If you head over to the central Banat area of Vojvodina Serbia, here is a travelogue on things to do in Novi Bečej. Due to the current Coronavirus situation, those who are in Serbia, travel around the country a bit more. But they tend to visit popular places neglecting some incredible things to see and do in other areas.
For instance – do you know where one can find the only church tower built in the embankment or the ruins of the 13-century-monastery that was a gift to Serbian ruler Despot Stefan Lazarević from Hungary; where Attila the Hun was buried with his treasures; where to find the grapevine that grows nowhere else in the world, or where one can swim in the morning, take the carriage ride in the afternoon, and taste the greaves’ pate in the evening? In Novi Bečej!
FROM BELGRADE: about 140 km
FROM NIŠ: about 378 km
Novi Bečej is easy to reach by the Novi Sad highway with the exit at Kovilje, or by the Zrenjanin freeway. It’s less crowded during working days. Although Novi Bečej is popular as a weekend destination, one can spend a week here during summer, enjoying the Tisa river beaches with the occasional visit to the local landmarks (and some great fish for lunch!).
NOVI BEČEJ MUNICIPALITY
Archeological findings in Matejski brod and Borđoš at a few km from Novi Bečej have shown that the first human settlements in the area reach back to the younger Stone Age and the Bronze Age. As the city-fortress, Novi Bečej is mentioned in documents in 1091 for the first time. The fort remains can still be seen on the bank of Tisa.
The modern settlement originated from the two older ones – Vranjevo and Turkish Bečej, while the municipality also includes Novo Miloševo, Bočar, and Kumane. The population is about 23,000 with a large Hungarian minority of 18 percent.
The moment you come to Novi Bečej, the road will take you straight towards Tisa. The river curves for 44 km around the settlement and the main square opens up to the embankment. Tisa is also frequently used as a local prefix. (One of the streets is called Tisa Quay, the hotel I stayed in is Tisa’s Flower, named after the famous insect from Novi Bečej, and there is also a hamburger called „Tisa’s Wheel with kaymak“.)
People love to spend time along the quay, to swim, fish, have a coffee by the sunbed, to take a boat ride. It was only natural that we headed over there first. It was also only natural that we found our host Srđan Ćopa who was supposed to take us around the Island, as he was just coming out of the water.
They say that Tisa is calm, slow with the average speed of 2-3 km per hour. The small river island is mainly made of sand and so, Tisa is molding it over time, making it shorter or wider (it was 180 meters long in 2014). Simply called the Island, it is now a nice picnic area, but when the river flow was a bit different long ago, it covered one of the priceless treasures.
According to the ancient inscriptions, the Island is most likely the place where the great Huns’ leader Attila the Hun was buried in the middle of the 5th century. The grave was not marked on purpose given that shallow waters were supposed to cover a great treasure that was buried alongside him. They say that the river never freezes here, even though Tisa tends to turn into a thick layer of ice during winter.
And while they were teasing me “for coming to Tisa and not bringing a swimsuit”, we passed by the remains of the Old Town. This is where the huge 13th-century fortress stood, a typical medieval castle town that even the Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi was amazed by. The castle plans are kept at the Vienna archives. Only remains of the walls long gone can now be seen in Novi Bečej. The excavation is scheduled to begin this summer.
To get the picture of what the Old Town looked like, you can visit the Cultural Center right next to the embankment that among other artifacts, keeps the model of the castle town.
Novi Bečej holds another great structure from the same period with the walls that you can touch.
The walls of this Romanesque church date back to 1228, even though another church existed at the same spot in the 9th and the 10th century. After it was destroyed at the end of the 13th century, the monastery was rebuilt by Helen of Anjou who was married to Serbian king Uroš Nemanjić I.
The base and layout of the building are typical for the Benedictine church. The whole settlement developed around the monastery when it was presented by Hungarians as a gift to another Serbian ruler Despot Stefan Lazarević, who left it to Đurađ Branković. The monastery was lost at the same time as the Old Town, in the 16th century.
When you hear that this is where the route of the Silk Road was, and where Crusaders passed through on the way to Holy Land – and then you come out to the monastery’s red walls in the middle of Vojvodina plains, you just can’t wait to reach the ruins.
They say that it’s also possible that Richard the Lionheart visited Arača, especially when having in mind that he was healing his wounds with the nearby Slano Kopovo mud. It’s not hard to notice that Arača was rebuilt over and over again. The only dwellers now are pigeons who fly beneath its once-grand arches. Visiting Arača should definitely be among things to do in Novi Bečej. (If you followed my stories on Instagram, you have already seen it.)
