I feel a youthful beat of energy as I wander the streets of Niš, the southern and third largest city in Serbia. The city is rooted in history, stretching back many millennia with influence from the Celts, Romans, Turks, and Austro-Hungarians. Early today, I uncovered some of these influences and history through Nis’s food and gastronomy scene.
For the next two nights, I feel the energy and groove of Niš nightlife. Here are a few of my favorite spots to take in the nightlife, craft beer and good wine while hanging out in Nis.
After a four hour long lunch at Kafana Galija, I now can attest to immersing myself into an authentic Serbian Kafana experience. I join Uros and Natalija for a short walk to the Hush Hush Lounge and Wine Bar. Tucked down a side street not far from the city center, we walk down a short alley and into a leafy courtyard and past several outdoor tables and up a short staircase and into the bar.
With dark red walls decorated with a wild collection of modern art and vintage posters, Hush Hush Lounge Bar offers a full bar plus an excellent selection of Serbian wine. Famous for its pizzas and other snacks, it’s a casual and comfy lounge and a great place to meet locals and engage in conversation. You can often hear live music on the weekend, but tonight owner and wine aficionado Dragan Miokovic, or as his friends call him by his nickname Mauk, handles DJ duties and goes about introducing me to music by the Gypsy King of Serbia Saban Bajramovic.
I’m immediately seduced by the music, without knowing a single word. It has great energy and fuses jazz, folk, and the melodic gypsy beat. Saban’s voice rings through, and I mime the words I don’t even know. I pull out my iPhone and find him on the iTunes store, so I buy the album we’re listening too. To understand a place you must connect with the local people, taste the local food and drink, delve into history, and feel the groove and energy of the music. Here in Niš, I am in. And I love it.
Mauk pours us a variety of wines including two different Merlots, one made by a winery just a few kilometers from Niš from only a small one-hectare vineyard—tiny production. It’s deep extracted and rich with flavors of ripe plum and anise, and a hint of oak. It’s my favorite of the evening. Soon we’re joined by Aleksandra another Visit Niš tourism professional who works with Uros and Natalija. Mauk brings a plate of Serbian sausages, not that we need more food, but Aleksandra insists I try. They make a nice pairing with the Merlot.
Several more hours pass as we sample the wine, including another Merlot, made at a monastery, more food, and dig into the conversation. When I ask Aleksandra give me the top reason people should visit Niš, she answers without hesitation “First, the people of Niš, then the food of Niš, and the history of Niš.” I agree.
Besides my new love of Saban, I learn a lot hanging with this crew, including that Uros moved to the United States in 2008 to work for the Miami Heat in Florida to be closer to his children. His two sons now live in Colorado and Indiana. They both studied and earned degrees in the US thanks to athletic scholarships awarded to them, one for tennis and the other for basketball.
I learn the story of Malvina Hoffman, a US author, and sculptor who was inspired, after meeting Serbian World War I Colonel Milan Pribićević in Chicago, to take up the cause to support Serbian women and children who lost husbands in the war. Uros shows me a poster that also ran as an advertisement in New York newspapers designed by Hoffman. The colonel would ultimately pose for Hoffman and casts of the sculpture are in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Smithsonian.
I also learned the story of legendary actor Robert De Niro, who as a young twenty-something vagabond traveler, found himself outside this city of Niš lost, hungry, and weary. A local farmer from a nearby village takes him in, and for several days De Niro recovers, helps the family with farmer chores and over time gains the strength to move on. When he grabs his backpack, he finds it packed with pogaca bread and cheese. De Niro never forgot Serbia or the hospitality. He named his daughter Drina after one of Serbia’s biggest rivers and was an outspoken critic of the NATO war and bombing in Serbia in 1999. Years later he returned to Nis and visited the family who helped him.
Even more surprising is I learned that after World War I, on July 28, 1918, the United States celebrated “Serbia Day.” Woodrow Wilson ordered that the Serbian flag along with the American flag fly over the United States Capitol building in Washington DC. Then-Secretary of State Robert Lansing urged American citizens to “gather on Sunday, July 28 in their churches to express their sympathies toward this enslaved nation (Serbia) and their oppressed brothers in other countries and to invoke the blessing of the almighty God for them and cause they are fighting for.” This was the first time that the US government flew any foreign state’s flag on the Capitol. And it only did it one other time in 1920 when it flew the French flagon the 131st anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.
As the night goes on, I learn that sixteen percent of the Serbian population died in World War I, villagers in Western Serbia saved over 400 fighter pilots who shot down in western Serbia and that Niš is the birthplace of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine.
Soon we must bid Dragan Miokovic (Mauk) and Hush Hush Lounge Bar goodnight–it’s 2:30 am and time to call it a night. I feel though I have to come back!
After a long day exploring more Niš history, wandering lost vineyards, and wine tasting our way through the history of winemaking here, Natalija, and I take a walk to the Ministerstvo Brew Pub. It’s Saturday night, and the place is packed, there are no seats available. It’s more of that Niš energy.
Ministerstvo or Minister Brew Pub sits on the main road in downtown Niš, and about a ten-minute walk from my Art Loft Hotel. Inside there is a small bar and seating for about fifty people, with a large patio and a dozen or more tables and long benches outside. The buzz of conversation falls just below the western rock n’ roll music pouring out of the bar. A busy bartender tends the seventeen craft beers on tap—there are also plenty more available by the bottle. Minister Brew Pub is rocking on a Saturday night around 11 pm in Nis.
