Today I will take you to Sremski Karlovci, an underrated Serbian town that deserves a higher profile than it has. Most foreigners who visit Serbia go to Belgrade and Novi Sad, but Sremski Karlovci should not be missed as it is the cultural, historical, and architectural pearl of the Vojvodina region in northern Serbia. It is a real treasure of Serbian culture and education. After you visit once you will come back again and again.
What is so special about it? Briefly stated: many things. Sremski Karlovci was the unofficial capital of Serbian culture and education and the official center of the Serbian church abroad during Austro-Hungarian rule of this region. Sremski Karlovci served as the cultural, educational, and religious center of Serbs living in Austro-Hungary. After WWI, the town became part of Serbia. In the past, the town was an important trade center with a multicultural population composed of Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Germans. Today most of the population consists of Serbs, but other ethnic groups still live there. After you visit there once you will come again as there is something special about this town that will bring you back.
How to get there? Make the journey by old means of transport, definitely. A perfect option is to travel to this old town in an old-fashioned way – by which I mean by steam locomotive train. In Serbia this is the only functioning steam locomotive train which is still in use, and it is a mobile museum which operates between Belgrade and Sremski Karlovci every weekend. This amazing train dates from the 1930s and is in very good condition thanks to consistent maintenance. The price of a ticket is only 3 eur for third class and 6eur for first class. The trip takes 1h and 30min and is a real adventure. Sit down next to a window and feel the spirit of old times, feel the smell of the steam, and listen to an old whistle, which you have previously heard only in the movies.
What to visit and why?
Branko Radicevic Square – This is the town’s primary square with a fountain, green trees, terraces with flowers, and beautiful buildings around it. It was named in honor of one of the most famous Serbian poets, Branko Radicevic, who lived and studied in Karlovci in the 19th century. Walk around and take a picture. From the square you can look around the town since all the main buildings are visible from the square. There are many coffee shops near the square and bakeries, so take a rest and have a Serbian homemade coffee and some cake. On the square the most notable thing is Four Lions Fountain, a beautifully designed marble fountain with four metal heads of lions from which water is spouting. It was built in the 18th century. There are many legends related to this fountain, two of the most famous being: 1) the Fountain was built in the 18th century during a plague epidemic that was so lethal that citizens out of desperation built a fountain to leave behind some sort of legacy when they all died. But as a miracle, as soon as the fountain was completed the plague mysteriously disappeared from Sremski Karlovci. 2) It is also said that if you drink the water from the fountain you will come back to Karlovci one day. Drink some water and see if it works, I have been there three times, and each time I drank some water from the fountain,
Magistrate Building – This is a building that was built in 1811 in the neoclassical style and is located directly in front of Branko Radicevic Square. It once served as the municipal assembly. Today it remains almost unchanged and is one of the most beautiful buildings in Karlovci. There is a nice balcony with rich floral decorations. Today the building hosts cultural events and regional meetings.
Karlovačka Gimnazija (Gymnasium of Karlovci) – the oldest Serbian gymnasium, founded in 1791. It was the main educational institution of Serbs living in Austro-Hungary. It was also a multicultural gymnasium where teachers who were not Serbs were Slovaks. More than 10 famous Serbian writers and scientists were students or teachers at this school. In the past, math, physics, logic, Serbian, German, Latin, Ancient Greek, Ancient Slavic, ethics, and geography, history and anthropology were all taught. Today it serves as a Philological high school and is one of most prestigious high schools in Serbia. The building is typical of Central European architecture and is one of the most famous buildings in Serbia. You can enter the building and see many old halls and classrooms. Many old murals, tables, and lanterns date from end of the 19th century. There is a large library that you can enter. It is one of the richest libraries in Serbia, and it houses 18 000 books. Some of the books are written in Latin and Ancient Slavic languages.
Patriarchy Court – It is a beautifully designed neo-renaissance building which was erected at the end of the 19th century. It was the main religious autonomous institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Serbs living in Austria-Hungary. At that time, Patriarchy Court wasn’t only a center of religious affairs but also an educational and political headquarters. The Patriarchy organized cultural life, financed building schools and other important institutions in Karlovci, and managed political decisions in the town. It was the center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, with jurisdiction over religious affairs throughout Serbia until 1930, when the court was moved to Belgrade. Nearby is the Clerical School of Saint Arsenije, which previously served as the main clerical educational institution. It was the most prestigious religious school in all the territories where Serbs lived. Today it serves as a museum, but the nearby clerical school still operates.
Mausoleum of Peace: This was built on the spot where the 1699 peace treaty was signed between the Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire, the Venetian Republic and the Kingdom of Poland on one side and the Ottoman Empire on the other side. It was peace after one of the longest wars (1683-1699) of the 17th century, in which the Ottoman Empire was severely defeated and all the combatant states suffered major losses. This building was built at the conclusion of peace. A project that will be initiated soon aims to open the building to exhibit documents and stories related to that war and the resulting peace.
Churches: There are several churches in the town which are either Orthodox or Catholic, demonstrating the multi-cultural life of this place and its tolerance where religious matters are concerned. The large Orthodox St. Nicolas church was designed by Serbian and German architects in 1758 in a combination of the baroque and renaissance styles. Its icons were painted by the famous Serbian painter Jakov Orfelin. Next to the Orthodox Church there stands the Catholic Church of Holy Trinity, which was built in 1730. The Habsburg Emperor Joseph II came from Vienna personally to attend the ceremony which consecrated the church. The aim of building both churches next to each other was to promote peace and solidarity between both faiths. After visiting these two churches there are several more churches in the town which should be visited.
Food again – Serbian food: When I wrote previously about Serbia I already told you about famous dishes which can be found anywhere in Serbia. But if you want to try something unique to this region then try roasted freshwater fish or fish soup. Fish taken from the nearby Danube is always delicious. Also you can try beef goulash with cooked potatoes and spicy peppers. The best restaurants in town are Four Lions and Sremski Kutak. A good meal can be found for 6-7eur.
Evenings: Since the town is small, nights are peaceful and there is no special party life here. I suggest that you take a walk through the town at night. It is very beautiful to pass among 18th and 19th century buildings shimmering in the moonlight, and to pass through narrow streets between 19th century buildings where the only light is from old style lampposts. Enjoy this romantic place by sitting on a bench next to a fountain to observe everything around you. You can also sit on one of many outdoor terraces and try the local red wine. The town is famous for old and very good wineries, and therefore you must try some of the wine here. A glass of good wine won’t cost more than 3eur. As everywhere in Serbia, try conversing with locals since Serbs are generally hospitable and friendly.
Accommodation: It is best to check Booking.com by yourself, and you will find some reliable places. Lodging for one night will cost between EUR 15-20.
In the next article I will take you to Fruska Gora, an amazing hill near Sremski Karlovci.