Novi Sad (Serbia): Some 90 km from the historic city of Belgrade, the Danube river — once a long-standing frontier of the Roman Empire — makes a winding curve to form a S-shaped meander. Here lies the quaint town of Novi Sad with the Petrovaradin fortress overlooking the landscape.
The town has a sad history and the local people are quite emotional about it. In 1941, the erstwhile Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers, and Novi Sad was annexed by Hungary. During World War II, about 5,000 citizens of the town were murdered while several others were resettled.
Historical records suggest that during the three days of the infamous “Novi Sad Raid” (January 21-23, 1942) alone, over a thousand people were killed and their corpses thrown into the icy waters of the Danube. But it went through sudden industrialisation in the period between World War II and the break-up of Yugoslavia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Novi Sad is now the capital of Vojvodina, a province of Serbia. And it has moved ahead, fast making a mark on the European tourist map. It has been declared 2019’s “European Youth Capital”, and in 2021, it will become the first non-European Union (EU) city to spend a year with the prestigious title of “European Capital of Culture”.
The attraction that Novi Sad has for tourists is thus immense. For starters, there are no big revelations to be made or organised tourist attractions on offer. On the contrary, much like the rest of modern-day Serbia, the essence of Novi Sad comes alive in its vibrant culture and one can relish it best by indulging oneself in the local lifestyle.
Another striking feature of the town is that most of its major venues can be accessed on foot, or, even better, on a bicycle. The Old Town is perhaps the best place to stay as it not only takes you a step closer to the authentic lifestyle of the local people but it also throws up an almost planned set of avenues and streets that cover most of the town’s highlights.
One can kick off the tour with a visit to the Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, located on the Zmaj Jovina Street. Built during the time of the Hapsburg Empire, its architecture draws a lot from classical antiquity and is a stark departure from the more usual eastern orthodox style of churches. Right next to it is the red-brick Bishop’s Palace, quite impressive to the traveller’s eye with its superbly decorated facade.
Almost all roads lead to the Liberty Square, the center of the town. Numerous historical and cultural monuments of Novi Sad are on the streets and squares in this part of the town. It is also its commercial and tourist centre.
At the centre of the square is a seven-metre-high monument of Svetozar Miletic, cast in bronze and mounted on a marble pedestal. Opposite the square is a tall “Name of Mary” catholic church built in 1895 in the Neo-Gothic style. On the west side is the Town Hall with a striking facade of Ionic and Corinthian columns. And there are numerous cafes, both indoors and in the open, dotting the pavements on all sides. Several small stalls selling local newspapers, postcards and other items for travellers, together give it a vibrant look.
If one pauses at the centre of the square and takes a 360 degree view of it, the marvellous architecture of the buildings and monuments, the cacophony created by passersby and the utter sense of happiness visible in their eyes is bound to leave one uplifted.
Dunavski Park, built on marshy land which was once flooded by the Danube, is another must-visit venue in Novi Sad. Local people gather here quite often, with their young children playing around. One also learnt that there is a strange but quite romantic tradition of leaving one of their pets, generally when they grow old, in the area that is specially dedicated for the purpose in the park. But the owners return, almost regularly, to feed them and keep an eye on how they are doing.
Several such customs make the Serbians interact with their immediate surrounding and nature a lot more than people do in many other parts of the world. Novi Sad is easily accessible from Belgrade and hotels and hostels at decent rates throng the town.
By Saket Suman