Denizens of the the literati, the cognoscenti, the blogerati, and yes even the intelligentsia (here’s looking at you!) may be pleased to learn that there are still places on this green Earth not extensively Yelped, TripAdvisored, and Zagated to death. Foursquared and YouTubed, yes, and I’ll get to that in a minute. That’s not to disparage our modern means of sharing information. I’d be a hypocrite to do so; here I am typing away on a WordPress travel blog – who am I to pretend I’m not a cause of, and beneficiary of, such sharing? Nevertheless, it pleases your writer to know he was in a place of little documentation, and he’s going to document it.
Serbia itself is not exactly destination number one, certainly not for Euro-bound travelers or even those headed for Eastern Europe. Memories of war-torn Yugoslavia are still fresh in the minds of those foreigners old enough to remember. Indeed, the shells of NATO-bombed buildings still stand, as open-air museums of the region’s recent, violent past. Of course, modern Belgrade is a peaceful place, and while it may lack the obvious charm of a Budapest or a Prague, one can still find charm if one looks. I looked in the obvious places: The Bohemian Quarter with its cobblestone streets and tourist-adjusted prices, restaurant hostesses beckoning you inside; the cafe of the Hotel Muscovy with its decadent (but affordable) coffees and pastries and polite waitstaff; and of course a large Orthodox cathedral that was unfortunately under renovation inside. All on the Belgrade checklist, but all fairly run-of-the-mill. Returning to the guest house that afternoon, I felt a little defeated, by my attempts to sight-see as well as the dreary 50 degree weather (it was June!).
Two Danish graduate students happened to be in the same hotel, and as they were conducting an anthropological study on something called the kafana, they invited me to one that evening along with another guest, an Englishman. What was a kafana, I asked? (On this trip I did not bring large guidebooks, since I was visiting six countries. It left me feeling culturally ignorant. All I gotta say is, those Lonely Planet guides with their insets and essays really cover the bases and make for great time killers on long rides. Big, big mistake not bringing any, even on my phone. Lesson learned.)
The two Danes explained that a kafana was the Ottoman Empire’s idea of the neighborhood meetinghouse or bistro, serving ales and coffees, and often having live local music. In Serbia unlike elsewhere they also served food. Trying to conjure up an image, I pictured the nifty “supper clubs” of my Midwestern homeland, where people spent the evenings eating, drinking, and dancing all at one boisterous banquet hall. There, those clubs fell into a certain level of contempt as something quaint and passe. But like all things shunned they have made a comeback, as all kitsch must. “Supper Clubs” are sprouting up not only in urbane Midwestern university areas, but as weird cultural exports to New York City. And so it was, and is, with kafane. For many years these dives were considered something akin to the bar in Star Wars, a gathering place for society’s dregs – gamblers, whores, smugglers, drunks, and shady politicians. I don’t know whether the kafana has made a full recovery to the point that it’s frequented by Serbian scenesters, but the one we went to felt nothing like an intergalactic cantina. More like a simple, local family eatery.
In fact, with its checkered tablecloths and tight seating, at first blush our kafana, Ribolovacka Prica, felt more like one of those rustic Italian restaurants found in the U.S. There was no music that night, but loud, cheerful conversations filled the room, as did copious amounts of cigarette smoke (Serbia not yet having gotten around to criminalizing this lifestyle choice). Our meal consisted of a couple of large fish to be shared, along with potatoes and a few bottles of white wine. All told we paid between $12 and $15 U.S. dollars each.
You won’t find much about Ribovlovacka Prica online, but there are some photos on Foursquare here, as well as this interesting video on You Tube featuring live singing. (The woman who posted it cheerfully remarks that it is the only “fish tavern” where you can find tripe and gelatin served.)