The Unexpected Pleasures of Funky, Surreal Belgrade

Posted on Oct 18, 2013 in Culture, Serbia | 9 Comments

Belgrade Umbrellas

Belgrade was my base in the Balkans. I was constantly in and out, flitting from festival to city to seaside and back again.

Lucky me. Belgrade wooed me and won me: it’s a funky, hip, rough gem of a city. Nondescript Yugoslav-era buildings stand next to ornate blocks of former glory, fancy ice cream shops coexist with an exuberant street-art scene.

A real zebra-crossing!

A real zebra-crossing!

Belgrade is a perfect place to just BE. There’s no Eiffel Tower or Prado or Charles Bridge that you MUST SEE… Instead there are quirky cafes, winding bike paths, cozy bookstores. This is a place you can live in, not just tour.

People in Belgrade

I became a regular at certain haunts. After Guca, I was exhausted and eager to eat some fresh fruits and vegetables; once I discovered Elixir Juice Bar I knew I’d found my mecca. Smoothies and salads were a nice change from whole pigs roasting on spits, and the solid music selection and free Wi-Fi meant that some days I spent hours there, writing and relaxing. Eventually, I became friendly with the folks who worked there, and they gave me a lot of tips for my upcoming trip to Montenegro—plus free smoothies!

Val and Jonathan, outside Przionica

Jonathan and Val, outside Przionica

Another day some new friends and I discovered an artisanal coffee shop called Przionica. This stylish little spot hides at the end of a street full of nondescript garages and vaguely industrial-looking buildings; I didn’t think we’d actually find it until it was right in front of us. Sitting in the sunshine sipping my cappuccino outside Przionica felt like a Sunday morning in Brooklyn. I wasn’t expecting to find a throwback to New York in the backstreets of Belgrade; it was an exceptional treat.

Przionica Cappucino

But the most wonderful spot I found, my absolute favorite place in all of Belgrade, was the most mysterious of all. There’s this massive old Yugoslav-era building called BIGZ, filled with hot empty hallways and graffiti, and if you climb all the way to the top you find the sweetest dimly-lit jazz club with a sweeping view of the city. The first time I went, my friends and I weren’t sure we’d actually find the jazz as we weaved through spraypaint-strewn corridors and dilapidated staircases… the emptiness was palpable. We climbed up, up, up, and eventually a sonorous saxphone solo drifted into our ears, and there we were: Cekaonica, the mythic jazz club, the greatest place in Belgrade.

Val in BIGZ

I went back to Cekaonica and BIGZ many times. The live music was consistently excellent and brought me back to my days of booking bands for jazz cellar sessions in Boston. One night, I encountered a scene straight out of a surreal dream: while exploring the hallways a floor below the jazz club, I turned a corner and a swarm of Germans on fixed-gear bikes swooped out of the darkness, biking in circles and brandishing expensive video equipment. Why, exactly, they were riding bikes up there in the middle of the night is a mystery that remains; they didn’t even realize that they were a floor below a jazz club. It was a real-life mirage, wrapped in a boozy haze. I live for these strange little moments.

Prunelle in BIGZ

During the day, the hallways of BIGZ might be filled with punk bands in practice spaces, or skateboarder kids loitering in the halls… by night, the building is filled with secrets and mysteries and worlds to discover. A hallway that feels like the set of a middle-school horror film gives way to a raucous metal club, complete with a crowd-surfing clientele that materializes when the moon rises. I never got tired of experiencing this building.

Rock club in BIGZ

And in many ways, BIGZ set the tone of Belgrade for me. There’s history and fortresses and museums, sure. But I loved Belgrade for its funkiness, its hipness, its unexpected pleasures. Jazz and graffiti and smoothies and surreal scenes—this is the Belgrade that keeps me buzzing.

Belgrade Viewed from BIGZ

9 Comments

  1. thesewalkingboots
    October 19, 2013

    Oh Katrinka, you write so well! I’m quite jealous.

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      October 19, 2013

      Thank you so much! It means a lot :-)

      Reply
  2. Tom Stockwell (@waegook_tom)
    October 19, 2013

    Yes YES YESSSSS! Belgrade is such an amazing city and, as you write, a great place to “just be”. I’d say it does have a standout attraction – the Fortress – but nothing with the same name caché as the Eiffel Tower etc. I walked past Elixir but never went inside, now I’m regretting that, and didn’t make it to the jazz club – I ended up having something of a holiday romance instead haha! ;) Although I did end up at what I assume was a Mexican place (can’t remember the name) and the staff kept giving me and my Taiwanese companion free shots of rakija. That was a good night!

    I could easily move to Belgrade for a few months, and you’ve summed up my feelings about the city perfectly with your post here. Agh, I wanna go back!

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      October 20, 2013

      Thanks Tom! It sounds like you had a great time in Belgrade too– what a city! I can’t wait to read about your Belgrade holiday romance… :-D

      Reply
  3. Migratory Habits
    October 19, 2013

    Great post and great photos. What you write about Belgrade reminds me of Warsaw, a city where the hip, creative and most interesting places are hidden in the old and derelict parts of town. You have to go and find them, and that makes it all the more rewarding.

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      October 20, 2013

      Thank you! That sounds exactly like the sort of thing I love. I’m dying to go to Warsaw, and spend more time in Poland in general– I went to Krakow about 5 years ago, but that’s it. My last name is Polish, so I feel the country calling to me! You’ll have to give me tips if I manage to make it there :-)

      Reply
  4. Dan Norris (The Stupid Foreigner)
    October 30, 2013

    Wow, I really love your blog! Amazing photos and I totally agree about Belgrade, it’s an awesome city with a great personality to it. We also spent hours wandering around the bigz building and chilling in the jazz bar! Did you find the room with the bloody hand prints? Very creepy :)

    Reply
    • Katrinka
      October 30, 2013

      Thanks Dan! I did not find that room, I wish I had! It doesn’t surprise me though, it was such an eerie, bizarre building. I signed my name in a creepy hallway just to leave my mark on that wonderful place :-)

      Reply
  5. Briana and Kyle
    August 14, 2016

    We will be going soon! It was nice reading your post to get a feel for the city. It sounds like we chose a good next spot.

    Reply

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