Most festivals in Ireland or the UK boast about their wonderful setting, usually in the grounds of some stately home that’s fenced off from the session ruffians. It probably makes sense – protecting against the elements, you never know what might happen.
In Serbia they do things a bit differently. For four days every summer, a 17th century fortress opens its gates for EXIT – one of the biggest music festivals in Europe.
EXIT is held every July in the city of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second biggest city that’s only an hour from the capital Belgrade. Petrovaradin Fortress is the most spectacular setting for a festival you can imagine – immediately apparent as you walk across Varadin Bridge and see the citadel looming large on a cliff on the other side of the Danube river.
Once inside, you’ll navigate cobbled paths, grand courtyards, grass verges, underground tunnels and metal staircases, with 20 outdoor stages that feature everything from death metal to pop, indie, reggae and techno.
EXIT won Best Major Festival at the European Festival Awards this year, and once before in 2013, and with 200,000 visitors this year from 70 different countries, it’s firmly in the festival premier league.
The festival started as a 100-day student protest in 2000 against the Milosevic regime, with an idea to “Exit out of the madness” and the locals are extremely proud of the festival – the main streets of Novi Sad are lined with Exit flags showing this year’s big names Grace Jones, Migos, Ziggy Marley, David Guetta and loads more.
The people of Novi Sad really do get involved – from the old lads selling cans on the streets, to people offering up rooms to tourists for prices a fraction of regular Airbnb rates. We spent an hour with a tour guide Slađana, who said in all of the 18 festivals she has only missed one single day. It’s also worth chatting to the extremely friendly locals to pick up on famous anecdotes – including the notion that Albert Einstein’s wife, the Novi Sad mathematician Mileva Maric, might have actually been the brains of the operation.
Obviously, the main draws are the spectacular setting, the hot weather and the consistently strong line-ups – bigs acts over its 18 years have included Arcade Fire, Liam Gallagher, Faith No More, Iggy Pop and LCD Soundsystem.
But you can never underestimate the pulling power of a good bargain. Exit is €105 for four days, and once you top up your festival smart card, you’ll pay less than e2 for a beer and less than €4 for cocktails. Stick to the No Sleep cocktails fuelled by the Serbian guarana drink No Sleep – you’ll need it as Exit runs from early evening to 8am, with headliners on around midnight.
Even taking into account flights and budget accommodation, you could end up spending roughly the same as a weekend at Electric Picnic, and once you hit the Fortress you’ll realise it’s a no-brainer.
One of the organisers, Dusan kovacevic, says “the essence is the same” between the current Exit and the original: “Social activism, regional cooperation and lasting peace in the Balkans.”
EXIT led the bidding process for Novi Sad being named European Capital of Culture in 2021, as well as European Youth Capital in 2019, which will only lead to more people falling for the charms of the ‘Gibraltar on the Danube’.
“EXIT became popular after a long period of isolation of the country and most of the local people are truly happy and proud that their city was now attractive for visitors from all over the world,” says Dusan.
This outpouring of joy is shared by the performers, especially DJs at the Dance Arena – held in the moat of the fortress and often said to be the best stage in the world.
Russian DJ Nina Kraviz closed this year’s festival after extending her set for an hour.
“I am very emotional. I just played a closing three hours set at one of the most special places on Earth,” she posted later, a sentiment shared by the tens of thousands of EXIT recruits already planning next year’s trip to Novi Sad.
- Written for Irish Daily Star travel section