Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Romantika Train Trip to Sremski Karlovci

Romantika Train Ride
On Saturday I took the historical Romantika train to the town of Sremski Karlovci with my colleague Olja. I had never been on this early 19th century train and was looking forward to it. Operating on weekends starting in late May through September, the historical train takes passengers to specific destinations in Serbia. We were pleased to hear that the first class tickets were still available, contradicting what Olja had been told the day before. Even though I would have been okay with the wooden seats of 3rd class, I do have to admit that the idea of padded seats for less than $10 for the 2-way ticket was much more appealing. The train engine ended up being a newer vehicle, but the cars were filled with the character and warmth of an old (but well-maintained) one. The striped slightly padded seats facing each other had high backs. Below the slightly aged window was an embossed wooden sign, written in both Cyrillic and Latin script. The wooden side continued up around the slightly curved ceiling. The flooring also was wooden, worn through the ages and faded.

Taking off from the train station, we crossed the Sava River. Once across the river we saw one of several Roma settlements. From the train, I had a closer view of their horrible living conditions. Moving past New Belgrade, I saw many new construction sites amongst the Communist-era buildings. Once out of Belgrade, the land became quite flat and the region very agricultural. In the corn fields, one could see people with hoes. What a lot of work to weed those narrow corn fields! In the rotation of fields were also oats and wheat. Poppies poked their bright heads in some places. In the rural villages, bicycle riding was a common mode of transportation. Despite the already warm morning, children and teens were out playing soccer. As we got closer to our destination, the flat land suddenly gave way to some rolling hills. Just before Sremski Karlovci, Danube river once again came within view.

Located in the region of Vojvodina about 8 km from the city of Novi Sad, Sremski Karlovci has a population of around 10,000. It originally was the site of a Roman fortress. The Romans are credited with introducing grape vines to the region, thus starting the wine-making practice for which Sremski Karlovci is known. In the fall a wine festival is held, which I attended one year. Until 1521, Sremski was a possession of the Hungarian noble families, followed by Turkish occupation for 170 years. Sremski Karlovci was a spiritual, political, and cultural center of the Serbs during the Hapsburg rule and still is home to the region’s Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate. Architecture in the town has a much stronger Austro-Hungarian feel than in Belgrade. It was here that the Karlovci Peace Treaty was signed in 1699, ending the war between Christian countries and the Turkish Empire.
City Center
Following the crowd from the train station, we arrived in the city center. Lining both sides of the pedestrian street were stalls selling local wine, crafts, baked goods, honey, and other items. Children and adults alike were attracted to the brilliant hues of annual plants for sale. On this already warm day, ice cream was becoming a fast favorite. Others enjoyed a cool drink under the shade of umbrellas at cafés. More and more students of various ages continued to arrive, touring the historic town with their school.

At the center of the tree-shaded Trg Branka Radičevića (named after a poet native to the town) was a 1770 marble fountain with four lions. I was glad that I had seen it on previous visits, as it was currently undergoing restoration. To one side of the fountain was the baroque St. Nicholas Serbian Othodox church, built between 1758 and 1762. We took a quick peek inside in between the large groups of children. Here we admired the carved iconostasis, wall paintings, and newly-renovated floor. Next to the cathedral was a neoclassical town hall, built between 1806 and 1811. At the far end of the trg one could see the seminary, established in 1794 – the second oldest Orthodox seminary in the world. Its sphinx-like figures at the base of the steps with bulbous breasts was a curious sight, especially considering the function of the building. Continuing around the rectangular city center were an array of buildings and homes dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. At the opposite end of the seminary was the high school, a proud symbol for Sremski Karlovci and Serbia in general. Established in 1791, this high school was the first high school in Serbia. The current building (1891) is a delightful blend of traditional Serbian and secessionist styles. Due to the overwhelming number of student-led tours, we were unable to secure a tour guide and thus were unable to see the beautiful interior of this prestigious high school.

For lunch, we walked to the Danube Hotel located on the banks of the Danube River. Greatly expanded in recent years, this hotel’s restaurant is known for its fish soup. It was pleasurable just sitting in the shade and chatting, watching the occasional boats and birds go by.

Mini-tour of Sremski Karlovci
Back at the main square, we re-entered the tourist information place, where the woman apologized for not being able to offer us a tour guide but did suggest a few places to visit. In the heat of the day, our walking pace slowed. Passing some older homes that reminded me a bit of the Renaissance-era homes in Slovakia, we arrived at the oldest church in town. The grounds were well-kept and lush, a labor of love for the older gentleman who greeted us. He opened the carved wooden door where we were greeted with cooler temperatures. The interior was much simpler in contrast to the large cathedral on the main square. The gentleman explained that this church had received some restoration funding during the time of Milosević, but more was needed and now the church seemed to be forgotten and overshadowed by larger ones. The walls and ceiling, once likely covered by frescoes or paintings, was now a stark white. The altar contained paintings of Jesus’ life (as well as some of Mary). I was drawn to one in which Jesus was holding a dark sphere in his hand with a small piece sticking up from the top. I presume it was meant to resemble the Earth, but I couldn’t help thinking of it as the round bomb that you saw in cartoons. Lining the sides of the church were tall wooden seats, each labeled with a person’s name. Talk about reserved seating!

As we walked behind the High School, we saw a large group of schoolchildren entering as part of their tour. It would have been nice to sneak along with them to see the school’s interior. Moving onward, we entered a forested area known as the King’s Garden. Although we didn’t see any flowers, the shaded area provided relief from the heat and sun. Passing by a few dilapidated benches, we found one that was safe enough to sit on. Here we chatted some more, enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

After our walk through the forest, we got something to drink at a cute little store and visited another little church. Tractors with license plates passed us. Rounding the corner, the main square was once again in front of us. Busses of schoolchildren still arrived, replacing those who had already left.

With some time left before we needed to head back to the train station, we enjoyed a drink at the café. By the Orthodox Cathedral we heard a man playing the string bass and another playing the accordion. Men dressed in suits and women in nice dresses began to gather. Shortly thereafter, the bells of the church began to toll, rich tones varying in pitches. Such a beautiful, joyous sound. Olja explained that this likely was a wedding. After a period of time, people exited the church. One had a basket. When the bride passed, the basket’s contents of rose petals were thrown into the air. Church bells once again filled the air.

It was now time to head towards the train station. The late-afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the bricks of the seminary building. After taking a few photos, we left the city center. Back at the train station, the diverse group of train passengers began to arrive. Back in our seats, we settled in as the train began its journey back to Belgrade. It had been a pleasurable Saturday trip.

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