It’s 8 a.m. when our train crosses the bridge over the Sava river, offering us one last glimpse of Belgrade. In a few minutes the capital is behind us and the train proceeds at full speed through a vast expanse of farming fields. Aboard the train, my friend Lorenzo and I are crossing the Pannonian plain into Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous province of Vojvodina.
The moment you cross the Sava or Danube, you leave the Balkans and enter Central Europe. Before being annexed to the ex-Yugoslavian Federation, Vojvodina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the rest of today’s Serbia was ruled by the Ottomans, giving Vojvodina’s cities a different feel from the rest of Serbia. Put simply, I would say they have a more European look compared to their counterparts south of the Danube.
Novi Sad, for example, could be considered a typical Central European city. As soon as we get there we can’t fail to notice the order and tranquility that reign in the streets, so sparkly clean and well kept that we are wrongly led to believe today must be some special occasion. Novi Sad’s main feature is the remarkable architecture of its old town, revolving around Trg Slobode (Freedom Square), one of the most elegant squares I have ever seen, to the point that when we stroll around it, we feel like we are in an open-air grand hall. The square is delimited on all sides by fine buildings from different ages and architectural styles, such as the Neo-Renaissance town hall and the Neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral, embellished by beautiful stained-glass windows and colourful ceramic tiles on a pitched roof.
A bronze statue in the middle of the square commemorates Svetozar Miletic, a champion of Serbs’ political rights under the Habsburg Empire. Throughout the 17th and 19th centuries, Vojvodina was the main cultural centre for Serbian people and their struggle for independence, something locals take great pride in up to the present day. The cultural ferment that interested Novi Sad, particularly in the 19th century, earned the city the nickname of “Serbian Athens.”
In that period, many Serbian scientific and cultural institutions were established in Novi Sad. Many of them still stand today, such as the Serbian National Theatre, Matica srpska (Serbian Foundation) and the Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj Grammar School. Even more important for Serbia’s cultural heritage are the monasteries 10 kilometres south of Novi Sad, scattered around the green rolling hills of the Fruska Gora mountain range. They are said to be a very impressive sight—and if we had a car and one extra day, we would definitely have visited them.
Although it might seem a paradox, Vojvodina is at the same time a historical centre of Serbian nationalism and a truly multicultural region, with 26 different ethnic groups, six official languages and six prominent religions. Thanks to its multinational population, Vojvodina is also known as Little Europe. That said, we aren’t surprised to see churches of different Christian denominations stand a short distance from each other, nor that Novi Sad’s largest religious building is a synagogue.
Strolling around the old town’s pedestrian area is a very pleasant experience. Walking from Freedom Square along the main street, Zmaj Jovina, we end up in front of Bishop’s Palace, another exquisite historical building. The heat of the day (it’s only early April!) gives us the perfect excuse to enjoy ice cream in one of the many cafés on Dunavska Street, lined with one-floor houses painted pretty pastel colours. Judging from the bulk of chairs and tables occupying the pavement, we infer that sitting outside—preferably in front of a pint of Jelen Pivo lager—must be one of the locals’ favourite activities. Already in Belgrade we had the chance to realize what bunch of fun-loving, hedonistic fellows Serbs are; can we refrain from joining them in a bar tucked away in a shady courtyard behind the cathedral?
As the name suggests, Dunavska Street leads to the bank of the Danube, but not before flanking the namesake, perfectly kept park, adorned with statues, fountains and ponds. On the northern bank atop a hill rises the city’s most famous landmark: the Petrovaradin Fortress. The huge stronghold was built between the 17th and 18th centuries by the Habsburgs to control navigation along the river and block Ottoman expansion. To reach the “Gibraltar of the Danube,” as it is nicknamed, we must cross the Varadin Bridge, one of three bridges rebuilt after being destroyed by the NATO bombings of 1999. We struggle to accept that this pleasant city witnessed war only 17 years ago. What comforts us is that Novi Sad seems to have fully recovered from those dark days—at least, that is our impression.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to visit the whole fortress—anyway, we would need days to do that. Just imagine that underneath it, there’s a 16 km-long network of tunnels that served as escape routes if things got too rough during sieges. So we must content ourselves with exploring the surface of the fortress, which is a great sight on its own. One of the most distinctive signs of the citadel is the clock tower, which is also one of Novi Sad’s most recognizable landmarks. This clock has a unique feature in that the long hand shows the hours and the short one shows the minutes. For this reason, locals call it pijani sat—the “drunken clock.”
The real gems of the fortress, however, are the stunning views over the river, the city and the surrounding countryside. The Petrovaradin citadel is also widely known for hosting the popular EXIT Festival. I can hardly think of a more scenic setting for a music festival. EXIT has been held in Novi Sad since 2000, when a group of students organized the event to demand more democracy and freedom in Serbia, then governed by Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, once called the most dangerous man in Europe.
The festival has had a huge impact on not only the youth culture of Novi Sad, but Serbia in general. And while I can’t say whether the country has exited its political turmoil, from an outsider’s perspective, it has entered an era of stability and, hopefully, progress. The future looks promising in Novi Sad.