North of Belgrade, stretching up towards the Hungarian border and spanning the southern part of the fertile Pannonian Plain, is Vojvodina, one of Serbia’s most ethnically eclectic regions, with a large Hungarian minority. The region’s capital, Novi Sad, is a charming spot that’s a feasible day-trip from the capital or a handy springboard north to Subotica and Hungary. It’s also an ideal base for forays into Fruška Gora, the gently undulating hills to the south peppered with medieval Orthodox monasteries.
Top image © igorstevanovic/Shutterstock
Situated on the main road and rail routes towards Budapest some 75km northwest of Belgrade, Novi sad (Нови Сад) has long charmed visitors with its comely buildings – remnants of Austro-Hungarian rule. But today it’s an emphatically young town – especially in the summer, when thousands of international revellers swarm to Petrovaradin Fortress for the four-day EXIT festival.
The hub of the city is Trg Slobode (Freedom Square), a spacious plaza bounded on either side by the neo-Gothic Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary and the neo-Renaissance town hall. Running east from here is bustling Zmaj Jovina which, together with the adjoining bar-filled alleyway Laze Telečkog and wide, pedestrianized Dunavska, forms the town’s central nexus of streets for eating, drinking and socializing. At the bottom end of Dunavska (nos 35–37) is the excellent Museum of Vojvodina. Spread across two buildings, it delves first into Serbia’s archeology and ethnography, then comes closer to home with the traumas of two world wars.
Sun-lovers should head for the Štrand, a sandy beach on the Danube’s north bank, opposite the fortress, which has bars, cafés and a “school’s out” vibe. You'll have to pay around 50din for access.
For four days at the beginning of July the grounds of Petrovaradin Fortress are overrun by EXIT Festival revellers (www.exitfest.org). Established as one of the premier music events in Europe, EXIT now attracts some of the very biggest names in pop, techno and hip-hop (the 2011 line-up included Arcade Fire, Pulp and Portishead). Buy tickets and camping passes via the website. You can rent rooms in Novi Sad for the duration: check www.exittrip.org, which helps with booking accommodation and transport.
Shadowing the city to the south are the low rolling hills of the Fruška Gora, once an island in the now evaporated Pannonian Sea. These days, its orchards and vineyards comprise a national park carved up by a web of simple hiking trails. The hills – known among devotees as the Holy Mountain – also house sixteen monasteries (there were once 35). About 15km south of Novi Sad, just off the main road before the village of Irig, is Novo Hopovo, where a Byzantine church is housed within a picturesque monastery. Not far off are two more sixteenth-century monastic churches: elegant white Krušedol and Vrdnik-Ravanica, which has Tsar Lazar’s collarbone on display. Note that it's nigh-on impossible to access the monasteries without a car.
Novi Sad developed in tandem with the huge Petrovaradin Fortress on the Danube’s south bank. The fortress rises picturesquely from rolls of green hillside, its delicate lemon-yellow buildings set inside sturdy fortifications. It took its present shape in the eighteenth century when the Austrians tried to create an invincible barrier against the Turks. Unfortunately its defences quickly became outdated, and the authorities decided to imprison independent-minded troublemakers here instead – including Karađorđe and, a century later, a young Tito. The fortress museum relays the history of both the fortress and the town, though is more interesting for its wealth of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century applied art. As you approach from town, look out for the plaque on the right of the bridge commemorating Oleg Nasov, who was killed during the NATO bombing – Novi Sad was one of the cities hardest hit in the spring of 1999, losing all its bridges.
Beyond the fortress, climb the steps to the right of the church; you’ll arrive just under the clock tower. From this vantage point, the functional twentieth-century architecture of Novi Sad itself looks less alluring than the fortress does from the opposite bank, but the views of the surrounding countryside are magnificent.
On the eastern fringes of the Fruška Gora National Park, the enchanting small town of Sremski Karlovci (Сремски Карловци) is a great little trip out of Novi Sad. Its main square, Branka Radičevića, with the Orthodox and Catholic churches side by side and the Four Lions fountain, is highly picturesque, but Sremski Karlovci’s status as a national treasure comes courtesy of its speciality wine, Bermet, made exclusively here since 1770. Drunk with desserts or as an aperitif, Bermet was popular in the Austro-Hungarian court and served on board the Titanic’s maiden voyage. The tourist information office on the main square can point you to the delightful wine cellar owned by the Živanović family at Mitropolita Stratimirovića 86b, where you can buy your own supplies – swing open the side-gate to enter their orchard; there’s also a quaint beekeeping museum. Alternatively, relax with a glass or two on the civilized outdoor decking of the hotel of the same name on the main square.
Sremski Karlovci is a ten-minute taxi ride from Novi Sad (around 400din); catch a cab from the rank on Ilije Ognjanovića.
Some 175km north of Belgrade, Vojvodina’s second city, Subotica (Суботица; Hungarian: Szabadka), is a wonderful counterpoint to the capital, its Secessionist buildings, green spaces, wide pavements and burghers riding around on old-fashioned bicycles all contributing to its unspoilt, wholesome air. Just a stone’s throw from Hungary, Subotica feels tangibly more like its northern neighbour. Historically, the ties are close: Subotica reached its apotheosis in the years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it was granted the status of a Royal Free Town.
The heart of the town is grassy Trg Republike, fronted by a hulking city hall built in 1912; its gingerbread-like windows and colourfully patterned roof are almost too gaudy to look at in full sunlight. In front stands a brilliant blue fountain added in 2001. Adjoining Trg Republike is Trg Slobode, behind which runs the Korzo, a busy pedestrianized street featuring the fairytale Piraeus Bank building, with its door and windows straight out of a medieval castle, created by architects Dezsó Jakab and Marcell Komor at the start of the twentieth century.
Further out, northwest of the city centre is another Jakab/Komor collaboration: the dignified but now deserted 1902 synagogue, where a moving plaque remembers the “4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica”.
A five-minute walk west of the centre, on Harambašićeva, the Catholic Cathedral of St Theresa is a curiously moving place; in the surrounding square, the scattered statues are a poignant mix of classical piety (the two hands clasped in prayer) and postwar brutalism (the enormous monument to the “victims of fascism” who died during World War II).
Occupying the wildly colourful 1904 mansion of architect Ferenc Raichle on Rajhlov Park Square is the Likovni Susret Contemporary Art Gallery, exhibiting work by local artists. The real draw however is the attention-seeking interior decor, from the cutesy hearts at the entranceway to the bulbous alcoves upstairs.