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CNN Traveller

24 hours in Belgrade

Despite a few reminders of war, Serbia's capital is a party town

By Tom Owen
CNN Traveller

The parliament building in Belgrade
The parliament building in Belgrade

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(CNNTraveller) -- Belgrade, like a Jack Russell terrier, has character in spades. Bosnia might have a lead in exoticism, and you cannot better Croatia for jaw-dropping natural beauty, but for the real beguiling Balkan spirit, it has to be Belgrade. It is a city where you can dance until sunrise seven nights a week, where hospitality crackles in the air, and where looking good is a birthright and a religion in one.

It is no Rome or Paris, and therein lies its appeal -- no matter that it is battered, ragged and faded, Belgrade's charm is simply irrepressible. One thing to bring is your Alka Seltzer. One thing to leave at home is politics -- Belgrade has far too much already, and does not need any more, thank you.

11:00: If you are up and about much before this, you are probably doing something wrong. The Kalemegdan fortress stands in the middle of a park, overlooking the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava, and hiking up the hill to the bastion is a bracing start to the day. Overgrown schoolboys will enjoy the slightly incongruous displays of Tito-era tanks and artillery within the fortress walls.

13:30: The garden of the Klub Knjizevnika (writers' club) on Francuska 7 is the perfect spot for lunch on a summer day, non-literary types welcome. Amid the rush of the city, it is a true literary paradise -- with a kitsch twist courtesy of the Tito era.

This was where scribblers who did not scribble too much to upset the League of Communists would meet to gossip, squabble and lap up their privileges. The marshal has long gone but the club's stucco mansion just gets more charming, with its waiters in white tunics and animated Serbian chatter as background music. Try the utterly toothsome and no-nonsense roast lamb and potatoes with a few glasses of slivovitz (Balkan plum brandy).

15:30: From Klub Knjizevnika, head toward the government district, where you can still see vast ministries collapsed like dolls' houses after the 1999 aerial onslaught. Head onward to the imposing cathedral of Sveti Sava, like a latter day Hagia Sophia, with its Byzantine domes surmounted by shining golden crucifixes. It was here that the slain prime minister Zoran Djindjic's funeral took place in March -- a salutary reminder of the dark side of Serbian life.

Return via the landscaped bank of the Danube, where in summer you will be regaled with the sight of octogenarians sunning themselves and fishing in the skimpiest of swimming trunks.

19:00: Like most Mediterranean people, the Serbs take to the streets at dusk to parade and watch each other -- the 'corso' on Kneza Mihailova. Best to have an ice cream in hand if you really want to blend in.

20:00: The World War II partisans implanted a love of all things underground in Serbs, and the anti-Milosevic movement renewed it among the young. You only have to watch the legendary Emir Kosturica film Underground to see it, or the rebel media network B92 (www.b92.com). This is no less the case with Belgrade's bars -- if the entrance is marked, it is not hip. A grown up, laid back lounge is Ben Akiba, a stone's throw from the Hotel Moskva. More youthful is Moloko on Kneza Mihailova, with shades of A Clockwork Orange. To find them, ask someone young -- people are usually overwhelmingly friendly and speak a couple of foreign languages.

22:00: For dinner head to Skadarska, an old, slightly raffish and Bohemian cobbled street, teeming with lively restaurants. In most European cities it would be a tourist trap, but as Belgrade has precious few tourists, prices remain reasonable -- parade along the street a few times and hunt out a place.

00:00: Belgrade has plenty of gypsy music boats but, if you can get to it, Fat Toma's on the lake is one of the best. Elsewhere in eastern Europe gypsies are despised, but in Serbia they have a special role as musical clowns, and are held in much affection. As the night draws on this floating shed heaves in the water as the musicians and revellers get into their stride. With its wooden walls covered by nets, it is like a smugglers' den, and no doubt a good few of the clients are hajduks (rogues). If the double bass looks a bit ropey, that is because it sometimes gets hurled into the water on particularly ribald evenings.

06:00: Being first in line for breakfast at the Hotel Moskva is the perfect end to a Belgrade night. As dawn rises, the place has more than ever the Le Carre vibe, but the most sinister thing that will happen is that your eggs will be overdone -- if you can keep your eyes open long enough to notice.


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