Belgrade, with its relaxed attitude, friendly residents and incredible food and drink, can also be sadly short on charm. Outside the historic center, districts tend to run together, and in New Belgrade, indistinguishable rows of apartment buildings seem to stretch for miles. But the city has at least one neighborhood that can be considered distinctive and yes, even charming: Zemun.
Longtime residents of this riverside locale might snip at you for calling it a neighborhood, however. To many, Zemun is still a separate town, one that dates back even before Roman times. After the Romans, the town passed through many hands, including those of the Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Mongols, Serbs, and Ottomans, before coming to rest as part of the Habsburg Empire. While Belgrade, across the river, experienced much of the same tumult, the towns remained distinct, with Belgrade part of the Kingdom of Serbia and Zemun associated with the Croatia Kingdom.
Zemun remained a separate town up until World War II, when its past returned to darken its doorstep. Zemun was incorporated into the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet regime, who granted permission for the establishment of Sajmište concentration camp, where an estimated 20,000 were killed, most from Serbia. Don’t expect to find evidence of this, however. Today there exists no remembrance center or museum nearby, and no memorial near the site explains that Jews were the primary victims of the camp.
No town is without a blighted past, however, and in a region that also often fails to acknowledge victims of more recent wars, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against Zemun for this lack of history. The majority of the town is a living history, a snapshot of what the region looked like under 19th-century Austro-Hungarian rule. Walking through Zemun’s streets provides constant reminders of the age of empires, of how next-door neighbors with similar cultures can end up on opposite sides of an international border. There’s a certain feel to Zemun that can’t be found elsewhere in Belgrade.
Relax Along the River in Zemun
Even while hotel alternatives — vacation rentals, Couchsurfing — grow more popular with visitors to Belgrade, it’s still likely you’ll be staying near the center of town. That means you’ll need at least one bus, or possibly a bus and a tram, to get you out to Zemun. Belgrade transportation is almost always crowded, often bumpy and constantly uncomfortable, so upon reaching Zemun, it’s time to sit down, relax, and let the neighborhood’s more laid-back attitude settle around you.
The Zemun Quay, a pedestrian zone that runs along the Danube, feels like a throwback to a time decades past, when vacationers might stroll along the water to “take the air” and rediscover their health. It’s lined not with oversized hotels and fancy modern restaurants, but row after row of outdoor tables, merging together until it is nearly impossible to determine which chair belongs to which cafe.
That’s not to say a more modern experience can’t be found, however. Opposite the Danube lies Zemun’s branch of Supermarket, a newer Belgrade institution featuring not just food and drink but everything from clothing to decor, all from local designers. Supermarket Zemun, however, focuses on the cafe aspect, and does it wonderfully.
Here you’ll find an assortment of shabby-chic tables and chairs inside an enclosed porch, which might not feature river views, but does an excellent job of warming visitors on chillier days. So, too, does the strong espresso, although for those not needing caffeine, Supermarket’s fresh juices, featuring combinations like ginger, lavender and lemon, can be served hot for a nice pick-me-up. And you’ve got a bit of a walk ahead of you, so don’t forget the homemade cake! We were skeptical when the carrot cake was recommended, but the slice, combining both chocolate (yes, chocolate) and carrot, and dotted with pomegranate seeds, was sublime.
Climb Zemun’s Gardos hill
Now properly fortified, it’s time to climb Gardoš Hill. The path up from the river makes it clear that this neighborhood is distinct from the rest of Belgrade. The street is narrow and cobblestoned, and rather than being lined with block after block of apartment buildings, the single-family homes and small businesses are painted in dusty yellows, pinks and greens.
At the hill’s summit lies the Kula Sibinjanin Janka, or the Tower of Janos Hunyadi, a reminder of Zemun’s significance in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tower’s official name, Millennium Tower, echoes that history, having been built in 1896 to celebrate 1,000 years of Hungarian settlement in the area.
This walk’s not over yet, however. Enter the tower and, after taking a few minutes to look around the small art gallery on the ground floor — the exhibition featured photographs of refugee life when we visited — take the stairs to the observation deck on the second floor. The climb doesn’t compete with the treks up church towers in many European cities, but the view is almost as incredible. Immediately below are the jumbled-together red roofs of Zemun itself, and in the distance tall towers emerge from the Belgrade sprawl. Across the Danube lie the distant suburbs, surrounded by lush, green fields that signify the start of Vojvodina, one of the most significant agricultural regions in South-Central Europe. Also visible is Great War Island, which marks the place where the Danube and Sava Rivers merge.
After descending the tower, it’s time to rest again — relaxation is an important element in the Serbian lifestyle, after all, and it’s important to embrace the culture. There are a few cafes scattered around the top of Gardoš Hill, but the most unique is the small Fat Cat pub. Along with the standard espresso offerings, the cafe is capitalizing on Serbia’s increased access to a variety of beers, and its list of German brews in particular is fairly extensive.
A meal out in Belgrade, or indeed throughout most of the Balkans, usually involves a plate piled high with one or more types of grilled meat. Not so in Zemun. This isn’t so much due to the neighborhood’s past, but its proximity to the river, ensuring that here fish is often the star of the show.
Fish, or more specifically, fish soup. And while you’ll likely find a decent bowl at any of the neighborhood cafes, it’s worth a trip to Restoran Šaran, the most famous of Zemun’s fish restaurants. There’s a terrace outside which, I’m told, is perfect for summer days. Inside it’s totally old-school, however, with white tablecloths, candles, and low lighting. The waiters are attentive and know the wine list well (not always a given in this region) and, most importantly, the soup lived up to its reputation, with a perfectly spiced broth and big chunks of local fish. Some have said that the fish itself can be disappointing, but we chose regional specialties, including a rich dish involving lots of local cheese, and were more than satisfied with both the freshness and the quality.
Now, fortified with excellent food and a little sleepy with local wine, meander slowly back to the bus stop. Glance again at Zemun’s well-preserved architecture, its twisting roads where pedestrians rarely seem to hurry, and you’ll have no trouble imagining back to the days when this neighborhood was not only a separate town, but belonged to an entirely separate kingdom.
Written by and photos by Kirsten Schlewitz for EuropeUpClose.com
Kirsten has written about soccer for years, but is now branching out to share stories about the mysteries and joys found in her adopted Balkan homeland. She is the founder of The Balkan Explorer