Today, April 24th marks exactly 100 Days until the Serbian hills are alive with the sound of music.
The Guča festival is about to celebrate it’s 55th year and like most 55 year-old Serbs, it’s loud, uninhibited, and likes to get as many people as possible around for a drink, food and to play some music. Time Magazine even named Guča one of “Five Festive Events You Won’t Want to Miss” and National Geographic listed it as “one of the ten most important cultural events in the world.” It’s a festival where a traditional cacophony of cannon fire serves as an alarm clock at 7am on the weekend of the festival, while the boom of brass will keep you awake til the late night hours for the remaining days. For those of you who are aware of the Top 10 Reasons to Visit Serbia, here is one of the not so well-kept secrets you may have missed.
So to ensure you get yourself along to Guča and know what to expect when you get there, here are some useful bits of information from someone who’s been and is going back.
To quote Iggy Azalea; “first things first.” Guča isn’t some fenced-off showground in the middle of a capital city but rather a wide-open village in the belly-button of Serbia that for one week of the year gets the chance to feel like it’s the centre of the world’s attention. Almost a million people pass through this small town of 2,000 people over that one week in August. To put it into perspective, that’s almost the festival equivalent of letting Micronesia host the FIFA World Cup and having them kick arse at it.
The village of Guča is a strange, wonderful place during the festival. You can wear a military hat without having ever served in the army, dance in front of crowds without ever having had a dance lesson and enjoy listening to music without understanding the words. Guča’s the awesome single uncle your parents let you stay with for a few days each year when you were younger. The uncle that let you eat what you wanted, try his homemade alcohol and play barefoot and shirtless in the street. Sure, your parents couldn’t allow it to go on all year, but a few days annually was fine.
With the history out of the way, here’s how to get yourself ready for everything this festival has in store for you. You’re going to want to make sure you line your stomach ahead of the week’s festivities. If you come to Guča, be prepared to eat food that either boils in a clay pot, rotates on a spit or barbecues on a grill that’s longer than an Olympic sprint track. It’s an apt comparison I suppose, because in a way Guča is the ‘Olympics’ of festivals. Events include ‘synchronized air-trumpeting/singing/dancing’ and ‘eating & drinking marathons’. The opening event is the ‘cross-country’ drive to get to the festival. You’re also going to want to prepare your muscles ahead of time and sort out your “gains for Guča”. Whether it’s upper-body strength for waving a flag above your head for hours at a time, lower-body strength for standing with a friend on your shoulders in the main concert area, or simply core strength, which will allow you to remain balanced after one too many rakije, the festival will demand your full fitness.
When you look at all of the facts, it’s clear that Guča is a sort of Serbian Disneyland. A family-friendly place with music, lights, food, rides and people in costumes. The only reason it’s probably not referred to as the “happiest place on Earth” is because Walt Disney passed away before he had a chance to make it to Guča. Added bonus; unlike the real Disneyland, you don’t have to worry about paying admission or seeing giant mice walking around the place either. Miles Davis, famous Jazz Musician once remarked of Guča, “I didn’t know you could play trumpet that way.”
Another important element that adds to Guča’s charm is the fact that it’s hidden away. You won’t find five-star hotels here, but what you will find is first-rate accommodation. Elderly residents renting out beds and rooms to guests and then greeting them with coffee and often breakfast in the morning. Besides, you don’t want a festival that’s too easy to get to! Why do you think in every fairytale, the princess is high up in a tower yet the troll is just right under your feet below the bridge? That being said, transportation is more than adequate. If you want new buses that always run on time, Switzerland is a one-hour flight away. If you want an atmosphere that would make ‘The Hangover’ look like a weekend at church camp, then sit in your polished wooden seat on your seatbelt-free bus and get ready for Guča.
Now we come to the ‘time of the gypsies’. While the rest of the world might say “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”, in Guča the saying could be, “it doesn’t start until the short gypsy trumpets.” Gypsies play trumpet like Serbs play basketball; incredibly well and in teams. Therefore, make sure you take the opportunity to have a band of gypsies play you some music in the street while there. You don’t need to understand it, just enjoy the sounds. No one knows what the hell ‘Macarena’ or ‘We No Speak Americano’ were about, but they were huge hits! To quote another great philosopher of our time, “no one knows what it means, but it’s provocative, it gets the people going.”
Now when it comes to paying the brass bands to play for you, it’s important to remember, this is your chance to get creative. You can slip the bank notes into their trumpet, slap it on their forehead or throw it in the air in their general direction. Just no spare change; they’re not buskers and the horn isn’t one of those charity bins in shopping centres where you insert coins just to see them roll around a few times before they fall in. Pretty much, the further the money goes from their hands, the more it adds to the vibe. Even if you have only about 20 dollars (1700 Dinars), throwing it in the air over the musicians will make you look and feel like you’re Floyd Mayweather flicking hundred-stacks. Oh and by-the-by, particularly for the ladies reading this, it’s going to be really important for you to forget what you think you know about gypsies. They don’t look like Johnny Depp in the movie ‘Chocolat’ and they don’t tell you your fortune. They may take your fortune and help you look for Johnny Depp, but that’s about the closest you’re going to get.
Roving entertainment to the side for a moment, the town’s football stadium also plays host to an enormous concert each day and night on Guča’s main stage. Thanks to the lights, fireworks and building-sized speakers, it’s easy to find your way there. You’ve got to love the sheer audacity and spirit of a festival based around the combination of two of the loudest instruments on the planet – trumpets and drums, and then the organisers say, “yep, we’d better still make sure we have speakers big enough for people sitting on their balconies in bordering nations to be able to hear this.” It’s a spectacle so profound, the noise could form a mental image so vivid a blind man could see the festival and produce vibrations so strong that a deaf man could dance in time to the music.
Ultimately, perhaps what makes Guča a bucket list item more so than anything else is how well it encapsulates the heart of Serbia. It’s loud, boisterous, completely unabashed and unashamedly unpretentious. A place where for the briefest of moments each year, despite difficult times politically and economically for the country, all is forgotten and put on the ‘to-do’ pile for tomorrow. Where the Serbian culture, music, hospitality and village life are put on show as local hosts ensure their guests have the chance to enjoy only the best of Serbia. It’s a reminder of the greatest asset of the Serbian people, which is their culture and their eagerness to share every facet of it with anyone who comes to visit, and it makes Guča an experience as much as it is an event. It’s a festival that’s sponsored by a beer company, hosted by a village, smells of roast meats and is visited by hundreds of thousands of domestic and foreign guests every year. The only way that Guča could be any more quintessentially Serbian is if the festival poster was a photo of Novak Djokovic sitting on the shoulders of Nikola Tesla, while riding a double-headed eagle with red-blue-white face paint, a rakija in one hand and three fingers up on the other.
The festival isn’t how Serbs live their day-to-day lives sure, but it’s an opportunity to remind foreign guests that no matter how difficult life may be for Serbs, there will always be an opportunity for guests to feel that they have indeed come to the ‘happiest place on Earth’.
My final piece of advice; whatever you do, make sure you buy a novelty t-shirt or singlet and a Serbian šajkača (traditional hat). After several days of drinking, eating and dancing til you drop, it may be the only evidence you have that you entered Guča and survived.
In the meantime, I guess all that’s left to say is… SVI ZA GUČU! (GUČA BOUND!)
- Guča (gucafestival.rs) takes place this year from 3-9 August. Buses from Belgrade to Guča take four hours for around $20 AUD return (I’d suggest you purchase them a day in advance at the bus station just to ensure you get a seat). Most accommodation is home stay and camping and can be organised beforehand but can also be arranged upon arrival. For details, visit the website.