I’m bad at finding the cool places when I travel. This is because I usually travel alone, and the cool places are intimidating when you are alone. That’s what makes them the cool places.
This is particularly true in Belgrade where revitalization and deterioration are integrated. The city is bombed out, but rather than tearing it down and starting fresh, Belgrade is remodeling the ruin, memorializing the graffiti, embracing the exposed history.
One block has pawnshops and strip clubs. The next has fusion food and yoga. Under the bridge, there is an artsy café that serves pastis and projects silent films on the courtyard wall. A crumbling warehouse has squatters in one segment and a posh wine bar in the next. On the squatter side crusty pants hang from a windowpane, through jagged slices of glass. On the bar side, beautiful waitresses glide between tables, serving tapas and Pinot noir.
To find the cool places in Belgrade, you need a local guide.
caption: Yes, there is a wine bar in this abandoned warehouse.
Recently, my guide was my best Serbian friend Natalija, who I have described previously. Natalija is a marvel of absurdity and brilliance. She embodies Bohemian, hedonistic intelligentsia. She goes to bed at 5 am, wakes at 9 am, and does not nap because “sleeping is for the old people.” The one time I looked, her refrigerator contained loose, scattered strips of bacon, an empty can of tuna, and something we could not determine the English word for, but settled for “Elderflower syrup.” It’s medicinal. Natalija knows where to go in Belgrade.
When I visited, she was working at a hostel. Her shifts ended at 9 pm, so I would often show up around 8 to hang out and plan the night.
We would sit on the roof deck with a bottle of wine. Sometimes we would fraternize with the hostel guests. Other times we would brush them off. It depended on our mood and their attractiveness.
Natalija would hold her knees to her chest and luxuriously draw on a cigarette:
Her: “So I bought a car yesterday.”
Me: “Do you know how to drive?”
My question was trivial, pesky.
Her: “That is not the point. No. I am not a driver. I am a valker, not a driver, but I vanted a car. I don’t know. I’ll take some lessons and practice and bla bla vhatever.”
It was 100 euro and indefinitely parked at her mother’s house—until she is ready to be a driver.
Next cigarette. Next topic.
Her: “So I will dye my hair black tomorrow.”
Currently it was bleach blond.
“Yes. I saw a black cat and was, how do you say, inspired. The cat vas cute and sexy and bla bla vhatever.”
More wine. The sun reflected blinding white against a steel building that consumed our view. It was making one last shout for attention before night.
Some lanky Germans gobbered onto the deck.
Lanky German: “Ah hi. Do you work here?”
Natalija: “Yes. Vhat do you vant?”
Lanky German: “Can you tell us where we go? For clubs and party?”
Without communicating, it was understood that we did not want to befriend these Germans. Natalija told them to go somewhere on the river and bla bla vhatever.
Another cigarette and Natalija turned to me, and turned to business:
Her: “So vhat vill ve do tonight?”
I would propose an atmosphere and Natalija would determine the place for that atmosphere. My suggestions were frustratingly vague and indecisive, but somehow Natalija could decipher them to identify the essence of the evening that I subconsciously desired.
Me: “Ummmm, some place cool, but not too cool, where I can dance around.”
We headed somewhere on the river—yes the same river that we brusquely directed the Germans to. The clubs on the river are literally on the river; they are stationary boats and barges. It’s an excellent way to do clubs. They are numerous and diverse, to suite your taste and temperament.
caption: daylight view of some of the numerous and diverse clubs on the river
Some are trashy, catering to the Russian mafia aesthetic. Natalija took me to one like this because “you should see it.” It had white pleather couches and neon lights so the whole place felt like a souped up car. They were playing Turbo Folk—Serbian folk songs set to techno beats and undeniably the worst music on Earth. The club was full of Western European bachelor parties, who reserve a table, order endless drinks, and wait for Eastern European women to vie for their lechery. The women were caked in makeup and squeezed in dresses so tight they could only sway rigidly and turn their heads, like robot Barbies. Everyone was constantly, anxiously scanning the crowd, looking for the best option. It was a gratuitous mating ritual, equal parts heinous and fascinating. I couldn’t look away!
I appreciate that kind of club for ethnographic observation, but other clubs on the river I actually like, like Shlep. Shlep was full of unpretentious hipsters, sloppily dressed with shaggy beards (men) and bangs (women). No one was scanning the room or judging. They were engrossed in their own good time, dancing all loose, like stoned spaghetti.
Of course I scanned the crowd and judged or I would not have been able to make these observations. And no, there was no one I wanted to make out with. All the men were skinny and bearded. I like clean-shaven guys who can carry me and cannot fit into my jeans. The Shlep crowd was not for making out. It was for uninhibited, happy dancing.
I don’t really know what I do when I dance. I know I swivel my hips and push my hands in various directions. Down. To the side. Skyward at the song’s climatic chorus! Occasionally I turn. Rarely do I get low and never do I dance as the song lyrics instruct. That’s just dumb.
I’m not sure how this limited series of movements entertains me for more than three minutes, let along the hours I might spend dancing at a club or wedding reception. But it does and it’s awesome (and it goes without saying that I’ve had some drinks).
At Shlep I bopped contently around the dance floor until sunrise.
Another night with Natalija I said, “ummm, some place laid back and airy, but cool.”
We walked 20 minutes along a highway with cars whooshing and highway grit crunching under our shoes. We reached a 10-story abandoned cement building. Inside there was a dimly lit corridor, but every surface of every wall was covered with awesome, kaleidoscopic graffiti.
There was a service elevator and we pushed 10, the top.
We emerged at a rooftop bar.
They were playing blue grass, or the Serbian equivalent. The view was modernist glamorous—the river flanked by industrial Belgrade. The whooshing cars were now hushed, slick streaks of light. The bar was way above ground, but underground.
It was laid back and airy, but cool. Bla bla vhatever.
credits: Thanks to my new editor PJS for catching my most atrocious grammar and spelling errors.