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Travel: The Serbian melting pot

In Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, life is slow and beautiful

brunch Updated: May 26, 2019 07:52 IST
Kalpana Sunder
Kalpana Sunder
Hindustan Times
Serbia,Novi Sad,Austro-Hungarian Empire
The Petrovaradin Fortress, designed by a French architect, was built by the Habsburgs to control the land along the river and block the Ottomans (Kalpana Sunder)

In the Serbian language, the word ‘Sad’ means a garden, yard and bed of flowers – my first impression of Novi Sad is a city of gardens and well-tended green spaces. The second largest city in Serbia, located in the province of Vojvodina, Novi Sad once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later became part of Yugoslavia. Many turbulent years later, Serbia is an independent nation, and I have arrived here taking advantage of a visa waiver for Indians!

The town dates back to 1694, when Serb merchants and artisans formed a colony across the Danube from the Petrovaradin Fortress, which was a Habsburg military post. The town has been known for its eclectic mix of cultures, customs, and religions since its very inception. Here Serbians have been living together with Hungarians, Slovaks, Ukrainians and so on. In the 19th and early 20th century, Novi Sad became the hub of Serbian culture and was called the Serbian Athens. Prominent writers, poets and theatre artists lived here and enriched its fabric.

Whispers of history

Danube Park is lined with busts of prominent Serbians and holds more than 600 trees of different species ( Kalpana Sunder )

“Novi Sad has been selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2021, so there will be a lot of investment in improving the city,” says our guide, Bojana Sestovic. Most people know Novi Sad thanks to the four-day EXIT festival, one of the biggest music summer festivals in Europe in July, featuring a variety of genres including rock, dance, reggae, hip-hop and folk.

“The city is a symbol of resilience and has reinvented itself several times,” says Bojana. In 1849, the city was damaged extensively by the Hungarians and had to be rebuilt. During World War II, many Jews were killed by the Hungarian police and thrown into the icy waters of the Danube. It was again devastated by Nato bombardment during the Kosovo War of 1999, and all its three bridges were bombarded.

The Vojvodina Museum showcases Roman ceremonial helmets, wooden houses, furniture and clothes from the past

We start exploring the city situated on the River Danube at the gargantuan Freedom Square, framed with a wealth of stately buildings. This was the venue of important political and cultural events in the city’s history. Sitting on a bench in the square, I take in the beauty around me: the square is dominated by two stunning buildings facing each another – the City Hall built in 1895, which is the seat of city government with 16 figures on its façade that symbolise the various human activities, and the Cathedral, built in 1895 in the neo-gothic style. The church is a stunner, with 20 stained glass windows depicting saints and church fathers created by Hungarian and Czech masters, and the steep roof laid with multicoloured tiles made of Zsolnay ceramics, which glint in the afternoon sun. The bronze statue in the middle of the square is that of Svetozar Miletic, Novi Sad mayor and champion of political rights of the Serbs in the 19th century.

The pastel-coloured facades of old town are a visual delight ( Kalpana Sunder )

History whispers from every corner of the city. It was here that famed scientist Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity, living with his first wife who was Serbian. Novi Sad used to have a thriving Jewish population, and the city’s synagogue bears witness to their wealth and prosperity. Walking through the city, I see a collection of beautiful buildings with different architectural styles from Gothic, Baroque and Hungarian Art Nouveau to Neo-Classical.

Looming over the city atop a hill is the Petrovaradin Fortress nicknamed ‘Gibraltar of the Danube’, designed by a French architect, and sprawling over 112 hectares. It was built by the Habsburgs to control the land along the river and block the Ottomans. The castle has 16km of underground corridors on four levels. Don’t miss the unusual time-keeper – the clock tower with the famous ‘drunken clock’ where the short hand shows the minutes and the long hand the hours, so that sailors on the river Danube could see what time it was from a great distance.

City of long lunches

The gargantuan Freedom Square is framed with a wealth of stately buildings ( Kalpana Sunder )

Tucked away down a quiet side street close to the Bishop’s Palace, I have a meal at Fish & Zeleniš which serves Greek, Dalmatian and Mediterranean cuisine from fresh seafood and organic vegetables to homemade pasta. I love the quirky décor and murals on walls, the wooden beams, and the trinket-filled shelves.

