Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2016/17 posted by hidden europe on

Within minutes of arriving in Subotica last week, we knew this was somewhere special. The town, which is close to the Hungarian frontier in northern Serbia, has a remarkable feast of art nouveau architecture and design. Indeed, no other European town of its size can boast quite the same range of art nouveau design.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Within minutes of arriving in Subotica last week, we knew this was somewhere special. We've always had a soft spot for art nouveau. Think of Hector Guimard's entrances to Paris metro stations, Victor Horta's elaborate staircases in Brussels or Henry van de Velde's furniture.

The town of Subotica, close to the Hungarian frontier in northern Serbia, has a remarkable feast of art nouveau architecture and design. We have seen wonderful art nouveau buildings and interiors in Nancy, Darmstadt, Barcelona and Helsinki, but Subotica is still most definitely worth a visit. No other European town of its size can boast quite the same range of art nouveau design as Subotica.

Subotica was on the margins of the Habsburg Empire, but the Wiener Secession movement sent ripples south across the puszta and into the Vojvodina region. In Hungary, the szecesszió found distinctive expression in the work of Ödön Lechner, whose use of ceramic tiles, wrought iron and floral motifs invited comparison with the work of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. Lechner was Hungary's master of art nouveau, and you'll find examples of his work not only within the territory of modern Hungary but also in Slovakia and Serbia.

The key elements of Hungarian szecesszió design became incredibly popular in Subotica where local architects, many of whom had studied in Budapest, were keen disciples of Lechner. Men like Ferenc Raichle and Titus Mackovic designed some of Subotica's showcase buildings. Prolific use of colourful Zsolnay ceramics and extraordinary floral designs, many full of Oriental accents, give something distinctive to the Subotica streetscape.

On a trip which took us by train through nine countries, Subotica was a perfect overnight break on the final stretch of our journey from Belgrade back to Berlin. The first stop for many visitors to the town is the remarkable two-storey Raichle Palace just opposite the railway station. It was built by Ferenc Raichle as a family home and today houses an art gallery

From the Raichle Palace, it is but a short walk to the Town Hall, richly decorated in flowery art nouveau style - lots of Transylvanian tulips! Inside there are ceramic falcons (Zsolnay of course), which look just as aloof as the famous Jugendstil owls on the Secession House in Vienna. The Council Chamber boasts one of Europe's most striking art nouveau interiors.

A beautiful series of stained glass windows on the Town Hall recall Hungarian kings - this is a part of Serbia where the great game of national identity plays out in a very complex manner. The Vojvodina region makes space for people of many cultures and many faiths. Hungarian is spoken so widely in Subotica that signs in Hungarian are just as common as those in Serbian. At the National Theatre in Subotica, performances in Hungarian outnumber those in Serbian.

In a town with such a dazzling range of architecture, one building stands out for the sadness of the story it reveals. An inscription in Hebrew on an arch inside the synagogue has a quote from Leviticus: "Love your neighbour as yourself." By the late 1930s, the Jewish community in Subotica was one of the largest in the entire Balkan region. Jewish traders and merchants, Jewish musicians and writers, all made rich contributions to the commercial and cultural life of the community. Most of Subotica's Jews perished in the Holocaust. But the synagogue, happily refurbished in recent years, stands as a reminder that suffering and dislocation are as much a part of the Subotica story as the marvellous mix of art nouveau architecture.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.