By SETH SHERWOOD
Published: October 16, 2005
NIGHT falls in the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and music fills the air. Everywhere.
Along the banks of the Danube and Sava Rivers, serpentine chains of music-blasting splavovi - floating raft clubs - snake into the inky Balkan night. Fortified by huge meat-kebab dinners, crowds of night owls line up to partake variously of Gypsy bands, electronic mixes, rock 'n' roll and a distinctly Serbian hybrid known as Turbofolk.
As a parade of Puma-clad feet files down the metal gangway to a club called Exile, the night's marquee D.J., the New York City-based techno producer John Selway, prepares for his 2-to-6 a.m. set.
"The most fun places to play are here, South America and Japan!" he shouts over rapid-fire industrial beats, praising the energy of the night life in the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, the name for what is left of Yugoslavia after its unraveling in the early 90's. "They're interested in new music and in building a scene!"
While the streets of post-Milosevic Belgrade may not win a beauty contest anytime soon - rusty trams, drab midcentury buildings and stately but dilapidated 19th-century edifices still dominate the gray cityscape - some glimmerings of the resurrection that Mr. Matic sees are in evidence. In Republic Square, where the ocean of demonstrators and flag-wavers made their most passionate stand against Mr. Milosevic, construction teams are busy renovating the grand National Museum. Green Wreath Square, where the main outdoor market normally operates, is getting a similar makeover.
State-run Communist-era hotels are being privatized and boutique hotels like the smart, crisp Petit Piaf have begun to appear. Style-conscious restaurants, once unheard of in a land of pork-and-potato places, proliferate.
But it's the electricity of Belgrade's street life that makes the greatest impression. "Belgrade," Mr. Matic says, "is a very exciting city for anyone who expects to feel pure human energy."
You feel it along Knez Mihailova, a boulevard of fountains and Art Nouveau details where streams of D & G-wearing women strut past showrooms of Italian furniture, and preadolescent Gypsy musicians thrill the passing throngs with virtuoso fiddling. You feel it within the narrow passages of the Kalenic outdoor market on Njegoseva Street, as neighborhood residents shout "Koliko? Koliko?" ("How much? How much?) at the phalanx of elderly women in headscarves selling all manner of sausages, produce, nuts, dates, batteries, hair dye, sweaters, rice and deodorant.
You feel it especially in crowded Kalemegdan Park, a green swath overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers that West called "the special glory of Belgrade and indeed one of the most beautiful parks in the world." Formerly the citadel of Belgrade, Kalemegdan was long the bull's-eye that foreign invaders variously charged, captured, built up and eventually lost. The Roman well, the Turkish mausoleum, the Austrian clock tower and other abandoned relics form an Ozymandian graveyard of vanished dynasties.
But come dark, a number of outdoor bars and nightclubs sprout in the recesses of the park, and the cemetery of empires is reborn as the booming, cocktail-soaked cradle of Belgrade decadence.
"Anywhere else in the world, you wouldn't be allowed to have something like this in a historical monument," a bearded film student says one night at Bassment, a club that operates against the Kalemegdan battlements in warm months. "Not Belgrade."
A German D.J. duo called Moonbootica has the crowd jumping up and down to electronic music on ground that may once have seen battles for the city's soul.
Like Kalemegdan, the rest of the White City - the literal translation of its Serbian name, Beograd - reaches the zenith of its energy at night. Propelled by some of Europe's cheapest cocktails and taxi rides, the after-dark adventurer discovers that the surprisingly friendly and safe terra incognita of Belgrade holds a bounty of hidden hipster speakeasies, raucous rock 'n' roll dives and nightclubs boasting global talent.