The Unexpected Pleasures of Funky, Surreal Belgrade
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.