History of Belgrade Fortress
Present-day Belgrade and its must-see fortress are located on the right bank of River Sava and was originally established as a Roman military camp to protect its eastern borders from the Barbarians. The IV legion, Flaviae, were based here and as they were often victorious they were nicknamed the ‘lucky’ legion. In the 2nd century AD the settlement around the camp was granted municipality status which meant that its inhabitants enjoyed the same rights as all Roman citizens. When the Roman Empire was divided into West and East, Singidunum become a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, and become known as Singidon.
When Attila the Hun conquered the Balkan Peninsula, he destroyed everything in front of him including Singidon. The local guides in Belgrade say that Attila the Hun was buried at the confluence of the Sava and Danube just below Belgrade fortress. But if you go to Szeged, a charming Hungarian town, the local guides say the same.
The Roman Emperor Justinian I, realising the importance of the border town, ordered the re-building of Singidon to make it strong and impenetrable. An influx of Slovene immigrants from Russia moved into the city and called it Belgrade, the White City, due to the white stone the city was built from.
Belgrade became the capital of the Serbian state in 1404 and the ruler, known as the Despot, rebuilt the fort. Mehmed II, ruler of the Turkish Ottomans, attacked Belgrade three times and the city became known as “Antemurale Christianitatis”, the defender of Christianity.
The Turks finally conquered Belgrade in 1521 and made it a strong military base for future military raids into Western Europe. The fortress was renamed Kalemegdan, (kale – city and megdan – field) and you can still see two remaining Ottoman constructions, the first being the fountain of Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic in the lower town, the other the tomb of Damad Ali Pasha situated in the upper town.
Over the next few centuries Kalemegdan Fortress shuttles between Austrian and Turkish occupation, and you can still see traces of both on the walls of the fortress. The Turkish used a rough white rock and stuck it in the walls while the Austrians used red bricks which are visible in the lower part of the fortress, especially around the powder magazine built by them during their occupation from 1717 to 1739. During the 1990s the area was leased to entrepreneurs who turned it into a night club. Since then the government has realised the importance of the place and made it into a museum. Today it’s a nice exhibition area hosting the National Museum’s Collection of Stone Monuments. This rich display is gathered from different part of Serbia and consists of Roman sarcophagi, gravestones and altars.
One of the constructions left by the Austrians is a well which most people think was built by the Romans. The architecture of the well is typically Austrian who used red bricks, and its original function was probably to make a silo or water tank for army supplies. The presence of the water in the well led many to believe that its construction could have been connected to the Sava River but research in 1940 disproved the idea. To visit the Roman Well you need to pay a token entrance fee.
Another Austrian structure is Clock Tower build above the Clock Gate. When the Austrians occupied Belgrade they decided to move the clock gate few meters to the right and at a certain angle in order to defend the town more effectively. Today you can see the difference in building materials used by Austrian and Turkish architects by looking at this gate.
What to See at Belgrade Fortress
The fortress is divided into four parts which are interconnecting through 18 gates. The most famous and the most photographed site of Belgrade is Zindan Gate located between the Despot and Leopold Gates. It’s easily recognised as it lies between two towers which were used as dungeons, zindan in Turkish.
From Zindan Gate you can easily walk towards the Lower Town of Belgrade Fortress and visit two Orthodox churches, St Ruzica and St Petka. The St Ruzica church bells were created from the melted down bronze statue of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which was supposed to be erected at today’s Monument of Gratitude to France in Kalemegdan Park. When Gavrilo Princip killed the Archduke in Sarajevo the Serbian Government decided to melt down the bronze and use it for the church bells. Today Serbians joke that you can still hear the Archduke over Belgrade!
St Petka Church is worth a visit as the interiors are lined with colourful modern mosaics – try to avoid Fridays which is the saint’s day and the church is packed. The entrance is free.
From the platform outside St Petka Church you can see the dilapidated Charles VI Gate and refurbished Nebojsa Tower. It looks very close by and you can certainly walk and visit it but getting back can be tough as you have to walk uphill. Also you need to pay an entrance fee for the Nebojsa Tower which is not good value for money. The exhibition is a combination of historical facts and technology.
From the Lower Town you can walk back through the Zidan and Despot Gates, passing the Belgrade Planetarium on your right which used to be a hamam. In front of it you can see the upper section of the fortress with beautiful views of the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. On the main plateau there is a tall statue of Victor. The original idea was to have it in the city centre but because of his nakedness which could shock the female population, the city planners decided to have him here instead. He is holding a falcon in the left hand and a sword in the right. It’s a work by the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic and is dedicated to victories in WWI.
Behind the Victor’s back there is a small hill covered with trees but you have to look carefully to notice the hill. It’s a very interesting place as it’s a bunker from WWII which was used until 1990. You may notice the small, heavy, rusty doors which are locked. In order to visit the bunker you need to book a licensed guide. We visited and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone claustrophobic. According to records which were opened recently, the Yugoslav army was stationed here, secretly, soldiers on a two-month-on, two-month-off basis. The question is, how did they manage to sneak into the bunkers unnoticed next to the most touristy area of Belgrade without anyone noticing? Old Belgraders remember that this area was closed off every two months for ‘renovations’ but in reality it was closed off for the army and supplies to get into the bunkers.
If you have time I would suggest you visit the Military Museum which is situated in Kalemegdan Park. The largest exhibition area is dedicated to WWI and “glorious” WWII when Serbia was one of the few countries fighting the fascists. You need to pay an entrance fee but it’s worth visiting.
The National Museum has been closed for renovations for the last 20 years but they haven’t started yet and as a result there are lots of good exhibitions around the city, including in this building. You can have a short and pleasant stopover here. You have to pay an entrance fee but its well worth it.
If you decide to exit Belgrade Fortress by turning left from here and walking along the basketball polygon you come to Belgrade Zoo. If you decide to turn right you will come across the imposing Monument of Gratitude to France who helped the Serbian Army during WWI, and then into the famous Knez Mihailova Street.
And to round up the whole history of Belgrade Fortress we suggest you visit the City Library on the right side of Knez Mihailova Street. The building used to be the most famous hotel in Belgrade, the Serbian Crown, which was due to be converted into the city library. Architects dug out the basement only to find the foundations of a wall and tower of the main city gate from Roman times, part of the northern defences of the 2nd or 3rd century BC, and around which the settlement of Signidunum (present-day Belgrade) grew. There is a small collection of sculptures, altars and gravestones in the Roman Hall but what is most fascinating is the water pipe which transferred water 10 km away. It is said that when the Ottomans (the present-day Turks) occupied Belgrade and found the pipes they decided to gather all the workers who were working on maintenance and take them back to Constantinople, (present-day Istanbul) to maintain their Roman water pipes.
The most asked question we get is about the opening times of Belgrade Fortress. Belgrade Fortress is a combination of monuments of historical importance, museums, places of interest, religious buildings and parks. You can enter Belgrade Fortress any time of day but you won’t be able to visit the Military Museum at 8 pm or go to the Church of St Petka. You would be able to walk around the Belgrade Fortress and take night photos of the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Opening times of each place at Belgrade Fortress are different and you better check them before visit.
Belgrade Fortress is a timeless piece of history, important not just for Serbian but European history too. It certainly deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
For a private guided tour of Belgrade Fortress please email Tara@ReadyClickAndGo.com