Given it is Spring and the birds and bees and slowly appearing, here are a few (in)famous places in Belgrade, which shaped the sex life of the city.
One of the best books about the life of sex workers in early to mid 19th century Belgrade is undoubtedly “Kata Nesiba i komentari” by Ivan Janković. Janković, a famous Belgrade activist and legal scholar did a splendid job of researching the archives about the lives of sex workers and others involved in salacious legal disputes.
In his book, he follows the life of Kata Nesiba, a sex worker who arrived to Belgrade while it was still predominantly an Ottoman city and livede there as it adopted a more Western look and outlook. The latter also meant that the somewhat lenient Ottoman mores surrounding sex – from its pasha having both a male and female harem (filled with essentially sex slaves) to köçeks dancing in kafanas – were replaced by a more rigid moral and legal, in part to strengthen the “moral fibre” of the emerging Serbian state.
Kata’s (mis)adventures paint a vivid picture of Belgrade, and situate one of its red light districts around what is now Džordža Vašingtona street.
Of course, kafanas – Belgrade coffee shops – were another venue for titillation and sex work. In a particularly well written sequence, Janković talks about a brawl in Dorćol between Albanian and Serbian patrons of a kafana, caused by a particularly seductive young cross-dressing boy dancer (köçek).
However, even long after the city shed much of its Oriental charms, it remained popular with adventurers from around Europe, who were also interested in its underbelly. In his seminal book about Serbia, Felix Kanitz wittily describes the pan-European chancers that came to Belgrade to support Serbia in its struggles against the Ottomans. He scornfully paints a picture of lesser nobles lounging about in newly opened beer halls and consorting with local “loose women” instead of fulfilling their mission and actually fighting. However, Kanitz himself was a bit of prude: in one delightfully old-fashioned passage he explains that Belgrade women are a solid, moral bunch, but that there have been occasions when widows would take advantage of young male students renting rooms in their flats.
Although the Kingdom of Serbia never had a libertine reputation like Greece or the Orient, it was ruled by a rather libidinous King Milan, whose long-suffering wife, Natalija, left him due to his infidelities.
Although traditional, the city was also a sort of a refuge for foreigners seeking to escape the bounds of Western Christian morality and moralism: the most notable of those were British nurses who came to Serbia during WWI and pursued more liberated, and occasionally lesbian relationships. In a great piece of research, Olga Dimitrijević, focuses on Vera Holme and Evelina Haverfield, two suffragettes and war time nurses who enormously helped Serbia while pursuing their relationship. They were both accepted and honoured by Serbian military men and Holme even received a Samaritan Cross from the Serbian King in 1918.
The influx of single men and women looking for work from across the newly minted kingdom of Yugoslavia towards Belgrade meant that a lot of traditional attitudes regarding sex were left behind. While it was far from a libertine city like Weimar Berlin of 1920s Paris, Belgrade was trying to keep its pace with the West in provision of the latest sins.
The most famous establishment to emerge in this era and survive to this day (albeit much diminished) is Lotos bar. Opened in 1933, this formerly sumptuously decorated art deco cabaret provided a steady stream of scantily dressed performers to Belgrade’s audience. By 1933, Belgrade’s audience was more than familiar with both jazz and risqué performances – even the great Josephine Baker visited the city in 1929 – however Lotos established itself as the place to enjoy them in utmost luxury.
The joint stayed true to its reputation even after bourgeois opulence went out of fashion after WWII. It was the place to go for striptease all the way up 1990s, when there was a major proliferation of strip clubs in the city, however none of them achieved the name recognition of Lotos.
The centre of the city’s vices, probably since the first travellers came to Belgrade in 1880s, however, was the area around the Belgrade train station. The park in front of the Faculty of Economics was famous for operating as a late night market for sex and was affectionately referred to as Picin park (Pussy’s park). The park and the nearby streets were teeming with sex workers and it was a rite of passage for any high-schooler to tell her or his story about being accosted by a sex worker there while coming back home from their night out in one of Savamala’s downmarket kafanas like Paun.
The park – actually named after Luka Ćelović who developed most of the neighbourhood and bequeathed it to Belgrade University – was completely changed due to gentrification since late 2000s. First Savamala started attracting hipsters, and then the Belgrade Waterfront luxury development meant that the flux of railway passengers and workers looking for sex services was stopped, as the old train station was closed.
Another staple of the Picin park scene was the nearby Partizan cinema. Located inside the pre-WWII palace housing Veteran associations, after WWII the cinema initially specialised in showing cowboy films. Later on, however, it was the designated porn cinema in the city.
The shift towards blue movies came with showing of the Italian Emmanuelle sexploitation series during 1970s.
While I never visited the cinema (my generation grew up with the internet), I was emotionally attached to it due to the family lore and especially one story involving my, ever jovial, grandma.
In late 1970s, she treated her mother (who was in her 60s then) and her friend with a ticket to see a romantic movie about a lonely girl trying to find love in the unfair world. The two elderly ladies were excited and dressed up for the occasion, only to see the theatre filled with a disproportionate number of men. By the time the first sex scene ended, my great-grandmother’s friend was blushing and frightfully offended.
“Oh, Mrs. Mišic, do you think your daughter thinks we are loose women?”, she asked my great-grandma who was also a bit of prankster herself.
“No, but as awful as this is, my friend, I think we should stay and see how the movie ends.”
The two of them stayed, finished watching whatever sequel of Emmanuelle they were lured in to see, and laughed the whole occasion off afterwards with my grandmother.
My only brushes with Partizan, which closed in late 2000s after the criminal privatisation of Belgrade’s cinema chain Beograd film, were laughing while reading the ludicrous names of its films (Snow-white and the naughty dwarves sticks in memory) and feeling uncomfortable passing by the sex-shop at its front.
Although Belgrade (along with Eastern Europe) has been the subject of much exoticisation in terms of its dens of sin, including a whole performance art work dedicated to the topic by Marina Abramović, I am no longer aware of titillating places such as Lotos, Picin park and Partizan… I guess most of the “sin” is enjoyed virtually nowadays.