River Deep Mountain High: An Account of Ten Days in Serbia
Thursday June 22:
My annual trip back to the Motherland was slightly delayed this year – instead of early May I ended up going in the end of June. Although Amsterdam had had its mini heatwave, the weather in Belgrade hit me like a ton of bricks with temperature in the high 30s and humidity hitting 80 percent. Bangladesh on the Danube.
The plan was to go down south to the province of Kosovo and spend my only full weekend there, as the round trip with the bus takes more than 12 hours. So, I hooked up with my cousins and a friend who lives in the neighbourhood and let everybody else know that I’d be back from the wild south on Sunday evening.
We had a few beers in the famous city park, Tasmajdan. The bar, legendary since the days that my folks and their generation frequented it, is called ‘Poslednja Sansa’ as in ‘Last Chance.’ But there was no ‘Last Chance Salooning’ going on, as I had to take care of a few things in the morning and get a haircut before going down south.
Friday June 23:
My bus for Kosovska Mitrovica was leaving at 4pm and I made an appointment with my hairdresser buddy Dzambasov at 3pm. It was a bit tight, but absolutely doable as the bus station is just down the road from the salon.
My friend is not just any old hair cutter – he’s a bonafide local musical legend. He’s played in the cult 80s garage rock band, Robna Kuca (Supermarket), worked as a booker at the premier musical venue Akademija and continues to do regular DJ gigs, playing a very eclectic mix of rock n’ roll, garage, R&B and swing. I made sure I brought the last two issues of Heatwave for him and he absolutely loved them. But being that we hang out once a year, we started chatting about music, religion, the New World Order and everything in between. We naturally lost track of time. In the end, I barely had time to shove my head into the sink and make a dash for the bus station.
I got there three-minutes to 4pm, but had no time to check in at the desk anymore. I was lucky that the dude operating the barrier let me. I jumped on the bus literally as it was about to leave. James Bond eat your butt out.
Armed with a bunch of podcasts I put in my earplugs and dozed away listening to Marc Maron interviewing Martin Landau, Jeff Ross and Bruce Springsteen, while the landscape outside changed from the rolling hills of Sumadija (central Serbia), to the rugged mountains and pristine wild forests of the south.
After about five hours we hit the ‘border’.’ As I mentioned a few times earlier in my scribblings the border between Serbia and Kosovo is artificial, meaning that northern Kosovo is still under Serbian control as opposed to the rest of the province, which is heavily populated by Albanians.
I personally would prefer it if everybody would get along and peace was maintained, but it’s not that easy. Kosovo became a collateral bargaining tool for the EU and NATO in their dirty game of geopolitical blackmail with the corrupt Serbian regime. All talk of human rights and national sovereignty disappear when you see the reality of the so-called independent Kosovo. But enough of the political context and on with my little journey.
Finally, at 10.30pm I got off the bus in the north of Kosovska Mitrovica and was directed by my local buddies to the main hang out in town, Soho Bar. Waiting at the bar were Djidji, the owner, and Pero, the singer of local garage punk legends, Hosenfefer. After meeting with the Hosenfefer crew seven years ago I try to visit them as much as I can. Travelling for them is extremely difficult. They need a visa for every fuckin’ country in the world and applying for one is near impossible in the current political climate.
Anyway, we got down to business catching up and sampling the beverages at the bar. I’m a serious mountain addict and live in the Netherlands I try to hit the trail any chance I get. So, Djidji called up some of his sportier friends to check if they could take me with them on a climb they were doing the next morning. They said sure, but I had to meet them at eight in the morning to get in a van that would bring us to some serious mountains. It was already past midnight and I kind of entertained the thought, but Djidji was right when he told them, “No way, the fucker is already drunk, forget about it.”
So, common sense prevailed and we stayed at the bar to meet more friends and Hosenfefer alumni, Filip and Misko, while we slowly chased away the rest of the clientele by blasting Lazy Cowgirls, Nine Pound Hammer and the like at full volume.
Just before we stumbled to Djidji’s place we made a deal to go for a BBQ and drinks to Filip’s house in a nearby mountain village, where I would maybe get a chance to do a little hiking.
Saturday June 24:
Djidji woke me up at noon. As I started my ritual hangover moaning he reassured me from the other room, “Go on whining little doll, it’ll help.”
