For our journey from Budapest to Serbia, we booked a taxi shuttle that was shared with other people. Since we were six people, there was only one other person to pick up. When he hopped in, he began speaking Serbian with our driver but soon he turned around and said “Who are the New Zealanders in here?”
He introduced himself as Slobodan but told us we could call him Bob. Although Slobodan is a common enough name in Serbia, it took me some time to remember it. So I resorted to calling him Bob.
He spoke to us for most of the four hour journey, translating to our driver as needed, since our driver understood only a little bit of English. We found out that Slobodan had lived in Australia for more than twenty years and is an Australian citizen but returned to Serbia to take care of his elderly parents. He told us about Serbia, Hungary and Australia. And he had a great knowledge of New Zealand.
He leant me a book to read and promised that he would show us around Belgrade (Beograd in Serbian). The shuttle dropped him off to Novi Sad and we kept in touch via WhatsApp.
Beograd is the Serbian name of the city Belgrade and Београд is how it is spelt in Cyrillic, Serbian’s alphabet. We learnt some of the Cyrillic letters because they were written on our buses. Our first trip out of our little country town of Novi Banovci, we didn’t know what to expect. We decided to meet him in the afternoon and left the house in the morning. If we got lost, at least we would have the whole day to reach our meeting point. It took a few hours to reach the UŠĆE mall where the teens watched the last X-men movie: Phoenix.
Our meet up with Bob highlighted how thoughtful he is when planning trips with friends. He bought us a Serbian – English book with useful phrases. He considered what the teens would like, how much walking we would do given we were carrying two little ones, and what Ajay and I would enjoy. He had remembered so many small details during our drive together, it was so heart warming.
He showed us historical buildings while giving us some background. He showed us the best bakery in Београд so that I could indulge later in sweet treats. He took us on a bookstore tour until we found the perfect one that all four of our children loved. This was where we stopped for a tea and chatted until it was time for us all to bus home. You can check out more about Belgrade here.
Нови Сад is how you spell Novi Sad in Cyrillic. We began our trip by heading to the nearest town Batanica and waiting an hour for a bus to Нови Сад. The bus was only a one hour so in total, it took the same amount of time to get to a city that was much further away then Beograd. The bus was a half hour late and we had no way of keeping in touch with Bob because we didn’t have data on our phones. We were so happy to see his friendly face when we got off the bus, assuring us we were in the right place.
He thoughtfully planned our trip, stopping at McDonalds at the bus station, so the kids could have lunch and then hopping on a short bus to the centre of town.
After the busier, grittier streets of Beograd, these spacious and well maintained streets of Novi Sad were a welcome sight. Novi Sad boasts cheerful vibes and colourful buildings in the centre of Novi Sad, particularly around the town centre. The buildings have more character than I’ve seen anywhere in Serbia and the colour palette is mostly soothing tones. The main streets feel alive with coffee places, ice-cream joints, book shops and restaurants. The people of Novi Sad really care for their city. They seem to regularly clean and maintain their streets and buildings.
Surprisingly, Novi Sad’s most prominent religious building is Catholic. It faces the town hall, a prominent position. It was built by the Austrians when they reigned over this region and is called “The Name Of Mary Church” where local Catholics have a big celebration each year honouring the Holy Name of Mary.
This was our first time entering an Orthodox Christian church, and this cathedral is part of the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy. What was more interesting for us was that Bob went to school in the school building right in front of the cathedral, reminding us that this was his stomping ground as child.
Inside there are no pews and hardly any seats, except those along the walls. The smell of incense and myrrh filled the air reminding me of Catholic masses on special feast days. The front of the church has many images that look like paintings of saints, called an iconostasis.
What’s most spectacular this church is the colourful roof that glistens in the sun. It is so pretty!
Bob treated us to ice-cream and coffee at one of his favourite places. It’s typical of Novi Sad culture to come to the colourful centre of town, sit in the pretty square and enjoy some time with friends or family.
We strolled through this enchanting city until we reached Danube Park. Bob told us stories of his childhood here. The park is lush and green with a pond in the middle. Lots of people were enjoying the shade of the trees on this hot day, but it didn’t feel crowded.
We walked down one of the main streets to the Danube River. From one of it’s bridges we could see the fortress. This fortress played an important role in protecting areas north of Novi Sad from Turkish invasion in the 1600’s. The Austrians built the fortress to prevent the Islamic forces of the Ottoman Empire from claiming Christian lands. Serbia and Romania have typically been a defensive border for the Christian European kingdoms. The fortress was critical in ending The Great Turkish War and since then there has been no Turkish attack on Serbia.
As it turns out, this Austrian fortress is building on an old monastery built in the 1200’s. This in turn, is built on an old Roman fortress and further excavations found that this Roman fortress was built on an old Broze Age settlement from 3000BCE.
The most moving monument I have seen in Serbia is this monument to the 3,000 – 4,000 people who were gathered up by Austrian forces when the Austrians reigned over this region, during World War II. In 1942 they were told to stand on the frozen river where the soldiers shot the ice until it broke, drowning everyone. There were mainly of Jewish or Gypsy decent but were all Serbian families. The monument features a ghostly figure of two adults and a child.
It is a sobering reminder of how we humans have the capacity to do atrocious things to each other, in order to impress others, or to protect ourselves from being hurt by others but mostly out of complete ignorance and an inability to look within and ask ourselves if this is aligned to Love and Compassion.
Many monuments like this are needed to remind us to be good and kind to others, no matter what our religion or political standing or ethnicity or culture or monetary status.
One of Bob’s favourite places to stop for a drink with friends is a restaurant on the Danube River. We popped in here for a dinner and a refreshing drink. Here we met an avid Lord Of The Rings fan who’s dream is to come to New Zealand.
Our next meet up with Bob was at Ušće Mall to check out the Art History Museum. It’s across the river from Београд still within the region of Београд. Notice how when you see the Cyrillic version frequently, you can recognise the word as Beograd, even though you have no idea what each letter represents. That’s how it became for us.
We played in the park on the way to the museum and then stopped in a restaurant along the river. Hanging out with Bob was always a pleasure and educational. He’s very well read and well travelled so he provided an interesting perspective on people, places and events.
We went back to the mall where we would catch our respective buses. It was a sad farewell for us because Bob had become a lovely friend for us. He was like a guardian angel sent to us. He was from familiar lands and understood our backgrounds and culture. He understood Serbian and the local sights so he was able to show us around in a way only a local can. And he took the time to understand our personality, helping us to identify the sorts of trips we would enjoy doing over our next two months remaining in Europe. We are so grateful we met him and we hope to catch up with him once he moves back to Australia.