In another professional life I had the pleasure to work and live in Belgrade. I still remember how I arrived on a gloomy day in November. It was definitely not love on first sight but soon the city and its warm inhabitants conquered my heart. Every city built along the Danube River is a treasure trove of history and charm. The majority of those cities are Europe’s prime tourism destinations. Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, all emanate that familiar, fairy-tale warmth. Belgrade (Beograd in Serbian) is similar, maybe a bit more laid back. Cobblestone streets, medieval castles; you can count in the whole package. Winter evenings make you look for the Little Matchstick Girl sitting around the corner. I like what they do with ruins, castles and other monuments in this city. They renovate those sites and open them for public use. Not like most administrations that lock those things up afraid that people will trample over them. Kalemegdan is a great example. It’s the cradle of Belgrade where people have lived long before the Romans made it their main fortress in this region. It’s more of a small town than an actual military fortification. They don’t keep it locked down, it’s open to everyone and the admission is free.
There’s even a popular lounge club called Terassa. Imagine having a nightclub at the Colosseum in Rome, there’s no way. The Kalegmedgan Park makes also an awesome venue for concerts and other live events. It was there where Amy Winehouse gave a concert on June 18, 2011, which turned out to be memorable event for a number of reasons. The gig, which was supposed to be the start of her European tour in summer 2011 ended in a huge deception. She was too drunk to stand on her feet, let alone sing and after being booed mercy less by the crowds she broke off, leaving the audience and her band behind in embarrassment. It became a huge scandal in Serbia since people paid over 30 dollar for a ticket in a country where the average wages are just a few hundred box per month. It was called the worst concert ever given in Belgrade and even Serbian ministers gave their opinion. At that time the concertgoers in Belgrade did not realise they witnessed Amy’s last live performance ever, since we all know the end of the story. A few weeks later, on July 23, 2011 Amy Winehouse died of accidental alcohol poisoning. And so she became another member of the notorious 27 Club, a group of popular musicians like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain who all died at that age as the final chapter of their drug or alcohol addiction. Amy was an incredible gifted singer. I will never stop listening to her but seeing footage of her Belgrade concert on YouTube or in the stunning documentary Amy still pains me so I prefer not to watch that again.
There are some very interesting legends about Kalemegdan, which took place long before anyone had heard of Amy Winehouse. Some people say that Attila is buried in the close vicinity of the fortress. He was one of the most feared enemies of the Roman Empire, a living definition of a warlord. His grave is supposedly located at the confluence of Danube and Sava rivers, which would mean old Belgrade. These are just rumours, like the one about Dante descending Kalemegdan well into Tartar. Serbs are known for their jokes and storytelling; don’t believe everything they say. There sure is a well, but it was used for a different kind of entertainment. Guards’ favourite pastime was throwing prisoners down the well. Those who survived were pitted against each other in mortal combat. Gambling and hilarity for all, right?
Belgrade’s most interesting sites are hidden underground: both literally and figuratively. There is an entire under city that could rival the Paris Catacombs. Some of those tunnels are really ancient; there is evidence of a civilization older than Mesopotamian, mostly situated beneath Kalemegdan. There are aqueducts and baths, Austrian armouries, wine cellars and bunkers used by Soviet spies. Saint Mark’s Church stands on top of a cave where Romans sourced stones for their sarcophagi. It’s fascinating. Archaeologists claim that exploring all the tunnels could take decades. It blows my mind; I can’t even imagine what else could be there. Especially considering the Freemasonic presence in Belgrade. Some say they gathered in Srpska Kruna Hotel, which now functions as the Belgrade City Library.
Belgrade’s second underground scene is its famous nightlife. Surprisingly, the Serbian capital is one of the wildest cities on earth. I still remember how astonished I was during my first visits of Belgrade to see how crowded the cafes, bars and restaurants are, even at late evenings during working days. People party throughout the entire week, not just during the weekends. Whatever is your musical taste you will find something that floats your boat: alternative, folk, jazz, electronic and of course you can go wild on turbo-folk. It blends Serbian folk music with other genres such as pop, rock, and electronic or even hip-hop and is characterized by bombastic electronic beats and passionate local vocals. It emerged as a subculture during the 70s in the former Yugoslavia and became later associated with Serbian mafia and nationalism. But luckily its image changed for the better and now it is even embraced by the local LGBTQ community and alternative youngsters.
In Belgrade they do an amazing job of reusing all the industrial spaces built in the 20th century. Drugstore (http://drugstorebeograd.com/) is one of the most popular clubs in Belgrade. They say it’s THE underground club. Expect lots of concrete and rough, minimalistic design. It used to serve as a slaughterhouse back in the day. Now it hosts various cultural and clubbing events. Belgrade’s Splavs (or Splavovi in Serbian) are another pastime semi-exclusive to Belgrade. They call them the floating clubs, but they’re more like platforms on the river. 20/44 has been mentioned as one of the best clubs in Europe. It’s consistently in the top 5 according to The Guardian. They boast their Mulholland Drive’esque interiors but the truth is that it used to be a striptease club. The poles and the velvet are still there.
You’ll get the best out of Belgrade’s nightlife during summer. Beer gardens on Skadarlija and urban areas like KC Grad and KPTM are always packed. Belgrade is relatively cheap compared to Western European capitals until you venture into a certain area. Strahinjica Bana street, dubbed the “Silicon Valley” of Belgrade because of the many silicone enhancements of the women there, is frequented by the “more refined” crowd. It’s the most expensive part of Belgrade, but it’s worth every penny.