Paisley and pin-ups in a Bulgarian military ruin.
Twelve hours in Belgrade. That’s all I had, the stopover between flights from Prague to Sofia, a narrow window of time in a country I’d never visited before. It wasn’t much, but I was intent on making use of it – to get a quick overview, a snapshot of the Serbian capital sandwiched into one afternoon and an evening.
As chance would have it, however, I had a contact on the ground. My old buddy Nate from Yomadic was in town, and so I pitched him a proposition: show me the very best of Belgrade in just 12 hours, I said to him.
Nate told me he knew some people. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve got a plan.”
Urban Exploration in Belgrade
Yomadic met me at the airport. Cruising into the city, past brutalist apartment blocks and glassy, modern hotels, I’d have my first taste of Belgrade delivered through the greasy windows of a public bus. My initial impressions were of a city poised between the extremes of old and new; the bizarre and precarious juxtaposition of dusty heritage mixed with hints of a future utopia that never quite arrived.
We passed the onion-domes of orthodox churches, the intricate facades and balustrades of revival-era townhouses; then we followed the road as it curved beneath the Western City Gate, a 35-storey concrete structure so far-fetched that, turned on its side, it’d likely resemble some deep space freighter from an 80s sci-fi movie.
Arriving in the centre, stepping off the shuttle bus and into the heart of Belgrade, the experience was no different. Street vendors spread out their wares on the cobblestones, clothes and fabrics and bric-a-brac beneath the silent buzz of a hundred invisible information networks. Handcrafted homewares side-by-side with glass-fronted galleries and gadget shops. We passed the former Yugoslav Ministry of Defence building, too: struck by NATO bombs in 1999, and left in ruins to this day as a kind of accidental monument to the casualties of war.
Yomadic had arranged to meet our local guides in the central Republic Square. They ran a Facebook page, he told me, called Urban Exploration Belgrade – a site full of artful photos of young men in gasmasks and dinner jackets hanging out in grotty-looking catacombs. They seemed like my kind of people.
We found the place and waited. Watching the fountains, the passing crowds, the students who sat and ate their lunch on the steps of the monument to Prince Mihailo, we scanned the faces, looking out for anyone heading in our direction. Soon enough, they did.
Three young men approached us. Clean-cut, sharp and well-spoken, they introduced themselves as Nemanja, Wolf and Slobodan.
“You can call him Slob,” Wolf told us.
“No,” said Slobodan, “you can’t.”
We were walking with them, lost in conversation, before we even knew where we were going… but then our guides began reeling off a list of lesser-known attractions inside, around and underneath the Serbian capital.
As is often the way with this sort of thing, the first place we tried to get inside was a failure: an abandoned brewery stood round the back of one of Belgrade’s trendier party streets. As we walked down the rugged cobbled road, between chairs and coffee tables that spilled from cafés, bars and restaurants lining either side of the street, one of our new friends nudged me.
“You should see this street on a Friday night,” he said, “full of pretty girls on their way to the clubs. High heels and cobblestones are a bad mix – but it’s funny to watch.”
Around a few more corners we came upon the brewery itself. Passing by the front entrance, we tried to peek discretely into the yard; but the place was crawling with people. Building teams and security guards came and went, people carrying furniture or simply stood smoking as they watched their colleagues work. Behind the courtyard, the building rose up an empty wreck… but with five of us and maybe twice as many men on watch, we weren’t exactly going to be sneaking inside unseen.
We had a go at talking our way inside, but it didn’t come to much. The guard at the gate just laughed and shook his head. It wasn’t going to happen. That’s when Slobodan left us, but Wolf and Nemanja had another plan.
Not to worry, they said, telling us about an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city: a place of rotted industry spread across floor upon derelict floor, where we’d likely have no problem sneaking in. And so we hopped on a bus and headed away from the city centre, in search of Belgrade’s abandoned sugar factory.
Serbia’s First Sugar Mill
The Dimitrije Tucović Sugar Factory was built from 1899-1901; the oldest sugar beet processing plant in Serbia. It had been a period of rapid industrialisation, as the newly independent Kingdom of Serbia had only recently escaped its Ottoman yoke. This autonomy brought with it a belated industrial revolution, so that the construction of the Belgrade sugar mill was just one of many steps in that era towards independence and self-sustainability.
The factory was named after Dimitrije ‘Mita’ Tucović, founder of the Serbian Social Democratic Party; and much like its namesake, the facility has a history closely tied to the struggle for workers’ rights. The early years of the factory were overshadowed by a number of deaths resulting from a riot that broke out in 1907. The labour movement in Serbia – a precursor to the League of Communists of Serbia – organised a string of workers’ strikes in the early 20th century, at various locations including this particular sugar factory. Commencing on 13th February, hundreds of workers protested for a solid two weeks as they demanded increased pay and improved labour conditions. The government response was to send in the police; and on 1st March, a bloody conflict ended with dozens of workers injured and four of them dead.
