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The whole idea of a fortress is to keep people out, but every summer in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, a 17th century citadel opens its gates to let tens of thousands of marauding music fans ransack the place for one of Europe’s most full-on festivals, EXIT.

The fortress is Petrovaradin, which looms on top of a cliff overlooking the River Danube and has 20 outdoor stages all over the grounds, in courtyards, forest areas, tunnels and moats – a world away from your typical festival site in a field with a few half-assed hippie art installations. The fortress is also one of Serbia’s most famous landmarks, and is protected by the government as a Historical Unit of Great Importance. It’s a bit like Paris city council giving the go-ahead for a four-day rave at the Eiffel Tower.  

Some 200,000 hit the fortress this year over the four days, from 70 different countries, to party under the banner of ‘freedom’, the 2018 festival theme. It harks back to the original ethos of the festival, which started in 2000 as a student protest against the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The Novi Sad locals take the party seriously too – the whole city centre is filled with EXIT flags during the festival, and one tour guide told us that in the 18 years since it started, she’d only missed a single day.

But never mind 18 years, after four days of partying at Petrovaradin you may need another holiday. The festival runs from early evening to 8am (not including official after-parties that go on till mid-afternoon), and one mate’s fitness app told us by the end we’d danced and walked 50 miles over the four days, and that’s up grassy hills, through cobbled laneways and steep metal walkways. Good job we discovered the cocktail No Sleep on the first night; it’s basically a big cup of all the spirits on the shelf topped up with guarana energy drink, and it became the official EXIT battery pack over the four days.


With hundreds of acts over the 20 stages you’re going to miss a lot, and you have to decide whether to be one of those hyper-organised festival heads with a highlighted timetable or go with the flow. As far as there’s a music policy, anything goes – from hardcore punk and and death metal, to techno, reggae, disco, indie, hip-hop, grime, dubstep and more. There’s even a karaoke stage if you’ve had enough No Sleep cocktails and reckon you can do a better job than the real artists. On Sunday, another daft highlight was a Serbian Nick Cave tribute band – you haven’t lived till you’ve heard Stagger Lee sang in an Eastern European accent.

But what about the ‘proper’ music? This year we were knocked sideways on the Main Stage by Grace Jones and her disco-dub diva antics, hula-hooping, knocking back glasses of wine and jumping on a bouncer’s shoulders for Slave to the Rhythm. Fever Ray were also a highlight, with their female empowerment and gender fluid anthems hitting the bullseye with electro-pop precision.


The other big names on the Main Stage were trap superstars Migos (worth the 90-minute wait, just about), reggae hero Ziggy Marley and the world’s two biggest EDM stars, Martin Garrix and David Guetta — who was buzzing on the Sunday night after France’s World Cup victory a few hours earlier, playing fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk’s One More Time with confetti blasting around the stage.

Even while EXIT has an eclectic booking policy, techno is the unofficial soundtrack, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a 4/4 pulse. The main engine room of EXIT is definitely the Dance Arena — a stunning natural amphitheatre set in the moat of the fortress, with ground space and tiered stands on grass verges holding 20,000 festival heads punching the air waiting for the sunrise every morning. The stage brings out some A-game magic from DJs, with Tale of Us, Solomun, Carl Craig and Maceo Plex the take-away highlights. At the closing set, Nina Kraviz simply didn’t want to leave, extending her set till 9am, blitzing the Monday morning sun with nosebleed hardcore techno from Pilldriver and toasting the crowd with a well-earned glass of Champagne.

The obvious main draw to EXIT is the fortress setting, but if you’re on a budget, EXIT is a serious bet for a European festival adventure. A full four-day ticket is only £95, and if you really want to go the whole hog, seven days’ camping at EXIT Village is only an extra £30.

If camping in 30 degree heat in the middle of a 24-hour party isn’t your thing, there are many options – from four-star hotels at a fraction of the price of those in many other European cities, to hostels and rooms through Novi Sad rental companies and private landlords.

EXIT led Novi Sad’s bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2021, and even more apt, it’s the European Capital of Youth Culture in 2019. The festival was also instrumental in founding the Tourist Organisation for Novi Sad. It’s rare for a pop culture event to have such a dramatic influence on a city, and it’s a genuine buzz seeing the locals all getting involved, even if it’s the old lads selling cans of beer from ice barrels or punks selling knock-off shades. One trip to the ‘Gibraltar on the Danube’ and you’ll fall for its full-on charms too. And don’t worry, the leg cramps will be gone in a few days.


https://www.exitfest.org/en/


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