What really helped though was the serious food he magically produced on the little table next to the sofa where I crashed. Fresh bread, sausages, cheese… the works, plus a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup with epic amounts of black pepper. Man, I was awake and on the toilet in seconds.
So, after I christened the butt-throne, we were back at the Soho Bar to meet the rest of the guys. While they sipped on some Turkish – or as they prefer in Serbia ‘our’ coffee, and I romanced the soda water, Djidji had a little talk with his bar staff and came back to join us.
“What the fuck were you doing last night,” he asked me with a baffled look on his face. “The hell you asking me for? We were together the whole time,” I replied. “Well the staff are asking me who’s your friend? He was swinging chairs and barstools around last night. I can’t remember shit myself, but that’s so you. Gotta be the biggest drunk Serbian asshole, typical diaspora behavior,” he said. Well I just shrugged as if I knew any better.
We piled into Filip’s car and went to get some meat, veg and drinks. The village of Srbovac is only three miles from town, but it’s a world apart from the derelict urban decay of Mitrovica. It’s nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains covered in lush greenery.
While the guys marinated the big ass piece of pork, which was then slow cooked in lard in an outdoor oven, I jumped the fence and went for a little hike. As I hit the trail the guys told me to watch out for snakes, but as our comic book aficionado friend Nenad told me, “Since you drank rakija last night, if the snake bites you, it will be worse off then you.”
As it was 2pm and the sun was blasting away, I just made my way on a mountain saddle enjoying the fresh air and taking in the sights. It’s an absolutely beautiful area with the river Ibar running through it. Fresh water-a-plenty. Meanwhile back in town they have had water shortages since the armed conflict of 1999.
After a couple of hours, I made my way down to the magical smells of roasted piggy and potatoes. So, out came the beers and rakija and a bottle of Dutch jenever, a juniper-flavored variety of gin, I had brought. As Pero was eyeballing the bottle, he asked if we’d all suddenly turn gay after drinking this spirit manufactured in the European Union… typical non-PC south Serbian humour. Sexual preferences aside, the Dutch spirit went down well.
As the party progressed, our mysterious buddy PsychoSonic showed up for some loud fun in the sun. Never did I see a couple of mating turtles run away so fast in my life.
So, sobered up from the adrenaline rush, we had a few more beers to get back on level before heading back into town.
I drove with Psycho this time and we made a little detour to his favourite hangout in the village of Zvecan. The place is a typical, traditional small-town Serbian bar with red and white-checkered tablecloths, but the posters on one wall told a different story.
While one wall was covered with Hosenfefer, Ramones and Blondie the other one sported posters of the local football club FK Trepca, Putin and a number of Serbian generals. Only in Kosovo. So, a couple of beers later we were back in the car and on our way back to Mitrovica.
I learned my lesson after a few trips to Kosovo never to fasten my seat belt, as not to attract strange looks from the locals. Most of the cars don’t even have registration and the only thing the dumbass cops are there for is to make sure there’s no shooting… apart from the recreational type of course.
Anyway, all the cops were out on main street where there was a biker festival going on. We met the rest of the gang back at Soho Bar and another drinking orgy commenced. The rounds of beers were alternated with pitchers of Bullfrog cocktail, a mix made up of just about all of the available spirits mixed with Blue Curacao and red bull.
Once again, I got sick of the music that the staff was playing and we took over the DJ duties, slowly emptying the bar of its clientele. This time I remember I tried to do a juggling act with some rather heavy plants but left the chairs alone.
At around 5am we closed the bar and Djidji and I stumbled back to his place in a surreal scene. The sun was coming up and the wind was blowing the numerous Serbian flags lined up all over town while the Muslim call for prayer was echoing from across the bridge in the southern part of Mitrovica.
Sunday June 25 – Thursday June 29:
I spent the rest of the week chilling and catching up friends and family in Belgrade. Monday night I met we a bunch of friends and we hit our favorite new hangout, Zappa Bar. Located in the beautiful old neighborhood of Dorcol, its run by a few punk rock loving supporters of Partizan Football Club, but it’s not in any way exclusive to the casual crowd.
On Mondays there is a sort of trashy, open mic night for local street musicians doing renditions of classic rock crap and ex-Yugo 80s hits. I was taken back into my pre-teen years in the mid and late 80s with flashbacks of school trips, prom nights and the like. The highlight of the night was the owner, Krsma, playing ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ while a Serbian dead ringer for Axl Rose was headbanging and doing his little shuffle to the cheers of the whole crowd.
