A small town by a river, Novi Bečej does not seem like the sort of place where journeys usually end. It is more the sort of backcountry town that is passed through in minutes on a cross-country bus journey: a brief pull-in to the bus station, a quick exchange of passengers as the driver sneaks a cigarette by the door, a short negotiation through narrow streets before the flat open countryside of Vojvodina fills the window once more. But Novi Bečej is not a stopover on many through routes, nor really somewhere that you just happen upon in random wanderings around northern Serbia.
True, the town does have a railway station and a few buses also pass through on their way from Novi Sad to Kikinda close to the Romanian border, but as a rule a visit here requires a certain degree of intent. The River Tisa is the life blood, the genesis of the town. Dividing the province vertically like the mullion of a window, the river separates Vojvodina’s two largest regions. West of the river lies Bačka, a district that stretches west to Croatia and north to Hungary. To the east is the region known as Banat, which extends to the Romanian border and beyond. Both regions are parts of the Pannonian Plain. Way back in the Pliocene era, this plain was a vast inland sea covering all of northern Serbia and Hungary. Less championed than the Danube, or even the River Sava that delineates Vojvodina’s south-west boundary, the Tisa, which rises in Ukraine and flows through Hungary before continuing south through Serbia’s northernmost province, is the second longest of the Danube’s tributaries. Novi Bečej is the last place of any significance along its course before the river reaches its confluence with the Danube south of Zrenjanin.
Novi Bečej, meaning ‘New Bečej’ was formerly known as Turski (‘Turkish’) Bečej until it adopted its current name in 1919, a small but significant modification that tells much of the history of the region. Like many other places in Vojvodina province, the town also has a Hungarian name: Törökbecse. Such multiple renderings of place names are reminders of the multicultural character of this part of the Balkans. As with most settlements in Vojvodina where space is relatively abundant, the town is a pleasant grid of streets of single-storey houses interspersed with civic buildings and the occasional church. The town’s principal thoroughfare — called Maršala Tita (‘Marshall Tito’) after the erstwhile Yugoslav leader — terminates at the Tisa waterfront where an austere World War II cenotaph faces a raised bank with a waterside promenade. Beneath the five-pointed star that crowns the monument is a stylised bullet to eradicate any ambiguity as to what the memorial might represent. At its base are a few faded wreaths to show that, even after 70 years, that war has still not completely faded from memory. Behind the cenotaph, rising amidst flower beds, stands another monument: an abstract concrete statue that is harder to interpret. It might possibly be arms raised with clenched fists, or perhaps a stylised flower — either way, it is a classic example of the ambiguous monumental sculpture so prevalent in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1970s.