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Feature 29 Aug 16

Hidden Treasures of Belgrade’s Kalemegdan

It might be one of Belgrade’s most visited tourist attractions, but the city’s great park holds many secrets.

Ivana Nikolic
Victor Monument. Photo: Rubinjoni/Flickr

“Son, have you ever heard the real story about The Victor?” an old man asks his grandson as they stand below the famous 14-metre-high column on a sunny late-September day.

As the boy shakes his head, the grandfather continues. It was built to commemorate Serbia’s victory over the Ottomans and Austrians during the Balkan wars and World War One, he says, but the unknown part of the tale is yet to come.

The authorities initially wanted to place the monument in Terazije, in the city centre, but then found another location in the city’s Kalemegdan Park. And so the grandfather explains the story.

“They put him here because they wanted him to look proudly towards the Austrians while he turns his back on the Turks,” the man says, tapping his grandson’s shoulder.

Erected in 1928, designed by the Croat sculptor Ivan Mestovic, the monument is the most recognisable of all of Belgrade’s many landmarks.

It is equally popular among foreigners as it is among locals, who you will see strumming guitars and drinking beer there, especially during hot summer evenings.

However, while the column is a prized landmark in Kalemegdan Park, some prefer the famous bench that overlooks the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube.

Nicknamed the “love bench”, as it is usually occupied by a love-sick couple, it stands on a rocky ridge right below a big tree. It is probably the most romantic spot in the city, which is why it is mission impossible to find a seat there in the evening, even late in the night, as couples are always to be found there enjoying the panorama - and Belgrade is a city that never sleeps.

Some of those couples even end up getting married in Kalemegdan Park as well.

Trench art

Ruzica Church. Photo: White Writer/Wikimedia

Not far from the bench, below the Zindan Gate, lies the Ruzica Church, the oldest in the capital. Covered in ivy, it is almost invisible in summer. Many passers-by only notice it when they hear the sound of trumpets, which is Serbian traditional wedding music, and spot a bride and a groom and their guests emerging from something that they only later realise is a chapel.

Demolished and rebuilt many times over several centuries, it is dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin Mary and served as a gunpowder warehouse in the 18th century.

In 2009, it was named ninth out of the ten most unusual churches in Joxt’s Blog, alongside temples and churches in Japan, Russia, Iceland, Brazil, Finland, Ukraine, Columbia, France and Norway.

Ruzica Church came to the author’s attention because of its unusual “trench” art. Namely, Serbian soldiers, fighting on the Thessaloniki front on World War I, made the chandeliers out of their swords, cannon parts, bullet cases, bullet shells and rifles. That is why some call it “the art-of-war chapel“.

Hitchcock’s inspiration

The Roman Well. Photo: Goldfinge/Wikimedia

The biggest mystery in Kalemegdan, however, is the Roman well, which reopened to the public in March.

Even though it is known as the “Roman” well, it was actually built between 1717 and 1731 by the Austrians who ruled Belgrade at the time.

Its original name was the “Grand” well, but the Serbs who took over the fortress from the Ottomans in the 19th century renamed it “Roman” because they believed that all the old constructions at the fortress dated back to Roman times.

To add to the confusion, it is technically not actually a well but a cistern, as the water in it does not come from an underground spring.

However, hidden behind its massive ironbound wooden door, it has become a subject of numerous urban legends.

One says that the well contains many secret passages. Some believe a tunnel runs from the well in Kalemegdan underneath the river all the way to Zemun. Some historians say that the Austrians did start digging such a tunnel, but eventually gave up. 

Curious tales explain why film directors have taken an interest in it, including the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. On a visit to Belgrade in 1964, he said that the well had inspired him, as “that sort of environment is always a special treat,” he told the Belgrade media.

But it isn’t only Romans and Austrians who once walked around Kalemegdan Park. If you have spent some time in Serbia and learned the language, you will know that Serbian is full of Turkish words, which are a legacy of almost five centuries of Ottoman rule.

The word Kalemegdan is one of them, coming from words “kale” (“fortress”) and “megdan” (“battle”).

Words are not the only legacy of Ottoman Turkish rule. They used to call Kalemegdan Ficir-bajir, which is Turkish for “hill of meditation”. Centuries later, it is still a place for meditation, as you may see, observing the mostly elderly chess players on Kalemegdan terrace, contemplating their next moves. 

“Checkmate,” one says as he stands up, puts on his hat and moves to another bench - allowing another pair of players to make use of Kalemegdan as their own hill of contemplation.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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