Wednesday 30 January 2013

My favourite neighbourhood: Vračar

In the past year and a half, since I changed my life in Rio for a new life here, in Belgrade, I lived in several different apartments - four of them, to be precise. Despite all the bother of moving my stuff around from here to there, it was an interesting in a way cause I got to know several different parts of the city. I've lived in the very city centre (Stari Grad, meaning "Old Town") for 7 months; then, I temporarily shared my friend's flat in Kotež for several months, while I looked for the perfect flat in a more central part of the city; after a long search, I moved to the district of Vračar, to a flat that was far from perfect, but that was nice nevertheless. I lived in there for 5 months until when, all of a sudden, I was kinda "forced" to move out. After only a week looking for a new place for myself, I found the apartment I'm currently living in - and hope to live for quite some time now. Enough flat hunting and moving for me! But the best of it all concerning this new flat is that I only had to move 3 blocks away from my previous flat, meaning that I'm still in the heart of Vračar! To make it all even better, I have an amazing view from my balcony - and I'm a sucker for a room (or a balcony) with a view!

The view from one side of my balcony <3

I always fancied Vračar, really, since I came to Belgrade the first time in 2007. But since I moved here last August, this neighbourhood grew on me even more and became one of my favourite parts of the city.
It is very close to the city centre (in fact, borders the "Stari Grad" district) and through Slavija Square (a public transportation hub) it's very well connected will all of the city.
One of the reasons for my love for Vračar is that it reminds me a lot of my former neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, called Laranjeiras: small (it's area covers less than 3 sq. km!) and residential, uphill, full of small streets surrounded by trees, historical, a neighbourhood who flourished after mid 19th century, when it was considered fancy and hosted many European style houses and buildings.
Walking through Vračar today one can barely tell it's such an old, historical part of the city. Most of its buildings nowadays date from after 1945 since during the WW2, due to bombing on different occasions, most of its old original buildings were completely destroyed.

The coat of arms of Vračar

But let's get back in time further more, back to the origins of this Belgrade neighbourhood.

The name and Vračar first appears 1492, in Turkish-Ottoman documents and plans for the conquest of Belgrade, lead Suleiman Pasha. Later on, in 1560, Vračar is again mentioned in official Ottoman documents, described as a small Christian settlement within the then Turkish Belgrade, comprised of (only!) 17 houses, on the outskirts of the town.

The origins of the name of Vračar itself, its etymology, is full of controversy. The oldest story dates back from the early days of Ottoman occupation in Serbia, more precisely from 1495, and it says the name Vračar to be derived from the Serbian word vrač (meaning a healer, a doctor/sorcerer, a medicine man) who lived around in this part of town. Other source, dating from 1521 - the very year when Belgrade fell into Ottoman siege - suggests that Vračar was the name of a Christian man who lived in one of the very few huts/houses that existed in this area back then. I wonder if the man mentioned on the first half of the 16th century could be the physician mentioned in 1495? Hmm...
There's also a 3rd theory: my ex-boyfriend told me once that the name Vračar comes from the name of a bird, vrabac (sparrow, in English), since many of those used to inhabit this region, giving it the name of Vračarsko Polje, later on referred to as simply "Vračar".
Despite which of these possibilities is the historically accurate one (if any of these, at all), this part of the city has much more history to itself than this. ‎

In 1595, as a result of a Serbian uprising again the Ottoman occupation, the remains of the Serbian Orthodox patron saint Sv. Sava were brought from the Mileševa Monastery (where they were resting since 1237) and, under orders of the Albanian Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, were burned on the Vračar hill. On the first half of the 20th century, the temple of Sv. Sava was set up on the location believed to be where the saint's remains were set fire nearly 500 years ago. (more about the temple below)

Ottoman troops burning the remains of Sv. Sava in Vračar

In the 19th century the term Vračar started being used to refer to a broader, wider geographical area of the city, nearly three times bigger than the area of the present day district itself.
In 1806, when the first Serbian uprising (against the Ottoman domination) started, Serbian troops set one of their camps on the Vračar plateau. After Belgrade was first liberated from Turkish domination, the deceived Serbian soldiers were buried on this camp site and the place became known as the Insurgents Cemetery. In 1848, a Monument to the Liberators of Belgrade was erected by Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević on this very location and reconstructed a few years later, in 1889, when trees were also added around it, starting what is today Karađorđev Park - the oldest park in Belgrade.

