Novi Sad, Serbia

Of all the places we’ve been so far, it is a bit of a surprise that Novi Sad, Serbia quickly turned into one of my favorites. Added to our list after Timisoara because of its close proximity and low cost of living, we’d also heard good things about it from an acquaintance. Our apartment for the month was situated right in the center and some of the windows looked toward the steeple of The Name of Mary Church, the largest Catholic church in the city. Since the Old Town is largely made up of walking streets, we traded vehicular traffic for sidewalk restaurants and plenty of shopping in the dozens of pasažs and courtyards between the buildings.

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Sunset over the Old Town and one of the walking streets

The most famous site in the city – just across the river – is Petrovaradin Fortress. Constructed to guard the narrowest point of the Danube, it now houses artists’ studios and restaurants. Towering over Novi Sad, it was a popular place to watch the sunset and for wedding photographs. The fortress building itself is massive, but the grounds expand out on three sides, encompassing the Old Town of Petrovaradin and green space mixed with battlements. In July each year, the Exit Festival takes advantage of sprawling space. Stages are set up among the earthen bulwarks and musicians play all weekend.

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Petrovaradin Fortress 

Like most European cities built near water, Novi Sad embraces the Danube. A lengthy river walk stretches out from the city center, and runs parallel to a bike path that allows riders to cycle clear from one side of the country to the other. Plenty of older men fish, families stroll with kids, and many end up at the man-made beach during summer months.

During our stay, we watched the slow-moving assembly of the new Road and Railroad Bridge. The first span had been placed shortly before we arrived, and the second span was waiting on the bank to be moved into place. In 1999 NATO bombed Novi Sad, destroying the city’s bridges, the oil refinery, chemical plants. This bridge is one of the final things to be rebuilt. For the 18 years since the bombs fell, a narrow, single lane bridge has served both directions of vehicular and rail traffic.

The city also suffered in previous conflicts. Other sculptures and plaques on the river memorialize victims of World War II. Much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt after bombing in 1849 that occurred during uprisings against the Austrian Empire. We were told by one local that “Novi Sad was a house that got built in the middle of a road. Every time someone wants to get by, we get run over.”

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Memorials of war – Bridge being rebuilt (in 2017) from 1999 NATO bombings, mural looking over the destroyed bridges, memorial to WWII victims

Local cuisine reflects a mixing of Balkan traditions. Many dishes center on meat, like ćevapčići, a sandwich of grilled sausages. Our apartment was in the perfect spot to grab a quick bite. Right downstairs was a corner sandwich shop serving up incredibly rich and filling meals – our favorite was beef topped with melted cheese, cream, and grilled onions. Almost next door was a burger place that served thin patties grilled up and coupled with delicious house sauces.

Burek, a pastry made with phyllo dough, looks like it should be a lighter meal, but is deceptive. It is often layered with meats and cheeses that make it just as hearty as a larger meal. But even without the filling, the dough alone was tasty.

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“Serbian” burger, burek

Just a few miles from Novi Sad is a region known for wine. The center of the industry is located in Sremski Karlovci. We missed the wine festival by a couple of weeks, but still headed out for a day of tasting. A unique local specialty is bermet, wine with 20 spices and herbs added to the mix. It tasted quite close to mulled wine, reminding us of Christmas. But even aside from that, the wines grown in the region are inexpensive and tasty. Most wineries have been at it for decades, as was the case at Mrdanin, where they have been vintners for five generations.

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Lots of bermet and family wineries in Sremski Karlovci

Fruska Gora, the lone mountainous ridge towering over the flat Serbian plains, provides a climate for the wine grapes as well as a perfect spot for hiking. A friend we met in Novi Sad showed us around his village, Bukovac, and the surrounding hills. Along the ridgetops were small fields and grazing meadows, and these blended into a heavily wooded national park. The wooded slopes were a welcome natural escape and provided plenty of shade to keep us cool. Harvest was well under way and corn cribs were filled for winter.

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Looking over Bukovac, trail markings in Fruska Gora, fall harvest

One of the things that made Novi Sad stand out so far above other places was the friendliness of the people. Even though our Serbian is abysmal, almost everyone we met was eager to talk to us. We met dozens of people at language exchanges, tech meet ups, in restaurants, at the market. We felt like we had been friends with people we just met for years. I definitely hope to return, if only to see if my initial impressions are correct and to catch up with friends, old and new.

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Timisoara, Romania

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After three months exploring the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, we needed to leave Schengen. A couple of cheap RyanAir flights got us to Romania, which we loved when we visited last year. This time we headed out of the capital to Timisoara, on the western side of the country.

