BELGRADE, Serbia — In most other European capitals, the 140-year-old Two Stags tavern would be a prime tourist trap filled with foreigners blushing as their table is surrounded by musicians crooning indecipherable folk tunes or enthusiastic renditions of “Yesterday” and Abba's “Fernando.”
But this is Belgrade and on this warm, spring night, there were no tourists.
The only foreigner in sight is a Greek businessman deep in discussion with his companion, a statuesque Serbian beauty. The other tables are filled with groups of locals tucking into plates stacked high with grilled meat, knocking back red wine and joining in with the wandering band.
It has been a decade since the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart came to an end. But while its erstwhile foe Croatia has re-established itself as a prime tourist destination and stands poised to enter the European Union, Serbia is still struggling to pull itself out of post-war isolation.
The EU has yet to recognize Serbia as a candidate and the country's edgy image means tourists from outside the Balkans are rare, beyond brief stopovers by river cruisers heading down the Danube.
Outbreaks of aggression by soccer hooligans or anti-gay protesters have meant a reputation for violence, intolerance and lawlessness has lingered here since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
But Serbia is making a determined effort to turn that image around, in part by promoting Belgrade as Europe's party capital. The hope is that Belgraders' very visible dedication to letting good times roll will draw foreigners eager to join in.
The city's giant floating discotheques, known as splavovi, are already a major draw for Europe's more adventurous clubbers.
The tourist office offers “cool Belgrade” programs that feature urban beaches on Ada Ciganlija island in the river Sava; concerts by the likes of Shakira, Sting or DJ David Guetta with tickets half the price of western European shows; or a bar crawl to sample rakia, the fiery fruit brandies that are a treasured national institution.
Belgrade may not match the architectural glories of Prague, medieval charms of Tallinn, or Budapest's old-world elegance, but citizens of the Serbian capital believe none of their rivals will offer visitors a better chance of having a good time.
“Hedonism is our best product, said Vesna Vujic, a government official. “We have to find a way of marketing that.”
A hint of good weather brings the city out on to the streets. Knez Mihailia promenade is chock-a-block with shoppers; lovers watch the sun set over the Danube from the ramparts of Kalemegdan fortress. Tipsy tables of elderly men break into song over piles of grilled cevapcici sausages in the al fresco restaurants of Cubura park. Mini-skirted fashionistas cram the bars of Strahinjica Bana, their sometimes inflated assets earning the street the unkind nickname of “silicon valley.”
“Night life is one of our great advantages of course, but we don't want to promote ourselves as only a party city,” said Ivana Milatovic, head of marketing at the Belgrade Tourism Organization. “This is a cool city, we're talking more about atmosphere, not about crazy parties until dawn or something like that. People here have a love of life, a love of good food and we offer good value for money.”
For Serbia's pro-Western government, tourism is not just about bringing in foreign currency. It's seen as a vital way to re-establish international contacts, overcoming the isolation of the war years and bringing the country back to the European mainstream.
Travel the other way was made easier when the European Union relaxed visa restrictions in late 2009, but many Serbs complain they simply can't afford to visit costly euro-zone destinations.
The arrest and transfer to the international court of the most-wanted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic in May will help improve Serbia's image. But its tourist trade still has far to go before it can catch up with the neighbors.
Serbia logged just 1.5 million foreign overnight stays in 2010, compared to Croatia's 50.9 million. Of course Serbia lacks the splendors of Croatia's Adriatic coast, but it also fails to match similar-sized landlocked central European nations. Foreign visitors spent 9 million nights in Hungary last year and Czech data for 2009 shows 17.7 million.
One factor holding back tourism is the scarcity of the low-cost flights that have revolutionized travel in Europe, turning cities from Liverpool, England, to Larnaca, Cyprus, into affordable short-break destinations for travelers across Europe.
Eastern European cities have been among the biggest beneficiaries, but the low-cost boom also has a sleazy side. The combination of cheap flights, cheap booze and cheap thrills has lured throngs of young men from Britain and other western European nations to eastern Europe for their stag weekends, or bachelor parties in American slang.
Although some low-cost airlines are now running flights to Belgrade, given the prospect of large numbers of boozed-up Brits meeting up with the wilder side of Serbian youth, the tourist authorities are relieved that so far their capital hasn't experienced an invasion of alcohol-and-testosterone-fueled weekenders.
“We are worried about that. Maybe the fact that some of those low costs still don't come here has its advantages,” admitted Milatovic. “Not bringing in that mass stag-party tourism, allows us to stay cool.”