Saturday night and the boat I’m on is rocking, literally. Gypsy fiddlers leap on to tables and among dancers. As more people board the boat, moored on the Danube in Belgrade, one of the musicians launches through a window and towards the roof. For a moment I’m certain he will end up in the river, but, no, soon he’s dancing above us, calling to people on the shore: “Come join the party!”
Serbia’s capital may never be celebrated alongside Prague and Budapest as a beautiful Eastern city, but Belgrade is defiantly top-notch when it comes to clubbing. With the rise of two (very different) Serbian festivals — the rock and techno Exit festival and Guca, where hundreds of Gypsy brass bands entertain 300 000 revellers — Belgrade is now on the western European music fans’ radar.
Every night of the week it is home to a huge variety of clubs and parties. You can dance in old fortresses and on boats, in underground caverns and cocktail bars. And there’s a great array of musical styles to dance to: from ragged Gypsy fiddlers to blinged-out turbo-folk singers, from banging techno through heavy metal and more — much more. As with most emerging club scenes, it’s international DJs who are at the forefront.
The city is divided by the Danube and Sava rivers into New and Old Belgrade. As the former consists largely of housing estates built in the concrete brutalist style favoured by communist regimes (alongside ugly strip malls thrown up when capitalism took over), newcomers should look to Stari Grad (Old Town).
Belgrade avoids the mass tourism that has turned Prague into an adult Disneyland, but it does offer a pleasant mishmash of architectural styles and reasonably priced cafés, bars and restaurants.
Stari Grad is also home to a large concentration of clubs. Plato Jazz Club, in Belgrade University’s philosophy department, is a relaxed place to start your evening, enjoy superb views and browse in the city’s best bookshop. Nearby is Informbiro, a basement bar in the Belgrade Philharmonic building that specialises in urban dance music. From Informbiro you can walk to The Tube (www.thetube.rs), celebrated for its house music and its large, dark corridors.
Techno and house took off here in the 1990s as a rebellious alternative to Milosevic’s regime, feeding off the city’s prodigious nervous energies.
Belgrade has dozens of techno clubs — connoisseurs recommend Sound and Plastic — and long-established rock club Akademija (www.akademija.net) still pumps out the power chords.
But what marks Belgrade as an exceptional clubbing city is its waterways. Several kilometres of the Sava and Danube rivers are home to anchored rafts shoring up cafés, restaurants and clubs called splavovi (moored floats). Divided into three different groupings of boats, some splavs are open all year, although most do business only in summer. I found the area called Ada Ciganlija (Gypsy Island) most fascinating.
Across Belgrade bar prices vary but are always reasonable compared with those of the United Kingdom and smoking remains legal and popular. Entry to clubs is often free, the taxis are relatively cheap and there is little crime to speak of. Best of all, the Serbs are remarkably friendly.
If Belgrade guarantees anything today it is good tunes, good value and great times. —