Novi Sad is the second city of Serbia, capital of the Vojvodina region. It’s a beautiful and historic small city beside the Danube and more that holds its own as a place to see in this part of the Balkans.
Novi Sad lies about 80km northwest of Belgrade and can be reached in just over an hour by bus. There’s little point doing it by train, it would probably take longer as the rail network in Serbia is interminably slow and not particularly comfortable in high summer with it’s rickety old air-con units.
The bus and train stations are in the same place, about a 20 minute walk from the centre. There are loads of buses taking you there but the walk is fine along a wide, straight, avenue dissecting the whole city. We walked partly in order to get better bearings and a feel for the place but also because we were travelling super-light and therefore didn’t really mind the scorching August heat. You soon reach the historic and picturesque areas around the church and the town hall. The former having a striking roof tile design that glistened in the light.
We were booked into the Hostel Sova (Sova means owl) and found it pretty easily just off the main square. The reception is upstairs in a residential building and there’s just a buzzer to get the owners’ attention. The door was opened by a Serbian girl who may or may not have had a link to the couple who owned the property but she directed us to the common area to wait and take advantage of the free internet, and admire the snoring dog, while she found the owners. When they appeared they were lovely people who welcomed us much the same as in Belgrade – with a shot of rakija to start the morning off with a warm glow! People in Serbia were extremely friendly and universally pleased to see us, it lends a really nice aura to the country in general.
The double room we had booked was in the apartment block across the road from the Sova so we were taken over there and settled in quickly. A nice room with a large bathroom, including an ever-beloved bathtub, and a small kitchenette. There was another room off of the main living space containing a single bed so this apartment could house three comfortably.
The friendliness was even more appreciated when we managed to lock ourselves out using what was supposed to be a long-redundant locking mechanism. We fished with a coat hanger for half an hour to try and slip the catch until the inevitable happened and a resident in the block smashed the window for us! Everyone was very sympathetic and fully understood what had happened, it had occurred before, they said. Plus the glass was fixed within a couple of hours – how’s that for service!
It was a useful and centrally-located base to explore from. We went straight out to find something to eat. Dunvaska is a street not far from the main square, off of the primary shopping street called Zmaj Jovina. It was there that we found a pizza restaurant at the far end, looking onto the entrance to Danube Park. I devoured an enormous ham and kajmak pizza and quenched my never-ending thirst with an even larger beer, both extremely reasonably priced. You are spoiled for choice along here though so I just picked the one with the best view and visible staff.
In the evening Dunvaska and Zmaj Jovina join the main square and the park to form a huge parade circuit. This evening stroll that so many Serbs take every evening is called the korso. Couples across the country strut along in their finery, arms locked and smiling at the diners lining the streets. It’s a curious thing to watch, more so when you spot the naughty/scheming Romany children scampering in their midst begging and oh-so-innocently bumping into people, Artful Dodger stylee. The restaurateurs frequently shooed these little nuisances away but it’s a long parade route, they have plenty of places to target. Besides their parents/minders are never far away with obligatory prams, comatose babies, and bandaged limbs, egging them on. Therefore, as ever, watch your possessions carefully… I didn’t see any crimes at all in Serbia but I’m sure they happen. It did nothing to disturb the genial atmosphere pervading Novi Sad.
The main draw of this city is actually outside, another town entirely. Across the river is the town of Petrovaradin and on the hill beside it is the centre of one of the most impressive fortifications in Europe. The earthworks here spread like a web for several miles. Interlocking series’ of walls, moats, and embankments completed in 1780 in order to dissuade those pesky Turks from passing through here ever again. Petrovaradin town is quiet and shuttered but quite pretty all the same.
Following the road through here and behind the hill you find the first entrance to the fortress. The paths wind across the fortifications to the summit where the views of Novi Sad are worth the sweat. To replace all of that lost water there’s a restaurant/cafe full of the ubiquitous Schweppes Bitter Lemon. A perfect beverage for this kind of heat and one that Serbia embraces wholeheartedly.
The fortress itself isn’t really that much to look at from the ground, it was built long after the era of battlements and is instead a lesson in geometry and physics. The sharp-angled bastions project out like a sheriff’s badge but these are best seen from the air. Luckily the fortress has a museum with a few aerial photographs and plenty of maps showing you just how huge it all is. The best part of our visit here was on the tour of the tunnels inside the fortress. This is something we hadn’t even known about before we arrived so we were very lucky to bump into a Canadian couple who informed us that a tour was about to head below. This was great fun (no sarcasm), in almost total darkness at times. The endless tunnels sported musket loopholes where external foliage lets in only the tiniest glimmer of sunlight. The guide was Serbian so the tour was a bit of a mystery but it was free and we caught the gist of it all from the explanation boards scattered within. When you visit the fortress ask at the poky art gallery when the tours are running.
Back in Novi Sad proper we had read that the museum of Vojvodina was well-worth a visit so we got there moments after it opened and explored at our leisure. It really is a little gem of a place with some beautiful pieces including Roman artifacts like this amazing cavalry helmet. I’ve never seen anything like it.
There was an exhibition of contemporary art in progress as well so we perused that and recognised quite a serious depressive side to the Serbian character. Bleak landscapes and some depictions of urban vistas that wouldn’t be out of place in the final act of Inception.
An interesting day trip was to Sremski Karlovci which is just southeast of Novi Sad and reachable by bus from the stops on the south side of Danube Park, near this odd statue.
Sremski Karlovci is a very sleepy place to spend an afternoon wandering the back streets and sipping more Bitter Lemon. There are a couple of churches with some very old artwork and some souvenir shops. But not much else. I found a lot of the charm was simply in the peeling paint on the facades of some of the grander buildings and in the serenity of the residential streets winding up the hill.
We spent a Sunday traveling by sweaty train to Subotica in the north only to find everything was closed apart from a pizzeria and a McDonald’s, but that is a worthy trip for the architectural features. In retrospect though I would probably have preferred to spend another day in Novi Sad, maybe just relaxing beside the Danube or watching people strutting along the streets.
There is a vibrant bar scene in Novi Sad as well, the alleys off of Zmaj Jovina hide some nice watering holes, one of which I used to catch an Arsenal vs. Liverpool match. The game wasn’t much fun with red cards liberally shared between the sides but the beer was cold and the rakija was strong.
I will return to Novi Sad one day, perhaps on this Danube cycling tour I’m now planning properly, and I will make sure that next time I delve into the party side of the town…