Belgrade, The Servian Capital
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
At daybreak on a glorious April morning we reached Belgrade, and as the train clattered across the iron bridge which separates it from the town of Semlin in Austrian territory, I have seldom looked upon a fairer picture than that of the "White City," shining like a pearl through the silvery mists of sunrise. Mackenzie was enraptured with the scene, and remarked that the Servian capital must, indeed, be "a bonny spot," until I warned him that "distance lends enchantment," and that recollections of my last visit here were anything but pleasant ones. But nearly thirty years had now elapsed since Servia last fought to free herself from the yoke of the unspeakable Turk.t In those days Belgrade contained perhaps thirty thousand inhabitants, and was unlinked by a ribbon of steel with civilized Europe.
A tedious river journey brought you, from east or west, to a squalid, eastern-looking town with ramshackle buildings and unsavory streets. The chief thoroughfare was generally a sea of mud, altho Princess Nathalie (afterward Queen of Servia) might be seen there daily, rain or shine, the royal barouche plowing axle-deep through mire and splashing its fair and elaborately gowned occupant. This was then the only drivable road, which signified little, as carriages were so few and far between. A truly dreary place was Belgrade in the seventies, for everything was primitive, dirty, and comfortless. In those days the best inn was a caravansary, chiefly occupied by Russian volunteers, cavaliers of fortune, who swarmed in-to the country long before war had been officially declared.
Every night the gloomy restaurant was crowded with these free lances, and bad champagne and fiery vodka flowed freely, while painted Jezebels from Vienna cackled songs in bad French to the accompaniment of a cracked piano. Never had this remote Servian city witnessed such orgies, for many of these Russian allies had money to burn. They were of all ranks, from dandified guardsmen in search of fame, to wild-eyed, ragged Cossacks with an eye to loot—and other things. It was a reckless, undisciplined horde, eyed askance by civilians with pretty wives, and cordially detested by Servian warriors who, much as they love to sport a uniform, strongly object to being shot for disgracing it.
Rip Van Winkle, after his long sleep in the Catskills, can scarcely have been more astonished at the altcred appcarance of his native village than I was at the marvelous improvements which less than thirty years have worked in Belgrade. In 1876 a dilapidated Turkish fortress frowned down upon a maze of buildings, little better than mud-huts, and unpaved, filthy streets. To-day it seemed like a dream to be whirled away from the railway station in a neat fiacre, along spacious boulevards, with well-drest crowds and electric cars, to a luxurious hotel. Here were gold-laced porters, lifts, and even a Winter Garden, where a delicious déjeâner (cooked by a Frenchman) awaited me.
Everything is now up to date in this city of murder and mystery, for only two landmarks are left of the old city—the cathedral and citadel, over which now floats the tricolor of Servia. Of course, ancient portions of the place still exist, with loweaved, vine-trellised houses, cobbled streets, and quiet squares, recalling some sleepy provincial town in France; but these are now mere suburbs, peopled by the poorer classes, along the banks which form the junction of the Danube and Save. Modern Belgrade is bisected by the Teratsia, a boulevard, over a mile in length, of fine buildings, overtopped, about midway, by the golden domes of the new palace. This is the chief thoroughfare, and here are the principal hotels, private residences, and shops, which latter, toward evening, blaze with electric light. The Teratsia then be-comes a fashionable promenade, and smart carriages, brilliant uniforms, and Vienna toilettes add to the gaiety of the scene.
Servia is lavish in uniforms, most of them more suggestive of opera-bouffe than modern warfare. From dawn till midnight the streets and cafes swarm with officers, who apparently have little to do but show themselves to a rather unappreciative public.
Nearly every Servian I met in Belgrade spoke at least three languages (one of them invariably French) ; altho in the provinces a stranger unacquainted with the Servian tongue fares badly. Servians, of all classes, are the politest people in the world, who will always go out of their way to assist a stranger. I once inquired my way of a policeman, and he accompanied me for at least a quarter of a mile to put me on the right road. Belgrade is now essentially a modern city, and the traveler is therefore apt to find it outwardly dull and prosaic after the towns he has visited on his way up from the Adriatic. This is partly due to an absence of color. In Bosnia and Bulgaria bright and picturesque native costumes are continually met with (in Montenegro you rarely see anything else), but the people of Belgrade, with their tailor-made gowns and stove-pipe hats, might have walked straight out of Regent Street.
There is no aristocracy in the English sense of the word in Servia. How should there be when less than a century ago the ruler of the country was a pig-drover who could not sigu his own name? On the other hand, the wealthier class of Servians have intermarried with the best families in Austria and other nations, and the result is a so-called "society," which, tho somewhat cosmopolitan in character, according to English ideas, is to an outsider rather novel and attractive.