Savamala: Home is where the heart is for Belgrade’s creatives

Shoreditch in London, Nørrebro in Copenhagen and Kreuzberg in Berlin: all of Europe’s great capitals have their own creative hotspots. Now it’s Belgrade’s turn.

Belgrade, Serbia – Savamala was once nothing more than a collection of derelict buildings but in the last five years the waterside district has led Belgrade’s revival. With venues ranging from bars and restaurants to comedy clubs and art spaces, the district is fast becoming the ‘go to place’ for young people living in the Serbian capital.

A Monday evening at the cultural centre KC GRAD is enough to make this clear, the air around the building is full of chatter and the pavement is overflowing with the type of men who spend their days discussing which beard oil smells the most like the engine of their, newly refurbished, Harley Davidson. It’s like a scene from a TV show. They are all there, around 200 people (both men & women), for Grad’s ‘Deli Monday’. Every Monday Belgrade’s residents congregate at Grad in order to sample different food from around the globe and, as is custom in the Serbian capital, share some beer.

Founding father
Walk through the area in the brisk light of an April afternoon though and you’d be forgiven for missing the place you’d spent your evening. Grad is situated in a rather plain 19th century brick warehouse; altogether rather uninspiring especially when there isn’t a steady stream of hungry Serbs. Despite it’s lack of ‘curb appeal’ Grad, Belgrade’s first independent cultural centre, has brought all people of all ages and backgrounds to Belgrade’s waterfront since opening in 2009.

You may still be able to miss it but Grad has been going, in one form or another, for even longer. Artist and co-founder, Ljudmila Stratimirovic believes that it was the end of the Balkan War that offered the chance for such a venue to grow in the city. She told Euroviews that the war’s end brought along a different mindset:

“In 2000 the atmosphere was full of hope, it became easier for us to invite foreign artists here and that started to develop our programme”

Back in 2000, she worked on a, cross-border, arts and culture radio show with Balkan broadcaster B92 but according to Stratimirovic it lost it’s purpose once people realised “what the internet was” and could see what was going on in other countries.

Then it was time to transition back into a physical space; Stratimirovic says a project together with the European Arts & Culture Centre, Felix Meritis gave her and, her co-founder Dejan Ubovic, the “confidence to start their own space” This ‘own space’ now brings in over 70,000 visitors each year.

The cat that got the cream: Grad’s opening has led to a revival of the formerly derelict area.
The cat that got the cream: Grad’s opening has led to a revival of the formerly derelict area.

Despite the success, Stratimirovic is happy just to still be open. A smile spreads across her face as Stratimirovic admits that that “it’s even still strange for me that we’re still going”. It may remain strange for one of it’s founders but Grad has become so engrained in Belgrade’s cultural scene that, according to Stratimirovic, Serbia’s Minister of Culture Ivan Tasovac called it an ‘institution’ on a recent visit.

To GRAD and beyond
Leave Belgrade’s latest cultural ‘institution’, walk a few doors down and you’ll arrive at the Ben Akiba Comedy Club. Ben Akiba, like Grad, has a rather unassuming façade that reveals it’s former past as a textile store. The club, again like Grad, is also a first; when it opened two years ago it was the first dedicated comedy club in Serbia.

Lea Čeh, the club’s producer, told Euroviews that Grad allowing them to stage open-mic nights showed them that opening the venue was possible in the district. Ben Akiba used to be a cocktail bar in the city centre but it recently moved and Čeh believes other businesses will follow into the area that she described as a ‘community’.

One of Ben Akib’s regular comedians, Nikola Silić, has lived in Belgrade for his whole life and he can clearly see the difference in the Savamala of his childhood and what it is now:

“The entire street used to be nothing but ruins; abandoned buildings, condemned buildings. Absolutely nothing. Until slowly but surely it became very popular to have a club here – now pretty much everyone is here.“

One such business that is now ‘here’ is Berliner, a bar named after Germany’s capital, co-founded by Aleksa Todorović but it’s not the young Serb’s first bar in the area. Todorović founded Brankow, a nightclub in an abandoned space alongside the famous Branko’s Bridge, back in 2009 and because of Todorović and his business partner can, almost, call themselves the ‘Founders of Savamala’.

Even Todorović appreciates what Grad has done for the area though, he told Euroviews that when Grad opened it gave the area a more ‘vibrant fell’ and an extra dimension. It seems Todorovic’s business ambition (he also co-owns one other nightclub in the city) is matched by his ambition for Savamala. As he told Euroviews that Berliner wasn’t just any other name and Savamala “could be the Berlin of Belgrade.”

Every silver lining has a cloud
Savamala and Serbia aren’t there quite yet though. The Balkan country has a GDP more than 7 times smaller than Germany’s and the area is still far from being gentrified. If you walk into it from the wrong angle and it may be a while before you find a building that looks anything like something from Shoreditch. Next to Berliner sits a car wash that Todorovic warns is “probably illegal” and alongside Grad is the empty shell of a former Austro-Hungarian mansion.

There is also the small matter of the Belgrade Waterfront project. The project is worth €3bn and is set to be partly funded by the Dubai-based construction company Eagle Hills. Take one step too close to the waterfront and the sun is almost blocked out by the blue flags announcing the projects arrival. If the project goes ahead the sun will remain blocked, for at least part of the area, but this time not by blue flags but by the centerpiece: a 200m tower of glass.

The blue flags announcing the upcoming project occupy the majority of Savamala's air space
The blue flags announcing the upcoming project occupy the majority of Savamala’s air space

The project has been heavily criticised by anti-corrupt think tanks as well as architects and local residents and Ben Akiba’s, Lea Čeh is no different, she believes the development could ‘ruin’ Savamala despite the promises that it won’t.

Whether or not Savamala gets it’s time to grow, no one can know but what is certain is that next Monday there will be food and beard oil, not offices and suits, on Belgrade’s waterfront.