On the surface, Belgrade isn’t the prettiest city. It can look somewhat drab and dull, and the architecture is largely unimpressive, other than the government buildings and Ottoman Empire remnants. When you’ve spent enough time here though, you start to see that its charm comes from within. Once within the 4 walls of an outwardly nondescript building, there is no telling what you’ll find.
Personally, I am a SUCKER for that kind of thing. I love hidden spaces which make me feel like I have fallen upon some wonderful hidden gem that no one else knows about. And just as the wardrobe takes Pevensies to Narnia, and the rabbit hole takes Alice to Wonderland, when I cross the threshold of an unassuming door that belies the wonders inside, I feel like I’ve entered a whole different realm.
I am hardly alone in that sentiment, and establishments in cities like New York have identified and tapped into that desire by creating secret-themed (different from actually secret in that everyone knows about them) bars and clubs and restaurants that carefully construct alternate realities catering to the whimsical fantasies of their clientele. Perhaps you have to go through a phone booth of a certain hot dog joint to enter a prohibition-era themed bar, or a barber shop or a pawn shop. Maybe you have to take a slide down to an underground club, or maybe you have to whisper a secret password to get into an exclusive party. Maybe…
While I never tire of such establishments and on the contrary, frequent them with an unfailing enthusiasm, I am painfully aware of the contrived nature of their existence. But what can I say, I’m a junkie and I have to scratch the itch.
What makes Belgrade so appealing to me then, is that while it is teeming with hidden spaces just waiting to be discovered, none of them are trying to be secret. Yet the way inner spaces here are completely transformed never ceases to delight me. Last Monday night, I started my night at a hookah (sheesha) bar located in a dark and seedy alleyway in Knez Mihailova. If it had a name, I didn’t catch it, but as soon as I stepped foot inside I fell in love. Arabic music and hookah smoke wafted through the lounge which was decked out in Middle Eastern looking furniture (other than a solitary disco ball hanging from the ceiling). We enjoyed a hookah and a few rounds before the place began winding down.
We then ended up at a gem of a place called Magic Garden, which again was through a dark alley that fed into an open lot, where a small set of stairs led up to a cozy little bar. The shelves on the walls were lined with quaint curiosities such as an old TV monitor, an even older alarm clock, a battered leather suitcase and so on. The music was an odd mixture of 90s songs that had hitherto remained in the 90’s and contemporary hip-hop, the menu had a mustachioed Mona Lisa on the front and the drinks were delightfully cheap. It was also pretty much the only place open late on a Monday night much to my surprise.
Its not just bars that occupy these hidden spaces either. Apartments too I have found, are absolutely gorgeous on the inside while somewhat underwhelming from the outside. My mother’s friend for example, lives in a small apartment that belonged to his relatives back in the day. When he moved in, he renovated the place and transformed it into a chic and elegant space that always looks photo-shoot ready.
I also got to attend Forest Fest, a local jazz/rock music festival that takes place in a forest outside Belgrade, overlooking the city. After leaving the lights and sounds of the city and driving on a pitch dark road through the forest, we arrived at Ski Staza, where the festival was being held. Surrounded by trees, we found ourselves in a clearing where a small stage has been set up along with tree stumps serving as stools for spectators. My cup was always full of beer (Jelen) and the pizza was too tempting to resist. A few yards away from the stage lay a clump of sacks filled with hay to which we eventually retired to take in the view of Belgrade by night once we had tired of cheering on the band. T’was a beautiful night.
While I was originally going to be in Belgrade for over a month, plans have changed a little, and I will be spending the next two weeks traveling around Europe! Rome, Berlin, Paris and then Nice! I am so incredibly excited, yet a little part of me is saddened at the thought of leaving Belgrade so undiscovered. I’ll do my best over the next few days though!