Foiled by the Danube!
Day One: Belgrade
Our visit to Belgrade has been… interesting. We have been scheduled to tour the town in the morning and then have free time… instead, there is an announcement at 7:30 AM that the river has risen even higher. In order for the ship to pass under one of the bridges that stands between us and Croatia, it would need to sail at once! Therefore, we are to go on our scheduled trip, have lunch in Belgrade, then be bussed to our ship in the afternoon.
Well and good, for Belgrade is an interesting place rich with history. Setting out under overcast skies, we find out that once, back in 5,000 BCE, Serbia was peopled by the Vinca who probably were the first to farm and begin metal techniques. Now, Serbia is home to 7.3 million people. Though smaller than the state of Kentucky, it has four different geographic zones.
Numerous wars have scarred this county’s history. The crusaders invaded and devasted the region. Serbians rebounded, but the Ottoman Turks took over in the 16th century. The Austrians arrived and destroyed everything Serbian, then Nazi Germany captured it, the Russian Red Army liberated the country, andTito took over for life. Incidents of mass murder and ethnic genocide scar their history.
We first visit a fortress that is boarded by a green park full of linden trees and multicolored roses. In front of the fortress are tanks (some are a two-man mini tank which our guide jokes is a ‘private tank’) and cannons. From its parapet we can look down onto the water and see where the Danube and the Sava River meet. There is even a color difference between the two rivers!
From then we are driven through streets where we see trolley cars (donated by the Japanese government), a column dedicated to the martyrs murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, beds of flowers and buildings that were bombed during the second world war and which stand in silent desolation. A reminder of what war can be like, we wonder.
Next stop is an enormous Greek Orthodox Church. It is unfinished inside and, like Gaudi’s church, may take years o be completed. It is a magnificent structure which only survived because it was used as a parking garage by the Nazis and as housing for soldiers and armaments by the communists. We have to marvel at how much destruction Serbia has seen. One small reminder is our guide’s casual remark that rather than having their furniture confiscated by the communists, people donated their prized items to a museum.
From the church we head for lunch, passing a church designed by a 27 year old woman architect—a rarity back in those times– and the MacDonalds which is supposed to have the record of selling the most hamburgers in a day. While we are laughing, our guide tells us an interesting factoid– James Bond, the original 007,was a Serbian. “Ian Fleming knew the guy,” she says, “and used him as a model for 007.”
Then, the Bohemian Square bright with flowers that bloom in profusion—tumbling from the walls of restaurants. While we lunch, our Cruise Director appears and informs us that our ship has managed to slide under the bridge with a space of just half a meter! We are that much closer to Budapest.
Day Two: Croatia, Ilok
Because the Danube is now in high flood, our ship has decided that it must remain in Navi Sad, Serbia, for two days. The itinerary has changed again, and our new excursion of the day is to go to Ilok, which is the easternmost town in Croatia. Rolling past a landscape dotted with green frields, small vineyards, banks of poppies, used car lots and junk yards, we finally catch a glimpse of Ilok. Perched on a hill that overlooks the Danube river, it is strategically situated to withstand attacks from the river and from nearby Serbia.
To reach Ilok which is in Croatia, we must first pass through the Serbian and then the Croatian checkpoints. Passports are produced, taken to be stamped, then taken again by an agent of Serbia, a grimly lady who barely smilesas she bears away our passports. We wait on the bus for a lengthy time, retrieve the passports which are then taken again away on the Croatian side. Truly an exercise in patience!
When we are finally liberated and allowed to drive into Ilok, we find that there is a festival honoring St. Anthony going on. Children and their parents stroll the streets, and ladies clutching bouquets of lilies passd us by. The day is fine and warm, and roses bloom everywhere as we are guided to Ilok Castle, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the people of the region. A long history, since Ilok was peopled back in Neolithic times and during the Bronze Age. Romans settled here, so did the Slavs, the Croats. Then came the Bulgarians and finally Ilok became a part of medieval Hungary.
Among the many artifacts, I am most taken by a image of Nicholas of Ilok, who is credited with bravery and patriotism. A tall, lean, commanding figure, Nicholas looks down on tourists with the stern gaze of a warrior. On the other wall I see the effigy of his son… short, portly, and definitely squeezed into his armor. He might have been a heroic historical figure, too… but, alas, he doesn’t look it.
