Novi Sad is famous for its energetic EXIT Festival, gregarious groggeries and Danube beach parties. But Serbia’s second city is also the capital of Vojvodina, a rustic region of tranquil nature, mellow villages and a laid-back legacy of big-hearted hospitality. Compact and well linked by good roads, the quirky highlights of Vojvodina offer a slow-travel treat for those keen on kicking back.
The unhurried hills
The rolling ranges of Fruška Gora national park are the perfect antidote to Vojvodina’s pancake plains. Clean, green and almost impossibly bucolic, the 80km stretch is dotted with picture-perfect villages and a sprinkling of 16 working Orthodox monasteries built between the 15th and 18th centuries. It’s one of Serbia’s oldest winemaking regions, and the hospitable locals are more than happy to clink a glass or three with visiting oenophiles. Look out for signs reading vinski podrum – this means there’s a wine cellar within and you’re welcome to sample from it. Wander at your whim by car or on foot, or see fruskagora-dunav.rs for a list of monasteries and wineries. The Tourism Organisation of Sremski Karlovci (karlovci.org.rs) can arrange private visits.
For exploration sans exertion, the flatlands of Vojvodina can’t be beaten. The region is criss-crossed with gentle hiking paths (see vojvodinaonline.com), including easy ambles along the six lakes of Bela Crkva and around placid Palić Lake; boat hire is also available at both spots. If you don’t mind getting (slightly) vertical, a 160km marked trail runs along the low hills of Fruška Gora.
Prefer to pedal? The Danube Bike Path (danube-cycle-path.com) – suitable for cyclists of all stripes – wends along the eponymous river past idyllic villages and Pannonian panoramas all the way to the majestic Iron Gates gorge on the Romanian border. Its sister trail, the Euro Velo 6 (eurovelo.com), crosses the Deliblato Sands. Billed as the ‘European Sahara’, the 300-sq-km area is the continent’s largest sandy terrain and home to a massive array of rare plants, birds and animals, including a large wolf population.
A potpourri of the past
Vojvodina is liberally sprinkled with reminders of its mixed-bag past – everyone from the Huns to the Hapsburgs had a stint here – but to see it all would take weeks. For a concentrated hit of history, head to Bač (turizam.bac.rs), 65km west of Novi Sad. The town’s star attraction is its glorious, partially ruined fortress. Records indicate it was first built in AD 873, before being annexed, renovated and destroyed repeatedly by various empires until the 18th century. The Knights Templar planted their flag in Bač too, establishing a monastery in 1169. The cloisters were taken over by the Franciscans in 1312; it remains operational today and welcomes visitors. For a taste of Turkish times, check out the preserved rooms and water pipes of Bač’s 16th-century hammam, the only surviving Turkish bath in Vojvodina.
Sitting snug against the Danube, Sremski Karlovci has a huge history that belies its cosy size. Originally home to an ancient Roman fortress, the village peaked as a major cultural and spiritual centre during the 18th century, a legacy still visible in beautiful baroque edifices including the St Nicholas Orthodox cathedral (1758–62), the working Karlovci Orthodox Theological Seminary (1794) – the second of its kind in the world – and the magnificent Four Lions fountain.
Further north, Subotica charms comers-and-goers (it’s on the border with Hungary) with a comely collection of art nouveau buildings. An easy amble will reveal streets and squares lined with architectural eye candy; the tastiest is the sumptuous Raichle Palace (home to a modern art gallery), a 1904 marvel of mosaics, floral patterns and wrought-iron flourishes.
Ramble through old Rome
All roads lead to… Sremska Mitrovica? One of Europe’s oldest towns (settled since 5000 BC), this now-sleepy centre was once Sirmium, one of the four capitals of the Roman Empire. At its peak, Sirmium was a major Christian centre and a favourite haunt of Constantine the Great; no less than six Roman emperors were born here. The exceedingly well-maintained Imperial Palace complex gives visitors a taste of its glorious past. Excavated mosaic floors, walls, rooms, baths and ancient heating systems are on display, as is a fascinating scale model of Sirmium.
Vojvodina’s colourful characters, arcadian surrounds and multicultural mix have long inspired offbeat creativity, with almost every village home to at least one eccentric artist or trademark craft. But for out-there oeuvre, Kovačica (took.org.rs) rules the roost: despite a population of only 6000, local painters have produced over 50,000 pieces of internationally renowned naive art. The town’s Naive Art Gallery is the best place to peek – and purchase – the bright, whimsical works, though many private homes also house collections.
While Kovačica sticks with its style, Srem’s Muzej Macura (muzejmacura.com) revels in a ragbag of surrealist, conceptual, minimal and Dadaist delights. Tucked away in a stark modern building completely at odds with its bucolic background (it’s on a private farm), the museum offers a Manhattan-esque collection of oddball paintings, sculptures and installations.
If you like your sightseeing accompanied by a clip-clop soundtrack, trot on up to Zobnatica (zobnatica.rs). With almost 240 years of horse-breeding tradition, the village – 5km north from the town of Bačka Topola – offers equestrian adventures for pony people of all ages. Saddle up for scenic rides on horseback or in hackney carriages, time your visit with a race at the hippodrome, or demount for a gander through the horseshoe-shaped museum.
Wet, wild and woolly
No matter which way the compass needle swings, you’ll find splendid scenery and wonderful wildlife. In the north, the Austro-Hungarian town of Kikinda is billed the ‘Owl Capital of the World’, thanks to its huge population of long-eared owls which nest by the hundreds each winter in the trees of the main square. To the east, Carska Bara (‘Imperial Pond’; carskabara.rs) is Serbia’s biggest bog and a favourite among twitchers and anglers for its bountiful bird life and 24 fish species. Just as marvellously marshy is Obedska Bara to the south; if you’d rather go walkabout than wet a line, the reserve is encircled by viewing paths. If oddball animal spotting is your game, head west to the serene Zasavica wetlands, where the woolly fleece-covered Mangulica pig roams free.
Dawdle by the Danube
Fought over by nearly every European empire for its prime position on the Danube, Apatin today is a relaxed riverside retreat where the only battles you’ll encounter are between fisherfolk and their quarry; it’s not unusual to land a 30kg-plus catfish here. Fishing and sightseeing boats leave from Apatin’s international marina (marinaapatin.com), and super-keen anglers can join in the Apatin Fishermen Nights, a four-day fishing-fest held each July. If you prefer to whet your appetite, Apatin is peppered with čarde (traditional Danube fish restaurants) – the century-old Zlatna Kruna (zlatnakruna.co.rs) is especially famous for their riblji paprikaš (fish stew) and river views. Wash it all down with a Jelen beer; it’s brewed in one of Serbia’s oldest breweries, just 500m up the road.
Hang your hat
With castles, health retreats and old-school farm stays on offer, Vojvodina’s accommodation options are destinations unto themselves. The countryside is scattered with salaši (traditional homesteads), where hospitable hosts, charming cabins, hands-on farm experiences and wholesome, hearty meals conspire to keep guests from ever leaving – after a few serves of the cream-and-stodge-heavy regional dishes, you won’t be able to get out the door anyway. See salasi.info for a comprehensive list.
Overindulged? Book a room at Banja Kanjiža (banja-kanjiza.com), one of Vojvodina’s most famous spas; the mint-chocolate rub is a guaranteed soul-soother. If loftier lodgings are your style, hang your crown at Dvorac Fantast (fantast.pikbecej.rs), a dreamy, early-1900s castle complete with lavish grounds, thoroughbred stable and ostrich farm.