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Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral

The city itself has beautiful architecture that mixes Romanian, Austo-Hungarian, and German styles. Several large plazas dot the old town, and the Bega river runs nearby. In 2021 Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture, which seems like a justified choice. There is plenty of art around the city, starting with statues dotting the city center. During the few weeks we were in town, there were two free movie festivals and a free opera and play festival. We went to multiple performances in Parcul Rozelor and watched The Fiddler on the Roof and Grafin Mariza with several thousand other fans. And even though these performances were done in an outdoor theatre, it was the full production, with large casts and and all the set pieces.

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Lots of statues in the streets

Timisoara also takes great pride in its parks. The Bega is lined with green spaces, which are dotted with restaurants, bars, and paddle-boat rentals. A favorite is definitely the Children’s Park, which is dotted with play equipment and scooter rentals, not to mention ice cream vendors. A shady river walk runs for several kilometers through the downtown and made for a less-trafficked way home.

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Piata Unirii, building in the Children’s Park, mural

The most famous (and possibly best) museum in town is the Banat Village Museum. Just a quick tram ride outside of the center, the museum recreates the feel of a small farm or village from the turn of the last century. Dozens of homes and village buildings have been relocated and then decorated with antique and period furnishings. There are even live animals like chickens wandering the premises and grape vines shading the porches. It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, and just around the corner is a small zoo. The zoo is largely farm animals, though there are a few monkeys and European brown bears as the centerpieces.

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Banat Village Museum

About two and a half hours away by car, Hunedoara is home to a spectacularly photogenic castle. Corvin Castle has been restored, along with the famous bridge that leads to it. We were lucky enough to find a BlaBlaCar headed in the right direction, which save us several extra hours of bus travel. The interior of the castle is partly restored, though the rooms are largely bare. It was a fun place to wander around for an hour or so. The best views are definitely facing the castle from the main approach.

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Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

Timisoara was a relaxed place to stay for a month. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, I think the people here were the friendliest. Even our few, terribly-pronounced words of Romanian brought out smiles. At our local market, Piata Iosefin, we got by with our Romanian and even a few words of German.

Also, their graffiti artists seem to be in a really good mood. I’ve never seen so many smily faces and positive notes scrawled on the walls. Any place this welcoming deserves as much attention as it can get! I’d love to head back someday, perhaps to check out the city when it is Capital of Culture in just a few more years.

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Positive and nicely-placed graffiti and stickers

Jurmala & Sigulda, Latvia

In a surprise twist, just thirty minutes outside Riga are the wide, sandy beaches of Jūrmala. I never thought to associate Latvia with sun and sand. But the locals certainly do. On a hot summer Friday, it seemed half of the country was along the Jūrmala coast. The Baltic water wasn’t warm enough to tempt me to swim (though others were indulging happily), but it was the perfect spot for relaxing. There are small restaurants and ice cream stands along the shore and areas of “active” and “passive” recreation. Zones for sunbathing and being lazy! This beach has it figured out.

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Around Jūrmala

A little further inland is the heart of the tourist area, with pedestrian streets full of small shops and restaurants. We spotted an Orthodox church under construction and Latvia’s largest bronze globe (oddly specific, but it’s something). In one of the main parks was a viewing tower that was free to climb. The catch was that the floors were all grated metal, so looking down was a bit vertigo-inducing. From the top level we saw Riga, tiny in the distance, and the Baltic Sea on the nearer horizon. Since most local buildings are low, the surrounding forest appears nearly uninterrupted.

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Viewing tower in Dzintaru mežaparks

In the opposite direction from Riga is Sigulda, a small town at the start of Gaujas National Park. It is where they happen to keep the castles. In Sigulda itself are the remains of the Castle of the Livonian Order. The oldest castle dates from the early 1200s, though it underwent many iterations through the centuries. Parts of the towers and wooden battlements have been reconstructed and were open for exploration.

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Livonian Castle in Sigulda, path to Turaida

From Sigulda, it was only a little bit of a hike across the river and through the woods to get to the next castle, Turaida. Along the way was the largest cave in the Baltic States, Gūtman’s Cave. The cave was really more of a giant niche with a small spring inside, but the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back centuries. Clearly, it was a big deal to have your name on the wall, and some people even carved scrolls or family crests to make their marks more visible.

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Gūtman’s Cave – the largest (by volume) in the Baltics

Hiking a little further, up and down the local hills (they kept being referred to as mountains on local signs), we arrived at Turaida. This castle is inside a museum/reserve with preserved buildings and a sculpture park. But the main attraction is the castle. Again, it was built in the early 1200s and has been reconstructed. A tower and some recreated battlements loomed over lower ruins.

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Turaida Castle without and within

Perhaps the best part of the museum was a giant swing. Sized so that two adults could stand on it, maybe it’s a forerunner of kiiking?

Overall we hiked about 12 kilometers around the towns, though we didn’t make it to the third castle, Krimulda, because we needed to catch our train back to Riga. The area around Sigulda was beautiful and there are plenty of other trails to explore if we ever make it back.