Novi Sad and a festival of Serbian wine

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.

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

Festival Vina, Novi Sad, Serbia

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.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

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.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, a Serbian Athens?

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.

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

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.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

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 & Deliserving 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.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Holocaust memorial, Novi Sad, Serbia

Holocaust memorial, Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Novi Sad, Serbia

Food, Novi Sad, Serbia

Food, Novi Sad, Serbia