Hidden Belgrade (10): Grand Hotels of Belgrade

Given its place on the major East-West trade routes, hotels and inns played an important role in the development of Belgrade. Although none of the great hans/caravan serais from the Ottoman era remain in the city, there are several major hotels from 19th and 20th centuries which still remain open. These hotels not only offered the first glimpse of Serbia to weary travellers, but they also were the place where Belgraders got a taste of the wider world. It was in them where Belgrade’s first parties, concerts, dances, theatre performances and film projections took place. Although neither of them kept the glamour from the grand days of Orient Express which stopped in Belgrade from 1919 to 1977, they are still testaments of Belgrade’s permanent willingness to host and dazzle its guests. 

 

Grčka Kraljica [The Queen of Greece] (built 1830s)

Originally named “Despot’s Han”, after its owner, in 1839 it passed into the hands of Jovan Kumanudi, a Greek from Edrine who renamed it after his heritage. In the course of the 19th century, Kumanudis were to become of the most prominent Belgrade families – one of the descendants was the head of the central bank and another one was a mayor of Belgrade. The inn prospered with the family, and it became a popular meeting point and accommodation for merchants in Belgrade in 19th and 20th centuries. Although it was officially renamed “Plavi Jadran” [Blue Adriatic] during the socialist times, it colloquially kept its old name, which was returned after the refurbishment in 1990. For a while, Grčka Kraljica was also a spot of a popular night club which was located in the basement.

Unfortunately, the transition of 2000s was not kind to this former historic hotel and cafe. It closed its doors in 2007, and while rubble was cleaned up recently, its future remains uncertain.

 

Srpska Kruna [The Serbian Crown] (1869)

Now better known as the Belgrade Library, this building was the fanciest “modern” hotel in Belgrade to open after the Ottoman forces left the Belgrade Fortress in 1867. Although it retained some of the old features of hans (Ottoman inns), such as a central courtyard, it was one of the first “western” looking buildings in rapidly modernising Belgrade which was keen to break away from its Ottoman past. In the case of Srpska Kruna, the break with the past caused a minor diplomatic incident as the Ottomans thought the name presupposed that Serbia was fully autonomous (which it only became in 1878).

The hotel was turned into a library after the destruction of the Serbian National library during the Nazi bombing of 1941. During a reconstruction in 1980s, builders found the remains of the main gate to the Roman fortress of Belgrade in the cellar.

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Moskva (1908)

Construction of the Hotel Moskva (or rather Palace “Rossiya”, as the building was formally known) marked the turning point in Serbian foreign policy, as it symbolised the rekindling of friendship with Russia by Karađorđević’ s and the beginning of increasing tensions with the Austro-Hungarian Empire (who preferred the deposed Obrenović dynasty). The hotel was built during the trade war with the Austrians, (known as the Pig War as Austro-Hungarian stopped importing pork from Serbia) which was ironic given that hotel’s distinctive art-nouveau facade is clad with Zsolnay tiles from Hungary. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, the opening of the best hotel in Belgrade was a grand affair with King Peter I in attendance.

Throughout its turbulent history, the hotel was to be the site of the founding of the Serbian Olympic Committee, a Gestapo HQ and finally the birthplace of “Moskva šnit”, one of Belgrade’s most delicious cakes. Thankfully, Moskva remains open to this day, and despite its controversial refurbishment it is still one of the favourite meeting places of Belgrade’s pensioners.

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Bristol (1912)

Opened in the then booming Savamala district at the spot of an old “han”, Hotel Bristol was of the most luxurious in Belgrade. In its heyday in 1920s, it hosted members of the British royal family and John Rockefeller Jr. The hotel’s grand reputation was maintained after WWII. It hosted David Rockefeller stayed when he visited Yugoslavia in 1979, which prompted Tito to donate Louis XVI furniture for the hotel’s most luxurious suite.

The hotel’s decline started in 1990s, as it was used by the Serbian military to host military staff who fled former Yugoslav republics. Although its current interior fails to conjure its former glamour, the hotel retained a certain seedy charm and it is popular place for a cheap beer in Savamala. The dog days may be over for Bristol soon though. There are rumours that the hotel will be returned to its former glory as part of the Belgrade Waterfront redevelopment of the area.

 

Palace (1923)

Although its history is less exciting then that of Moskva or Bristol, when it opened its doors, Hotel Palace was the most advanced hotel in Belgrade with three elevators, a cooling system and an ice-making machine. At one point before WWII it was bought by the French government to house the French cultural centre, however it returned to its original purpose after the war. Since 1960s it has been used for training of Belgrade’s future hoteliers.

 

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