Novi Sad meets West to East
I spent my childhood summers frolicking in the concrete jungle of Belgrade, Serbia. It was my refuge – a gated playground of moss-covered parks in the sizzling grass amid wide pedestrian walkways lined with vendors, the smell of baking and talkative grannies screaming greetings from their balconies. There was always movement, a city that really never sleeps, my best kept secret.
There is something magical about returning to a place that has been the setting for so many family stories, but after three years of summers in Vancouver, I decided I had to visit Novi Sad, the town where my grandmother spent the beginning of her professional career as a pioneering coder in the 60s.
Planning this trip was one of the most spontaneous things I have ever done. One afternoon my friend and I were booking train tickets and an Airbnb, and the next day we were standing outside the Name of Mary Catholic Church after a 30-minute ride on Serbia’s rapidly growing Soko rail system.
Like the rest of the Balkans, Novi sad – which translates to “new plantation” in Serbian – has always been a crossroads.
Novi sad has an extremely diverse and tumultuous history that makes it a vibrant local culture. Before the unification of Yugoslavia in 1918, it was a hub for the Serbian minority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was just a small fishing village on the Danube until the 18th century. Today it is the capital of Vojvodina which is an autonomous state between Serbia and Hungary. It was elected Cultural Center of Europe in 2022.
On our first afternoon there, we were greeted by the beating sun. The air was thick and weighing us and our luggage as we hailed a cab. The city was quiet and lazy, a striking juxtaposition around the same time the previous month, when Novi Sad buzzed as all of Europe filled the streets for the annual Exit music festival.
We spent our first evening strolling Zmaj Jovina promenade, a quaint pedestrian street where bustling cafes and apartments with flower-lined terraces lined the street, the low hum of music constantly in the background of the conversation. Novi Sad is special in its ability to distinctly capture all the different cultures that have influenced the region. Rather than being a melting pot, one can experience the cobblestones of Hungary alongside Habsburg architecture, and the smells and sounds of the Balkans.
On our balcony overlooking the town square, we enjoyed wine and cheese from southern Serbia as streetlights lit up the sky above Fruška Gora National Park as an accordion pierced the air in the local bistro below us.
Our next afternoon was spent walking the aisles of several bookstores. The bookstore found off Zmaj Jovina at the bottom of a marble staircase and built into a cool cement-lined tunnel was alluring and inviting. I was immediately transported to a summer tavern. This is where I finally found a Serbian copy of Garden, Ashes by Yugoslav Jewish author Danilo Kiš.
In the evening we visited the Novi Sad Student Cultural Center for the second night of the Novi Sad Film Festival. We watched an independent Italian film following the story of a group of unlikely friends who hatch a plan to smuggle an illegal immigrant in hopes of crossing the border into France. Our makeshift little theater housed in a former industrial factory provided the perfect setting for the film’s mosaic-jazz and orange-blue cinematography.
The next day we sat in the shade of an umbrella on the beach in Štrand, along the banks of the Danube. As the music blasted, the children laughed and the smell of burning cigarettes wafted through the heat, it was almost impossible to fathom that just 80 years ago the Novi Sad massacre had occurred at this place. As the joy of beachgoers was felt, there was still a haunting melancholy in the air.
We caught the sunset at Petrovaradin Fortress, which overlooks the city. As we watched the sky blaze with purple, orange and pink, two women – our age – asked if we could take their picture. Of course we agreed and they reciprocated. We briefly chatted about the city and what it was like to come to a place that seemed so familiar and yet we knew little about. We are four daughters of Yugoslav immigrants.
I’ve always admired that mentality of connecting with the strangers around you. It narrows the gap between us. We have more commonalities than differences. This habit is carried on by many people who identify with the area, and something I enjoy, I have been able to observe for as long as I can remember. Indeed, community support and the value of being part of a system bigger than yourself are part of the wider Balkan culture.
We sat in a restaurant that night where we could hear every language we could think of being spoken. There was a football game playing silently on a television as people alternated between cheering and talking.
The next morning, the man who ran the gift shop we admired told us stories from North America – his adventures in Chicago, his business in New York, how his American grandson spoke his first Serbian words on his balcony as he visited her in Novi Sad and even her visit to Vancouver.
Then he sighed and stared at the sun beating down on us, carefree and smiling. “Nothing ever stays the same,” he remarked. I could see the parallel between my own grandfather, an internal divide between love for a place and time that no longer exists and the excitement of adjusting to a promised land that brought so many immigrants to major North American centers. It was our last conversation with a local before having to take our train back to Belgrade.
This trip was refreshing. Locals who know stories and are eager to share greeted us at every corner and we felt the city throb in a way you can only feel if you grew up knowing this pace of life. At first I was worried that we didn’t have a concrete plan – but that turned out to be the best part of our stay. There was something about the warmth mixed with our curious wandering that made these two and a half days an innocent dream. And yet, there were still so many things we didn’t get to do on this trip that I have to save for next time. My origins go back to a land full of traditions, stories of love and hate, colors and life. And I’m glad to be back soon.
Places to visit is The Ubyssey travel subsection. If you are going or recently went to a cool place and want to write about it, send an e-mail [email protected].