Where The Wild Things Are
Written for Expat.rs by Richard Wordsworth
Serbs are rightly proud of their nightlife. Even by western standards, its relatively short history is impressive; its clubs and arenas attract big name international performers who could easily fill stadiums in major European capitals - The Chemical Brothers, 50 Cent, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers to name a few. Serbia's four day music festival "EXIT" this year brought thousands of foreigners and world-famous acts from every genre to the northern city of Novi Sad, and began life as a student initiated effort to overthrow the Milosevic regime by unifying the youth through music. It even has its own unique musical genre, "turbo folk", supported by countless fans and dedicated TV and radio stations. For nightlife afficionados new to the city, Belgrade is a land of breathtaking opportunity.
What's more, anyone who has had the pleasure of being around town in Belgrade at night will know that nightlife here is no challenge to find; the rhythmic pounding of house music and somewhat less rhythmic ululations of the domestic folk music seem to permeate the air from one end of the city to the other. But while it can be fun to just follow your ears and see where they take you, with all the choice on offer in Belgrade the task of finding that select group of your "favourite clubs" could take months. Far better, really, to let someone else do all that hard work for you, and then summarise the results in a concise, easy to read article. So I did.
Perhaps the most uniquely Serbian aspect of nightlife are the splavovi (splavs) - large floating platforms on the river banks on which are built as cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. The splavs enjoy huge popularity in the warmer months, which dwindles with the dropping temperatures in the autumn. While it's possible to find restaurant splavs that stay open most of the year, the splav club scene is definitely a summer feature, when the big inner-city clubs move their parties out to the rafts to escape the sweltering heat.
Splavs start hotting up earlier than traditional clubs, as many co-exist as restaurants and bars or clubs under one roof. People eat late in Serbia, so a good time to arrive and explore is about 9:30pm, have a drink and something to eat, and watch as the rafts and the bank start to fill up with late night party-goers. Many restaurant splavs, such as Black Panther and Amsterdam (on Ada Ciganlja and the Danube, respectively) are more than worthy of your entire evening, the former providing raucous traditional Roma music (heavy on the brass and the hairy men, and sometimes incorporating guitars) and the latter transforming itself into a slick after hours club for the bright young things.
As with the "mainland" clubs, splavs exist which cater for just about every musical taste, and many put on DJ's or bands of different genres depending on the night. Another benefit of the splavs is that their location on the river means they have no competition for building space, and no pesky neighbours registering frivelous complaints about noise and lack of sleep. For these reasons, splavs group together in a way that it's impossible for clubs in the city to do - building one next to the other in long lines down the river bank - and make as much noise as they please until the very early hours. From the point of view of Belgrade's clubbers this means that any boredom with one club can be easily assuaged simply by wandering next door, and leads to large groups of young people amassing on the river banks outside the clubs, smoking and chattering about where to visit next. The best example of this can be found on Brodarska, which runs along the bank of the river Sava, where arguably the largest dance splavs - Exile, Freestyler and Sound - can be found.
A word on turbofolk:
Of all the differences between Serbian nightlife and that of other European capitals, for most visitors to the city the most baffling of them all is turbo folk. A product of the early '90s, turbo folk served as mindless, sugary pop distraction from the grim political state of the country, characterized generally by scantily clad girls touching on issues as deep and varied as why their boyfriends have left them and why they need lots of money to buy expensive clothes. Think ganster rap as performed by Celine Dion. Perplexingly, despite the encroachment of other more dancefloor-friendly genres of music, the general consensus in Belgrade seems to be that folk still worthy enough a genre to have its own dedicated clubs, and even if you can't understand the lyrics, everyone should visit a place like Blaywatch and Vanila just the once to see what all the fuss is about. Cultural immersion, and all that.
Not to be deterred by sub-zero temperatures on winter nights, clubbing is just as prevalent in the colder months as in the summer. Many of the most popular drinking and dancing venues are only a short walk from the central Trg Republike (Republic Square), which in the evenings year round bustles with young people who meet there before heading out en masse. The club scene in the city is fairly relaxed, lacking the pretentiousness that afflicts so many clubs in Western nightlife capitals like London, Paris or Moscow. Many venues enforce basic dress codes, but few are prohibitively smart, and the feeling among the majority of the youth is that what you listen to is more important than where you listen to it.
This is good news for music lovers, and makes the popular clubs in the centre like Andergraund, Plastic and Stefan Braun friendly places to enjoy an evening of hard dancing. And Serbs dance hard. Clubs in the city stay open until dawn in many cases, and with a little forward planning you can find large parties on any night of the week. Stay late enough and you might even be able to go straight to work in the morning.
If your employer objects to your pulling all-nighters, however, many clubs also provide separate, quieter bar areas away from the main dancefloor. The idea of bars as just bars doesn't seem to have caught on in Serbia as much as in the west, with their being little to fill the gap between cafes and nightclubs on offer. Happily, the bars in the clubs are usually quiet enough to hold conversation if you're willing to raise your voice a bit, and offer a welcome brake from the riotous main rooms to recharge and practice your Serbian chat up lines.
Belgrade has several other venues that the city's party organisers use for special events. The biggest is the Beogradska Arena, the huge sports stadium in New Belgrade which provides a home for larger concerts and international performers. The Sava Centar also puts on concerts from time to time, as does SKC, the student cultural centre, both of which have websites with up to date programmes. The most striking alternative venue in the city is the Kalemegdan park at the top of Knez Mihailova, the main walking street. Don't be deceived by the family picnics and gaggles of intense looking old men playing chess in the daytime - at night the park has multiple spaces reserved for gigs and parties, which is a very agreeable way to spend a summer's night if the clubs are making you claustrophobic or overheated.