Pinned to the wall of Studio M gallery, a collection of human hearts pulses with metronomic precision. Disturbingly realistic, the artificial aortas belong to an exhibition exploring Time and Universe, where bees dance around darkened rooms, analogue phones ring with messages from beyond, and mirrors reflect a world that exists in our sleep.
“Dreaming is the only time no clock can measure,” whispers one of the gallery curators, cryptically. “We can spend our entire lives dreaming.”
The show, which runs until September, is part of a creative programme of events organised in honour of Novi Sad’s Capital of Culture status for 2022 (delayed from last year due to the pandemic). But the notion of nurturing hope for a better tomorrow is as old as the 17th century foundations of Serbia’s second city.
Located at a geographical crossroads of mainland Europe, Novi Sad has frequently found itself on the frontline between east and west. It was even conceived as a defensive city; built on top of a former monastery, the Petrovaradin Fortress protected the Austro-Hungarian empire from Ottoman attack.
It was flattened in the world wars and bombed during the 1999 NATO campaign at the height of the Balkan crisis and fragmentation of Yugoslavia, but each time, Novi Sad has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.
Walking through the tiny city, which can easily be explored in a weekend, I stumble into upbeat bars and lively cafes tucked into shadowy passageways. Decaying spaces have been reinvigorated with new life: a former silk factory has been converted into a cultural centre, while artist workshops occupy the grounds of the demilitarised fortress.
Although Serbia’s government has taken a controversially silent stance on the war in Ukraine, in Novi Sad, the younger generation is focussed on building bridges – both physically and metaphorically. Immortalised by a gallery of posters along the banks of the Danube River, structures past and present have always been cherished as links to an outside world.
Recent events may have stirred difficult memories from the past, but they are also a reminder of paths to be followed in the future. The European Capital of Culture programme is often derided for being highfalutin and low performing. But this time round, a tiny but strategic Eastern European city has a lot to talk about.
Here are some of the places not to miss on a weekend break…
Explore the subterranean tunnels of the Petrovaradin Fortress
Wine and dine at Project 72
Squeeze into bohemian bar Graffiti
There are no distinct cool districts – people stroll from one bar to the next – but Graffiti (Kosovska 21A) is worth seeking out. Listen to jazz while admiring the quirky décor, including a glass cabinet of butterflies and a pair of stag antlers above the bar.
Stay in the thick of the action
How to plan your trip
Wizz Air (wizzair.com) operate flights from Luton London airport to Belgrade from £37 one way. Flights leave at unsociable hours so be prepared to book an airport hotel. The Ibis London Luton Airport (all.accor.com) has rooms from £43 per night. A taxi from Belgrade to Novi Sad costs around £50 each way and takes an hour; a 90-minute bus costs £7 each way.
For details of the Capital of Culture events, visit novisad2022.rs/en/what-is-ecoc
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