. Blinking and watering, mine were still imprinted with grey piles of Austrian cannon balls and cobweb-spangled arches. Dusting himself down and taking a final drag on his cigarette, Goran turned and beckoned. We descended into another tunnel, another time and took a new route to the heart of Belgrade.

In the central Terazije neighbourhood, the city’s distant past is barely a whisper. There’s no hint of the Roman settlement of Singidunum, no inkling of the half a millennium the city spent under Turkish occupation. The streets of Old Belgrade are dominated by Tito-era architecture, with only the Art Nouveau flashes on the Hotel Moscow and the neoclassical stateliness of the National Theatre to relieve the blocky monotony. The absence of older structures is conspicuous, and it poses as many questions about Belgrade’s past as it leaves unanswered.

But Belgrade’s appearance is telling. Perched strategically above the Sava and Danube rivers, the city has been destroyed at least 40 times throughout the last two millennia and was for centuries the battleground between the Ottoman Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. Heavily bombarded during World War II, Belgrade recovered to become the capital of Tito’s Yugoslavia only to be damaged again by NATO bombs in 1999. Despite a turbulent history, Belgrade is sometimes referred to by its serene-sounding name: the White City.

And from a distance, the snowy limestone cliffs on which the city stands are picturesque. But up close, these rock faces have been worn soft by weather and time. Looking from the upper ramparts of the fortress to the banks of the Danube, Goran jerked his chin downward, “A few years ago, during the Beer Fest, someone fell through.” Seeing my disbelief, he explained that the bank below us was riddled with limestone caves. The crush of people, the music . . . it was too much and the ground gave way. And the unfortunate reveller? Goran waved my concern away; it was a sobering experience, but no party animals had been hurt. After the incident, the party hosted by the city every August moved from beneath the citadel to firmer ground at Ušće Park, on the opposite side of the Sava.

The Kalemegdan Citadel is the place to be on a bright day in Belgrade. The view from the upper fortress across to Great War Island – where the Turks laid siege to the city in 1521 – is panoramic. From here it’s obvious that control of the city would’ve yielded immense economic and military power in this part of Europe. To the demise of her citizens, Belgrade was a much-coveted prize and her foundation tells the story of the city’s ever-changing fortunes.

The limestone caves and tunnels underneath Belgrade reveal a city infinitely older than the one on the surface. The White City’s boundaries were originally set by the citadel, and it’s here especially that the history builds layer on layer, century on century. Funeral stellae found in the lower depths of the fortress bear inscriptions dedicated to veterans of the 4th Roman Legion Flavia Felix. It was the Romans who, having supplanted the native Celts, established their fortified city of Singidunum in 86 AD. Later powers would build and add to the foundations laid by Belgrade’s early Roman occupiers.

Passing from the Serbians, Turks, Austrians and back again, the tunnels and caverns underneath the Kalemegdan Citadel were used as armouries and bunkers from the Middle Ages through to Tito’s time. An afternoon in the bowels of this fortress reveals a Roman (or not so Roman) well, piles of Austrian cannon shot stacked under heavy arches, and the dank, cramped Informbiro bunker constructed during Tito’s time.

But Belgrade’s subterranean history doesn’t stop at the citadel gate. Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, is just a few feet above Roman Singidunum, and not too far from the boho Skadarlija quarter a Neanderthal skull was found in the foundations of a brewery. ‘Let’s call him homo alcoholicus,’ suggested Goran as we climbed out of the Roman foundations of Belgrade’s City Library.

While many caverns were constructed for defensive purposes, others were designed to meet much more ordinary needs. The man-made caves under Karadjordjeva Street, for example, served as storage areas for the food, wine and grain imported to feed the growing city in the late 19th century. In 1883, these warehouses were connected directly to ships docked at port on the nearby Sava via a freight network. While they’re no longer used as storage depots, the caves at Karadjordjeva 31 have been turned into something even better: a wine bar.

There are at least 120 caves beneath Belgrade. Some – like the network that runs underneath the Kalemegdan Citadel or along Karadjordjeva Street – are well-known. But others, like those that riddle the ground underneath the city’s Tasmjadan Park, are half-forgotten and have only recently begun to be explored again. Visitors are highly unlikely to be able to explore subterranean Belgrade on their own, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be very fun or informative.

While it costs a little (1200 Serbian Dinars, C$14 at time of writing), in this case it pays to pay. If you’re interested, the Tourist Organization of Belgrade ( will recommend the two and a half hour Belgrade Underground Tour given by Goran Marković of go2serbia ( Tours start off in the Roman foundations of Belgrade’s City Library and tackle history medieval and modern in the warren of tunnels under the Kalemegdan Citadel. Crossing underneath Kosancic Square, the tour ends appropriately with a glass of wine at Karadjordjeva 31 where you can drink to the long history of Belgrade and the plucky ingenuity of her inhabitants.

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Bon Voyage