Belgrade is a city that knows how to keep its secrets. The underground bar we were seeking had two different names, the street it was on ceased to exist years ago, and while our map was in standard Roman lettering, the street names, if posted at all, were in Cyrillic. Naturally almost none of the buildings had a street number. However, such is the power of the Internet that we managed to discover that Улица 29 новембра (29 Novembra Street) had transformed itself into Булеван Деспота Стефана (Bulevan Despota Stefan) and by counting carefully we eventually arrived at an apartment block with a big, black, unmarked, wrought-iron gate and a doorbell discreetly labeled “Federal Association of Globe Trotters.” We were pretty sure this was the place, even though we’d been looking for the World Travelers' Club. Translations are always a bit slippery.
After that we simply had to press the doorbell, wait for the gate to buzz open, walk through the echoing lobby of the apartment building, make our way down some dimly lit stairs, find the yellow door standing slightly ajar, push it open, and enter. Inside was one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen, dimly lit and gorgeously decorated in around-the-world memorabilia and grandma’s attic cast-offs. The fact that it was one of the city’s secret drinking dens added a small, clandestine thrill.
The speakeasy atmosphere harks back to the days of the Balkan wars, when it was imprudent to be overheard expressing anti-Milosevic sentiments, and hip young dissidents wanted to gather to discuss their political views in safe, congenial surroundings with a fully stocked bar.
Today, in the free and democratic Republic of Serbia, such secrecy is no longer necessary, but the habit of flying under the radar seems deeply imbedded in the local psyche. Just getting to Belgrade had been a challenge due to the almost total lack of signage on our train; we had a hard time identifying the sleeping car, let alone our compartment. And weren’t we surprised to discover that contrary to what we’d heard, there were no private compartments on this overnight run from Sofia to Belgrade. Each compartment held six bunks, and we might be sharing the six-by-seven-foot (1.8 x 2.1 meter) space with as many as four strangers. Where some overnight trains helpfully post signs indicating which beds are reserved, those in charge of the Sofia-Belgrade run would never willingly divulge that kind of hush-hush information. So at each of the 13 stops during the long, long night, I waited for roommates to come barreling into the tiny space. By some miracle – and the fact Mondays are less popular travel nights – we lucked out and had the place to ourselves.
Upon arrival, it seemed as if everyone in Belgrade was speaking in code. I’d heard numerous references to a district called “Silicon Valley” and assumed the city had some sort of high-tech industrial zone. It was days before I learned that this nickname referred to the silicon implants favored by many of the female patrons of an upscale district known for its slick, trendy bars.
Then there’s the ? bar. Its previous name, Cathedral Tavern, reflected its proximity to the Orthodox cathedral of St. Sava and roused the ire of the clergy, who felt using a sacred name for such a worldly establishment was bordering on sacrilege. I gather there was a spirited exchange of opinions on the matter, but eventually the owner capitulated and agreed to come up with something else. To give himself time to mull the matter over, he posted the question mark as a temporary solution, and it has remained in place since 1878.
Belgrade boasts some outstanding bars, restaurants, and cafes with off-the-wall atmosphere and great food and drinks at a fraction of what you’d pay in Western European or American cities. Of course, the mystery surrounding many of them just adds to the fun. When I posted photos of some of my favorites on my Facebook page, several people wrote in asking how I managed to find these esoteric eateries and gin joints. So I am going to let you in on a closely guarded trade secret: All this info came from Lonely Planet and the free walking tour. I did a little additional research via Google, eventually finding the website for the Federal Association of Globe Trotters (yes, even speakeasies have websites nowadays!) and articles such as Belgrade’s Secret Bars in the Financial Times online edition.
No doubt Belgrade has countless more secrets it has managed to keep hidden from Lonely Planet, Google, and the tour guides, and I hope some day to return and unravel a few more. In the meantime, I’m blessed with many fond memories of the city, including this enigmatic sign on my train out of town, a last reminder that Belgrade is a city that knows how to keep you befuddled right up to the last moment.
Rich and I are in the final phase of our three-month train journey around Central and Eastern Europe. So far we've traveled 5875 km (3650 miles) by rail, 859 km (534 miles) by ferry, 176 km (109 miles) by bus, and 10 km (6 miles) by horse-drawn cart. We've slept in 31 beds (counting overnight train and ferry berths), eaten in countless restaurants, and have far more stories to tell than will fit on this blog.
Want to see more? Check out my photos of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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