Published On: Tue, Oct 16th, 2018

Why nighttime is the right time when visiting Belgrade

It’s a miracle that my new friend, Iva Savić, wasn’t falling asleep at dinner. The night before we met, I was flying to her hometown, Belgrade, Serbia. She had been out dancing with a group of girlfriends until 4 a.m. Then she’d woken up bright and perky to head to work. She hadn’t planned on staying out that late, but in typical Belgrade fashion, dinner had turned into bar-hopping. “We stayed until 2 a.m. and then they shut off the music and we moved on to another bar,” she said. If you know where to go in Belgrade, the night never has to end.

I had met Iva through her sister, Alisa Dogramadzieva, who has worked with The New York Times’ Eastern European correspondents. Alisa was in nearby Montenegro, but Iva was eager to show me all her hometown had to offer. And I had been eager to have company and guidance navigating one of the few 52 Places to Go in 2018 list destinations where night life is central.

As a woman travelling alone, I often feel a lack of security going out on my own after dark. The last time I tried clubbing solo was two years ago in Miami as part of a Cosmo article on dating scenes across the United States — and the groping and stalker-like tendencies I encountered had somewhat traumatized me.

I knew I was in good hands with Iva. Like me, she is in her 40s, but with a teenage daughter and an air of being able to both charm a charging bull and flip it over her head if provoked, though she’s only a little more than 5 feet tall. Through her, I got to see the beauty of this capital city, set at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. I also learned how deeply the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the breakup of that country affected daily life in Belgrade, from the look of certain buildings that were never repaired after the NATO bombings of 1999 to the songs cover bands play at bars. Most of all, she opened my eyes to the true through-line of a trip to Belgrade: hospitality and an ability to sing and dance through the best, and the worst, of times.

Stilettos and restaurant serenades

Picking me up for our first night out together, Iva had one instruction: no stilettos. We would be doing a long walk over cobblestones and across railroad tracks to get to Beton Hala, or The Concrete Hall, a row of fancy restaurants built into refurbished warehouses along the east bank of the Sava River. I had to laugh when I showed up in Birkenstocks, my only dressy travel shoes: every other woman there looked like a model, in a tight miniskirt and, yes, stilettos.

“Belgrade is very known for high heels and beautiful women,” Iva said.

It’s also known for live music, which is so abundant and varied, emanating from nearly every street corner and terrace, that walking outside can feel like stepping into a parade.

Bands played in nearly every restaurant in the Concrete Hall, each with a terrace facing across the Sava River toward the communist-era architecture of New Belgrade — a business district built in the late 1940s on a stretch of filled-in riverbank.

We got a drink at a place called Hush Hush, where a talented guitar-and-accordion duo played evergreen ’50s and ’60s music from Eastern Europe. Down the row, at Cantina de Frieda, a cover band was doing a rousing rendition of the 1985 classic “Ja Sam Lazlijiva” from Croatian synth-pop band Denis & Denis. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days, despite knowing none of the lyrics or what they meant.

The cobblestoned Skadarlija district — often compared with Paris’ Montmartre, and where your hotel will likely suggest that you have dinner — is filled with traditional taverns, called kafanas, where bands of five to six musicians move from table to table, singing folk songs and taking requests. (We ate at Tri Sesira, which had two accordion-led acoustic bands playing simultaneously.) In the winter, when people crowd indoors, it’s quite common to dance on your table to show your appreciation, should the music so move you.

Even the magnificent Hotel Moskva, a city landmark built in 1908 and where I stayed, had a piano player at breakfast, which really added to the atmosphere of gilded chandeliers and red velvet furniture.

The scene I liked most, though, was in the historical district, Zemun, a former municipality along the Danube that the city absorbed in the 1930s.

There, Iva introduced me to Jasmina Vekic, owner of the 138-year-old fish restaurant Saran, one of the oldest in the city. Like many Serbians, she’d left in the ’90s and built a life as a businesswoman in Prague. After Yugoslavia dissolved, about 15 years ago, the government sold off a lot of the businesses it owned, including restaurants, and Vekic had been able to buy this one at a bargain price. She’s now one of the few female restaurant owners in the city. Serbians, she said, shouting over the band in her restaurant, put music above everything. “Even if you’re an 80-year-old Serb,” she said, “you want to have a birthday party and to dance.”

‘The ’80s were the happiest time’

Another night, Iva took me to the concert of possibly the greatest cover band I have ever witnessed, The Gift, at a venue called Bitef Art Cafe Summer Stage in the Kalamegdan Fortress, an actual fortress used to defend against Ottoman invaders that is the city’s most popular public park.

The singer, Jovan Matic (known as Joca Ajkula, or Joca the Shark), wore eyeliner and oozed sexual energy, particularly once he had shed his shirt. They exclusively played New Wave songs from the ’80s (Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”). The crowd of mostly 20-somethings knew every lyric.

“The ’80s were the happiest time,” Iva said. “You could travel and Belgrade was open. Everyone went for summer holiday; they didn’t have to count their salary. These songs remind me of my childhood, before the war.”

I asked her if she had any nostalgia for ‘90s pop: Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears. She barely knew them. Before she and her family had left Yugoslavia, it had become completely closed off. “The ’90s was when nationalism was spreading,” she said. “You’d turn on the TV and hear the war songs.”

