It was solely my idea to drag my husband and youngest son to a destination that was relatively obscure, in a country with a recently truculent past. Consequently, there was a tinge of apprehension as my family boarded the train for a seven hour journey to a place we knew very little about. However, the way I see it, traveling is an adventure, a cultural awakening, and you have to continually push your comfort level to understand the world a little better.
So, off to Novi Sad, Serbia we went in a train that could be viewed as a little tired . . . all right, undeniably exhausted. Even the first class cars were worse for wear. Being optimistic, I preferred to think of our six seat compartment as a place with a lot of history and stories to tell. For several hours, we travelled across a relatively placid countryside. The skies were gray, and fog hovered around the train like it was foreshadowing what was yet to come. Looking out the window at the seemingly endless plains, the view was flat and eventless except for a few deer and several pheasants running or flying away as the train startled them. Once the train started rocking and humming, my fellow travelers fell asleep. I had prepared myself with a book to read, but I never looked away from the window long enough to open it. My mind could not stop thinking about what type of escapade was in store for us.
Passing through the border patrol was routine and eventless as we exited Hungary, but that changed as we rolled slowly to the border patrol in Subotica, Serbia. We had now left the Schengen Area, so as expected, our passports were scrutinized by one of the stout, grim faced guards. Of course, all of the guard’s looked official, almost intimidating, and the one in our compartment was nothing less than serious as he held the picture page of our passports close to our faces and looked from our photo to us, then back to the photo two to three times. He then purposefully flipped through the pages, then decisively swiped the magnetic strip through his hand held device, ending by abruptly applying a fresh new stamp on one of our open pages. For me, that part was somehow satisfying enough to put up with all of the other bits. After our officer finished and handed our passports back to us, he broke a semi-pleasant smile and in English cloaked with a thick accent said, “Good luck,” as he shut our compartment door. None of this is unusual, traveling anywhere outside of the Schengen Area. It always seems to be choreographed in an analogous manner, It was the “Good luck,” that threw me a bit. I told myself it was just a translation issue as I tried to enjoy the last few hours of the train ride.
After entering Serbia, each train station we stopped at was either frightening or almost nonexistent. One was nothing more than a bench in a field. Another looked like a building from the movie Hostel. All I could think was, “What have I done?” So, I reminded myself the hotel that I had booked received amazing reviews! It was a fortress hotel. That night we were to sleep in a castle! The more I thought about the hotel, the more I started to question it (blurbs from Hostel once more fueled my imagination). How am I staying in a five star hotel for two nights, including spa services and breakfast for not much more than a total of $150.00 US? Thus, I reverted back to the question, “what have I done?’ As the sun started to set, the fog settled in tightly around the train only adding to the intensity of the rest of the ride.
Finally, we pulled into a surprisingly large train station around 7:00 pm. We gathered our luggage and headed out to find a taxi to whisk us to our hotel (which was located on a mountain across the Danube in the fortress, like I said earlier). However, I did not see any of this! We were deep in a very cosmopolitan looking city with tall buildings and modern everything. Where was my magical, enchantingly historical village? I elected not to go to Belgrade, choosing Novi Sad instead to avoid the big city with the overwhelming population. Yet, there we stood in a taxi line amongst busy sidewalks, bright lights and vehicles of every modern type buzzing around.
We hopped in the next available taxi and told the driver where we needed to go. Then, he pulled out and joined the bumper to bumper traffic, stopping at traffic light after traffic light. Just when I had resolved that Novi Sad was not the fairy-tale place I had hoped it would be, we started to get out of the thick of things. Within a few miles, we were passing the historical area of the town, crossing the newly refurbished bridge spanning the Danube, and gazing at the magnificent Fortress of Petrovaradin, imposing, yet gracefully adorning the Fruska Gora Mountain in front of us.
Ah, this is it, this is where the enchantment was hiding. As we approached the incline, the streets turned to cobblestone and the fog lowered around the car, as we drove into a Roman style vaulted tunnel that snaked under the ground, slowly rising to the exit at the top releasing us into a courtyard of the castle. The hotel lived up to its five star reputation, as they greeted us with. “We have been expecting you.”