The Tourism Organization of Novi Bečej organizes here the so-called Medieval National Cuisine Picnic festival on June 20. Besides the cooking competition, there are also knights’ quests and tournaments. TONB Director Saša Dujin also explains that they are planning to settle the area around the nearby well. This is where travelers and merchants stopped by for water which according to legend had tasted differently depending on the character of the person who drinks it.
I was fortunate to see a couple of roe deer who ran over the field while I was admiring the contrast of red walls against the blue sky. (By the way, it was pouring when we left Novi Bečej, but the sky brightened up quickly, just in time to go around the monastery. It would be such a pity not to be able to take pictures here!)
Armenian merchants Bogdan and Mihalj Karačonji bought the village of Beodra in 1781 that is now part of the Novo Miloševo settlement. Their heirs, brothers Laslo and Lajoš built two castles or summer palaces, with all the accompanying constructions. Never the less, brothers were forced to take a mortgage for both in 1842. The larger one was destroyed, while the smaller one was sold numerous times. Still, there are buildings such as the old barn and granary that are preserved and turned into the Kotarka Museum. It houses some furniture from the two castles, photographs of other grand palaces that Karačonji family had in Hungary and Romania, but also some objects of the area from the same period.
We were welcomed by the museum hostess Iskra, and the lion statue that once adorned the front of the castle. On the other side of the original palace entrance, was the dragon statue.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the smaller castle since it’s the private property not open to tourist visits. Over time it was turned into an orphanage, then to a home for “astray girls” who were given a room in the castle if they marry. It’s unlikely that anything is left of the Karačonji splendor. Luckily, visitors can get an idea of this wealthy family lifestyle at the Kotarka Museum. The museum itself is the old barn, 70 meters long, where corn and grain were kept. The separate granary building has five levels where more than 70 women worked once.
While we walk next to the artifacts, Iskra tells us an interesting fact that the nearby Catholic church has two towers whereas it should have one. Laslo and Lajoš wanted separate towers given that they helped in building the church. This is where more than 20 descendants of Karačonji family were buried, along with the two brothers.
There is one other castle to be seen in Novi Bečej. The palace was built by one of the wealthiest Serbian industrial magnates of the Habsburg Monarchy Lazar Dunđerski as a gift for his daughter Emilija. This was the summer palace while winters were spent in cities. The palace is not open to the public and is privately owned, but it can be visited with prior notice.
Dunđerski’s palaces are always grand, but the interesting fact about this one is that it houses Lenka’s room. After Emilija got married to count Ivanović and moved here, her younger sister Jelena (Lenka) often visited. This is where the famous Serbian love story unraveled between Lenka and the renowned poet Laza Kostić. He was more than twice her age, thinking that it wouldn’t be proper to ask for her hand. So, he married another woman and went on a honeymoon in Italy. At about the same time, Lenka died. Kostić was in Venice where he wrote the famous poem Santa Maria della Salute.
One can now see her mirror, bad, and a painting of a girl that is believed to be Lenka. Castle premises are huge with large windows and doors, and high ceilings. They say that the piano played on the porch every summer evening. Now, the place is surrounded by the overgrowth (and mosquitos!), while the palace awaits some better days.
HOUSE OF GLAVAŠ
The place where one of the renowned citizens of Vranjevo Ph.D. Vladimir Glavaš lived is open to the public, allowing visitors to glance into the everyday lives of the local bourgeoisie at the end of the 19th century. Some furniture and wall decorations are original, but other than that, the house is a treasury of the cultural heritage of the area, given that Glavaš was friends with some of the best-known poets, composers, painters of the time such as Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, Josif Marinković, Đura Jakšić, etc.
Glavaš studied law in Prague, Saša says, but he only took one case. Defending some poor man and losing the case made him change his carrier altogether, turning to business. He helped artists and actors, and they say that Vranjevo had the operational acting group that was moved to the Serbian National Theater when it was first established.
This intellectual died in 1909 leaving the entire property to the Orthodox church in the neighborhood, and all the money to the Catholic church on the other side of the house. They say that he financially helped the local Jewish community while he was alive. Also, according to his will, no woman was to step into the house for 100 years after his death. Nobody knows the reason.
