Belgrade rocks

Night falls in the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and music fills the air. Everywhere.

Along the banks of the Danube and Sava Rivers, serpentine chains of music-blasting splavovi – floating raft clubs – snake into the inky Balkan night. Fortified by huge meat-kebab dinners and Turkish coffees from Belgrade’s myriad cafes, crowds of night owls line up to partake variously of Gypsy bands, electronic mixes, rock ‘n’ roll and a distinctly Serbian hybrid known as Turbofolk.

Across the water, the lighted dome of St. Sava Church and illuminated stone walls of the centuries-old Kalemegdan Fortress hover over the capital’s skyline. Just six years ago, during 78 days of NATO bombings intended to quell President Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks on ethnic Albanians in the nation’s Kosovo province, that same panorama exploded routinely in flame and debris.

This night, with Mr. Milosevic on trial in The Hague and Belgrade’s doors open to the West, it’s only the lights from Exile’s open-air dance floor that flash in the night sky. The club’s thudding sound system, not bombs, sends ripples through the river.

“I was here in the 1990’s, the Dark Ages,” says Dean Triantafilou, a Baltimore native who worked to resettle refugees after the 1991-95 civil wars that shattered Yugoslavia, and now leads tours to Belgrade. “If you didn’t spend your dinars in two hours, they were worthless,” because of hyperinflation.

The nostalgic minor-chord strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” float from the hands of an outdoor pianist, whose earnest airs collide with techno music blasting from a nearby lounge called Red Bar.

This November, it will be 10 years since the Dayton Accords ended the vicious ethnic war in neighboring Bosnia, and it has been five years since Serbia’s “October Revolution” – when thousands of protesters flooded Belgrade’s squares, burned the Parliament building and forced Mr. Milosevic to abdicate his stranglehold on a country that he had plunged into violence, economic ruin and international isolation. But Belgrade’s 1.5 million residents are still waiting for the world to show up.

Consider, for example, what the Serbia and Montenegro chapter in Fodor’s latest “Eastern and Central Europe” guidebook says about Belgrade: nothing. There is no such chapter. Ditto for “Rick Steve’s Best of Eastern Europe 2005,” which gives no travel information on the city and offers only a cursory sketch of the nation’s history. The book’s maps mysteriously end at the Bosnian and Croatian borders, with only empty whiteness beyond.

Such omissions, alas, are nothing new. Recalling his misguided prejudices before his visit to Belgrade in 1937, Henry Andrews, the husband of the British journalist and consummate Balkan chronicler Rebecca West, remarked to his wife: “I had always thought of Belgrade then as the Viennese see it. As the end of the earth, as a barbarian village.” It was scarcely just the Viennese.

West did more than anyone before or since to dispel such illusions and to fill in the blank maps of Balkan life and history. Her magisterial tome “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia,” published in 1941 and including her husband’s reaction to Belgrade, remains the definitive travelogue about the region and your best travel companion in the city. Treading streets lined with mysterious Cyrillic signs, passing the venerable Art Nouveau exterior of the Hotel Moskva, gazing at the sad-eyed Byzantine saints of the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, you can still see Belgrade as West did.

It was not a poetic exaggeration. For more than a millennium, the city squirmed in the crosshairs of its hostile neighbors: Byzantines, Bulgars, Hungarians, Austrians and especially Ottoman Turks, who conquered Belgrade in 1521 and administered it ruthlessly for most of the next three centuries. Together and separately, those powers battled each other and their Serbian subjects in a round-robin of hatred and cannon fire.

In 1941, just after West’s Balkan travels, the Nazi Luftwaffe swooped into the city with more than 900 planes, leveling half of its buildings on a single day in April. Mr Milosevic’s deadly campaign in Kosovo – he is charged with genocide – brought in the bombers once again, this time NATO’s. Seven decades after West composed her lines, her description of Serbia as “a new country that has to make its body and soul,” seems as valid as ever.

In the post-Milosevic period unemployment remains rife. The former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a reformist who was instrumental in sending Mr. Milosevic to face trial in The Hague, was assassinated in 2003. Nationalist, anti-Western parties still enjoy support, and foreign governments have accused Serbia of dragging its feet in rounding up fugitive war criminals from the conflict in Bosnia.

On the other hand, the nation has a progressive democratic president in Boris Tadic, a firm handle on the once-ravaging inflation problem and increasing foreign investments.