Walking through the 300 year old castle, it was impossible not to feel the history surrounding you. Before taking us to our room, they took us into a romantically decorated parlor, dripping with luscious crystal chandeliers and served us refreshments of lemonade and a sweet peach Serbian delight, while they prepared our room with warm cookies and a scrolled welcome letter. The hotel Leopold’s amazing reviews were right and it possibly even exceeded them.
The fortress area has three amazing restaurants perched high on the hill overlooking the bright luminescence of the bustling city below. The lights from across the river reflected gently off the Danube, and the yellow illuminations below the fortress quietly accenting the stone walls made for an unreal experience. We chose one of the restaurants and lingered there in the Winter Garden eating delicious Serbian food with some of the best service you could imagine. The exquisite meal with appetizers, wine, entrée and a shared desert was less expensive than a casual meal in a chain restaurant in the DFW area.
After spending a lavish night in our palace suite and relaxing in our oversized Jacuzzi, we decided to explore the fortress. The sprawling, tiered grounds had several old world wooden doors that led to shops, artists’ studios, bars and nightclubs. The Petrovaradin Fortress today is one of the largest art colonies in the world. Here you can also find the Novi Sad Museum. Some of the artists that have studios there are internationally known. There were painters, writers and political artists that had caused a stir more than a time or two in the former Yugoslavia and Serbia. All of the artists are interested in having a conversation, so stop and visit or a while. If you work your way down the side of the hill, just across the banks of the Danube there is an amazing historical area with beautiful churches, antiquated buildings, and of course cobblestone pedestrian areas.
We arrived in the square just in time, as it filled with the sound of church bells, and a Santa Motorcycle ride (much like our Toys for Tots), began. It was festive and young at heart, resulting in a fantastically good time. The Christmas Market filled the square with booths brimming with artisans making and selling, soaps, jewelry, candles and cookies. Other booths had local honey, jellies and schnapps.
If you are curious enough to peek behind the doors and venture into the courtyards, there are more treasures to be found. An extensive farmers market wrapped between the facades of the buildings that merged into another market with booths filled with soccer paraphernalia and Americanized clothes. If you are the type that is looking for a bargain, there are amazing deals to be had. You don’t even feel like negotiating the price because you almost feel bad paying how little they are asking to start with. Mind you, I said, “almost.” For a day, we ventured wherever the whim took us, through corridors, alleys, churches, bookstores, markets and shops. There was not a single souvenir shop to be found, so I knew that I was defiantly off the beaten path, and that is exactly where I wanted to be.
While Novi Sad is still obscure for the time being, the younger generation may know more about it than seasoned travelers, because of the event that puts it on the map. Each summer Novi Sad’s fortress is the home of EXIT Festival. It reminds me of a modern day Woodstock with a twist. In the year 2000, area students created a social movement which resulted in this annual event. Now the Exit mission is: “To spark positive social changes and speed up the evolution of human consciousness by using creative industries, top global artistic, educational and charity events as a means to spread the message of love and freedom to the whole planet; all this with a goal to make our vision come to life – Humanity and Earth in harmony on all levels; local, regional and global.”
Novi Sad was an unexpected delight. If you want to see it before it is a bustling with holiday makers, you need to hurry, because it is quickly on its way to becoming a tourist destination. More and more of the Danube cruise boats are including it as a stop on their itineraries. Also, due to the renovation of sixteen area monasteries, the area has been given the new name Saint Fruska Gora. This alone is drawing a new interest to the region.
It is easy to see why Novi Sad will not stay a hidden gem for long. The people are friendly, engaging and interested as well as interesting. They are eager to share their culture, but they are also willing to learn something about yours. Their service and hospitality industry is outstanding. The architecture is beautiful and the food is delicious. They embrace the arts and celebrate beauty. The city straddles the line between grit and exquisiteness, old and new, religious and secular. With such a harsh and turbulent recent past, I was not sure what to expect from Serbia, or their fortress city on the Danube, but I am so glad I took the chance. Novi Sad gave me exactly what I wanted, an opportunity to explore a culture, have faith in humanity and be thankful there are still magical places that don’t yet have souvenir shops. It is alright to be a little nervous when trying new things or traveling to new places. Not every place needs a guidebook. Some places find you and that is the allure.