Hidden Belgrade (11): City of Stars

Despite its evocative name, Zvezdara (“Star-place”) municipality and its forest are rarely visited by Belgraders who don’t live there. Thankfully, I am aware of its beauty because I was born in Zvezdara and spent much of my early childhood learning how to ride bike and run at Olimp sports centre and sleding down its steep streets.

The lovely name comes from the old Serbian name for an observatory – zvezdarnica, and became associated with the area in 1930s after the main Belgrade observatory was moved there. This hill, previously known as Veliki Vračar, practically exchanged the name with the area of Vračar close to St Sava temple, which housed the first modern astronomical and meteorological observatory in Belgrade. The old observatory still stands and is used for meteorological measurements. It was built in 1887 after repeated pleas of Belgrade’s first modern astronomer – Milan Nedeljković.

The new observatory complex was built after WWI, and was financed from war reparations paid to Serbia by Germany. It was designed by a Czech architect Jan Dubovy and opened in 1932. The whole complex has many lovely art-deco elements, from a relief depicting Helios to wonderful curvy and stripey decorations on facades. The main observatory building looks like a temple to science, from the stern latin motto at the entrance boasting that everything is in numbers and measurement, to its fantastic wood-panelled library, which was apparently inspired by libraries at Oxford University. Besides being one of the most beautiful in Serbia, the library contains valuable astronomical books including originals of works by Ruđer Bošković and Zaharije Orfelin, two prominent enlightenment scientists from Dubrovnik and Vienna. Although the observatory and the library suffered damage in WWII, when they were used by the Nazi for anti-aircraft defence, they were restored to their former glory after the war.

The observatory’s other claim to fame is that between 1948 and 1951 it was under the leadership of Milutin Milanković, one of Serbia’s most successful scientists. Milanković is famous for his work on mechanisms behind Ice Ages and reform of the Orthodox Church calendar, which was, ironically, not implemented by the Serbian Orthodox Church, but used by most others.

Much like its slightly younger and considerably more opulent and famous relative, Griffith Observatory, the Belgrade Observatory is worth a visit not only for its architectural and historical value but also for hiking and picnicing options. There is a new watchtower just outside the complex which offers fantastic views over the Danube and the Pannonian plains. With some imagination, it is a perfect place to take a love interest to and tap-dance the night away pretending you are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

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