Many of my childhood memories are from Belgrade’s largest hospital complex around KCS (Klinički Centar Srbije), as my grandmother and mother were going there daily to take care of my grandfather, in the chaotic days of hyperinflation of 1993. As a kid, I was mostly unaware of the sad state of the hospitals back then and thought it was normal that they were crumbling, loud places, so I busied myself with going around the complex’s massive buildings, roaming the shady parks and getting my head stuck between railings (we almost had to call firemen).
It is probably because of this early exposure that I was always fascinated by hospitals and sanatoria with their muted, aseptic aesthetic and hidden drama. Located on the western slope of the Vračar hill, overlooking the Sava, the area around KCS was a place of healing from mid-19th century, and potentially before as Vračar means “medicine man’s place”.
There are massive hospital buildings which both display the enthusiasm that 20th century governments had for good health systems, and the sad state of the Serbain healthcare today, given that most of the hospitals are crumbling. During the day the streets and parks around the hospitals are buzzing with doctors, students, patients and their families running from building to building, but at night and especially in the winter it all becomes eerily quiet.
In case you share my enthusiasm I do suggest you go for a stroll, but if you don’t, please at least consider donating to the paediatric hospital in Tiršova, who had to resort to crowdfunding to ensure smooth running.
Doktorova kula (Doctor’s tower)
In 1824, a self-taught Neapolitan physician Vito Romina, who was the chief physican to both Prince Miloš and Belgrade vizier, built a house in the old Balkan-Turkish style for on the Guberevac hill, thereby starting this area’s connection with healing. In 1861, the house was turned into the first psychiatric institution in the Balkans, colourfully named “House for those out of their minds (s uma sišavši)”. Before its establishment, the mentally ill were treated in monasteries or abandoned to fend for themselves.
It is interesting to note that its foundation predates establishment of a permanent Belgrade city hospital, which was opened in Palilula district in 1868 (and still stands at the corner of Palmotićeva and Džordža Vašingtona). Initially it accepted only those sent to it by the court, its first patient was a Belgrade prostitute, but it became a proper hospital in 1881. Its most famous doctor was dr Laza Lazervić, one of the first Serbian psychiatrists and a realist writer, who worked there in 1880s, after whom Belgrade’s psychiatric hospital is named. Like Bedlam in London, both Guberevac and Laza became synonymous with insanity and used in phrases like “You’ll send me to Guberevac” or “he must have just left Laza”. Despite its colourful history and protected status, the house is derelict.
The old military hospital (Old VMA)
Major expansion of the complex happened when a modern military hospital complex was built in 1909. The complex is characterised by stern romantic neo-romanesque buildings which look like mini-fortresses, and were designed by Danilo Vladisavljević. At the time, it was apparently one of the most modern hospital complexes in Europe and it followed the fashion of creating large parks within the complex (like Barcelona’s Hospital de Sant Pau). Since its foundation, the hospital was the best medical institution in Serbia, and its doctors founded Belgrade’s Medical School in 1920. When the military hospital (VMA) moved to its current imposing premises in Banjica, the complex became part of KCS.
General hospital (Poliklinika)
The most massive building of the complex, which bears KCS’s name on its 12 storey white tower, was built in 1987. Unfortunately the project was a white elephant, and not only because of its clunkiness and colour. Most of the building is still empty, as funding ran out to finish the works and move many of the smaller hospitals onto its premises. Every new government plans to finish or re-build it, but there are no imminent works planned.
University Children’s Hospital (Tiršova)
Inauspiciously opened in 1941, just before WWII started in Yugoslavia, this beautiful modernist hospital was designed by Milan Zloković one of the key representatives of Belgrade Modern architecture, but has since been altered, giving it a bit of chaotic look. It is also the first hospital I remember being admitted to, after I cut myself twice, first playing with a bottle and then playing with a knife (it was the 1990s – a kid had to improvise). Unfortunately, the hospital is sorely lacking funds for necessary upgrades, and if you have to spare you can donate here.