As a former resident of Belgrade, I am intrigued to hear of a traveler choosing Belgrade over another European destination. While I think my city has much to offer, I worry that an unprepared traveler might miss on its treasures. With its long, bloody history, Belgrade has been razed to the ground numerous times, leaving the residents to rebuild the city into a more contemporary version of itself throughout the twentieth century. Unlike other European cities, we have very little in terms of old architecture to show.
Despite the hard economic times, the political upheavals and bloody wars, we Belgraders have retained our laid back attitude and our habit of drowning our sorrows in one of the thousands nightclubs that the city has to offer. In fact, one thing that has never changed for as long as I can remember, is the city’s ever present nightlife. This only gets better.
While Belgrade has always been a party, the war of the 1990’s and the economic embargo that followed, are largely responsible for the nightlife being what it is today. You see, when we were left without imports (food, electricity, cigarettes and alcohol) we had to come up with plan B. This situation created an enormous black market, almost over night, and the resourceful Belgraders had to figure out how to procure alcohol without getting caught. And so we created the floating nightclub, a club that doesn’t need a building permit or a liquor license, and could easily be moved away from the city’s inspectors, as they floated in the darkness in the middle of the Danube.
My first experience on a “splav” (floating night club) was some time in the 1990’s during the Balkan war and in the midst of the embargo. Markets and department stores were completely bare, homes were cold and without heat, city trolleys were stranded in the snow, but yes, we Belgraders still managed to have a good time.
My friends piled up into a Yugo (perhaps 8 of us crammed into the car forwards and sideways) and we drove just outside of Belgrade to an empty field on the banks of the Danube. There we switched off the engine and turned off our headlights. There, in the pitch darkness, the driver flashed his headlights intermittently, until another car across the overgrown field flashed us back. When we got our signal, we exited the car in complete darkness holding onto one another, as none of us could see three feet in front of us.
And so, holding hands, we felt our way toward the pines lining the Danube, and descended down the black forest onto the muddy river bank. As we emerged from the bushes, we saw a single light bulb glowing from the middle of the river, and then a few crude neon signs signaled us through the fog. We piled up into a tiny motor boat, bribing the owner to let us all aboard, as there was an American guest in the group (me). He accepted $20, and sped us away toward the white, rusted, cargo ship anchored in the middle of the river. From there, it was a precarious climb up the rusted ladder as we boarded the rusted cargo ship.
As we stepped inside the club, my jaw dropped! Below the corroded, wire floor was a cargo hull bursting at its seams. There was not a single light bulb in the hull, yet below the floor, there were at least a 1000 people crowded around a makeshift stage, dancing! I took a deep breath, noticing there are no emergency exits, no windows, no fire sprinklers, and only one rusty ladder descending down into the pit. The hull was packed, as guests pushed and shoved. There was no chance of buying a drink as the bar was crammed into a tiny corner, and a mass of partiers made it impossible to reach. A heavy metal band blared all night long, and as we finally emerged back out of the club, it was morning, and we collapsed onto the deck exhausted.
Thankfully, the 90’s are over, and the city’s nightlife has evolved to welcome more sophisticated tourists. Gone are the days of the illegal night clubs, anchored in the hidden parts of the Danube. But what has remained is the “Splav”, the floating night club. You no longer have to pray for dear life when you enter one, today’s splavs actually meet some safety regulations. As a matter of fact, the banks of the Danube are littered with numerous floating barges and the area comes alive every single night at dusk. The scene is a cross between Mykonos, Cancun and Ibiza, mixed with some more upscale venues.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Splav scene is best visited in the summer, as these are open air clubs that float on the warm river. Though some stay open at the end of the season, you will miss out on the main attraction of Belgrade’s nightlife if you show up here in winter. Don’t despair though, because the city is literally home to every possible nighttime attraction you could imagine. Really, Belgraders party every single night of the week, and if you are young and want to go out, you will not be disappointed.
Night clubs come and go, and by the time you read this, many new ones would have arrived on the scene. I will try to keep you posted on the latest, but here is what is on the Splav and traditional nightclub scene in 2012.
and the old favorite (which floated to its new location) BLAYWATCH.
Other clubs in the city: