A Balkan treasure

It lacks the luxuries of other capital cities, but Belgrade's creative energy is infectious

Some places grow on you because you grow into them. So it is with me and Belgrade - capital city of former Yugoslavia; of former Serbia and Montenegro; and soon to be of Serbia, possibly without even Kosovo - which I visited last weekend for the seventh time since 1975.

The dissolution of Josip Broz Tito's federation, followed by the wars of the Nineties and the continuing air of political uncertainty and economic regression, do not suggest a thriving business destination, let alone a tourist's pleasure park.

But Belgrade has seeped into my soul, nagging away at me with its clanking trams, its broken pavements, its frayed fabrics and general air of tough stoicism. I also like places that I have good reason to visit, and the best reason for visiting Belgrade is Bitef, its international theatre festival, now in its 40th year.

The festival was born of the spirit of Tito's Yugoslavia, facing both east and west in the cold war - symbolised by an early Bitef collaboration between the Polish avant-garde guru Jerzy Grotowski, advocate of a "holy" theatre, and the Living Theatre, a bunch of American hippies who terrorised their audience with nudity. That spiritual conflict between communism and free enterprise still defines Belgrade's visual aesthetic.

In New Belgrade on the south side of the Sava river, which runs through the city and into the Danube, glass monoliths erected in honour of Delta Holding and Samsung rub shoulders with the Hyatt Regency and InterContinental hotels in a green parkland that stops abruptly in front of towers of rabbit-hutch apartments.

No other European city wears the imprint of tragic history so brazenly. The Nato bombs of 1999 destroyed the Yugoslav army headquarters and the ministry of internal affairs. Both ruins still stand - neither razed nor repaired - like woebegone architectural "concepts", and are occasionally used as film locations.

One big old hotel in Belgrade, the Metropol, is not an exercise in European communist retro, as some cosmopolitan postmodernist might think, but the real thing: a monument of faded grandeur, with its old wooden lifts and musty carpets, and its photographs on the walls of Tito shaking hands with world leaders. It exudes an unmistakable aura of sad magic.

And the city's greatest park is a peaceful military outpost - the Roman fortress of Kalemegdan, which dates from the 1st century AD but bears evocative accretions from Belgrade's roll-call of invaders: the Byzantines, Serbs, Turks, and the Germans of the Second World War.

It is not fanciful to suggest that the citizens of Belgrade live closer to their own political reality from day to day than we do to ours. It is a condition of their existence. Jovan Cirilov, the founding director of Bitef (with the late Mira Trailovic, a huge woman who was a Serbian Boudicca swathed in Paris fashions), recalls that when a Russian stage company visited in 1968, during the suppression of the Czechoslovak uprising, students paraded parodically outside the theatre in a cardboard tank.

In 1980, shortly after the death of Tito, I saw a production of Hamlet that became, effortlessly, a play more about the dead king than the vacillating young hero given to muttering aloud. In 1991, as I arrived in the city, a thirty-kilometre convoy of tanks departed for Croatia and the start of the war. In September 2000, a Bitef performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters by a group from the Ukraine coincided with the night of the presidential elections in which Slobodan Milosevic was defeated by Vojislav Kostunica.

That night, I participated in history, borne along in dangerous crowd scenes supervised by heavily armed, confused military personnel. Two weeks later, as Milosevic still refused to recognise the results of the vote, the national assembly buildings were stormed and set on fire, and Kostunica was duly installed as president.

Although Belgrade is sometimes referred to as "New York on the cheap", with its busy night-life and a native café culture that has been transformed into some wonderful bars and restaurants around the centre and along the river, it is still, for me, more like an eastern European city with bright spots. And, thanks to the economy, taxi rides and meals are virtually a give-away for anyone from western Europe.

To experience the heart of Belgrade, you go to a cobbled street called Skadarlija, which gives an idea of how the whole city looked in the early 19th century, and where the Serbian cuisine is served up with gypsy violins. Around the corner, there is, inevitably, a branch of McDonald's. But it is situated next to the defiantly old Mittel European Kasina café on the Terazije, one of the main boulevards, and right opposite the mag nificently dowdy Moscow Hotel, with still more fading 20th-century memories among the gilt furnishings, deep sofas and ancient communist-style (that is to say, rude) waiters.

You may not realise how lucky you are to live even in London, with its cocked-up transport system, rip-off restaurants and disgusting public manners, until you visit Belgrade. (You might go one grade worse and visit another interesting theatre capital - Sofia, Bulgaria - which is even more profoundly destitute.) And what is so refreshing and humbling about the place is that the citizens are so grateful for what they have and are such generous and open-minded hosts to other cultures and initiatives.

This strikes to the heart of what makes Belgrade unique. And yet, politically, Serbia is still regarded as a pariah, its application for EU membership on in definite hold. One British Council employee, a Serbian, told me at the weekend with a resigned shrug that "it's all a total mess". She was referring to the continuing inability of President Boris Tadic (Kostunica is now prime minister) to deliver the notorious army general Ratko Mladic to the international tribunal at The Hague, where he would face war-crimes charges.

The extradition of Mladic might lead to talks about Kosovo's status; the region remains under UN administration but is still part of Serbia. In Belgrade, which is a most wonderfully depressing grey place when it rains, no cloud has a silver lining. Which is why theatre thrives and festivals are such a necessary diversion. And (did I, should I, mention this?) the women are the most beautiful in Europe, no question.

Michael Coveney is a writer and theatre critic