from Guardian: Belgrade - more contributions to the Sin City
Dancing on the Danube
Belgrade's clubs offer everything from Gypsy folk to Balkan bling, but whichever one you end up in, you're guaranteed a good time
The Guardian, Saturday 25 July 2009
larger | smaller
Pushing the boat out ... Belgrade's waterways are home to cafes, restaurants and clubs on floating rafts called splavovi. Photograph: Image Source/Corbis
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 No 1 when it comes to clubbing. And 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 fan's 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.
Plato Jazz bar, Belgrade, Serbia
As with most emerging club scenes, it's international DJs who are at the forefront. An increasing number of big-names are heading to Belgrade, drawn by the buzz of a city in love with dancing. Radio 1's Gilles Peterson has been visiting the city for two decades and in October plays at Dom Omladine (domomladine.org), a spanking new and very large arts centre. Others include Brooklyn's superstar DJ David Morales, who has graced the decks at the chic Club Magacin 3 and returns to headline the Pena Festival on 29 August at the Belgrade Arena.
But where to head to? 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 cafes, 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 (thetube.rs), celebrated for its house music and its large, dark corridors.
The Serb parliament lends the Tasmajdan Park area an upmarket tone. To see Serbia's elite at play, go to Absinthe or a club called Mr Stefan Brown on the ninth floor of a glass tower opposite Tasmajdan Park. Here excellent cocktails are served and Belgrade's beautiful people dance on tables as the city's lights shimmer in the distance.
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 - while long-established rock club Akademija (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 cafes, 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. Here boats recreate the atmosphere of a kafana: working-class bars where Gypsy musicians entertain at tables. The most notorious is Cmi Panter (Black Panther), which achieved a degree of international fame last summer when The Police, fresh from rocking Belgrade's Arena, turned up to check out the boat band. A fire earlier this year destroyed the Black Panther, but the owner promises to relaunch. Gypsy Island's boats offer knockabout musical mayhem with musicians right in your face.
The second area of floating boats, offering many different musical genres, spreads along the New Belgrade promenade of Sava. At the three-storey Lucas, moored on the Sava near Brankov Bridge (Brankov Most) in New Belgrade, turbo-folk reigns. This fusion of Serb folk song, Europop and Turkish Arabesque music was associated in the 1990s with Milosevic's regime - Ceca, the genre's Madonna, married warlord Arkan - and it remains unashamedly garish and trashy. A few hours spent here offers real insight into Balkan bling.
Across Belgrade, bar prices vary but are always reasonable compared with those of the UK, while 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.
• British Airways (0844 493 0 787, ba.com) flies Heathrow-Belgrade from £263 rtn inc tax. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747, lufthansa.com) flies to Belgrade, via Munich, Frankfurt or Zurich, from Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow from around £300 rtn. Stay at Le Petit Piaf (petitpiaf.com), doubles from €130 or Hotel Moskva (hotelmoskva.co.yu), doubles from €130.
• Garth Cartwright is the author of Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (Serpent's Tail, £12.69).
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009