Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Hidden europe's regular guest contributor, Laurence Mitchell, reports on art, life and landscapes in the Banat region of northern Serbia.

article summary —

Kosovo is back in the news again, as the interim administration in Pristina and the international community ponder the conundrum of how to secure a viable future for the region that is still officially an autonomous region of Serbia. But what of the Vojvodina region, a similarly semi-detached portion of Serbia? It rarely gets a mention in the media. Located in northern Serbia, the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina is the sort of place that is easily overlooked. The fast trains to Belgrade from Zagreb and Budapest speed through Vojvodina in just two or three hours but the view from the train window reveals little of the region's fabulous cultural complexity. It is a part of Europe that takes few prizes for its scenic diversity, but that is more than compensated for by Vojvodina's cultural landscape. Smaller than Belgium, and more or less the same size as Wales, Vojvodina boasts no less than six official languages.

The autonomy that Vojvodina jealously guards is nothing new. Throughout the days of Tito's Yugoslavia, the socialist federal state consisted of six republics and two autonomous provinces: Kosovo and Vojvodina. True, that autonomy was curbed in 1990 under Slobodan Milosevic's presidency in Belgrade, but a dozen years later many powers were again devolved to the Vojvodina assembly in the region's capital at Novi Sad on the Danube.

Laurence Mitchell reports for hidden europe from a region that deserves to be better known, and, in a second article that follows, we look more closely at the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the Vojvodina region.

Vojvodina is where the Balkans meet central Europe head on. It was in these watery flatlands around the Danube and the Tisa rivers that the Austrian Empire confronted Turkish expansionism, as Islam and Christianity, East and West, clashed swords to vie for superiority. The geography and demography of the province reveal a region that is both a frontier territory and a transition zone: the land, a flat plain locked between the hills and valleys of central Europe and the steeper terrain of the Balkan peninsula; the people, a pied patchwork of languages and cultures as vibrant as the sunflowers, vines and maize that take succour from Vojvodina's fertile soil.

Vojvodina is a place over which armies and political elites have tussled for two millennia or more. In the confused geographies of the ancient world, this was Dacia, the land of the Daci. Since then, a number of other empires have come and gone, each leaving their imprint on the region: Romans, Huns and Byzantine influences, and later the Franks, Bulgarians and Hungarians too. The northern Vojvodina town of Subotica is just too Habsburg to be true, yet elsewhere there are little hints of the Ottoman world.

The province owes its fertility to a geographical ghost - the Pannonian Sea - a shallow sea that covered a vast part of the north Balkan region during the Pliocene period and which eventually drained to leave deep, fertile silty soils. The resulting Pannonian plain, which stretches across parts of Hungary, Romania and Croatia as well as Vojvodina, became the battleground for the clash of empires that dominated central and southeast Europe in the late medieval period.


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About

Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. These days he concentrates on writing and photography, and prefers to travel to those places that Colin Thubron describes as the 'nerve-ends of the world': transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region.

This article was published in hidden europe 13.