A couple of years ago, when I visited Serbia for the first time, I was taken aback by its fascinating, historic and (surprisingly) cosmopolitan capital, Belgrade. As I sat on the plane on the way home, I vowed I’d go back to explore some of the rest of a country that comes with a weight of history, and a modern reputation that isn’t conducive to tourism. I finally got to return for a few days and, after a day in Belgrade, headed north for a weekend in Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad.
I was looking forward to spending some time in a place known both as the ‘Athens of Serbia’, because historically it has been a centre of learning and has a rich cultural heritage, and as the ‘Gibraltar of the Danube’, thanks to the immense and imposing Petrovaradin Fortress. More than that though, Novi Sad has a reputation as a relaxed, lively and welcoming place, with some of the best museums and food in the country.
Unluckily, my first experience of the city was being pulled over by the police. The blue lights of justice flashed in my rear view mirror and, for a moment, I thought I might be in trouble. I’m never really sure what to do at times like this, my only previous run-in with the police in Eastern Europe was when the Berlin Wall was still standing. The East German officer who caught me crossing a road when the light was still on red issued an on the spot ‘fine’ of five Deutschmark.
It was a hot day, and the sun beat down on me as I watched the officer walk slowly to the car. I was still contemplating how I might communicate with him when he leant in through the window. I think he asked me if I knew why I’d been stopped, luckily my uncomprehending look quickly gave me away as a foreign idiot. He shouted to his fellow officer to get back into the police car and, drawing deeply on his cigarette, waved me on my way with a shake of his head.
Breathing a sign of relief, but no wiser as to what offence I’d committed, I made my way to the dramatic Petrovaradin Fortress, where my hotel offered spectacular views over the city and the River Danube. At check-in I was offered a glass of fiery plum brandy, which I was assured was a local tradition. After my run-in with local law enforcement, I told myself it couldn’t hurt to ‘calm my nerves’. It was still burning my oesophagus an hour later as I walked around Novi Sad.
The main sights of the city are all located in its attractive historic centre. Despite having a history dating back to the Romans, most of the old city dates only from the 19th century. This is a consequence of Serbia’s troubled history with its neighbour, Hungary. In 1848, when Serbia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarian troops stationed in the Petrovaradin Fortress revolted. They bombarded the city for months until much of it was destroyed.
Serbs have long memories, and this is not something they are going to forget anytime soon. Although most would probably point you towards the Hungarian occupation of World War II as a greater reason to dislike their northern neighbours. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and complicit in the near annihilation of Serbia’s Jews, not to mention the deaths of thousands of Serbs and Romany. History in this part of Europe is never easy or, given Serbia’s own modern history, straight forward.
I visited the friendly tourist office and wandered around the town before finding my way to the fantastic Project 72 Wine & Deli, serving modern takes on traditional Serbian dishes. I spent the next two hours chatting to the waiter (who spoke excellent English) and planning what to do in Novi Sad. Fate it seemed had already made a choice for me. As I finished my long, early dinner, the waiter told me there was a Serbian wine festival taking place that very night … it seemed rude not to participate.