Dangling festive lights marking Christmas and the New Year fail to hide scars on the buildings of Belgrade, which has endured more than 40 battles throughout its troubled 7,000-year history.
Once communist leader Josip Broz Tito’s stately center of power, Beograd — “White City” in Serbian — has slowly been undergoing a face-lift after neglect since the 1990s, when NATO targeted the old Yugoslav capital over Kosovo.
Besides bombed-out towers that still stand in ruins, most buildings emerged from the 1990s with sooty frontages whose crumbling balconies and stonework pose a threat to pedestrians.
But the city government is beautifying Serbia’s capital in the hope tourists no longer make one of their first photo stops Kneza Milosa, the avenue lined by massive buildings that NATO’s Tomahawk cruise missiles precisely struck in 1999.
“The city is great, especially for partying, but some of the buildings need to be fixed,” said Marcus, a Swedish tourist in his 30s visiting for the first time.
Thanks to a government policy to help residents foot the bill, many streets are lined with scaffolding and workers busy sand-blasting and plastering on new facades.
“We have passed a law for the regeneration of facades — the city pays 70 percent [of the cost] and residents 30 percent. It should embellish the city in the long term,” Deputy Mayor Milan Krkobabic said.
After more than a decade of isolation under a trade blockade up until Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, Belgrade has flourished as the engine of a country whose economy has posted growth of up to 8 percent in recent years.
Already struggling to house war refugees, Belgrade, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of Serbia’s industrial output, is bursting at its seams with an additional 30,000 job seekers each year, Krkobabic said.
Its population stood at 1.5 million in a 2001 census, but it has swelled by estimates of up to 1 million because of the influx of refugees, putting pressure notably on its residential property market and transport networks.
At least another 10,000 buildings representing 44 percent of residences were awaiting work on their facades and roofs, according to figures obtained by the state-run daily Politika.
“In the past several months, we have restored around 60 structures,” Politika quoted Boris Micanovic of the city housing authority as saying early this month.
Strategically located at the confluence of two internationally navigable rivers, Old Belgrade’s architecture reflects its turbulent past.
“As one famous architect once said: ‘There’s no more beautiful place for a city that isn’t that beautiful,’” Krkobabic said.
In the downtown area, neo-Byzantine, Ottoman Turkish and Vienna Secessionist styles are interspersed with communist-era monoliths constructed in place of historic buildings that the Nazi Luftwaffe destroyed in World War II.
“Belgrade’s face is marked with scars from past wars. The city was completely destroyed many times,” expatriate columnist Pat Andjelkovic wrote recently.
“But if you take the time to look around, you can find some striking houses that have miraculously managed to avoid fire, bombs and man’s folly,” she wrote in the newsweekly Belgrade Insight.
Many facades have since been restored with the help of old postcards, which have often helped architects to reconstruct the “ornate but often neglected ... window to the city’s soul,” Andjelkovic wrote.