A Trip to Kalemegdan
At the Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade
It’s hard to know where you are when you see this place. It looks lonely. The stones wrap around the walls as if to protect and encase the secrets that exist within. The statue of a naked man is elevated in the courtyard, a symbol of defiance and spite to the countless conquerors who built this place with less than noble intentions…all those years ago.
This is Kalemegdan, the Belgrade Fortress. My wife and I walk through the cobblestone entrances and into a great expanse, where the hustle and bustle of the city is quieted by the high walls that envelop the landscape.
Shop owners, men, and women, young and old beckon us forward to purchase the countless artifacts that are for sale. “Samo da pogledamo” we say as we pass them by (Serbian for “just having a look around”). The grounds are neatly kept. Flowers are in full bloom, shrubs are delicately cropped, and there is an aura in the air; an aura of time.
Time tells the story of Kalemegdan, but time also tells the story of our visit. As we peruse the fortress we begin to notice details that, upon first glance, were unnoticed. The walls of the fortress are no longer as sturdy as they once appeared. There are innumerable cracks on the surface, and this would make sense. The fortress, made of hewn stone, was originally built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the year 535 AD, and legend even has it that the final resting place of Attila the Hun is underneath the fortress.
In Serbian language when a wall has a crack they call the crack “the tooth of time.” Even time, according to the Serbs, has a way of carving out its presence, giving itself shape, and making itself known. The Belgrade Fortress knows this all too well.
Fatigued after several hours of walking we travel down a narrow corridor that opens into a terrace. Traditional Serbian folk music, with its unique blend of flutes, accordions, trumpets, drums, and cymbals, plays from the speakers and we know instantly that we have stumbled upon something special. I am eager to see what this place is all about and I ask my wife if she is as keen as I am. She nods her head excitedly. She always does that when she really wants to do something, as if her speech would misrepresent her level of excitement. As a native of Serbia she has been to this fortress before, but never to this place. A mangled sign hangs outside of a large door that reads “Terasa.” We open the door and walk down several stairs before finding ourselves in the waiting area of an astonishingly beautiful restaurant. The Danube River is directly in front of us but five stories below.
“Can I help you sir?” The voice askes…the sounds ricocheting off the walls creating the sensation of being spoken to from multiple directions. Neither of us knows where the voice came from. That’s when a medium-sized man sticks his head out of the wall and says, “A table for two?”
“Where did you come from?” I ask, chuckling. He steps out from his hiding place and shows me. There is a crack between the waiting area and the dining area and he had positioned his chair there so he could attend to both environments. I’m instantly fascinated by his ability to be in two rooms at once. “Did you position yourself there by choice or were you told to do so?” I ask. My wife repeats the question to him in Serbian unsure of his level of English. “Razumeo sam” the man states, which means “I understood” in English. He informs me that moving to the location between the two rooms was his idea and then signals us to follow him.
We sit underneath a large, impeccably clean white umbrella in stylish back-supported wooden chairs. From my chair, I can see how the fortress follows the river as it snakes around the bend headed towards the Great War Island, a natural preserve and bird sanctuary at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. “What a place” I tell my wife, who excitedly nods in agreement.
Our waiter, Stefan, approaches the table, looks down at my cowboy boots and then says to me in very fluent English, “Do you know you look like the Rock? I was about to ask for your autograph, but then I realized you weren’t him.” I smile and remind him that the Rock is 6’ 5” tall, and I’m only 5’11”. “I have heard that before, and thank you…I’ll take it as a compliment” I tell him. “Serbian people love the Rock” Stefan says. We all laugh, then he departs and the sun hides behind the clouds as the moon prepares for its debut. A delicious meal consisting of homemade spicy sausage and beans topped with kajmak (a creamy white topping) is consumed and music reverberates from loud speakers from a place nearby, distance unknown. Stefan informs us that the restaurant also has a nightclub on the rooftop and that tonight is hip hop night. “You’re kidding?” I respond. I ask my wife if she wants to check it out. “Pa moramo bre” she says playfully (English translation: “well we must”). My wife tells me how much she enjoyed the meal, the nice combination of flavors and exceptional portion size.
We pay our bill and respects to the restaurant staff and make our way up to the rooftop – an open bar-terrasse. The moon is very much awake now and the sleepy fortress welcomes us atop its shoulders. We stare out into the darkness marveling at the endless walls and pockets of vegetation that are enveloped in shadow as Notorious B.I.G. blasts from the speakers above. “This sure is some place,” I say to my wife. She smiles at me, grabs my hand, and nods her head excitedly. “I thought you might like it here,” she says before switching to Serbian language. “Da li ti se stvarno sviđa ovde?” she questions happily. “I do babe,” I respond. I do.