Post lunch I walk along Zmaj Jovina Street, the main promenade. Lined with numerous open-terrace cafés, restaurant serving Cevapi or Serbian sausages and pastry shops, it’s a great place to kick back and watch the world go by. Children in prams, balloon sellers, popcorn and gelato kiosks, people bent over cups of cappuccino, lovers huddled close to one another – it’s a paean to the slow life.

Many Belgraders have weekend homes in Novi Sad – they love fishing and relaxing here by the Danube

A monument to Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, Serbian doctor and poet who is a favourite with children because of his nursery rhymes and children’s songs, is at the far end of the street. He is also known as the author of the first ever postcard in the world, sent in 1870. I watch kids play at his feet and some even climb up the statue! The street ends with the building of the Bishop’s Palace, built in salmon pink stone, in the Byzantine-Moorish style, the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church with the Cathedral Church (Saborna) right behind.

Pick up these cutesy souvenirs while in Novi Sad ( Kalpana Sunder )

I walk on Dunavska Street, also packed with shops and cafés, exploring the Vojvodina Museum which showcases everything from Roman ceremonial helmets to wooden houses, furniture, and clothes from the past. The street leads towards the Danube Park and the Danube River. Danube Park is filled with walkers and courting couples. It is lined with busts of prominent Serbians, and holds more than 600 trees of different species, a small lake with swans, ducks and turtles, and weeping willows.

Near the River Danube is the Strand – a 700 metre stretch with playgrounds, trampolines, ice cream sellers and fast food stalls.

I am not surprised to hear that many Belgraders have weekend homes in Novi Sad – they love fishing and relaxing here by the Danube. “It’s the slow city, slow cooking, that attracts them. The pace of life is languid and Sunday lunches last way too long,” says Bojana, with a smile.

Open air cafés near the Bishop’s Palace are perfect for chilling ( Kalpana Sunder )

Down at the local

On the outskirts of the city, in the vast expanse of the Pannonian Plain in Serbian heartland, we drive to Salas 137. The word salas is derived from the Hungarian word szállás meaning accommodation. These were large ranch-like farms where families lived for generations and raised crops and livestock. Some of them never left their farms as everything they needed was produced here.

Many functioned like summer houses for people where they got together with their families and friends. After World War II, many were destroyed, and many of them could not survive the migration of young people to the cities. Since these farms could not make a living by agriculture, they started offering homestays to tourists along with meals for day trippers.

“In the beginning, salas were just rustic mud huts for the agricultural families. The roof was usually made from dried reed, assembled together by local craftsmen,” explains Bojana. Today it is an entire homestead with barn, granary, stables, and vast expanses of cultivated land. Salas 137, which is more than 200 years old, sprawls over hectares of land – there is a rambling main building and restaurant, with outhouses, stables, guest rooms and animal shelters.

We sit under trees festooned with twinkling fairy lights, around tables laden with an array of dishes from stuffed peppers to pumpkin pie, grilled halloumi cheese, roasted lamb, homemade sausages, goat cheese with herbs, kajmak (salted butter that feels like clotted cream), ajvar (a puree of roasted peppers with eggplant, garlic and chilli pepper). We sip glasses of elderflower juice, and local wine and beer.

Tucked into a quiet street, the Fish & Zeleniš restaurant boasts quirky décor, murals on walls and trinket-filled shelves ( Kalpana Sunder )

I talk to the effervescent and passionate owner, Aleksandar Samardzija, who is an electrical engineer by qualification. He was born in Croatia and came here as a refugee with his mother and sister in 1992. “Once this was a rich agricultural region with more than 400 farms. But after World War II, a large number of these farms lost their owners and were abandoned,” he explains. For those seeking to experience authentic local life, a visit to a Serbia Salas is just what the doctor ordered. I sit back, sipping wine and watching the folk musicians as they gather around our table, playing a lively tune on accordions, tamburitza (mandolin) and violins, bursting out into a boisterous song every now and then.

At Salas 137, you can sit back, sip wine and listen to the melodies outed by folk musicians ( Kalpana Sunder )

From HT Brunch, May 26, 2019

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First Published: May 25, 2019 22:06 IST