Belgrade lightens up

Returning to the Serbian capital, Mary Novakovich finds that the weather is a hotter topic than poli

Summer in Belgrade, where temperatures can nudge 40°C, means bagging a spot on the beach - a real beach, not like the temporary one in Paris along the banks of the Seine. In the middle of the Sava, one of Belgrade's two rivers, is Ada Ciganlija, an island on which the authorities cleverly constructed a beach complete with bars, restaurants, sunloungers, water sports, pedal boats and safe bathing areas for children. It is also one of the places where Radovan Karadzic, the recently arrested Bosnian Serb ex-leader, gave talks on alternative medicine while he was hiding, in plain sight of the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Not, of course, that my mother, my aunt and I know this when we are cooling off under a parasol at Ada Ciganlija several weeks earlier. I have come to Belgrade to visit relatives and we are resting in between bouts of splashing about in the water, spotting the occasional school of minnows zooming past. Later we have lunch at the Safari restaurant, a cosy wooden construction that sits on its own lake and is surrounded by a tiny zoo. As we watch the swans and cygnets cruise by, we get stuck in to plates of grilled meats and cold beer on the terrace.

It's the first time my mother, who lives in Canada, and I have ever managed to be in Belgrade at the same time, and I insist on picking up the tab. Lunch for three is less than £20. My aunt has stopped looking miffed that she didn't have the chance to feed me once again, and my mother has agreed that time off from the constant round of visiting relatives has been a good idea. We'd already been to six sets of relations in a day and a half and had eaten astonishing amounts of delicious food (locally grown and seasonal - they don't do tasteless tomatoes in Serbia).

My mother hadn't been back to Belgrade since 1980, the year Tito died, and I was recalling a visit I made just two years after Nato bombed the city in 1999. The bomb damage is still there, but it has become less defiantly symbolic and more an indication that no one has quite enough money to tear down the enormous ravaged buildings and start again. Apart from that, this vibrant city is booming. When I was there in 2001, you could hardly find a cashpoint; now you can see branches of major European banks, along with the big retailers you find elsewhere in Europe.

Knez Mihailova, a wide pedestrianised street full of shops and cafes in the attractive Old Town, is thronging with people enjoying the late-afternoon sun. It's easy for them to do just that, as most Belgraders work from 8am to 4pm, leaving them at least another 12 hours in which to have a life. More cafes spill into nearby Republic Square, scene of the endless demonstrations against Slobodan Milosevic and still a major meeting place for Serbs to get their fix of fiendishly strong Turkish coffee. Along the Sava and Danube Rivers are floating bars and restaurants called splavovi, which used to be the hangouts of gangsters in the days when they could carry out murders and assassinations in broad daylight. But the undercurrent of criminality I felt in 2001 has dissipated; the country has been more successful in cracking down on organised crime than its neighbour Bulgaria, which recently had its European Union member funds suspended as a result.

The tourists are slow in coming back to Belgrade. You will find plenty of business people, though, as western investment comes flooding in. Over a leisurely evening meal in my cousin Tanja's courtyard garden, her brother Boris asks why other former communist capitals such as Budapest and Prague are overrun with visitors, who seem to be bypassing Belgrade. "We've got the friendliest people in the world here and no one knows," he said.

He is right about that, but what would happen if Belgrade were to become a stop on the cheap-flights route? (At the moment, return flights cost roughly between £160 and £180.) Hordes of British stag and hen parties would descend on the city and turn it into another Tallinn. They would rampage through the old bohemian quarter of Skadarlija and trip over the cobblestones before laying waste to its restaurants. They would tumble into the Danube or the Sava, or fall off the tower in Belgrade's fortress that dates from Roman times. They would trash the cafe tables in Republic Square. "We wouldn't mind," says Boris. Oh, I think they would.

One thing Belgraders wouldn't mind is easy transit the other way. EU citizens no longer have to apply for a visa to visit Serbia, but this has not been reciprocated. Leaving the Balkans involves a drawn-out and tedious process that deters most Serbian travellers. We have a heated discussion around the dinner table. "They make it so hard for us to leave the country," says Tanja. "We hoped that Tadic would be elected and things could start to change." But although President Boris Tadic has been able to deliver Karadzic to the UN war crimes court in The Hague - one of the conditions Serbia had to meet before the EU would discuss closer ties - he presides over an uneasy coalition between the pro-European Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia (former head, one Slobodan Milosevic).

We don't stay on the subject of politics for too long. There are more important things to be discussed, such as episodes of Only Fools and Horses (a huge hit in Serbia), the renaissance of the Spanish national football team and the fact that Serbian tennis players are putting their country into the right sort of spotlight for the first time in two decades. It is a novelty to come across Serbian names in the press and not see them followed by the words "awaiting trial for war crimes". Even the arrest of Karadzic didn't remain the main topic of conversation too long in Belgrade's cafes. I am told that, after the initial mix of euphoria (on the part of the sensible brigade) and disgust (on the part of those warped individuals who regard him as a hero), talk has reverted to the usual subjects: sports, holidays, the weather.

As EU members squabble over the Lisbon Treaty, Belgraders just want to live like other Europeans - whatever that might mean.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games