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The jewel in the Serbian crown

The medieval city of Novi Sad is replete with myth, breathtaking architecture and a tumultuous past

The Holy Name church and Freedom Square in Novi Sad. Photo: iStock
The Holy Name church and Freedom Square in Novi Sad. Photo: iStock

As I stand at the sprawling Freedom Square in the heart of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, sumptuous architecture envelops me from all sides. To my left soars the stately 19th century neo-Gothic Catholic Cathedral with its 72m-high bell tower, sweeping arches and a golden cross designed by Hungarian architect György Molnár.

To my right looms the neo-Renaissance Town Hall accented by Corinthian pillars and exquisite figures of Greek gods and goddesses. Mounted on a square pedestal in the middle of the Square is a 500m-high bronze sculpture of Svetozar Miletić, newspaper editor, lawyer, two-time mayor of Novi Sad and one of the most prominent political figures in the history of the city.

A short walk from Freedom Square, along Zmaj Jovina Street (named after Novi Sad’s greatest poet, Jovan Jovanović Zmaj), I find myself staring at two more stunning edifices—the Bishop’s Palace embellished with ornate Byzantine motifs and the Novi Sad Synagogue, a majestic art nouveau building which witnessed the massacre of hundreds from the city’s Jewish community during World War II.

Not for nothing is Novi Sad known as the “Serbian Athens". Like the Greek metropolis that is peppered with iconic monuments, the capital city of the Serbian province Vojvodina, too, is an enchanting cocktail of baroque, neo-Renaissance, classicist and Bauhaus buildings and picturesque monasteries.

As Serbia, part of erstwhile Yugoslavia (now splintered into the seven nations of Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia) opens up to the world, the pint-size nation of seven million people is trying to put its tumultuous past behind it. It is bolstering its tourism infrastructure, sprucing up the economy and trying to attract visitors. Novi Sad, the biggest jewel in the Serbian crown, hopes to play a stellar role in the country’s rejuvenation. I arrive here taking advantage of the Serbian government’s recent waiver of visa to Indian travellers.

Myths and legends

Novi Sad’s provenance is mired in myths. According to one legend, the city was founded by exactly 12 soldiers and 20 craftsmen who had settled around the Danube river to build the city’s signature attraction—the Petrovaradin Fortress. Over time, this community of artists grew as more and more foreign migrants arrived in the city seeking work. Thus was laid the foundation of one of the most beautiful cities in south-east Europe.

History whispers from every corner of the metropolis. According to my local guide Bojana Sestovic, in 1941, as Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers, Novi Sad was annexed by Hungary. During the infamous Novi Sad Raid in January 1942, the occupying Hungarian fascist forces exterminated thousands of local Serbs, Jews and Romans—including children—ferrying them like cattle in packed trucks to dump them into the icy Danube.

Yet through all that tumult what shone through was Novi Sad’s resilience. The city’s inclusive spirit has historically embraced citizens of all nationalities who had made it their home. The Germans, Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Greeks, Tzintzars, Jews, Armenians, Romanians and Romans have helped piece the city together over the years.

Today Novi Sad—a city of 277,000 people—is fast making a mark on the European tourist map. It has been declared 2019’s “European Youth Capital". It has also been chosen as one of the three “European Capitals of Culture" by the European Union (EU) for 2021, along with Greece’s Elefsina and Romania’s Timisoara.

Nothing exemplifies Novi Sad’s pluralistic ethos better than the 17th century Petrovaradin Fortress. Standing atop a riverside bluff, it derives its moniker from three different cultures—petra (rock in Latin), var (a Hungarian town) and din (religion, of the Turkish faith).

Also known as the “Gibraltar on the Danube", the 110-hectare fort features a phalanx of subterranean military galleries, steep walls, water moats and channels with movable bridges and control gates. “Work on the fort began way back in 1692 but it was completed only 88 years later as bloody battles between Austria and Turkey kept interrupting its construction," Sestovic says.

Street Smart

Dunavska Street is the pivot around which Novi Sad flows. Speckled with houses, palaces with multi-hued facades, a jumble of labyrinthine streets and passages, it is the most picturesque part of the city. Fashion-forward youth walking in groups, lovers in tight embrace, souvenir stalls and street performers all add to its whirligig. Chic cafes with colourful awnings and umbrellas have punters tucking into beautiful food, enjoying a chat over coffee or simply people-watching.

In the backdrop, the surrounding Fruška Gora mountains showcase what can only be described as five-star biodiversity. Brimming with exotic flora and fauna, they host the Fruška Gora National Park, one of Serbia’s five national parks.

A repertoire of wines (Merlot, Riesling, Sauvignon) produced in the fertile terroir of Fruška Gora are increasingly luring oenophiles. Well-marked wine trails allow them to enjoy rich Serbian gastronomy and rural customs at local homes with tamburitza (a long-necked mandolin) players adding to the immersive experience.

Novi Sad is also surrounded by lush farms known as salas. These establishments offer some of the finest food and drink in the region. I visit Salas 137 that has hosted celebrities such as Hollywood actor Demi Moore and offers a restaurant, 15 rooms, and 26 horses for riding.

Salas 137 is owned and run by Aleksander Samardžija, a tall and strapping Croatian who came to Novi Sad in 1996 on a holiday but never left. A party is on when I arrive at the farm with the entire place bedecked in twinkling fairy lights. Local musicians are playing foot-stomping folk music, couples are dancing as waiters circulate trays of scrumptious canapés as well as rakija (fruit brandy, the Serbian national drink).

Salas 137 overlooks wooded greens and also has a stable for horses. However, the main event here is the food—Vojvodinian delicacies prepared with fresh local produce. Steaming platters of grilled meats, corn bread (proja), sarma (grape or cabbage leaves filled with minced meat), kajmak (cream cheese) and sopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and white cheese) tickle our taste buds. Musicians serenade us as we tuck in, inhaling pine-scented air redolent of the smell of delicious food.

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