We hustle to a table where a group just left in the back of the patio near the fence. That’s where I meet Milan Stankovic who along with his brother Milovaj (XXX) opened Ministerstvo Brew Pub in 2016. “We started very small with just three taps,” says Milan, “then we slowly added more. Today we have seventeen.”
The idea for opening Niš’s first brew-pub grew from the brothers’ passion for beer and especially craft beer. While they have crafted their own beer recipes, the growing business has yet to invest in the expensive brewing equipment they need to brew here in Niš. Until they do, Minister sources its beer from craft brewer Crow Brewery in Central Serbia who follows the brothers’ recipes.
The brothers’ also promote and organize the Niš Beer Festival, a three-day event held every year in early September. He admits that Serbia has no real history in brewing as it has in winemaking and that the number of Serbian’s with an interest or craving craft brew is small but growing. When they first opened seventy percent of the beer sold was a low-cost Czech-made pilsner, what Milan refers to as industrial beer. “Today we sell seventy percent craft beer and thirty percent of the Czech beer.”
Because Niš is a college town Minister attracts students. “Students don’t have money, and craft beer is more expensive,” notes Milan, “Sometimes they just want to drink ten beers, and it doesn’t matter to them what the taste as long as it’s cheap.” He says he tries to get customers to open up and try something new. “Some times they try something new, the crowd is evolving, but we welcome everybody.”
Just outside the entrance to Minster, I notice an ATM-like machine, but it’s for Bitcoin. I’ve seen nothing like this anywhere. Milan tells me it’s a new machine just installed a few months ago. He hasn’t seen many people use it but thinks some do.
At one moment the music is cranking Led Zeppelin, Creedence, and Deep Purple, and the next its head-banging heavy metal I don’t recognize. So I ask.
“Is this a playlist or who is the music director?” Milan laughs. “It’s a playlist I found on Spotify,” he says. Milan likes classic rock while his brother is a heavy metal fan, so they found a playlist that combines both. Though a few times during summer when traveling minstrels and groups pass through town, he’ll let them play for tips. They may offer more local music in the future, but for now, he likes the variety these traveling musicians bring.
I’m drinking a glass of the Minster beer, his beer recipe but brewed elsewhere. A server brings sausages, bread, and french fries to the table. The perfect food to go with a cold craft beer.
Just as I’m finishing my first beer, my new friend and tourism director Uros shows up. Then just as the server brings his first beer, Aleksandra joins us. Everyone is talking about the beers, except Aleksandra who isn’t a fan and orders a glass of wine instead. Minister doesn’t discriminate. If you’re a wine drinker, they’ve got something for you.
Business is growing, and Minister is making a profit. This weekend they sold out of two of the beers on tap. Milan hopes that in a year he will start the brewery and after that, he would like to see Minster beer sold all over Serbia—and then the Balkans and behind. At forty-two years-old he has the entrepreneurial spirit and energy, and like others, I’ve met in the burgeoning wine business, Milan is investing in the future. He knows he’s in the middle of a renaissance of sorts, he just hopes the Serbian market continues to open its eyes and mind to different beers. I think they will and look forward to seeing his business grow.
While they sip their beer and wine, Natalija and Aleksandra attempt to teach me some Serbian vocabulary. They are funny when we start with farm animals, cow, sheep, and chicken. I guess it’s good to get the food language first.
Just after one heavy metal song ends, the sound system blasts out the Blue Oyster Cult anthem, Don’t Fear The Reaper. I order another beer, this time at Milan’s suggestion that a try a beer he calls pink. It’s not pink in color, but the aroma is sweet like raspberry. It’s decent, but not my style of beer.
The Ministarstvo Brew Pub is open until midnight during the week but stays open until 1:30 am on weekends. “That’s just about the time when people are going out to the nightclubs and discos,” Milan tells me. “So they come here first to warm up for the evening.”
Once again, it’s fitting I behave like a Serbian from Niš and head to the Sunset nightclub for live music and another beer. Natalija and Aleksandra lead the way while Uros takes a pass because he must tend to his dog. I understand his responsibility, and I think about my cat Dar, so far away from me in California.
Onward to The Sunset.
There’s a huge crowd milling outside the entrance to the Sunset nightclub just a few blocks from Minster. Here we meet the owner of the nightclub, a motorcyclist and former cop, on his bicycle. He’s just leaving—but not for home, tells me he’s going to another club.
Inside the club, there are two levels where the top level looks down on the bottom level where people dance in front of a band playing Serbian rock on a stage. On the top level, I look down on a wafting fog of smoke that catches the colorful and kinetic rhythm of the stage lights. Yes, people are smoking in here—a lot.
There’s nothing like being at a nightclub in Niš grooving to the live music. And not knowing a single word yet understanding every word Above the band near the ceiling an old Harley-Davidson hangs from the wall. The club is packed with people of all ages. I wander down to check out the band close up. I meet a couple of young guys who let me belly up to their table for a place to set my beer. They understand a little English, but not much. We just groove to the music together and watch the people.
Back upstairs Natalija, Aleksandra and I have another beer, chat with those around us and groove to the tunes. When the band takes a break, we decide it’s time to go. I look at my watch, it’s 3:30 am. This is nightlife, and this is Niš.