The Spy Who Came in for a Snit
It is easy to imagine evil deeds being plotted in the rooms and bodies tumbling down the stairwell. But before my imagination runs riot, a line from Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy comes to mind: “Reality is always so obstructive.”
The grand dame of Belgrade, the Hotel Moskva has played many roles: insurance office, Gestapo headquarters, and hotel for the stars. In this last incarnation, the guest list reads like who’s who of mid 20th Century European legends and intrigue: Albert Einstein, Maxim Gorky, Orson Welles, Rebecca West, Indira Gandhi and infamous visitors such as Muammar Gaddafi have all rested their heads and made deals under the hotel’s roof. Photos of these guests line the hallways on each floor and visions of spies lurk in the corner of the eye.
In my mind, the meeting place for dark characters is the café. Reality is nothing like this. The Moskva Café is the up-market place to meet from mid-afternoon to late into the evening.
Famous for its pastries, patrons meet to bask in old world elegance, sharing coffee and confections under chandeliers while a pianist quietly provides accompaniment.
The Secessionist (a regional variety of Art Nouveau) building’s history is also one of many guises: construction of the hotel, funded by a Russian company, opened in 1908 as a multi-purpose building housing the Rossiya Insurance company, the Hotel Moskva, a café, the Serbian Olympic club, a writers’ club and a journalists club. After WWI, the kafana became the setting for the Yugoslavian literary scene because, according to one regular visitor, it was one of the few places with light.
The Russian revolution brought an end to the Rossiyapat Insurance company and the building was taken over by a bank. During the Second World War the hotel served as the Gestapo HQ. After the war, the building was nationalized and it returned to hosting luminaries of the Yugoslav arts and intelligencia society.
In 2005, the hotel was privatized and refurbished in 2009-2010 with tremendous attention to original Secessionist detail ranging from stained glass windows to mosaics at the head of the stairwells on each floor.
The Hotel Moskva is my favourite place for visits to Belgrade. Spies may not walk the halls or conduct deals in the shadows of the café, but the warning signs in the elevator—handguns and grenades are not allowed in the hotel—suggest the ever-present possibility that assassins are never far away. Little wonder that the atmosphere and the history make it easy for my mind drift back into the pages of my favourite authors.
Photographer’s note: For the first time, all the pictures were taken on the iPhone, rather than a camera—Mr. DW
Left: Check your petrol cans and German Shepards at the door.