Friday, 28 July 2017

EXIT Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia: Overnight Exile in the Fortress

Text by Mila Popova   
Located roughly in the middle between Bulgaria's Black Sea and Croatia’s Adriatic coasts, which are both shaken by high-energy rock parties each July, Novi Sad hosts one of the most significant summer festivals on the Balkans – EXIT. As fans from all parts of the region start to gather in the town for for this year’s event, scheduled to take place between July 10 and 13, Mila Popova recounts about the time she spent at the festival last summer.

It is just a little past 8am, the sun is already quite strong, my feet are hurting, just like those of the long train of people, with whom I’m crossing the bridge over the Danube in the direction of Novi Sad. My sore muscles, however, are not an annoyance – just on the contrary, they add to the complete happiness that fills me. Judging from the faces of the others, they feel the same way.

People between the age of 20 and 35 are walking along, with smiling faces, pouring water over one another, exchanging beer and a hint of dancing can still be seen in their stride. The last concert of the third night of the EXIT Festival in Novi Sad has just ended. LTJ Bukem and MC Conrad started playing with a two-hour delay, but instead of the scheduled two hours, they did a set of almost five hours. In the end, long after sunrise, they stopped electrifying the crowd with their divine drum’n’bass only because the festival’s security threw them out.

EXIT is the biggest musical event on the Balkans and – according to those who have attended many other festivals in Europe, it is one of the best on the Old Continent. It takes place over four days in the Petrovaradin Fortress, built in the seventeenth century and located across the Danube from Novi Sad. In the fortress, there are over 20 scenes with different kinds of music, and two of them can accommodate more than 20 thousand people. The concerts, many by world-famous performers (and awaited by many people on the Balkans since their early teenage years), start after the sun sets, while the DJ sets continue for hours after the sun comes up again.

The names of the main stage acts in 2007 speak for themselves – Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, Lauren Hill, the Beastie Boys, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx and many others. The DJs’ arena saw sets by Roger Sanchez, Danny Taneglia (in the video below), John Digweed and Richie Hawtin.

At both stages, the crowds are impressive, generous in their approval, expectant and very positive. Those who do not suffer from claustrophobia could get in the crowds’ very centre and forget who they are. Those who do, on the other hand, can find a higher spot (a wall, a tree, somebody’s shoulders, the top of portable chemical toilet) and get hypnotised by the waves of the sea of people, the lights and the joy.

The big stages are without a doubt attractive with their world-famous performers, but the smaller ones make up a significant part of the festival’s atmosphere too, where one gets the chance to come across surprisingly good acts and dance around a space larger than the 50 square centimetres usually allotted at the large stages. On my list of top concerts for 2007 was Balkan Beat Box, whose dozen musicians managed to get unusually joyful sounds out of their trumpets, tubas, drums and other instruments, their singer jumping around like a maniac, as was the crowd – a girl in its midst, twirling around like a dervish with her loose, colourful skirt.

Going between the stages is like jumping into a relatively quick-moving river and the fortress is like a labyrinth, with little bridges, tunnels and ditches. Losing your concentration even for a second could separate you from your friends irrevocably, and your chance to find them by the end of the evening is minimal. But you could make other friends, and from at least 30 different nationalities at that.

The days in between the nights in the fortress are spent in leisure in the town’s parks and the forest along the Danube or at the day-long party on the beach in front of the campsite. Last year, because of the heat, most of the time was spent looking for shade, shooting water guns and cooling off in the dirty, but wonderfully cold Danube.

The history of the EXIT Festival is quite a romantic one. It all started as a 100-day gathering of young and creative people on the river’s banks, who played music and made theatre and cinema in resistance to Serbia’s president at the time, Slobodan Milošević. International music acts started to come in the following year, 2001, when Milošević was no longer in power. Since then, the festival has been gaining more and more popularity each year, attended by famous groups and – unfortunately, starting to partly commercialise. As evidence for that, in 2007:

▪ There were so many people that moving around through the crowds was, to a large extent, a question of elbows and survival;

▪ There were way too many Brits – about a third or so of the people – with a taste for cheap beer that quickly turned them into hysterical and rude people, running around like rhinoceroses;

▪ In order to avoid misuse by the bartenders, the organisers had invented a system for paying for beer, energy drinks and water with special tokens. This meant standing in two queues – one for buying token money and one for drinks. The Brits were ecstatic while most of the Eastern Europeans were reminded of the rations system in place in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the communist regimes in the region.

However, these were all trifling worries, compared to the tons of positive energy that came out of the music and the people. For three days after I returned to Sofia, music continued to sound in my head and in the evenings, before I fell asleep, the thousands of smiles that had passed me through the fortress’s labyrinth would flash before my eyes.

By the way, Novi Sad is a town worth visiting on its own, apart from EXIT. Even though it is not located on the sea, it has feel of a Mediterranean spirit, mixed in with beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture. Residents of Belgrade call Novi Sad’s inhabitants slow (a saying that rhymes in Serbian), and that is the truth – people here walk slowly, circulating the alley along the Danube with a kind smile and greet each other, stopping for at least 15 minutes. During the festival, lying around in the grass of the beautiful parks on the Danube’s banks is allowed. I don’t know whether this is the case for the rest of the year, but it must be valid either way for the gardens in the big university complex.

In the centre of town, there are many Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and the most beautiful one is the majestic Gothic cathedral from the middle of the eighteenth century. Behind it stretch the small streets with the cafés of all kinds – colourful, designer and hippy ones. My personal favourites were those located in internal courtyards or side streets, where it is quieter, the heat is more forgiving and the prices are significantly lower. There are probably some nice restaurants in the town, but the temperature during all of my visits was around 40 degrees Celsius and eating, not really a priority, was usually done quickly in one of the bakeries. I have, however, heard legends about the unbelievably good pljeskavica, grilled pork and lamb minced meat patty.

The bridges in Novi Sad have now been rebuilt, but until a few years ago – after the NATO bombings, threads of concrete used to hang over the Danube. Now, on weekends, families sail boats along the river, creating an idyllic picture.

Novi Sad is located within driving distance from most of the Balkans – at 80 kilometres to the northwest of Belgrade, about 300 kilometres from Budapest and from Zagreb, 550 kilometres from Podgorica, 100 kilometres from the town of Subotica, about 400 kilometres from Sofia and 500 kilometres from Bucharest.

This article is courtesy of the Bulgarian daily

This year’s festival will take place in Novi Sad between July 10 and 13. For more information and the festival’s full programme, visit the official EXIT website.




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