Five years after the ouster of Mr. Milosevic Belgraders teeter between cynicism and what B92 independent media group calls “a kind of hidden hope and a belief in Serbia’s wondrous resurrection.”

State-run Communist-era hotels are being privatized and boutique hotels like the smart, crisp Petit Piaf have begun to appear. Style-conscious restaurants, once unheard of in a land of pork-and-potato places, proliferate.

But it’s the electricity of Belgrade’s street life that makes the greatest impression. “Belgrade,” Mr. Matic says, “is a very exciting city for anyone who expects to feel pure human energy.”

You feel it along Knez Mihailova, a boulevard of fountains and Art Nouveau details where streams of D & G-wearing women strut past showrooms of Italian furniture, and preadolescent Gypsy musicians thrill the passing throngs with virtuoso fiddling. You feel it within the narrow passages of the Kalenic outdoor market on Njegoseva Street, as neighborhood residents shout “Koliko? Koliko?” (“How much? How much?) at the phalanx of elderly women in headscarves selling all manner of sausages, produce, nuts, dates, batteries, hair dye, sweaters, rice and deodorant.

You feel it especially in crowded Kalemegdan Park, a green swath overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Formerly the citadel of Belgrade, Kalemegdan was long the bull’s-eye that foreign invaders variously charged, captured, built up and eventually lost. The Roman well, the Turkish mausoleum, the Austrian clock tower and other abandoned relics form an Ozymandian graveyard of vanished dynasties.

But come dark, a number of outdoor bars and nightclubs sprout in the recesses of the park, and the cemetery of empires is reborn as the booming, cocktail-soaked cradle of Belgrade decadence.

“Anywhere else in the world, you wouldn’t be allowed to have something like this in a historical monument,” a bearded film student says one night at Bassment, a club that operates against the Kalemegdan battlements in warm months. “Not Belgrade.”

Like Kalemegdan, the rest of the White City – the literal translation of its Serbian name, Beograd – reaches the zenith of its energy at night. Propelled by some of Europe’s cheapest cocktails and taxi rides, the after-dark adventurer discovers that the surprisingly friendly and safe terra incognita of Belgrade holds a bounty of hidden hipster speakeasies, raucous rock ‘n’ roll dives and nightclubs boasting global talent.

On a late fall evening, some weekending Britons follow a muffled electronic beat through an undistinguished door along Boulevard Novembra 29, descend a poorly lighted staircase and emerge in a basement bar, the Association of Globe-Trotters. Only the most motivated travelers can hope to discover it.

“This place you can only find if somebody brings you here,” says the bartender, Dejan.

The secret bar phenomenon is very much a trend in Belgrade. Some, like the aptly named nightclub Andergraund, occupy subterranean spaces in Kalemegdan Park. Others, like the cocktail lounge Ben Akiba – where a lively crowd of people in their 30’s toasts “Ziveli” amid loud disco and funk – are concealed in private apartments.

“Where are all the people between 2 and 6 a.m.?” playfully asks the online entertainment site, one of the rare English-language guides to the city. “They are probably hiding in some places where you can’t find them.”

Near Slavija Square on a Friday night, however, ranks of splendidly grimy music fans emerge from the woodwork to follow the buzz-saw sound of melodic punk rock reverberating from the outdoor stage of SKC, the CBGB of Belgrade. The every-punk-and-his-mother crowd arrives by the hundreds, chugging Lav Pivo (Lion Beer) from two-liter bottles.

For a place that has suffered as many privations and embargoes as Belgrade – where rock was a key opposition force during the lean Milosevic years – the locals exhibit musical knowledge as extensive as anywhere in the West. “They’re remarkably well-informed,” says Nick Hobbs, a concert promoter who has brought Kraftwerk and other staples of American vinyl junkies to Belgrade in recent years. “We can do things in Belgrade that we can’t do anywhere else.”

The result is a fertile musical landscape full of acts that would probably be alt-rock icons in countries with better record companies and higher disposable incomes: the hard-driving Lira Vega; the indie-electronic Darkwood Dub; the subversive sonic experimenter Rambo Amadeus.

The city endured more than two decades of the vicissitudes – the post-Tito comedown, the wars of the 1990’s, the economic and political uncertainty under the new leaders – “It used to be a positive thing to be a Yugoslav,” says Dan Tana, a Serb-American restauranteur, with a sigh. “Milosevic did more damage to Serbs than Hitler did to the Germans.”

An article from the New York Times, by Seth Sherwood, published on Oct. 16, 2005.

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