Sunday, November 05, 2006

October Trip to Northern Serbia

As I begin writing this, I look outside the patio door of my apartment. It is a dismal, grey, day with intermittent rain. The temperature is a bit warmer than Friday (when it snowed for the school’s annual Halloween event), but cool enough to want to stay inside. What a huge difference a week made! During much of our journey to northern Serbia and down to the western mountain village of Sirogojno, we wore lighter layers – and sometimes no jacket at all!

Having secured a rental car, things would be much easier and faster to reach our destinations. This would also give us flexibility, spending as much time as we cared for a particular town. On the bright October morning of Thursday the 26th, we headed northward to the region known as Vojvodina. Driving was Pat, a retired teacher of ISB, an American who married a Serbian and has lived here for around 30 years. Olja, a Serbian teacher at school and a common traveling partner of mine, was eager to join us. Nancy Lamers, a former art education professor (and elementary art teacher) of mine came to visit me, and she was also eager to see areas of Serbia outside the city of Belgrade.

As we headed out of Belgrade, the land became flatter and predominantly rural. All the farmers seemed out in their fields, harvesting corn, tying up stalks, or plowing the dark earth. Small tractors hauled wooden wagons filled with field corn, glowing even more yellow in the bright fall sun. Along the banks and sometimes in the field, controlled fires were lit, burning brush and presumably unwanted remnants of cornstalks.

Krušedol Monastery
Our first stop was the monastery of Krušedol, located in the Fruška Gora region south of Sremsi Karlovci. Although originally built in 1509, the current Baroque style dates back to the early 18th century after Turks seriously damaged the structure in 1716. The large white church dominated the center of the rather small grounds. In one corner men were working on a construction project, with even the bearded monk in his black robes carrying 2x4’s to the site. Amongst the religious jewelry, icon reproductions, and candles, Nancy spotted some bottles of rakija produced by the monastery and decided to purchase a bottle of the “holy” alcohol as souvenir.

As we entered the church, I saw some older-looking frescoes in the arched entryway. A few frescoes remain from the 16th century, but most date back to the 18th century. Light from narrow windows streamed in, illuminating portions of the frescoes covering the walls and some of the iconostasis on wood paneling. A beautiful wooden carved casket-like box caught my eye, perhaps containing the remains of Branković founding family member. Much of the treasury of once in the church was plundered by the Croatian Nazis in WWII, with the remains now in Belgrade.

We then took a quick tour of the grounds. While taking photos of the outer part of the church and monastery buildings we could see the head of a nun pop her head out once in a while. In one open room we could see empty cobs of corn with a large woven basket outside the door. The bottom portion of a wooden wagon was also intriguing, its wooden wheels casting long shadows underneath the arches. Just as we got into the car, a large tour bus pulled up, a good signal that we should be on our way.

Sremski Karlovci
Just 11 km from our lunchtime destination, we decided to stop at Sremski Karlovci, an attractive town with an array of buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with a 1770 marble fountain as its centerpiece. We peeked inside the baroque Orthodox cathedral, but its flooring was undergoing renovation and so we were unable to enter. In the center of the square, children and adults climbed up the stairs to get water pouring from the spouts of the four lions on the fountain. After taking some photos of the high school (1791) with its combination of traditional Serbian and Secessionist styles, we found some poppyseed pastry for a snack and headed onward.

Novi Sad
Our first stop in Novi Sad was the Petrovaradin Fortress. Little remains of the original fortress and much of what is seen dates back from the early 18th century. Walking towards the famous clocktower, we were greeted by tacky red stuffed heart pillows and shocking pink poodle stuffed animals. What an untapped market these places could have! Sadly, most of the buildings and galleries above the fortress were closed for renovation. Since it was nice out, we enjoyed a stroll around the outer perimeter overlooking the Danube River.

Finding a parking space in the main part of Novi Sad, Pat used her cell phone to fill up the “meter” – a very convenient, modern method. Already hungry, we didn’t spend too much time looking around. Pat pointed out a sign in front of a tattoo parlor she had seen a week earlier – “House of Pain”. I’m not sure if I would have named my business that phrase! With most of the cafes only serving drinks and/or full of customers, we settled on a small place and ordered pljeskavica, sort of like a hamburger made from a mixture of pork, beef and lamb, sprinkled with spices and grilled with onion.


Prior to reaching our final destination for the day, we made a short stop at Lake Palić. Pat explained that teachers and students from ISB would make an annual trip up to here as a way of bonding and relaxing. The area started as a spa in the mid 19th century and then developed into a popular health resort and vacation spot. As we walked along the park sidewalk, we saw people rollerblading, riding bikes, lazily strolling along, and of course – talking on their cell phones. Sports equipment and boats, including paddleboats could be rented. Set back from the lake one could see a series of small, but attractive hotels and restaurants – making it an attractive relaxation spot. The autumn sunset cast a warm glow over the still-beautiful flowers and changing leaves. After Nancy’s first Turkish coffee at a restaurant, the sun disappeared over the water, signaling it was time to leave for Subotica.

Now just a short distance from the Hungarian border, we were at our nighttime destination. We decided to stay at Hotel Patria, not so much for its accommodations (like many Serbian hotels, it had that “depressed in-need-of-rennovation-and-attention” look), but because it had parking and was centrally located. Following recommendations of the receptionist, we walked past the McDonalds and up some stairs to a cozy authentic restaurant. It was well after 7pm and still no one else was there. They gave us some menus that had English translations, some of which were quite amusing, such as horse d’ouvres. While eating, a pianist and violinist provided wonderful ambiance. After around 9pm more people began filling the tables. Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm evening, we strolled around the main city section before heading back to the hotel for the night.

