The view towards the floodlit Petrovaradin Fortress is spectacular and a gentle breeze ruffles the Danube, yet the restaurant at the military club of Novi Sad is half empty. There are no tourists around, as the place is far away from the main attractions.
Then, suddenly, people start to arrive. They are both young and old, and flock in in their dozens, chatting enthusiastically and sitting at the tables. Some of them carry accordions, clarinets and drums, while others pull suitcases. For a while they drink, eat, and talk, and then the young ones stand up and head for the toilets. Within minutes they reemerge, all clad in the traditional frocks and shirts of the Vojvodina region. The musicians take to the stage, the singers line up and, when the music starts, the dancers sweep and pirouette around the tables. The patrons clap.
High life on Dunavska Street
Since 2000, Novi Sad has been famous for its Exit Festival, but in this city music and surprises can be experienced anywhere, anytime.
Spread along the banks of the Danube, under the forbidding rock where the Petrovaradin Fortress perches, Novi Sad is a place both old and new, both Central European and Balkan, both sombre and fun. Combine the nicely renovated old centre and the even nicer dilapidation around the fortress, and you end up with a city worth visiting and falling in love with.
The area of modern Novi Sad was inhabited as early as the Palaeolithic period, around 20,000 years ago. There was a Bronze Age settlement here in 3,000 BC and Romans built a castrum on the Petrovaradin Rock. Then came the Byzantines, the Slavs and the Hungarians, followed by the Ottomans. At the end of the 17th Century the Habsburg Empire took over, creating the Petrovaradin and the Novi Sad of today. It was a strange period. The city was the capital of the border province of Vojvodina, which was supposed to protect the Habsburgs from the Ottomans. As a result, many Serbs fled the Ottomans and settled in Novi Sad, making it the biggest Serbian-populated city in then Europe.
A monument to Serbian politician and journalist Svetozar Miletić by famed Yugoslav sculptor Ivan Meštrovićs
Novi Sad became a part of Yugoslavia in 1918. It suffered heavily during the Second World War, losing both people and infrastructure, but its economy perked up soon after and Vojvodina became the wealthiest part of Socialist Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, while the federation was dissolving, Novi Sad sided with Belgrade, and was bombed by NATO during the 1999 Kosovo War, losing all three bridges over the Danube.
It revived again the following year, with the first Exit Festival.
Many tourists visit Novi Sad because of this event, which starts the second Thursday of July and lasts for four days. The main venue is the Petrovaradin Fortress, which is large enough to house several stages and strong enough to endure the pounding beat of dozens of groups and the screams of hundreds of fans.
Backstreets at the foot of Petrovaradin Fortress
However, visiting Novi Sad at a quieter period is probably a better idea. Accommodation is much cheaper and you have more breathing space. The city is divided by the Danube and it takes a bit of walking to visit and enjoy both parts properly.
On the left bank is the Petrovaradin Fortress, created by the Austrians in 1692-1780 to guard against the Ottomans. Large and sturdy, the fortress has about 20 kms of subterranean tunnels. It was built with the labour of prisoners who died by the dozen from poor living and working conditions. Its notorious clock-tower still measures the time. Under the Habsburgs, citizens had to pay a tax for the "privilege" of seeing its dials and knowing the time.
Today, the Petrovaradin Fortress is one of the nicest things in Novi Sad, with fine views of the Danube and charming art shops. The old Baroque streets, squares and houses at its foot are even better. Still not renovated, they are all displaced cobbles and roof tiles, rusting gratings and peeling walls, plus the odd sign saying Rooms to Let.
Stained glass window in the synagogue. Less than 200 Jews live in Novi Sad today
The newer Novi Sad is at the other end of the Varadinski Bridge, but your first steps on this side may mar your tourist enthusiasm. There is a monument to the destruction of 1999 and a memorial to about 1,300 citizens of Novi Sad (mainly Jews), who were shot and thrown into the icy Danube on 21-23 January 1942.
The peculiar long building of the Vojvodina autonomous administration on Mihajla Pupina Blvd, however, is pleasing architecturally and when you pass it, the real Novi Sad begins.
This part of the city appeared in the 18th Century, when Serbs were banned from living in and around the Petrovaradin. It grew and prospered for decades, but suffered heavily in the 1848 revolution, which is why the fine private and administrative buildings in the old centre date mainly from after this time.
The section around the fortress is still largely not renovated
Strolling around is a pleasant and leisurely experience, which should include the lovely Dunavski Park and the pedestrianised Dunavska Street, where the citizens of Novi Sad flock to see and be seen. Sit down here, sip of local beer and enjoy people-watching.
Continue on and you’ll discover more – the Comrade Tito-era theatre, the fine synagogue on Jevrejska Street, the lively market with side streets made of yellow bricks just like the ones in Sofia. If you feel hot and tired, take a dip in the Danube at the popular Strand beach, or find a half-empty local tavern, take a seat and order some rakiya. If you're lucky, musicians will soon appear.