Sunday 24 April 2011

What a Kafana is?

I was just about to post my 3rd entry for the "Minha Belgrado" series, pointing out some of my favourite "kafanas" in Belgrade. But then I realised that most people who had never been to Serbia before probably have no idea what so ever of what a kafana is. So I thought it would be cool to write a bit about it.

Some would simply describe kafana as the serbian equivalent of a tavern. But others - and I include myself into this group - would tell you that kafana is much more than just a tavern: it's almost a way of life!

The word "kafana" comes from the turkish word kahvehane, meaning something like "coffee place" or "coffee house". The first kafana in Belgrade was opened in 1522 in the neighbourhood of Dorćol, run by Turks - those were the early days of centuries of Ottoman occupation in the Balkans.
Although the "kafana concept" arrived in Belgrade in the 16th century, it was only in the 1700's - by the time of the second Ottoman occupation - that the term "kafana" started being used to refer to those coffee inns.

Alcohol only started being served in "kafanas" on the first decades of the 19th century. By that time, "kafanas" were increasing more and more in popularity, taking an important and special place in the development of social, economic and cultural life of Belgrade. It was the place where the known and the unknown people sat for a drink, as well as famous and anonymous writers, poets, journalists, actors and various artists, politicians and so on. It was a shelter for bohemians, travellers, students, people with no place to stay, prostitutes… Each kafana had their own physiognomy, character and guest circle.

Despite de taxes that Prince Miloš started imposing on kafana owners in the early 1800's (and the working licenses that were now required to run such places), by the end of the 19th century Belgrade was crowded with them: according to some statistics, by the turn of the 20th century Belgrade had 1 kafana/coffee inn for every 50 inhabitants!
By then, the number of "kafanas" in Belgrade was in fact so big that the owners of those places started looking for a different "something" to attract more customers - that was when live folk music acts were introduced in "kafanas".

Prior and between the two world wars, "kafanas" were the place where important events took place or decisions were brought and even members of political parties had their own, favourite kafana where they would go to on a regular basis.

Nowadays, "kafanas" continue to be a place for meeting friends, drinking, talking & discussing, live music, singing your favourite tunes out loud after tones of kilo kilo and so on. It's the place where a foreigner can best understand and experience Serbs and their social personalities.

Kafana "?" ("Znak Pitanja", or "Question Mark", in English), one of the oldest in Belgrade

On my next post, info and directions to my favourite "kafanas" in Belgrade ;)