A Safe House for Men
As far as we know, the first kafana in the world, in the present sense of the word, was opened in Mecca in the XV century. The second was in Cairo, third (from 1522) in Belgrade. Belgrade, however, had its kafanas-motels, called pandokeons, even a millennium earlier. Be as it may, it was famous for its kafanas for centuries. In another place, this colorful information would be used for creating a great magnetic story and tourist attraction. Instead, some people in Belgrade want to extinguish all authentic Belgrade kafanas and offer foreigners everything they already have plenty at home

By: Miloš Lazić

In the unrepeatable British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, the epicenter of social life in a modern favela of east London is ”The Nag’s Head” pub. There were also virtuous names such as: ”The Drunk Owl”, ”The Red Stallion”, ”The Donkey’s Tail”, ”The Gas Lamp”, ”Rosy Charlie”… The best tsipouro in Corfu, Corfu is served ”Under Two Olives”, and in Kassiopi, local ouzo is offered at ”The Three Brothers”. Should we remind that the Parisian ”Red Mill” became part of art history and that today, together with ”The Crazy Horse”, it is a must-see tourist attraction.
Belgrade was never far behind, until the new fashion winds began blowing through its alleys, so travelers today discover names of kafanas such as ”Dorian Gray”, ”Irish Pub”, ”Mama Mia”, ”Insomnia”, ”Que Pasa”, as well as the recently closed ”Pizza Hut”, a pizza place opened above the open grave of the old Belgrade kafana ”Under the Linden Tree”. What’s worst, such restaurants do not offer guests slivovitz, Serbian wines, grilled meat or any Serbian cuisine dishes that made us famous.
Perhaps the city authorities should answer why Belgrade doesn’t even try to save kafanas that entered its joyful history, building the reputation of its citizens, celebrating our traditional hospitality and proven friendliness. However, the answer is known in advance: entrepreneurial initiative, free market, private ownership, new ideas… That is why the question should be amended with a plea to at least preserve the names of Belgrade kafanas, which have become accepted toponyms and most reliable orientation marks in the city’s urban geography.
This should be clarified, because about a million tourists visited Belgrade last year. If they were not only in transit, traveling to Guča and ”Dragačevo Trumpet Festival”, or to Leskovac and its ”Grill Festival”, they were certainly bored to death here in the same kafanas they already have at home, with drinks that are better at home, and food they probably eat every day.


There is an interesting document, stated by Vidoje Golubović, PhD, in his book about Belgrade kafanas. It is a note from the VI century, the period of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, written by a hand of a certain Procopius, reputable literary and travelogue writer of the time. Describing the city at the confluence of the Sava, Procopius dedicated a special part to strange inns, unfamiliar to him, known among the people as pandokeons.
They were named after a rectangular basis of a storied building, with a spacious atrium and fountain in the middle, centers of public life. From the side of the yard, along the entire building, they had arched hallways with entrances into small rooms, probably for business meetings and overnight stays. At the end of the paved yard, there was a large hall, where selected food and beverages were served.
This, very short trip through history is actually an introduction for something more important. As far as it’s known, the first kafana in the world was officially opened in Mecca, birthplace of Prophet Muhammad, in mid-XV century, as many as nine centuries after the Belgrade pandokeon! The second kafana was opened in Cairo and the third in Belgrade.
Such a form of hedonism arrived to Europe in the XVI century from the east, and, of course, found its first fertile soil here, with us. The Ottomans entered the city in 1521, and already the following year, somewhere in Jalija or Dorćol, opened the first kafana, serving coffee. In Constantinople, for example, the first kafana was opened about twenty years later! The next one, of course, appeared in Sarajevo in 1592. London got its first kafana only sixty years later. Then followed Marseille (1654), Vienna (1683), Leipzig (1694)...
This renaissance has a catch, creating an even bigger distance between our pandokeons and later kafanas. They were places where people drank only coffee. Nothing hard. Besides, these ”non-alcoholic hangouts” were ”safe houses for men”, where women couldn’t set foot in, made for chosen guests and specific social classes.


