I arrived in Novi Sad from Fruska Gora, a glorious area of rolling hills, forests, ancient monasteries and rich agricultural land. It’s one of Serbia’s main wine growing regions, with plenty of small producers making wine that is largely for the domestic market. Serbia’s not exactly renowned for its wine production – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bottle of Serbian wine outside of Serbia – but if my experience at Novi Sad’s Festival Vina is anything to go by, that could be about to change.
The sun was setting as the wine festival got into full swing in the square outside Novi Sad’s cathedral. There was a live band playing classic Serbian songs, everyone in the crowd seemed to be singing along, and a few of the older inhabitants were dancing. It was an entertaining evening and the wine tasting ended up being a lot of fun. I bought some plastic tokens to trade for wine, and spent the next hour or so chatting to wine producers and sampling the fruits of their hard labour.
I think it fair to say that the wine producers of Burgundy and Napa Valley have little to fear in the near future, but some of the wine was very good. This was the fourteenth year the festival has been held, and the marketing seemed pretty slick. Most of the wines come from Serbia, but there were some from other countries in the region – Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia – and some from Spain, Portugal and France. Don’t be surprised if you see a bottle of Serbian wine in your local supermarket sometime soon.
The day after the wine festival dawned bright and clear. The same could not be said for my head. I had plans to go north and see what my guidebook insisted were unmissable sights, but first I wanted to explore the spectacular Petrovaradin Fortress and spend a little more time wandering Novi Sad’s lovely historic centre. After a disappointing breakfast (not a strong point of Serbian hotels) and the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted, I set off into the Hapsburg-era citadel to see what all the fuss was about.
The Petrovaradin Fortress has existed since Roman times, but what you see today dates almost exclusively from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the War of the Holy League (1683-99), saw Novi Sad and Serbia become a satellite of the Habsburg-controlled Holy Roman Empire. The plan was to build a fortress here that would prevent the Turks from ever marching on Vienna again. The great French military architect, Vauban, oversaw its construction.
The finished product is magnificent. The vast and well preserved fortifications are even more impressive than the extraordinary views over Novi Sad in one direction, and the Fruska Gora countryside in the other. Strangely, the fortress was something of a white elephant. By the time of its completion the Turks were no longer a serious threat to Europe, and military technology had moved on so much that the fortifications were largely obsolete.
The fortress did play a central role in the defeat that signalled the end of the Ottoman threat to Central Europe. In 1717, the Ottomans marched an army north that would be defeated at Petrovaradin by Prince Eugene of Savoy, Europe’s leading commander. Underneath the fortress are 18km of fortified tunnels that could hold 30,000 troops. If the fortress was overrun, these troops would be able to fight on. The tunnels were never used, except as a prison.
I was staying in the Hotel Leopold I, which is housed in a former barracks within the fortress, and spent a couple of hours wandering around the fortress before heading into Novi Sad for lunch. It was Sunday and things were very quiet – I suspect a fair number of Novi Sad’s citizens were nursing sore heads from the Festival Vina. After lunch, I jumped in the car and headed 70km north-west towards Bac and the 15th century Monastery of Bodani.