Travel after the pandemic #20: Novi Sad, Serbia
Historic environs abuzz with youthful energy
The other European Capitals of Culture in 2022 are a lot more distant and would probably require a flight, namely Kaunas in the Baltic State of Lithuania and Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. Novi Sad, on the other hand, is slightly less than 300 kilometres by road from Budapest, which is about a three-hour drive, and 142 kilometres from Szeged, which is less than two hours.
As of writing, entry to Serbia is fully open for citizens and permanent residents of Hungary, with no quarantine required, and travellers with a certificate of vaccination are exempt from providing a negative COVID-19 test. Hopefully the situation will remain this way in 2022 and Novi Sad’s year in the limelight will not be wrecked, as happened to the two European Capitals of Culture for 2020, Galway in Ireland and Rijeka in Croatia, which then were granted extensions until April 30, 2021. The rest of 2021 has been a wipe-out, European culture-wise.
What to expect of Novi Sad? This is Serbia’s second-largest city, after the capital Belgrade, with a population of some 277,000 and standing alongside the Danube/Duna. It is the capital of the Vojvodina autonomous region and is a university centre. Consequently, it is considered a city of youth, a fact recognised by the bestowing on it of another important title, that of European Youth Capital in 2019.
Novi Sad was the 11th city to hold this title, and in choosing it the European Youth Forum explained: “A small, but compact city in the heart of the Vojvodina region. This vivid city with over 80,000 young people will surprise you with its transformative energy, multi-nationality and cultural diversity.
“A perfect blend of modern and traditional, openness and tolerance inspired more than 340.000 inhabitants [in the larger administrative area] to express their interests through various activities in more than 1000 civil society organisations in Novi Sad, 10% of which are youth-led. Every month, Novi Sad dresses up in new colours and hosts various festivals, youth fairs and festivities. This city is driven by students, youth and artists.
“You can see the traces of history and mixture of cultures on every corner: in beautiful parks, on the glorious Petrovaradin Fortress, on sandy beaches, in the magical city centre or on the romantic Danube riverside. This is the type of city whose rhythm you have to hear, in order to feel. This is the city that celebrates diversity and youth power! This is the city for curious, dynamic and inspiring people. This is the city you want to experience!”
What was described rather excitedly in 2019 should hopefully apply again in 2022. The feeling is that there’s already a lot to see and do in Novi Sad, even without adding on a special year of cultural activities, when a whole more will be going on.
From a tourism view, the number one point of interest is usually said to be the Petrovaradin Fortress, which took 88 years to build in the eighteenth century and is known as the Gibraltar on the Danube. Cross to the fortress over the Varadin Bridge, perhaps remembering that the bridge had to be rebuilt after complete destruction by NATO airstrikes in 1999 during the Kosovo war. The fortress walls give panoramic views over Novi Sad and you can explore the 16-kilometre network of underground tunnels.
The Name of Mary Church has been described as one of the most impressive churches you’ll see anywhere in the world. It was built at the end of the 19th century of Gothic architecture and its colourful roof tiles were imported from Hungary. The Catholic church is the tallest in Novi Sad and thus is visible from all over the city. Furthermore, it’s one of the tallest churches in Serbia.
The Bishops Palace, the Vladicanski Dvor, was designed by Serbian architect Vladimir Nikolic who also designed the Patriarch’s Palace in nearby Sremski Karlovci town. The Bishops Palace is the home of the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Backa, this being a district in the northern part of Serbia as well as a small southern part of Hungary. In front of the palace is a bronze statue of Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, a famous children’s poet.
Sremski Karlovci is a historic town 12 kilometres south of Novi Sad with several historic buildings, churches and, most importantly, wineries. An old pharmacy there was designed in Venice.
Back in Novi Sad, the Town Hall is the iconic landmark of the city, a beautiful example of neo-renaissance architecture from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Novi Sad was a part. The Town Hall is an illustration of this influence and in fact is claimed to be a copy of the Town Hall of Graz, Austria. Moreover, it’s like a miniature version of the Town Hall of Vienna, the Rathaus. Today, the building hosts the mayor and administration of the city.
The Museum of Vojvodina has an estimated 400,000 artefacts, covering 70,000 years of life in this area dating back to the Stone Age – of particular pride are several Roman helmets, found just outside the nearby town of Šid. And it has a library with more than 50,000 books.
In the centre of Novi Sad there used to be a luxury hotel called the Grand Hotel Mayer. Today this is the Vojvodjanska Bank. During the day it’s a beautiful building but when it’s lit up in the evening it becomes the Instagram spot of Novi Sad. The architectural style is neo-Baroque.
Dunavska Street is one of the oldest streets in Novi Sad. It has however been maintained and as a result there are several picturesque historic buildings. These colourful premises house shops, restaurants and bars. Throughout the summer months this pedestrianised street is filled with outdoor restaurants, therefore perfect for a coffee and people-watching.
The Banovina building is also known as Banska palace as well as Banovina palace. It’s the administrative building for the government of the Vojvodina region. For this reason, it was bombed by NATO in 1999. As a result, NATO had to justify bombing a building in the centre of a large populated city. Banovina is an example of 20th-century Serbian architecture, and it’s lit up beautifully when night falls.
Danube Park is the main park of Novi Sad. It’s located in the centre of the city, and as so tends to be seen even if you’re not looking. In fact, popular attractions such as Banovina, Dunavska Street and the Museum of Vojvodina surround the park, which has gardens, monuments and a lake. For this reason, it makes a good chill-out area.
Serbia may be landlocked but Novi Sad has the fine Strand city beach on the banks of the Danube. The promenade features several monuments to World War II history as well as the NATO bombings.
The European Capital of Culture years are the flagship cultural initiative of the European Union, launched in 1985 and since then awarded to more than 60 cities across the continent. They should contribute to a better understanding of the citizens of Europe for one another.
The coronavirus has caused modifications to the European Capitals of Culture calendar. Apart from moving Novi Sad’s title year from 2021 to 2022, Timisoara (Romania) and Elefsina (Greece) have been put back from 2021 to 2023. This is also the year when Hungary’s turn will come round for the second time, with Veszprém-Balaton hosting the event in 2023, following Pécs in 2010.
The Budapest Times will publish details of Novi Sad’s year nearer the time.