When it was already scientifically proven that Belgrade was the first European city that had a kafana, considering its location, strategic importance, as well as the then commercial routes, it is easy to conclude that it was also the first to have inns with overnight stays for travelers. They were, besides pandokeons, hans and caravan-sarays.
Although there were certainly many of them before, historical data states that a number of Dubrovnik and Jewish merchants settled in Belgrade in 1532. Thus it was irrefutably determined that the city got its first caravan-saray in 1536, immediately next to their residences, gift of the fair sultan Suleiman Kanuni (the Legislator), renamed by some terrified Europeans into ”the Magnificent”.
It wasn’t noted whether services, overnight stays, food and beverages for guests and food for animals were charged in money or in kind, or what the prices were in those ”motels”, but it can be guessed that they were not for every budget. This is because famous Mehmed-Pasha Jahjapašić set the foundations for the first Belgrade imaret, an inn for travelers with a lighter budget, a building with modest accommodation and public kitchen. This made the ”tourism and catering offer” complete, so everyone, regardless of their financial conditions or, more often, troubles, could settle and survive in the city.
According to reliable data, the oldest hotel corresponding to European standards was built in the attic of the today irrevocably closed kafana ”Greek Queen”. The building was erected in the 1830s by a certain Despot Lazarević, with a plan to open a kafana with overnight stay called ”Despot’s Han”. He arranged six rooms in the attic, but, already ten years later, doubled the capacity (the story went around the city that they were used by certain ladies for their ”business meetings”). In the eve of the war, Second World War and who knows what war of ours, all this disappeared without a trace. However, the sad truth remained that Belgrade was never famous for its hotels as it was for its kafanas!
Most of the Belgrade kafanas appeared at the crossroads of the XVIII and XIX century, and indifferent statistics notes that, at that time, the city had one kafana per fifty citizens! There were sixteen only in the Theater Square, and seventeen in forty houses in Kastrioti’s, later Makedonska and Poincaré’s Street.
This sheds a different light on the information that Paris, then already incomparably larger than Belgrade, had only 900 kafanas. Unfortunately, in the very unsportsmanlike competition for ”the most kafana-city of the world”, nobody accepts an important ratio – number of kafanas per capita. If it were accepted, it would probably bring Belgrade the champion’s title. But, what would we do with it?


If another city, or even a country, had a chance to be proud of the oldest kafanas in the world, they would make an attraction before which all other playgrounds for adults would resemble funeral chapels. However, no one in Belgrade or Serbia thinks about it, although everyone’s shouting about tourism from the rooftops. The saddest thing is when a large cruiser docks at the Sava port in Karađorđeva Street and hundreds of passengers start coming out, mostly spoiled moneybags, standing there confused for a while, until their guide puts them into buses and takes them up to the city, probably to show them the Patriarchy, Cathedral Church, Quarters of Princess Ljubica and wonderful Knez-Mihailova Street… and only along the way mentions the ”?” kafana (”Question Mark”). Who knows what these people think of us then?
Instead of greeting them with cheerful kafanas already in the dock, perhaps with replicas of old pandokeons, with wine or rakia cellars, shops offering freshly picked fruit, with kaymak and cheese, ham and bacon… we expertly enable them – to stretch their legs.
And we obviously have so much to offer, worthy of admiration and envy.


The insightful Byzantine writer Procopius noted that the old Belgrade pandokeons of the VI century were centers of the entire business life of the city, which, at the time, had very developed trade with Byzantium, as well as entire Europe.


One House, Two Kafanas
In his wondrous book ”Scrapbook about Old Belgrade” Nikola Trajković wrote:
”At the end of the last century, present Poincaré’s Street had more kafanas than street numbers, meaning that some houses had two kafanas.”


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