Club hopping on the waterfront

No matter where in the city your night begins, chances are it will end up at the Sava waterfront. After the Concrete Hall on the Old Belgrade side, Iva took me to one of her favourite dance spots, Tranzit, which had a great DJ, was totally outdoors and had none of the predatory behaviour that had turned me off in Miami. Iva suggested we reserve a table and I had said no because I didn’t want to pay some exorbitant bottle fee. But it turns out that in Belgrade, reserving a table at a club just means you have a guaranteed spot to stand without getting jostled — for free. (At some bars, you can do that VIP bottle service thing, too, if that’s your thing).

Across the water in New Belgrade, the scene is all about clubs on boats, known as splavs. Are you into folk music? Half-naked women dancing on platforms to drum and bass? Paintings of Frank Zappa’s face? (They’re plastered all over club Zappa Barka). There’s a party boat for everyone. And it was easy to hop from one to another since almost none of the boats charge a cover; if they do, it’s around $ 5. (Just watch out for taxi scams; any legit cab has “TX” as part of its licence plate number).

Far less democratic, though, is the $ 3.6 billion redevelopment of the Old Belgrade waterfront just past Tranzit. Where a beautiful new park and walking path stand, filled with commissioned art —such as a light-up plexiglass sculpture — were once people’s homes; residents were violently evicted to make way for construction. That raid prompted the biggest anti-government protests in Serbia since the uprising that ousted Milosevic in 2000. The funding, from the United Arab Emirates, is controversial, as is the architecture, which will put highrises adjacent to the oldest parts of one of the oldest cities in Europe.

Meat, meat, meat (but also fish)

“Traditional Serbian food is meat, meat, meat,” said Iva. It also seemed to be a lot of cheese, cheese, cheese — phenomenally delicious and destined to clog all your arteries.

At least once, if you’re determined to do Belgrade right, you need to start off your day with burek, a savoury pastry made with salty cheese, phyllo leaves and enough grease to power a biodiesel engine. “If I have one tip, it’s that a bakery next to the market is usually going to be good,” said Iva when she took me to Pekara Trpkovic next to the Kalenic Market. (Raspberries are also a good market buy; Serbia is one of the world’s biggest exporters).

To drink, begin with rakija, or plum brandy, and move to Jelen beer. The meat dish every Serbian will ask if you tried is cevapcici: minced meat rolled into a rod shape, grilled and served with flatbread. I was a bigger fan of the two condiments that typically come with it, along with grilled onions: ajvar and kajmak. The former is a spread made from red bell peppers; the latter is made from the fermented cream of boiled milk, and possibly better than butter (something I didn’t know was possible).

Fish lovers should head straight to Zemun, where the river catches are so fresh you can sometimes find fishermen grilling them on the shore. At Saran, widely regarded as the best fish restaurant in the city (the name means carp), Iva and I had a whole grilled perch, along with a stew of river fish (riblja corba) that gets its deep red colour from cayenne pepper.

True to the Serbian reputation of being generous hosts, Iva ordered a cold appetizer starter with all of my favourites every time we sat down. The best of those platters, and best overall meal, hands down, came at Durmitor, a short cab ride from the city centre in New Belgrade. They’re known for steak, but what I’ll remember is a dessert called tri lece, a soft, moist cake dripping with sweet cream. No bands played during our meal. “The food is so good,” Iva said, “they don’t need music.”

Returning to the scene of a wedding — and arrest

On the way to a sunset boat cruise, Iva took me to the perfect spot in Belgrade for an afternoon Aperol spritz: Reka (translation, River), a hip restaurant in Zemun that she had mentioned for days. It is owned by three women — who have filled the walls with colourful paintings from local artists — and features live music every night. It’s also, Iva said, where she was detained by the police for speaking English during the chaos of the NATO bombings of 1999 — the night before her wedding.

I was surprised she was OK returning. “We came that night because we liked the vibe, and the vibe is still good,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “It wasn’t their fault.”

The bombings lasted from March until June of that year, and were aimed at ousting the Milosevic government for the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. Amid the instability, Iva scheduled her wedding for May, and booked a restaurant basement for the reception — to double as a bomb shelter. “We thought, ‘We’re in love. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Let’s do it,’” she said.

She had been working at the BBC as a journalist and producer when a colleague suggested they go to Reka to celebrate her last night as a single woman. They were making reporting phone calls about the day’s bombings when a police officer showed up to take Iva and her colleague, along with Iva’s future ex-husband and her brother-in-law, into custody. Somebody had overheard them speaking English and called them in. The perception was that the British were at fault for the bombings, and that by working with their reporters, Iva was a traitor and her colleague a spy.

They didn’t get out of the station until 2 a.m., at which point Iva rushed to her tailor’s house and woke her up to fetch the dress she’d meant to get hours earlier. Picking up her maid of honour required sweet-talking her way through a police barricade and driving around bomb craters by the military airport. The windows at the municipal building where they wed had been blown out. “We were walking on broken glass to get married,” she said. But the party had been great — live band included.

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Why nighttime is the right time when visiting Belgrade