There weren’t many ‘grand’ cafes to be found on our Balkan Caffeination odyssey. But the cafe at the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade certainly qualifies.
Historically this imposing building has gone through dramatic iterations starting with a simple single storey house in the early 1900s. Then an inn, the Velika Serbija. Around 1905, the wealthy owners of the inn – who weren’t that interested in inn-keeping - decided that the location was too good an opportunity to ‘squander’. Consequently they approached the successful and cash-rich Rossiya Insurance company of Russia with a view to opening a major branch HQ in Belgrade. As well as developing a luxurious, multi-purpose palatial edifice.
Thus began the design and planning of what was to become in 1908 the Rossiya Palace. Within the palace, in addition to Rossiya’s offices and other firms, they opened a 36 room hotel – the Hotel Moskva. Along with its obligatory fine cafe.
In the spring of 1941, following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, the Gestapo moved into the Rossiya Palace, promptly renamed it the Hotel Velika Serbija and looted its collection of fine paintings, silverware and gold-plated utensils.
Reverting in the post-WWII period to Hotel Moskva and to the Belgrade cultural elite’s favourite place to congregate, the hotel was nationalized under the communist regime.
Drinking coffee while hanging out amongst the cultural elite was an instant seal of approval. Cafe luminaries such as poet Vasko Popa was a regular client for decades. His daily ritual: arrive 3:30 PM, drink coffee until 6 PM.
In 1974, the hotel restaurant added a poslastičarnica (locally customized version of a patisserie) as part of its offering. Among the various cakes introduced on the occasion was Moskva šnit, a fruitcake that quickly became popular and remains one of the hotel's staples. The original Moskva šnit recipe was created by pastry chef Anica Džepina, and later trademarked. Nowadays, the restaurant serves between 200 and 300 pieces of Moskva šnit daily, while some one thousand whole cakes are delivered monthly to home addresses. A sweet reminder of a grand past.
The Hotel Moskva was re-privatized in 2005 and refurbished in 2009. Today it continues to draw the ‘great and good’ of Belgrade - and the world.
Among the many loyal patrons of today's cafe at the Moskva we met two of the most delightful ladies - Milka (90) and Gigana (82). In their lifetimes they had seen the Moskva through virtually all of its character transformations, borne along on a tide of fragrant coffee.
Says Milka to Gigana: 'Despite all the hardships - World War II, Communism, Milosevic, the 1999 bombings - we still have time for our coffee, don't we? 'Yes', replies Gigana, 'but Communism all but destroyed Serbian culture and with it cafe culture. It just isn't the same.'
Our brief visit to the Moskva was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand we appreciated the efforts of the owners to recapture its former glory, its grandness. But, as Milka indicated, something was gone. And in its place, a pastiche.
Nevertheless both its interior cafe area and sidewalk terrace are well worth the price of a cuppa and, of course, a slice of Moskva šnit.
Words and images by Fred Shively and Paul Kelly, the Balkan Caffeinators. With reference to a great Wikipedia piece on the Hotel Moskva history – well worth a read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Moskva,_Belgrade
What is Balkan Caffeination?
Our mission is to explore why coffee and cafés are central to the Balkan way of life.