By the time we got there, the factory had been out of use since 1997. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s would see Serbia turn its back on the dreams of socialism, and as a result of that period of conflict and confusion many facilities such as this, machinery of the state, had failed to survive the transition into democracy and privately owned enterprise.
According to one Serbian news source, the owners of the factory filed for bankruptcy in 2008. There has been talk of destroying the building to make room for new urban developments; a river marina, or perhaps a small business centre. An Italian sugar refining company has even proposed a full redevelopment of the site… although the estimated cost of such an endeavour is no small amount, at 30 million Serbian dinar.
These days, some units of the factory are rented by independent companies – although even here there have been problems. The management company expelled its latest tenant just one week ago, citing a debt of 3 million dinars in unpaid rent. In the meantime the condition of the factory slowly deteriorates, the property depreciating in value while the projected costs of renovation soar.
And that’s how we found it: a broken citadel of bricks and steel, not far from the river in a quiet suburb of south Belgrade.
It was a five-minute walk from the bus stop, off the main road and into the leafy backstreets. The first I saw of the factory was its red brick chimney, rising up from the horizon. We made a beeline for it: cutting between trees, through the grass and leaves, a miniature stretch of woodland in the capital. We passed brick houses with pointed gables, where washing hung out to dry on lines suspended from the windows. Wolf and Nemanja led us close along the gardens of private homes, and into the bushes that grew around the back; but no one saw us pass, or if they did, they made nothing of it.
Slipping through the undergrowth, we came to the factory itself. The trees ended abruptly as we hit a red brick wall. There was no way to see the ends of it, impossible to get a sense of scale; just one hard red surface cutting straight across the tree-lined glade, a smooth barrier broken in places by the rotten frames of wooden doors long since removed. One by one, we stepped through the breach and into the ruins of the Dimitrije Tucović Sugar Factory.
That first building we entered had been some kind of warehouse; but it wasn’t much to look at anymore. Four walls (mostly) and a ground floor space split up by pillars. Graffiti brought a splash of colour to the walls, while at one end of the hall, open to the trees, the undergrowth was advancing stealthily inside the building. It came on like a tide – as if we were stood in the hold of a shipwreck, capsizing slowly into a sea of green.
We’d spend a while exploring these first warehouses; one floor and then the next, treading carefully as we walked along splintered floorboards in the upper levels. At the eastern end of the building, a doorway gave us access to a flat roof area – and finally we were able to get a look at the entire factory site in all its fading glory.
Stood on the roof of the smaller, northern building, we looked out upon an industrial wasteland ringed in red brick ruins. A train track cut the space below us, a line that wound into the factory site from the west before terminating here at a derelict unloading bay. Beyond that, the bulk of the factory rose up some six floors from an overgrown forecourt; red walls, green growth and broken, sooty windows, detailed with an assortment of steam funnels, drain pipes and corrugated metal panels.
The factory was a relic of time when industry and architecture had walked hand in hand; an age before function overtook form, back when factories were still built by the same architects who designed hospitals and schools. The sugar factory was magnificent, its dereliction merely adding deeper nuance to the scene.
At the other end of our building I saw a conduit, a narrow, covered walkway that extended out from this structure, crossing high above the tracks to reach the larger buildings beyond. Ducking back inside, we found the entrance to the passageway. If it weren’t for windows that perforated the sides of the square tunnel, anyone would have guessed it was buried underground; not suspended in the air, a precarious bridge crossing the invisible no man’s land below. After a little deliberation, I decided against crawling through it… it would have been a pretty hard landing, should the bridge have given way beneath me.
We were about to leave, to make our way across the tracks to explore the other, larger-looking segment of the factory, when Nemanja called us over to look at something. In one grubby corner of the hall, a corridor folded back behind the far wall of the building. The metal door at the end was closed, locked, but a busted sheet panel had been bent and propped open like a cat-flap. One after another, we squeezed through the gap and crawled headfirst into the dirty space beyond.
It was an office, some kind of small workroom with desks, maps, wall-mounted cupboards and an adjacent washroom. The place looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades.
The windows were cracked and thick with dust; they let in more ivy than they did light, green fronds that squeezed through fractured glass to play across the walls. The ivy framed an assortment of largely nationalistic decorations that had been pinned up around the office. Serbian Orthodox icons, and a faded photograph of the Belgrade football team; a textured map of Yugoslavia formed from ridged green plastic, dust filling the valley floors while cobwebs blew from mountaintops. Beside the entrance, a wall calendar was pinned open to display a photograph of the Yugoslav president, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, smoking a cigarette.