The local Tourism Organization turned smaller rooms for servants into an authentic space with old objects from the same period. The entire barbershop is to be seen here that is given to TO by the family of the famous Novi Bečej barber. (Still wondering about things to do in Novi Bečej?)
At the end of the 1970s, Milivoj Žeravica decided to get the tractor just like the one his father had – Fordson 10-20 HP made in 1924. When he finally found it in Kragujevac, it turned out that there are a lot of other old models at the same spot. What began as having a few pieces on the parking lot became the respectable collection, one of its kind in Serbia. The museum houses, among other models, the oldest preserved tractor in Serbia – Hart-Parr 30 made in 1920.
I have to admit that I wasn’t that interested in seeing tractors, but Žeravica Museum turned out to be worth a visit. When you step into the huge hall with tractors from different periods, and then you see other old objects from households, old TV and radio sets, farm tools, cradles, soda bottles, typing machines, and even old cars, you begin to wander around.
They say that everyone remembers the tractor defile in Novo Miloševo when the owner turned on all the machines that were still operational and took them for a ride.
CARRIAGES AND KROKAN VINE
Vojvodina is traditionally related to carriages, and so is Novi Bečej. The last official carriage (taxi) driver was Nova Tomašev who was in business until 1943 when he was taken into captivity during WWII. His wife continued to drive for two years more until he came back, but Nova abandoned the work all together in 1946.
The grapevine muskat krokan grows only in Novi Bečej and nowhere else in the world. They say that the vine was brought by the count Gedeon Rohonci hidden in his elegant cane. He tried to plant it in various parts of Europe, but it only grew here. The old krokan wine was to be found at royal courts from Budapest to Vienna once but was also enjoyed by Josip Broz Tito and Charles de Gaulle.
It doesn’t feel right to visit Novi Bečej without taking a carriage ride. I tried to understand the difference between “karuca”, “fijaker”, and “štervogl” types of carriages, to learn more. Anyway, this type of taxi cannot be seen out in the street anymore, but the Tourism Organization can help visitors to arrange a ride. I was taken through the neighborhood by the two beautiful horses called Irma and Leon.
When it comes to the grapevine, one has to call in advance if one would like to see the muskat krokan. Still, if you are not an expert and can’t see the difference between the two vines, the more practical thing to do is to visit one of the local restaurants and to ask for the house wine. The new owner of the vineyard is still growing his first harvest and isn’t able to bottle it yet.
One can’t really separate food from wine, especially in Vojvodina. And so, we went to visit Nadica Josimović who was showing me how to make a local specialty – “ladnjača”. Easy to make and tasty – potato cut in thin slices with the thick pancake mixture poured over. The dish is popular as the breakfast for the poor, but it makes your mouth water.
And then, not only that Nadica brought out her catering with greaves pate, jars of all shapes and sizes with pickled vegetables, delicious noodles with plums (“gomboce”), but her house was also full of various souvenirs and handicrafts.
She is head of KNAP association for making creative things, but she also paints suitcases. On the other hand, it turns out that her son Radovan also has an artistic side, given that he recently also started to paint.
Even though I didn’t get the chance to visit Slano Kopovo this time, because some permissions were supposed to be applied for which took a lot of time, it should be said that this nature reserve is of special importance for the area. This is the former meander of the Tisa river that is now a fluvial lake, and a perfect place for nature explorations and ecology lessons. Slano Kopovo is the representative example of a salinity habitat abundant in various species of birds and flora.
Another stop in Novi Bečej that I was able to visit is the Tolstoy’s House. The grandson of the famous Russian novelist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy whose name was Vladimir lived here until 1945. Given that the Tolstoy family was pro tzar during the Revolution, they had to escape abroad. Even Pyotr Tolstoy, Vladimir’s grandson and Deputy Chairman of Russian Duma today, came to visit the house recently. New owners plan to turn the house into a memorial and to dedicate it not only to Lev Tolstoy but to Russians as well who fled to Novi Bečej in the same period. For instance, the whole Kharkov Institute for Girls was moved here, and there is also a Russian cemetery to be found.
Still, there is another thing that makes this house interesting. Vladimir allegedly took an oath over the well in the courtyard that he will never leave the property, which later made locals come and swear over the water – and fall in love. They say that anyone who didn’t marry so far, should just come and drink from the well! Even the owner Ileš Bečei says that he got back together with his former wife after he bought the house and that both his sons Ileš and Imre are now planning to marry.
So, think twice before drinking!
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