23 May 2012

Belgrade Underground

This is Big Gun Powder Storage. The man-made cave, built by 16th century Austrians beneath the Kalemegdan Fortress, began life as a warehouse for gunpowder - hence the name. Once it was cleaned out and excavations around Belgrade began to unearth Byzantine and Roman sarcophagi, gravestones and statues, it became a display room. A lapidarium. In 1999, modern Belgraders left their own mark on the space, re-purposing it into an illegal nightclub. Named "Big Gun Powder Storage," of course. Their fossilized chewing gum spot the floor. This was the third stop on our tour of "Underground Belgrade," and our guide had finally gotten the full attention of 9 groggy Brits who'd been up until 8am clubbing on a boat in the Danube. Beer in hand, they were (admirably) surviving. "This was the greatest club in the world," he told them, "the DJ would play right on this 2,000 year old altar!" You can imagine the acoustics.
Belgrade is situated right where the mighty Danube meets the Sava and the Balkan mountains meet the vast Pannonian Plain. It's an ideal place for a city, except for the fact that everyone else is going to think so, too. Even a layman like me can figure out that there are two ways to defend yourself from invasion. You either position yourself at the highest point possible or burrow underground. With Belgrade positioned as it is, its back up against the mountains, the two great rivers 383 feet below and layers of easy to carve limestone beneath, they were able to do both. As a result, there are miles and miles of tunnels, bunkers, dungeons, posts and cellars below the city of Belgrade. There's a labyrinth of over 1,000 years of subterranean war strategy that remains mostly undiscovered.
Nowadays, this is the only type of warfare going on below the city, beneath  Cirila i Metodija Park. We'd walked down one of many stairways marked "Underground" in that familiar gothic font mimicking Paris' "Metropolitain" signs and found dozens of computer gaming rooms. Some wore headsets, all were engaged in some sort of battle that kept them glued to their seats and screens in these virtual underground command stations. This is the site of the first and only subway station built in Belgrade. The plans for the underground railway had been grand, but were quickly interrupted. It was 1995 and people were about to have more pressing reasons to go underground than building an expensive subway system.
Vuk's Statue Station, as it is called, is a big ole white elephant. It looks and feels exactly like a subway station, the metallic walls, public benches, signs pointing to the platform and the bathrooms. These days, the escalators drop you down to a platform that's being utilized as a stop on the Zemun - Pancevo train. I'm not exactly sure how that works, but we had to run up a down escalator when a guard informed us that only ticket-holders could descend. When we mentioned the experience to some locals over dinner that evening, there was some miscommunication.  This led to the suggestion that we should look into an "Underground Belgrade" tour if we wanted to see the system of passageways beneath the city.
They say that to see anything over 250 years old in Belgrade, you must go underground. Unfortunately, there isn't all that much of an opportunity. Lack of funding and squabbles over personal property prevents any sort of tourist infrastructure - you've gotta make things safe, put in staircases, employ guides, etc etc etc. Just deciding which in the multitude of networks to focus on would be an enormous endeavor. Access to a few sites has been allowed for tour guides, but it never really gets too deep (in either sense of the word). This doesn't make the tour less interesting, just sort of a tease. Ours included a room with some Roman remains, a wine cellar, Big Gunpowder Storage and this post-World War II bunker.
Celts, Romans, Huns, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Germans and everyone else wanted to lay claim to Belgrade throughout history. It wasn't all that far-fetched of Tito to think that Cold War Russia would come knocking on their door. Men were stationed in these small bunkers around the clock for years, waiting for an attack that never came. They were manned with cannons, but - of course - there was now also the threat of nuclear attack. "This is why they kept some water in these lead boxes." Our guide pointed at the cases below the stairs. "Like anything would survive a nuclear explosion. So stupid." He shook his head and laughed.
"So stupid," had been Dina's comment, too. She's the young woman who'd recommended an underground tour over dinner. Her utterance was in response to a recent Roman aqueduct excavation and the decision to simply cover it with a layer of concrete. "They say that now it will stay better protected for someone to open up and explore later. So stupid!" she repeated. Our guide began the tour with a power point presentation of everything he was once allowed to show tourists, but cannot anymore. Natural caverns, an underground river, another shelter-turned-club. He spoke of passageways that joined government buildings, German command stations and excavations that were named "Roman" simply because they were old. The presentation took place in a basement built around the remains of a Roman fortress. An ancient lead pipe juts out of the wall.
Our final stop was the wine cellar.  Dating back to the 19th century, it is now a bar. Before going in/under, I looked across the river at Zemun, a town that predates Belgrade but is now considered part of the city. I'd read that homeless people had started living in the neighborhood's underground tunnels. Over unlabeled bottles of wine, served alongside liters of Coca Cola, our guide reminisced some more about the "totally illegal" parties at Big Gun Powder Storage and other caves. "During the [NATO] bombing, young people felt they had no future. There was nothing to do but play music and dance." Like the ancient well-diggers and today's homeless, the builders of bomb shelters and secret passageways, those club-goers at the end of the 20th century found what they needed to survive in Belgrade's underground.

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