Belgrade square: Where lovers gather to laugh and make merry (Travel Feature)
Belgrade (Serbia), Aug 5 : At the magic hour, just past midnight when the rest of the world is in a slumber, lovers gather "near the horse" to give wings to desires that seldom find expression during the day.
Republic Square is Belgrade's central point and the main gathering venue for locals and visitors alike. In its concept and planning, it is in line with most other European town squares and, in fact, one can also draw similarities with New Delhi's Connaught Place (now called Rajiv Chowk).
Just as the Central Park is the meeting point around which the inner and outer circles run in India's national capital, there is a bronze statue of Prince Michael on a horse at the centre of Republic Square and surrounding it are some of Belgrade's most recognisable public buildings, including the National Museum and the National Theatre.
But while the city's distinct architecture -- shining in the faint moonlight -- draws visitors for photographs and selfies, Republic Square also has a lot of open spaces, fountains, benches to sit on and just be with oneself, along with a large number of eateries, bars and cafes dotting the various lanes that emerge from the Square.
"Meet me near the horse," is what they say in local terms to refer to the oft-frequented spot by young lovers -- as also the middle-aged and old -- seeking nothing more than moments of indulgence in each other's company.
The day is usually bright during the summer with colourful flowers in full bloom greeting passersby, but this place adorns an altogether different look during the magic hour, starting at midnight and ending close to dawn. This is when the day is done and the crowd is gone -- and adventure is set in motion.
Notably, the culture and lifestyle of people living in this part of the world is such that the little things in life have enduring relevance to them. Dining out is not an once-a-week phenomenon for most localities but rather an almost customary act. It is affordable too, wine is cheap and entry to most nightclubs free.
Therefore, what strikes one most past midnight at Republic Square is the coming together of carefree couples, who breathe life into the city square, and lull the atmosphere in some sort of a soothing song.
One may also be amazed to see people dancing outside bars, not as an organised event or anything of the sort, but as an everyday act. The dance sessions take place in the open and they last for hours, while scores of couples await their turn. They are not bothered about recording their dance moves or clicking a picture in their lovers' arms. They live in the moment and live it to the fullest.
It is also a relief for travellers from a country like India where the "mall culture" seems to have disrupted the entire cityscape. The areas surrounding the Republic Square are dotted by numerous shops and cafes but they are not confined in a given area and sealed off within walls. The open spaces, fountains and gardens create the atmosphere that a setting such as this requires.
Above all, the magic hour at Republic Square is an experience worth having for travellers. There is not an itinerary that one is required to stick to, or a list of cafes and nightclubs to explore; instead, it is an overall experience, of which the traveller too becomes a part, that can only be relished and felt from the heart.
Belgrade also ranks high among the safest European cities. Walking down the streets surrounding Republic Square, one can spot numerous women going about their tasks and there is no fear or hesitation in their eyes.
India is seeing a rise in solo women travellers in recent times and given that an Indian national does not require a visa to visit Serbia for a period of less than 31 days, along with an almost-equal currency, it may also be a good option for Indian backpackers.
Turkish Airlines operates daily flights to Belgrade from New Delhi and Mumbai, via Istanbul. Hostels and hotels are easily available in most parts of the city, starting as low as Rs 1,000 ($15) per night.
(Saket Suman was in Belgrade at the invitation of Serbian Tourism and Turkish Airlines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)