Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad

It doesn’t take long to realise that EXIT is a festival with significance far beyond music.

As early evening crowds throng down Bulevar Mihajla Pupina and across the Varadin Bridge towards the Petrovaradin Fortress, all excited chatter and good-natured bonhomie, it feels like the whole of Novi Sad has come out to party. And why shouldn’t it? For four days, Serbia’s second largest city plays host to one of the world’s most acclaimed events, and one born out of the fight for democracy and freedom that ravaged these lands at the turn of the millennium.

Serbs are proud of EXIT Festival and rightly so; it represents hope and music’s power to “connect and bring people together”. As such, there’s a vast range of genres to be found across EXIT’s 21 stages. One can binge on Serbian trap and trance, wallow in low end at the X Bass Pit, or chill at the Wenti Wadada Positive Reggae stage, which is bafflingly decorated with an eight-foot statue of a giraffe. Hidden delights abound too, in cobbled courtyards and down narrow alleys; there’s a planetarium behind an unmarked door, and a tiny, black-lit catacomb club offering free neon body and face paint.

The sprawling site rewards intrepid exploration and an open mind; some of the best sets come courtesy of those carving out their own niche. Whitechapel’s brutal, breakneck deathcore lights up the Explosive stage, as does Siberian Meat Grinder’s hardcore thrash/black metal/doom rap hybrid. 999999999’s industrial acid techno provides a surreal soundtrack to Saturday’s sunrise, while Atheist Rap – a local punk rock band and cult heroes celebrating their 30th anniversary – bounce through their darkly humorous societal satire to a boisterous, appreciative crowd containing as many teenagers as veteran heads.

At the other end of the bill, big-name DJs like Carl Cox and Charlotte de Witte sit alongside more chart-topping fare that draws the crowds but seems a little contrived. The Chainsmokers’ pyrotechnics and frequent bass drops can’t disguise the blandness of their EDM pop – they come off like a frat-house bro version of 2 Many DJs – while Greta Van Fleet’s Led Zeppelin tribute act fares little better. Full of pilfered riffs and faux mysticism – “This is far out, man,” declares singer Josh Kiszka, entirely un-ironically – it’s remarkable how many tired clichés they embrace.

Peggy Gou, house music’s fast-rising superstar, is brighter and far more buoyant; her set swirls sultry, breezy grooves with colourful house and features feather-boa-wearing dancers. Meanwhile, the biblical storm that played havoc with the previous night’s scheduling fails to dampen Skepta’s incendiary trap-leaning grime, ear-candy beats, and assured flow.

And then there’s The Cure. Making their first ever appearance in Serbia, Robert Smith and co. are on supreme form on the opening night, balancing the hits with their trademark bleakness and sounding utterly magnificent. Even the Gods approve – there’s a poignant moment as the heavens open while Smith sings “And we kissed as the sky fell in”.

Their 30-minute encore is pure Cure-banger gold – we get a yearning Lullaby, a joyful Friday I’m In Love, and Boys Don’t Cry as a final rush – and it’s no surprise to learn later that 56,000 fans, a record for EXIT, squeezed in to watch history being made. For those lucky enough to get a ticket – Thursday was apparently massively oversubscribed – the experience will live long in the memory.