- Written by Mike Fraiman
The Hidden Beauty of Serbia's Subotica and Lake Palić
With tranquil biking, hearty burek and extravagant architecture, Subotica is a little-seen slice of heaven in northern Serbia.
Story and photos by Dario De Santis
From Novi Sad it took us less than two hours to reach Subotica by bus. Already the day before, upon entering the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, we had left the Balkans for Central Europe. Subotica, Vojvodina’s second-largest city, is the northernmost Serbian city, lying about 10 kilometres from the Hungarian border.
My trip had begun seven days earlier from Sarajevo. It’s hard to believe that, just over 20 years ago, Sarajevo and Subotica were part of the same country, Yugoslavia. The cultural differences are very pronounced. Not much remains in Subotica of the heavy Turkish influence that characterizes the Bosnian capital and, to a lesser extent, south Serbia.
Likewise, the Orthodox Church, so dominant in Belgrade (the colossal proportions of St. Sava’s temple come to mind), cedes supremacy to the Catholic Church, which most people in Subotica follow. The mosques that dotted the townscape of Sarajevo have disappeared (except for one single mosque built in recent years), and Catholic temples outnumber the Orthodox ones.
Like Novi Sad, Subotica is a vibrantly multicultural city, with one important difference: whereas in the former the absolute majority is made up of Serbs, in the latter the distribution of the ethnic groups are more balanced. Hungarians represent the relative majority (35%), followed by Serbs (25%), Croats (10%) and Bunjevacs (10%). These data also explain the supremacy of the Catholic Church, as Catholicism is the faith of the vast majority of Hungarians, Croats and Bunjevacs.
The local languages are just as diverse as the religions. During our short stay, we believed we heard people speaking Hungarian as much as Serbian. Road signs are bilingual. The proximity to Hungary affects also the food, as goulash is served in many restaurants. That said, in Subotica we had the best burek pastry of our entire trip.
We booked a room in a sort of old cottage not far from the center. In confirmation of Subotica’s multiculturalism, our hosts, Kristof and Zuzana, were a Serb-Slovakian couple with three dogs. One of them, a Hungarian sheepdog, was the largest dog I have ever seen.
Exploring the city by bike (kindly borrowed from our hosts) turned out to be an excellent decision. Given its limited population of around 100,000, Subotica looks more like a big town than a city. Traffic, pollution and chaos are unknown here. Living in Istanbul, one of the largest metropolises in the world, I always appreciate the tranquil and relaxing atmosphere of small urban centers. The fact that the city is completely flat and that most of the old town is pedestrian-only made our ride even more enjoyable. We could comfortably look around from our saddles without worrying about cars, road signs and hectic intersections.
Subotica’s main draw surely lies in its marvellous architecture, boasting some fine examples of several styles. The grandest of these monuments is the massive yet well-proportioned City Hall, built in Secession style (the Hungarian version of art nouveau) in the early 20th century during Subotica’s golden age. Apart from the size, what really struck us were the lavish decorations, including woodcarvings, ceramic tiles, stained glass windows and floral motifs. The City Hall towers over the main square and a lush park embellished by two fountains made of blue and green Zsolnay tiles. Quite obviously, locals love to hang out in this beautiful spot, chatting, reading newspapers, playing with children or just killing time.
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I can’t mention all the remarkable buildings that line the elegant and neat boulevards of the old town. The Raichle Palace, home of the modern-art gallery, is a true little jewel of art nouveau worth of the best Gaudí. Even with just religious buildings, all the faiths are represented: there are Catholic churches, Protestant churches, Orthodox churches, a Franciscan monastery, a mosque and a grand synagogue, also a magnificent example of both art nouveau and the tiny but once-flourishing local Jewish community that sadly was almost wiped out from the Second World War.
Completing our tour of the city, we headed to Lake Palić. Covering the eight-kilometre distance between Subotica and the lake was not hard. The road is flat and the heat in mid-April was still bearable. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Palić used to be an elite resort and spa. In the summer it is still popular, but when we were there it was extremely peaceful. We can only imagine the groups of people having picnics on the patches of grass, strolling along the shore and crowding the cafes and the porches facing the water.
To be honest, the brownish colour of the water, rippled by the wind, was not inviting at all. Maybe we happened to be there on the wrong day, or the lake is more suited for paddleboats and sailing. Adding to the beauty of the place are some enchanting buildings, yet more examples of great architecture in Vojvodina: the water tower, the grand terrace, the Women's Lidospa and more.
These extravagant structures, all of course in art-nouveau style, blend with the surrounding nature to create a fairy-tale landscape. Palić was built for a comfortable elite, but today it can be enjoyed by everyone.
Back at the cottage, we found a pleasant surprise: Kristof and Zuzana cooking up a barbecue for us and the other guest. Our last night in Serbia was a memorable one, dining on smoky meat in the garden; drinking rakia, a homemade brandy; sitting around the fire, surrounded by dogs, sharing travel stories with our new friends under a starry sky. We couldn’t have hoped for a better way to kiss Serbia goodbye.
Dario De Santis is an Istanbul-based travel guide and Outpost columnist. He's written magazine feature stories on Istanbul (issue #93), Greece (#95) and Albania (#100). Check out Dario's monthly columns here.