Google “Kafana” and you’ll find references of ancient Turkish rule, male only bars, and old-fashioned stereotypes of down on their luck drinkers. Those stereotypes couldn’t be farther from the real modern-day Kafana. My experience with one in Belgrade was purely magical. I was drawn in there one quiet weekday night upon seeing 2 girls about my age chatting alone. I eyeballed them for a split second before joining them for a glass of wine and some forced Serbian practice. As soon as I was inside, I was hooked. 4 nights later all the bartenders were my personal friends, and everyone knew my name. I’m not kidding. By the time the weekend rolled around, I invited all my local friends and ended up with a small international posse who loved the place as much as I did from the start. The thing that sets the Kafana apart from a regular bar or nightclub is the music and the atmosphere. The music is the old traditional kind; usually played live, usually with an accordion (Serbs call it a harmonica), and hopefully a guitar, bass or some other instrument. Sometimes the band will sing as well, but even if they don’t the whole crowd will join in and drown out the band anyway. I had been sort of avoiding Kafana’s in favor of regular bars, lounges, and cafes since I didn’t consider myself a fan of traditional Serbian music. I was dead wrong. I wish I had been going to this place since day 1. The average age of the people there was around 30 years old and it was a balanced crowd of guys and girls. Mostly friends, having a good time after a long day, enjoying their company, the music, and a good drink. One man was studying orthodoxy and told me ancient stories of saints. He told me about how Serbs were good people, and if I happened to fall down on the ground in front of him and needed a life saving organ, he would give me his kidney without a second thought. OK, a shocking and humorous analogy, but you get the point, and he was serious. “I Give You My Kidney!” He shouted, through the accordion music and the singing, swaying crowd. “Thats how we are! We are good people!” And I agreed. Another man, upon hearing about my Serbian husband, kissed me on the head gently and said, “You’re husband is lucky man”. Then he proceeded to introduce to me to all his people at the bar as his newest friend, the American learning Serbian in Belgrade, who was married to a Serbian man in California.
Though the music was as old as it gets in the Balkans, the young crowd brought life back into the songs. They were singing every word from memory and swaying together like old, old friends. The guy next to me was telling me how his grandfather used to sing this song, and his great-grandfather and great great grandfather knew this song as well. These were the songs that carried the country’s history and the country’s soul with them from generation to generation. The songs somehow survived all the struggle until they ended up in this Kafana, sung by young, vibrant Belgraders who were utterly connected to their past, yet looking forward with an optimism that their ancestors couldn’t have had. The energy of this place captivated me, like many places in Belgrade did, and I instantly felt at home.
The Kafana in Belgrade was a pleasant surprise. It was a goldmine of fun, new friendships waiting to happen, and the perfect window into the Serbian soul, Serbian music, and Serbian society. So if you’re ever in Belgrade, seek out a Kafana and join right into the merriment…. you won’t be a stranger for long, my friend.