Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Subotica: Off the Highway, Beyond the Lakes

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
For some, Subotica is just a town off the Belgrade-Budapest highway. For those who haven't stopped there, that is.

“Shalom, shalom! Dear All, Invitation/ Meghívó / Pozivnica”– thus begins an invitation of Subotica’s library. For most, this town – in northern Serbia’s Vojvodina province, is just a point along the Belgrade-Budapest highway, best bypassed with 120 kilometres per hour.

Together with the Bodensee, the Balaton and the Geneva Lakes, Palić – which lies in Subotica’s outskirts, was a fashionable destination for Central Europe’s aristocracy at the end of the nineteenth century; its members addicted to the prototype of modern spa-tourism: mud baths.

It was during that period that Serbs, Croatians, Hungarians, Austrians, Russians and Romanians left their mark on Subotica, while around 6,000 Jews were residing in the town. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, large communities of Hungarian and German craftsmen had settled there. The latter, mainly Bavarians, transformed the town with their cheerfully bright and colourful decoration of the storefronts and the houses’ façades.

Thus, when the Szeged-Subotica railway line opened in 1869 and Austro-Hungarian high society flocked to the little new train station with their parasols, dogs and hat boxes, they found themselves in a fusion of familiarity and strangeness. On the streets of the town and its adjacent resorts, sharp towers and fountains, similar to those of Nuremberg, met with the simple architecture of the Hungarian Pusta and the light style of the Austro-Hungarian countryside, developed in Serbia to the north of Zemun.

Nowadays, that charm - grown slightly glum from Serbia’s prolonged post-Yugoslavian depression, is starting to reclaim its freshness. The levels of splendor and luxury achieved during the Austro-Hungarian period remain history and the service staff continue to wear their old Yugoslav uniforms: a suit with a waistcoat, combined with the orthopaedic Borosana shoes. But the hotels in the adjacent Palić, Kelebia and Ludoš lakes are starting to fix up the foyers, built with a knack typical of the nineteenth century, and filling them up with tourists who pass the time by jogging, taking mud baths, swimming in the lakes and bird-watching.

Around the lakes, where the dried-out marsh lands are occupied by imposing countryside estates, there is a new tourist zone developing. The houses, surrounded by extensive gardens, are being transformed into hotels and more and more people start spending their weeks off among the meadows and the maize grounds, enveloped by Vojvodina’s provincial silence.

As compensation, central Subotica’s night life is in full swing until the early hours of the morning. In the 100,000-people town, there are at least 40 night clubs. Most of them, in a typical Balkan fashion, shake the neighbouring houses with their music until dawn. The transformation in the morning, however, happens quite fast and the town awakes with its calm, composed face of a provincial business centre.

The streets between the imposing municipality building (mainly in the Art Nouveau style) and the train station are filled with stores, cafés, and banks. However, the restaurants – serving Hungarian goulash, Serbian sweets kolači and Croatian pastry štrukl , seem to be purposely hidden in small side streets and in backyards.

From all the town’s erstwhile communities, the Jewish one has left the least visible trace. That is probably because it was practically obliterated in 1944, when almost all of its members were deported and wiped out in the Auschwitz camps. Still, the town’s synagogue (also in the Art Nouveau style) was preserved, adding another nuance in the whirlpool of architectural styles, which – according to some, borders tastelessness.

The town’s cosmopolitanism is not only due to the lakes’ attraction. In the last 500 years, Subotica and the surrounding areas changed their national belonging at least 10 times. They passed between Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, Austro-Hungary, Timişoara’s administrative zone, an independent city-state, and all of the Yugoslav Federation’s modifications, which recently dissolved into the Republic of Serbia and the autonomous province of Vojvodina.

To an extent, this historical chaos continues even today. Subotica, which appears in historical records under more than 200 different names, now goes by three. That’s why, in case one does decide to get off the highway and pass by the town, he is left wondering exactly where he is.

According to the Hungarian minority, which makes up 40 per cent of the town’s population, one would be in Szabadka. According to the Serbian majority, he would be in Subotica, and if one happens to meet a German speaker, he would be in Mariatheresiopel – the name given by the Austrians in honour of their Empress, Maria Theresa. As they would say in the local library, “Shalom, shalom! Dobro dosli! Isten hozott! Willcommen!”




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