In the office cabinet meanwhile, the shelves were filled with empty bottles, jars and paint tins. Bottles of Sodium hydroxide, marked with the skull and crossbones symbol, rubbed shoulders with a bottle of vodka – also labelled with a skull. The small washroom was filled with toothbrushes and oily rags. Stuck up on the tiles, a topless model torn out from a magazine.
Another skull appeared in a poster on the wall. Dressed in a military helmet – complete with red star crest – the skeleton clutched a glass of wine between its bony fingers. The message, written in Serbian, read: Alcohol is the most deadly. Later, some factory worker had added their own comment to the state-sponsored warning. A speech bubble had been drawn from the mouth of the skull, with the caption ‘Živeli!’ – Serbian for ‘Cheers.’
Dirty, grimy, dusty as it was, I felt a fascination for this room. The relics, the wall hangings and personal effects of some long-departed factory staff; utterly worthless, and yet at the same time it posed a window to another world. Even the trivial items – a receipt for groceries, a dog-eared ledger book – each one was a story, a puzzle to be deciphered.
I could have stayed in there all day… but we didn’t, and soon enough we were heading back out of the office, out of the warehouse, ducking back into the trees as we approached the railway tracks; and after that, looming beyond, the beached-whale carcass of a one-time industrial powerhouse.
The Secret Lair of a Belgrade Bond Villain
We crossed the train tracks towards the second row of buildings, expecting more of the same – dust and decay, mould and machinery. Instead though, we were in for a surprise. Around the entrance to the nearest building, fresh timbers had been built into a skeletal entry corridor; the air smelt of sawdust, and work tools lay scattered about the site. Amongst the stray timbers, the plastic sheets and picture frames strewn across the forecourt, a small wooden table had been set for refreshments: two dirty shot glasses and an unmarked bottle of suspicious, clear liquid.
We were stood amidst the construction tools – wondering whether to press on or turn back – when we were spotted by the builders. They looked at us… we looked at them… and then one of them shrugged and gestured towards the main building as if to say, Are you going in, or not?
And so we did. We ducked through their half-finished labours, passing along the would-be corridor of bare wooden beams and straight through the breach, through the outer wall of the main factory building.
The room we stepped into was something I never could have predicted.
A den of fur and stone, a luxurious space decorated in Pre-Raphaelite friezes and modern flat screen monitors. A grand piano sat at one end of the converted factory space, between art deco columns that framed an expansive dining area: all floorboards, chintz and silk tablecloths.
Two girls and a guy sat lounging around a divan in the corner. They spoke to each other in hushed tones, laughing, occasionally, but never so much as acknowledging our intrusion.
I just stood there for a time, bemused, disorientated, trying to place myself in this unexpected new environment. I was dressed for adventure, for dirt and danger: my torn, many-pocketed combat trousers, plastered in dust and cobwebs; my big boots and climbing gloves. I thought I’d come out prepared for anything – but this pocket-universe of palatial luxury tucked away inside an abandoned mill had really thrown me. I couldn’t even tell if we were trespassing anymore.
Stood there blinking like an idiot, I suddenly realised that my headlamp was still switched to full beam.
At the far end of the hall, a lounge area had been set up. Two leather chairs twisted inward to watch the tennis on an LCD television. Beyond them, past the polished floor and oak pillars, through a wall-to-ceiling window lined in ornate golden trim, this palace enjoyed a penthouse view over the derelict factory. Rust, pipes, machinery, and piles of discarded tyres; peeling paint, rotten wood and girders. It was strangely beautiful.
With its decadent décor and high technology, a 21st century crib nestled in the hidden bower of a derelict industrial behemoth, I couldn’t help but imagine the place as a super villain’s lair; Nate was thinking the same thing, apparently, noting how we’d stumbled into the home of some kind of Belgrade Bond villain.
Just then, in a moment of almost preternatural weirdness, the Bond theme started playing; distorting loud from speakers tucked into invisible corners of the room.
We left the peculiar palace behind us, heading back towards the factory. At least sneaking about in ruined buildings made some sense. A curtained doorway led us from this luxuriant interior to a kind of open-plan conservatory area; exotic plants exploded out of terracotta pots, while colourful, tropical birds flapped and cooed inside giant brass cages.
We had nearly left the madness behind when a man approached us.
“Where are you from?” he asked, in English.
Australia, Yomadic told him, and the stranger nodded. He knew it well, he said. I had taken him for crew at first, perhaps another construction worker – but as it turned out, here was the ruler of this pocket-universe. Our Serbian Blofeld.
For a moment I thought he’d comment on the fact that we clearly had no business being here. But he simply wanted to chat; to talk about his concert touring days, his visits to Australia.
Blofeld told us how the factory was being developed – one area at a time – into a theatre complex. Sometimes this converted space hosted raves, other times, experimental drama performed inside the giant bird cages.
