Belgrade by bike 

Cycling tour through the Serbian capital passes it all from beautiful to Brutalist

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY STEVE MACNAULL - St. Sava Cathedral is the largest Christian Orthodox church in the world
  • Photo by Steve MacNaull
  • St. Sava Cathedral is the largest Christian Orthodox church in the world

Aleksandra Petrovic takes a drag of her ultra-slim cigarette and tells me helmets are not the law when cycling in Serbia.

"They are highly recommended, but you don't have to if you don't want to," she said.

This is all fascinating information, especially since Petrovic is the guide for our iBike tour of Serbia's cosmopolitan capital of Belgrade.

The tour group of 24, which my wife and I are with, just arrived in picturesque Old Town Belgrade on a Danube River cruise aboard the elegant Viking Rinda.

Being compliant North Americans, everyone in our group opts for head protection, while Petrovic and the three other female guides give them a pass.

Our prudish group also casts a second glace at the guides' unofficial uniform of skinny jeans and impractical low-swinging messenger bags.

Their masterful bike maneuvering while chatting and texting on their cellphones also raised come eye-brows.

But rather than be nervous, we're charmed.

The girls are so casual, funny, open and nonchalant that we decide to relax and enjoy.

After crossing the Sava River into New Town on the Brankov Bridge we stop at a former fairgrounds that was used as a concentration camp during World War II.

We then glide alongside the Sava and a leafy park in the sun.

During this section of the ride I ask Petrovic about her life.

Seven months earlier she graduated from university with a degree in human resources management.

"Serbia is a country of too many qualified people and not enough jobs," she explains.

"The unemployment rate is 25 per cent."

So Petrovic works part-time at iBike and part-time as a receptionist at a travel agency and will hopefully start an HR internship by year's end.

Even if you do land a full-time job, the average monthly wage in Serbia is 300 Euros and the average apartment rent in Belgrade is the same.

Therefore, Belgrade's educated youth are destined to live with their parents until age 30 or with multiple roommates indefinitely.

But in this moment, the situation doesn't bother Petrovic.

We're rolling into the stylish Zemun neighbourhood with its ribbon of restaurants, all with waterfront patios, where we'll stop for a washroom and water break.

However, instead of water, many in our group sip Serbian beers and wines and the guides, following an unwritten no-alcohol rule, drink strong coffees enjoyed with their ultra-slim smokes.

The peddle-back is through some prime examples of Brutalist architecture, the name given to the bland and boxy edifices constructed during the Communist era when the country was part of the former Yugoslavia.

We pass the Hotel Jugoslavija, a favourite haunt of past dictators, which hasn't seen a guest since it was abandoned in 1999.

Point of trivia: the hotel was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's digs while Burton was in town shooting a movie about Yugoslav ruler Tito.

Then it's over to Palace Serbia, not a palace at all, but another Brutalist government building that now houses the Ministry of Protection and the Ministry of Kosovo.

We arrive back in the Old Town at the Viking Rinda with an appreciation of Belgrade's contrasts.

Communist and civil war past followed by modern democracy, all in a stunning setting at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

To round out our Belgrade experience we tour the nearby Kalemegdan Fortress, which has been razed and rebuilt 44 times over the centuries, and say a prayer at the 10,000-capacity St. Sava, the largest Christian Orthodox church in the world.

We wander and have dinner on the pedestrianized street Knez Mihailova, where European-cool outdoor cafés and restaurants dominate, and international brand stores reside in the bottom of centuries-old buildings.

A river cruise is the perfect way to happen upon beautiful Belgrade.

The Viking ship we're on is doing the 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary with two stops in Bulgaria and a foray into Croatia.

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