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.
THE AIR IS COLD AND DANK AS WE DESCEND into the concrete bunker. Switching on our torches, we shine the beams into the darkness and creep along long-abandoned corridors, squeezing through heavy, rusted doors as we go from room to room. Frayed black telephone cables dangle from the ceiling, offering signs of former occupation, but it’s better to keep our torch beams pointed downwards to avoid puddles of water on the pockmarked floor.
We pass through one more door and suddenly the environment changes dramatically as ahead of us lies a pile of rocky debris. Scrambling up it, we find ourselves in a vast cave some 20 metres high. Our voices echo and in the torchlight our shadows unfurl on jagged rock walls.
We are in the Tašmajdan Caves, deep below central Belgrade – almost directly below the Serbian parliament building, in fact. But these subterranean caverns far predate that institution: they were quarried by the Romans for stone, and in the 18th Century, the Austrians mined them for saltpetre, an essential ingredient in the making of gunpowder. When the Austrians later bombarded the city during World War I, families took shelter down here and in World War II it was the occupying German army that created the bunker through which we made our entrance. Citizens huddled down here again as recently as 1999, fleeing NATO air strikes. This being Belgrade, there have been some big parties here, too.
Our guide, Goran Marković, who runs underground tours of Belgrade, recalls going to one of those parties back in the 1990s. He has a lot of stories to tell because the Tašmajdan Caves are far from being Belgrade’s only subterranean lair; the ground beneath the city is riddled with a vast network of tunnels and deeply buried, occasionally long-forgotten, chambers.
Across town is Savamala, the dockside district in the vicinity of the famous Brankow Bridge. It’s an area experiencing rapid change as formerly vacant buildings are being made over and reinvented as bars, restaurants and cultural venues. It also has its own tunnel network. “Those are ventilation shafts,” says Marković, pointing to a brick chimney. “There are tunnels right under where we’re standing.” He opens a set of wooden doors and leads us down into a cellar. Dozens of white spiders hang from the rafters and metre-high oak barrels are aligned in neat rows. The air down here is cool, perfect for storing wine, which is why Savamala was once popular with vintners. A great many of the cellars are linked by earthen passageways, few of which are still in use. Marković tells us that often the people who now occupy the premises have no idea where the tunnels leading off from their cellars go. Meanwhile, as part of the revitalisation of Savamala, a wine trade of sorts is making a comeback and, above ground once more, our party stops for a glass of Serbian wine in a newly opened courtyard bar.
High above the cellars of Savamala is Belgrade Fortress, which has existed in one form or another since 535AD. It sits on a 125 metre-high bluff surrounded by the wooded Kalemegdan Park, and overlooking the meeting of the Sava and the Danube rivers. Predictably, the hill upon which the citadel stands is riddled with buried passageways, storage chambers and strongholds. It’s surprising that the ground doesn’t simply give way.
“Oh, that has happened,” says Marković, as we make our way down into the fortress’s former gunpowder store, now a small underground museum filled with a miscellany of Roman statues, pots and tombstones. We venture on, to a Cold War-era bunker of long, whitewashed corridors and cramped sleeping quarters.
Alfred Hitchcock was a visitor to the fortress in 1964 (he’d been invited to Belgrade to speak at the university), during which he asked to be shown something scary. His guides took him to the “Roman” well, actually dug in the 18th Century and for a time used as a prison. We pass through large metal doors that are closed behind us and locked, and peer down a large circular opening into the void before tackling the grimy spiralling staircase down which prisoners were once marched.
“We are 35 metres deep now” says Marković. “To go any deeper we would need diving gear.” We probe the surface of the murky water with our torches. “There’ll definitely be some skeletons down there” he says.
Our organised tour is just one example of a newfound enthusiasm for Belgrade’s underground places. One man who has taken this fascination further than most is Rade Milic, an archaeologist from the University of Belgrade. His current project is called UnderGrad (a play on “Beograd”), which aims one day to use augmented reality to provide a guide to what lies beneath the city.
“UnderGrad is the first ever scientific study of underground Belgrade, as it has only been amateurs up until now” he says. “By exploring the tunnels and what they were used for we are getting a picture of our city in past times.”
Rade tells me there are about 140 known underground structures, with many more still hidden. The hardest part of the research seems to be that once you find one tunnel, there’s usually another leading off it – and another off that.
But then Belgrade is one of the most invaded cities in Europe, overrun according to some accounts no less than 46 times. Many of the tunnels were defensive, or used for storing weapons and other supplies.
Back in the company of Marković and his group, we stoop to enter one more tunnel in the grounds of the ancient fortress. Brushing past cobwebs we shine our torches onto World War II motorbikes, machine guns and ammo crates strewn haphazardly about the place. My foot nudges a rusted torpedo and I have to step carefully to avoid tripping over the Turkish cannonballs that litter the floor.
Marković shines his torch into a corner. “Look, another tunnel” he says, excitedly. Some, he tells us, are up to a kilometre long, although many have been blocked. “You really have to go in and have a look” he says, beckoning us towards the dark, narrow opening. “You go first” I say. To book an underground tour, visit go2Serbia.net. Belgrade Under Belgrade by Zoran L.J. Nikolic and Vidoje D. Golubovic (Sluzbeni Glasnik) has been updated and is currently being translated into English.
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