Later I’d find the website for the theatre, a performing arts company by the name of Pozorište KPGT. The site was oddly terrifying, an insane jumble of chattering voices and dissonant music set against flashing lights and images of peculiarly deformed mannequins. I felt like I was watching the found footage videotape in a horror movie, the one that puts a death curse on its viewer.
We asked Blofeld if he minded us taking a look around the rest of the abandoned factory.
“Be my guest,” he said, gesturing towards the rust and rot and ruined gantries.
Ruin Porn & Rusty Rockets
Around the corner, a crusty yellow corridor fed directly into the main body of the factory. A gantry far above us was supported by iron pillars set on concrete plinths; passing between these, through the thick dust and grime that had settled into a bed along the factory floor, it felt as though we were entering an Egyptian tomb.
At the end of the corridor, a boat lay perched up on a concrete support as if it had been beached, drowned in the desert, the victim of some post-apocalyptic drought. Splatters of colour on the walls and pillars – lime green, purple, blue – stood witness to paintball matches that had played out in this industrial arena.
That corridor took us finally into a main plant room, where light came in through green-tinted glass to illuminate tiles and smoke-stained brick; walls buried beneath a twisted, cancerous growth of thick pipes and broken gantries, girders jutting out from higher levels and tangling with free-hanging electrical cables. The stack rose up from the midst of it to disappear through beams, nosing its way up between the higher levels of the factory. Hatches and portholes perforated the smooth grey cylinder, so that it looked like some retro moon rocket, a cartoon vessel prepped and ready for lift-off.
From there, we climbed. Up one flight of splintered stairs to the metal gantry above, that segmented the factory space into narrow platforms edged in by a sheer drop. The four of us separated, each taking different routes as we ascended.
Yomadic, camera in hand, wandered the back corridors, the chambers and plant rooms at the rear of the building lit through broken window frames, gaping sky doors, as if someone had taken a giant tin-opener to the walls; and in the process letting in a flood of creeping vines that clutched at metal cages, at festering furniture.
Nemanja and Wolf, our local guides, they headed out onto a fragile climbing frame of girders. Following a series of gantries, each one narrower than the one before, they tread a delicate path as they made for a platform elevated high above the factory. There they climbed a series of rusted ladders to arrive at the apex of the corrugated roof, peering down on the sugar mill from a shuddering scaffold some five or six floors in height.
Meanwhile, I followed the stairs – one level, another then another, the floorboards getting softer with each step, my hands dyed umber from the flaking, powdered paint of rungs and railings. Past old machinery, broken winches, stepping over coils of steel cable as I spiralled upwards through the three-dimensional labyrinth. Soon, I reached a staircase that had collapsed altogether; but ducking under a stone lintel, following the elevated gantry around from one room to the next, trusting nothing but the metal beams by this point, I found another stairway and the climb continued.
Eventually I emerged into an airy space, a wood-floored chamber up amongst the rafters and lit by sun that bubbled in through panoramic windows on two sides. Blofeld’s oratory. I took a seat on a decayed – yet strangely comfortable – padded chair, and looked out at the view: the factory roofs, corrugated teeth that bit red triangles into a pale Serbian sky.
Beneath the chimneys, beneath the treetops that blossomed several floors below me, I made out voices. There were shouts and commands, someone laughed, then the sounds of heavy machinery. The few remaining staff employed by the bankrupted sugar factory… once, this was a legion. Had I sat up here a century ago, I’d have witnessed the hive in its full glory: Serbia’s largest sugar refinery buzzing with scores of busy workers. By now however, the only sugar left in this pace was a hard black residue, burnt syrup smeared over rust on broken vats and furnaces.
Twelve hours in Belgrade. It hadn’t been much, and even after that I couldn’t name a single regular tourist attraction in the Serbian capital. Sometimes, though, I find it pays to travel deep, rather than travelling broad – and during my visit I’d seen enough to know, at least, that this was a country worth exploring more.
My first impressions were those of a city tethered to the past but also, paradoxically, accelerating in new and exciting directions. Certainly, it is a city that has known its share of tragedy: the years of Ottoman occupation, the deadly factory riots of the early 20th century; the bombed-out Ministry of Defence building, a stark reminder of brutal and bloody conflict that absorbed Belgrade even within my own memory. Growing up in that era, much of my early knowledge of the place was built around words like ‘genocide’ and ‘war.’ Yet in spite (or perhaps, because) of all that difficult heritage, I perceived a powerful sense of wit and innovation. The city skyline alone is a testament to the extremes of Serbian imagining.
Then there’s KPGT, with their staggeringly creative and – frankly – somewhat mad conversion of a ruined factory into experimental theatre space. Perhaps I’ll take in a show, next time I’m in town. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before I’m back in Belgrade.
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