I was looking forward to our next morning – taking a tour of all the beautiful Art Nouveau and Secessionist architecture. Once again, the weather was beautiful. Most signage was in both Serbian and Hungarian, a strong indication of its proximity to current Hungary and long domination by Hungarian rulers. Immediately apparent was the number of people – both young and old – riding bicycles. The extremely flatness of the city made it a perfect method of transportation, lazily meandering through the narrow streets. The pace here felt much slower than in Belgrade. What a beautiful place to stop and read the newspaper or plop down your sack of potatoes and gossip with the neighbors!

We headed towards the large Town Hall, a magnificent reddish building in the Hungarian Art Nouveau Style built between 1908-10. Every section – from top to bottom – was oozing with different details. One of the guidebooks described it as “an architectural mishmash of styles that could be said to verge on the tasteless”. Having liked it very much, I would have to disagree. Needless to say, a lot of photos were taken. I especially liked the corner gargoyle-like figures, with curls flowing from its head as in flames. Even the rain gutters and snow stoppers on the roof were decorative. At one corner was the McDonalds, tastefully adopting its window signage and interior decoration to the same style. Curious to see the inside of such a structure, the three photographers (Nancy, Pat, and I) went inside, hoping at least some area was open for viewing. In contrast to the deep red and yellows of the outside, the interior was dominated by cooler hues of green, turquoise and white. Everything looked freshly painted, with stenciled designs and patterns around each column and edge very crisp and colorful. I was glad to see that such a city treasure was receiving the monetary attention towards preservation. True to Art Nouveau tendencies, the stairway was a patterned symphony of curvy wavy metalwork instead of straight bars. In a higher floor I could even smell fresh paint, a sign that some work was really new. We got as far as the top floor, when Pat stopped us saying that there was a forbidden sign on the door, as it was some sort of military function.

Nearby was the central square – Trg Slobode. A large blue fountain constructed of famous Zsolnai ceramics from the Hungarian town of Pecs was a central figure. Pigeons enjoyed the waters, taking baths in the shallow waters. The designer even remembered a handy detail – slightly curved indentations along the edge, just the size for sitting!
Another building attracting our attention was the library, a yellow neo-baroque edifice with rich sculptural decorations, built in 1897. Framing the main entrance were two muscular, slightly monster-like males in white stone, with an eagle spreading its wings in between the figures. On the corner of the building, a sculpted figure folded its arms above its head, as if bracing to hold up the curved balcony above it.

As the morning wore on, the curious collection of large cubes (reminding me of igloo snow blocks) were beginning to be used. Some young teen girls dressed in tight jeans and midriff tops danced syncopated, gyrating moves. On one end a large fan blew leaves, with cameramen moving in and out to capture the commercial. Other blocks were being carried to another decorative building with a balcony. Earlier we had remarked that the young woman peering over the balcony reminded us of Rapunzel. Now a stack of wooden and Styrofoam blocks were erected in a stairway, leading from the concrete below almost up to the balcony. In the floor above the balcony was a gynecological center. A woman in a lab coat peered down, also curious about the happenings below. Video cameras soon arrived here, directing a man when to add another block to almost reach the “Rapunzel”. I hope the filming also captured the gynecology sign ☺

Hungry (of course), we had a snack - žito, a wheat porridge flavored with nuts and raisins and served wit real whipped cream. Enjoying the sunny day, it was the perfect spot to people-watch.

Although there were a lot more beautiful buildings we could have visited, it was time to move on to Sombor. Otherwise we would get to our nighttime destination of Sirogojno too late at night. Like its nearby city Subotica, Sombor was very flat and ideal for bicyclists. We parked the car near the outdoor market where one could buy lots of fresh produce and wooden do-dads. I especially liked the unusually tall straw brooms, circularly arranged around a large tree. The city was very laid back and was heavily shaded by the many trees in the parks. I enjoyed the architecture here as well, but not as much as Subotica’s. In a small hardware shop, Nancy spotted a mousetrap with four holes. The shopkeeper of the cramped shop demonstrated how to bait and set up the almost guillotine-like device. Other fun purchases included what we nicknamed a “Yak purse” and some wax for a beauty treatment (I promised not to reveal what they did with it). While at lunch (meat, of course), we spotted a cute small stray dog. It was very polite and would have made a great pet. Too bad we had a long journey to make. The dog did receive a healthy supply of leftover meat though.

Drive to Sirogojno
After our late lunch we headed towards our next destination – Sirogojno. We knew the narrow road would take longer, but we did not anticipate taking quite that long. Of course it would have helped if signage in NoviSad would have been existent, legible (one sign was so faded you couldn’t read any of the words), accurate arrows, and townsfolk who could provide accurate, helpful directions for visitors. Along this route we saw a lot of people burning in the fields. Others were still gathering harvest. The narrow two-lane highway was quite a challenge, testing one’s patience (as you got behind a slow truck) or one’s defensive driving as people tried to pass when a car was coming from the opposite direction. As we headed southward, the roads got curvier, indicating that we were entering more mountainous and hilly regions. Now dark, it was even more difficult to see the road hazards. In the middle of the road we saw a dog, obviously hit by a previous vehicle but still alive. Pat pulled over and attempted to go and find the dog to move it to the side of the road, but it was too late. Navigating through even more narrow forested roads from Užice to Sirogojno, we finally made it to our destination about 7 hours later. Because a filming for a Serbian sitcom (their equivalent to Mr. Bean) was occurring, the restaurant at the Ethno museum was still open. We didn’t stay up too late, because we had to prepare ourselves for our main task tomorrow – sweater shopping.

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