On another occasion, I visited my mom’s aunt in the remote neighborhood of Galenika on the northern outskirts of the city and then swung by my old buddy Cobe’s, who now happens to live on the same street. A friend for more than 20 years, from back when we were teenage hardcore kids, he’s now a rockabilly and garage aficionado and a badass tattoo artist. He inked my Groovies tattoo the year before in his studio, Kobra Delux.
With his wife and kids out of town we sampled his family’s rakija and did a little YouTube party, trading obscure R&B, garage and punk nuggets. A word to the wise… if you just stick to sipping straight rakija alternated with a few glasses of soda water you will get properly high without feeling hammered like you would after drinking beer or other crap.
But the coolest part was the boat trip on the river Sava I made with a bunch of friends. The organizer was Ljuba, a one time guitar player in the Belgrade hardcore punk sensation, Let’s Grow. She’s now a blogger on all things architecture and city planning and is one of the leaders of the Ne davimo Beograd platform fighting the corrupt city government.
She and her boyfriend are total river monkeys and own a big ass boat. The nine of us made a cruise from the city harbor to the beautiful island of Ada Medjica. It was the first time I saw Belgrade that way, from the river and the oasis of Ada Medjica. It really blew me away.
It’s basically a little forest dotted with vacation homes and houseboats, but totally tourist free with only two water pumps and no electricity, save for a few generators and some solar panels.
Another Let’s Grow alumni, Dario, was there with his family and 9-month-old son. His son was experiencing his first boat trip in 38 degrees Celsius weather, but couldn’t stop smiling and enjoying himself. We dived off the boat near the island to cool off and cap this unforgettable day on the river.
Friday June 30:
Next on the agenda, a release party for the band PSI (Dogs), a punk tinged rockabilly trio featuring Terza of SUS fame, Dane on double bass and Jovandeka of Grandpa’s Candy fame on guitar and vocals. They blend wild 50s raunch n’ roll with melodic Serbian vocals.
It was an outdoor matinee gig promoting their CD, Tik Tak, organised by the record store, Mascom. A nice crowd gathered and braved the elements, the temperature again in the high 30s.
The after party was at a bar called Beti Ford in the Bohemian neighborhood of Skadarlija. Terza provided the soundtrack while we sweated it out in the backyard garden.
As I had one more night in town to look forward to, I dragged myself home at a decent hour, but not before a huge after-hours snack of sizzling grilled cevapcici, minced meat rolls topped with a slew of spicy goodies wrapped in a wonderful gooey bread called somun. Yum!
Saturday July 1:
The stars aligned for my last night in town. DJ-ing at Zappa Barka, a club on the river run by the same crew that owns Zappa Bar, was Gile of the legendary new wave band, Elektricni Orgazam, and the singer of my favorite Serbian band of all time, the irreplaceable Cane of Partibrejkers.
I’ve been of fan of Partibrejkers for as long as I can remember and have seen them regularly over the last 23 years. But their enigmatic singer, Cane, moved away from the city years ago and wasn’t a feature in the nightlife for a while. A family connection helped and suddenly two of the foremost front men of their generation were laying down the grooves and rocking the boat.
Gile was the first one at the decks, starting the set with mid-70s favourites from his high school days. Status Quo, Thin Lizzy, Sabbath and the like, but it really got cooking when Cane took over and blasted MC5, The Stooges and The Sonics.
It felt like I was in rock n’ roll heaven with one of my childhood idols playing my favorite records, so I started alternating rounds of beers with shots of dunja, a quince flavoured rakija. A word to the wise… bad combo.
A procession of friends showed up and I would like to take this opportunity to neither confirm nor deny any crazy shenanigans that I confronted them with.
My faithful cousins, Draza and Peca, left me at a certain point in the custody of Ljuba and a few Partizan buddies. At a certain point, the co-owner, Tica, showed up and we hopped into a cab towards his place, where more homegrown moonshine was consumed and early morning wisdom was shared.
Sunday July 2:
My dad waking me up to go to the airport. My teetotalling buddy Bane driving me there. Passing out. Waking up sick mid flight and jumping over the two other sleeping guys next to me and dramatically making it to the toilet seconds before disaster.
All in all, it was another fruitful trip to the Balkans. From the mountains of Kosovo to the river delta of Belgrade.
Next stop: My first trip to Funtastic Dracula Carnival in Benidorm. You have been warned…