When the UK starts arguing about freedoms and rights, we’ve recently discovered, it takes the form of factional battles between rival fascist in Westminster Square, repetitive Question Times and awkward silences over Christmas dinner. In Serbia, on the other hand, they turned such a clash into one of the biggest parties in the world. Witness EXIT festival, the four-day extravaganza of dance, rock, pop, grime and every other style of music under the sun, drawing almost 200,000 people from 70 countries to the glorious environs of the 18thCentury Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad every year to lose themselves in both history and hysteria.
And it all sprang from rebellion. In 2000, students and activists erected stages between the University and the Danube for a 100-day protest against the Milošević regime, disguised to escape government oppression as an event to get young people more interested in politics. The festival slogan was ‘EXIT way out of a ten year madness’ and Serbia took notice. A few days after the festival finished, the presidential elections began the process of overthrowing the regime, and the following year EXIT moved into the fortress across the waters to begin almost two decades of solid celebration.
Since then, over 3.3 million fun-seekers have flocked to Novi Sad, making EXIT one of the greatest summer bashes in Europe, winning Best Major Festival at the European Festival Awards in 2013 and 2017 and Best overseas Festival at the UK Festival awards in 2007. What makes it such a poll-topper? Well, there’s the 40 stages tucked within the ancient walls and cobbled streets of Petrovaradin, squares that jump until dawn to cutting edge sets from over a thousand global artists and DJs, and arguably the most idyllic place to watch the sun rise, without stopping the party for a second, outside Glastonbury’s Stone Circle.
There’s still a strong activist bent to the non-profit EXIT event, with campaigns, Youth Hero awards and progressive themes adding to the tone of the event each year – recent festivals, for example, have celebrated the anniversary of the peace movements originating in the Summer Of Love or the idea of personal freedom, “a liberation from materialism, stereotypes and collective misconceptions”. 2019’s event, taking place from July 4-7, has an ecological theme, inviting personalities, movements and organisations from around the world to unite to protect the planet.
It’ll be a stellar line-up including The Cure, Skepta, Greta Van Fleet, Carl Cox Tom Walker, IAMDDB, DESIIGNER, Amelie Lens, Charlotte de Witte and Paul Kalkbrenner that will be enthralling this year’s Petrovaradinian hordes though, adding to a spectacular roll-call of EXIT alumni including Massive Attack, The White Stripes, Underworld, Franz Ferdinand, Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, The Prodigy, The Killers, Beastie Boys, Paul Weller, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, MIA, Pulp, Kraftwerk and a vast array of major international DJs, from David Guetta to Eric Prydz and way beyond.
And if the ramparts, tunnels and charmed streets of Petrovaradin and Novi Sad – nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Danube – give you a taste for EXIT’s wonders, the festival has expanded into settings almost as breath-taking in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Romania too. Because once you’re inside EXIT, leaving is the last thing on your mind.