Hidden Belgrade (49): Along Belgrade’s Central Rail Line

In the past few years, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find quiet places to walk and chill in central Belgrade, places where you could feel completely outside of the city and see nobody. One of my favourites was (and still is) the path along the abandoned railway which goes from Dunav Stanica all the way to Belgrade’s former central railway station.

Ever since the last train passed there just after the beginning of construction of Belgrade Waterfront, the trail has been abandoned, and has seen nature return especially on the part of the course between Dunav Stanica and Beton Hala. Indeed if you walk there in late spring you can see it bursting with poppy flowers and wild berries, while yesterday on parts of it around Kalemegdan the tracks were surrounded with beutiful yellow flowers (my botanical knowledge despite various efforts is almost non-existent, so I will leave it to you to identify them).

Beside nature, this course offers a lot for history buffs. The line was built to connect Belgrade’s heavily industrialised Danube shore with the main rail line connecting Belgrade with its main trading partner, Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north (via Zemun) and sources of raw materials along the Belgrade-Niš(-Sofia-Istanbul/-Skopje-Thessaloniki) railway. The prehistory of the railway starts in 1895, when Belgrade’s first industria slaughterhouse was built on the floodplains by the Danube, below Karaburma. Slaughterhouse was major motor of development of Serbia’s rural economy, one of whose main exports was pork, which went North to satisfy its powerful neighbour’s insatiable hunger for sausages, and of course, Wiener Schnitzels.

The first railway line was constructed just a few years later, in 1899, determining the fate of the shores of the Sava and Danube to be used for industrial production and transport. In the following decades, apart from the area around Belgrade fortress, the whole shore of old Belgrade became dotted with factories (producing textiles, paper and chocolate among other things), storehouses, an electric plant, a heating plant, and last but not the least Belgrade’s two ports on the Sava and the Danube.

Although industrial production in Belgrade ebbed and flowed due to war damage, change in political systems and reasons of space, transition of 1990s and 2000s gave it a final blow, leaving most of the factories using the railway empty.

However, even before this final blow to Belgrade’s home grown-industry, there was recognition that cutting Belgrade from the rivers was not the best idea. While before the war the focus on making shores nicer was focused on the Savamala area, in Socialist times it was the area around the parts of former Pištolj-mala slums and Jalija (which itself means shore in Turkish) that was beautified. First there was “25. maj” sports centre, built in 1973 for FINA’s first World Aquatics Championship. Its bold concrete modernist designed, devised by Ivan Antić, has more than withstood the test of time, and one can argue that his idea of designing the roof of the main indoor swimming pool in V-shape, reminiscent of a swimmer in the middle of a butterfly stroke, was referenced by Zaha Hadid’s more famous (and impressive) London Aquatics Centre. In 1980s saw the first planned residential development on Belgrade’s Danube bank, and Branislav Jovin, one of Yugoslavia’s most influential architects and urbanists, designed the river bank promenade close to Kula Nebojša.

Belgrade’s fortress was undoubtedly the greatest casualty of the railway. The railway broke through its fortifications and then encircled it, with trains regularly disturbing what remained of Belgrade’s lower town, the site of Belgrade’s first Danube port, connected to the river through now mostly buried Ottoman Danube gate. There are also many smaller gates connecting the former centre of Belgrade to its rivers buried below the railway and also a lovely bastion, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, perfect for sunsets (if you are not afraid of ticks, that is).

The future of the area around the old railway seems (or seemed) to be fully in gentrification. It started with the redevelopment of old modernist storehouses by the Sava into “Beton hala”, which houses some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, in 2000s and continued with major developments such as Belgrade Waterfront, development around the old Beko textile factory, and planned mega-projects around Belgrade’s Danube Port and the old art deco “Snaga i svetlost” (Power and light) power plant. All these projects were to be connected by Belgrade’s version of New York’s famed High-line, a chain of parks tracing the path of the old railway.

However, ever since Luka Ćelović tried to remake swampy Savamala into Belgrade’s poshest neighbourhood, these ambitious projects around the Sava and the Danube tend to get washed away by larger currents. Ćelović’s projects was stopped by WWII, the first Belgrade Waterfront-like idea, floated as part of Belgrade’s bid to host ’92 Olympics, was frustrated first by the bid’s failure and then by the crisis of 1990s. Even the late 2000s attempts to remake Španska kuća (Spanish house) into a hipster art space, named for housing Spanish flu quarantine during WWI, drowned during the Global Economic crisis. Nevertheless, as I walked by yesterday, workers were busy beautifying the area around Beton Hala and the new Richard Deacon/Mrđan Bajić artwork/overpass, making this wonderful walk more attractive to less adventurous urban hikers.

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