Of course the Ottomans showed up to conquer and destroy. In 1526, they conquered the town. Their reign was relatively short, however, for the Habsburgs took Ilok from them in 1697, and Ilok became a part of Slovainia. In more modern history, Ilok was peacefully reintegrated into Croatia in 1998.
The museum winds through many rooms showing furniture which was, our guide told us, mostly donated by families of the area. “This is their museum,” she tells us. “Coming here, the people see a part of their own history.”
Lunch follows—a lengthy affair laced with several varieties of fine local wine followed by an excellent goulash and cakes. The bread is home made and warm, marvelous after the long waits of the day! Afterward, we stroll the streets, visit the Church of St. Francis. Children smile and wave at us as we pass, and I sense that here in Ilok is a much lighter spirit than was found in other parts of the Baltic. “We were a rich community,” our guide tells us as we say goodbye, “Now we are poor—and we need young people. You must come back and see us and bring your children, too. We know we are not on the top list of places to visit, but we are eager to welcome you, and you will find that we are kind people. Come back soon!”
Day 2: Relaxing in Novi Sad
There is a different atmosphere in Novi Sad, a warmth and happiness that we have not felt or seen since arriving in the Balkans. True, the sunshine and warmth may have something to do with this, but there seems to be more—a genuine enjoyment of life.
“Here in Novi Sad nobody hurries or gets tense,” says our cheerful guide as she settles us on the bus that will take us to the Krusedol Monastery half an hour away, “If you see anybody in a hurry, he’s not from this town.”
Novi Sad is home to 250,000 people, and seven official languages show the mix of several cultures. The countryside is flat (“The highest thing here is a pumpkin,” jokes our guide), and green fields stretch along the roadside. There is also a stork’s nest—appropriately, since the stork is the symbol of this area. Apparently the male stork comes first, builds the nest and offers it to the female for inspection. “Then she redecorates,” says our guide. This part of Serbia is home to many wild animals, including the deer. There is a $20,000 penalty for killing a deer without permission!
The first thing we see at the Krusedol Monastery are beautifully carved wooden doors, Within, eight monks grow their own food and watch over the lovely church of the Virgin Mary which is decorated with both 17th and 15th century frescoes. On the floor of the church is a great tile inscribed with a six pointed star—to remind us all, says the kindly elderly priest, that Mary was a descendent of the house of David.
We wander about the beautiful grounds of the monastery, picking (and eating) cherries and taking photographs. Then, back we go to the bus for a visit to a great fort which overlooks the legendary bridges over the Danube. The fort has seen much action through the wars that have troubled this area, but from it we can now look over a scene of peaceful homes and the long, winding ribbon of the river.
Walking down to the bus from the fort is not easy—cobblestones are uneven, the slope is steep and the day warm—so we greet our bus with relief. But soon we are on foot again, taking a guided tour through the city. Taking us to the city square, our guide introduces us to the statue of a man throwing books. He was, apparently, a revolutionary who believed in educating women. “Here is a gentleman throwing books at the women, urging them to read,” our guide explains. “He approved of women learning.” A man after my own heart.
I am also impressed that three houses of worship operate harmoniously in Novi Sad—the tall-spired Catholic Church, the domed Greek Orthodox church, and a Jewish Synagogue. Later in the afternoon, Mike and I take a walk through Novi Sad and stop to pay a visit to the synagogue. Here a young man greets us in English and tells us the history of the place. “Before World War II there were 2,500 Jews in Novi Sad,” he says. “Most of them, including my great-grandparents, were murdered by the Nazis. So were many other people—Serbs and Czechs and, even Germans, who tried to save their friends and neighbors and were killed for their efforts. Now, we are a community of 650, a small community in comparison, but we are here. We are alive.”
I ask if he feels anti-Semitism in Serbia, and he shakes his head. “We all fought and died together in World War II. We are brothers. But in other places…” he lets the sentence end in a sigh.
We think of how much turmoil there is in the world as we walk through the cheerful streets, and then into a lush green park full of young mothers and older folk who are walking or sitting or gossiping away the sunlit afternoon. And we wish that there could always be the peace and cooperation that we have found in this small Serbian city.
Let there be always
sunshine and prosperity
here in navi sad…