Karađorđev Park and the Monument to the Liberators of Belgrade

It was also on the 19th century that the district saw a major growth and development: despite the city of Belgrade being under Turkish occupation, prince Miloš Obrenović ordered the construction of a new city centre on Western European standards, whereas most of the rest of the city beard all characteristics of an Ottoman town. This brought the implementation of broad streets and boulevards, new buildings to house administrative and public institutions of the city, parks and so on. The first results of this "westernisation" of Vračar was described by a journalist from The Times who published, in 1843, a text full of compliments to the new look of the district of Vračar:
"Four years have passed since the time when I was last here, and how Belgrade has changed! I have hardly recognised it. The high belfry on the church (Cathedral) now screens by its shadow the Turkish mosques; many shops are now provided with new doors and glass windows, oriental clothing is more rare and houses with several storeys, in European manner, are being built everywhere."
In the 1860's many architects and "builders"coming from Austro-Hungary and Italy came to Belgrade to join local prestigious architects on the efforts to make Vračar look more Serbian and less Turkish. After 1868, when the Turkish occupation was finally over and the Principality of Serbia gained its full independence, these architectural activities were extended from Vračar to downtown Belgrade, bringing down the ruins, old Turkish houses and Serbian huts and constructing new houses and buildings, turning Belgrade into a Austro-Hungarian looking capital.

Ottoman Belgrade ("The ruined gateway of Prince Eugene")

Turkish part of Belgrade shortly before its demolition, 1866

After the end of the 1st World War and the Balkans wars, the construction of Sv. Sava's Temple on the Vračar plateau attracted many rich citizens and notorious people to move to its surroundings, turning this part of Vračar into an elite part of city. Today, the temple of Sv. Sava (sometimes referred to as "cathedral") is definitely Belgrade's most famous landmark and Serbia's as well. The temple is also one of the 10 largest church buildings in the world as well as the Orthodox cathedral with the biggest internal space on the planet. It's massive!

The Vračar plateau, with the Sv. Sava Temple on the right and the roof of the National Library on the left.

Later on the 20th century, during WW2, Belgrade was heavily bombed by German-Nazi forces. The Nazi invasion started on April 6th 1941 and the bombing lasted for nearly four days. William Stephenson, a representative of British Intelligence during the 2nd World War, wrote about the bombing of Belgrade in his biography:
"After four days of what the Germans code-named Operation Punishment, some 24,000 corpses were recovered from the ruins. Untold numbers were never found."[11] The most important cultural institution that was destroyed was the National Library of Serbia, with 300,000 unique items including priceless Medieval manuscripts."
On Easter 1944, Belgrade was again heavily bombed, but this time around by allied forces, killing nearly fifteen hundred civilians against less than 20 German military losses. The Čubura area of Vračar was almost completely destroyed by the bombing and today a monument in this area pay tribute to the civilians deceived on that occasion.

A street in Čubura before the WW2 bombings

Kičevska street after the 1944 allied forces' bombing (source)

On the years that followed the end of the war, a huge reconstruction effort took place in Belgrade, and most of the buildings standing in the city today date from this period.

On 1966, the new building of the National Library of Serbia started being built just beside the temple of Sv. Sava. A new, modern building carefully planned to host all remaining and restored books and documents that survived the bombing of the former National Library during WW2.
I love it there, by the way! The annual membership costs 2.000,00 Dinars (less than 20 Euro!) and it's a great place for studying, reading and researching. I highly recommend it!

Flowers on the site of the former National Library on the anniversary of its bombing by Nazi forces, over 70 years ago

The National Library of Serbia
The renovated interior of the National Library

Today, Vračar is under huge real state growth, with tones of new, modern apartments' buildings being built over the past few years, bringing down most of the very few remaining houses from the first half of the 20th century.

Vračar today: plenty of new buildings and very few remaining old houses

Still, Vračar is a very pleasant district to live in: it's full of small, shady streets, many major shops and stores (most of them on Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra) as well as small shops of all sorts (some of which became my favourite, I'll write about some of them later!), a full range of services, museums, theatres, the biggest green market in the city (called Kalenić), some really nice restaurants, kafanas and many - I said, many! - cafes!

On my next post, a list of my favourite spots in Vračar!

Wanna see more of Vračar? Check out the picture galeries here and here!