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Fine fare and masses of mysterious ruins make Srem an intriguing and pleasant place to visit.
Roman city of Syrmium in today’s region of Srem in northern Serbia. | Photo by Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad/Wikimedia
With only one swing of his pick, a part-time construction worker digging the foundations for the new shopping mall broke through a leather bag from which 33 golden coins fell out. That was back in 1972 - and the coins turned out to be Roman coins that had once belonged to a wealthy family that lived in the Roman city of Syrmium in today’s region of Srem in northern Serbia.
Four of the coins, minted under Emperor Constantine II, were estimated as priceless. The find was not such a surprising event, however, as Srem was part of the Roman province of Pannonia and its long turbulent history is visible everywhere, although much of it is hidden underground.
The capital of the province, Syrmium, was one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire. Later, the region, bordered by two great rivers, was ruled by Serbian and Hungarian kings, Ottoman Turks and then Austrians, before becoming part of Yugoslavia after World War I. These many changes have lent a distinctive note to the architecture of Srem’s towns and cities.
The climate, especially on the slopes of the Fruska Gora hills, is clement and suitable for growing grapes. It is a common saying that rivers serve as a mirror for the sun, so the grapes get significantly more sunlight when they grow beside riverbanks. Specific air currents are also said to be favourable to viniculture. Either way, the wines of Srem taste fresh and delicious.
Srem is also known for its foods, which include various fish specialties, roasts and desserts. The plain, divided from the rest of Vojvodina by rivers and the hills of Fruska Gora, gives Srem a feeling of rural isolation. This is a land marked by the survival of tradional customs, clothes and music, the latter played by “tamburasi” - folk musicians playing on string instruments known as tamburitza.
The local salasi, or farmsteads, are a growing tourist attraction. Most boast open-air restaurants, usually decorated with old farming and everyday objects that reflect the folk traditions of this part of Vojvodina. Yokes, wagons, ploughs, looms, wooden beds and mattresses, mirrors and old hand-made blankets are displayed for visitors, reminding them of the old-fashioned farming way of life and the lifestyle of farmers in olden times.
On the menu are usually chicken or beef stew with homemade noodles, tomato and squash soup, strudel with poppy seeds or nuts. There are also homemade drinks, such rakija fruit brandies, liqueurs, wines and natural fruit juices. Traditional sweets are also famous here, mostly cakes, pies and plum and other fruit jams.
Sremska Mitrovica is one of the oldest towns in Europe. | Photo by Ant83/Wikimedia
Sremska Mitrovica is one of the oldest towns in Europe, with a history that dates back centuries. In Roman times it was allegedly home to some 100,000 people, with all of the most important Roman buildings that an important city would then have had.
Syrmium was not only the capital of a province but an episcopal seat and a military camp, which was built to defend the Roman Empire against barbarian attacks. At one point it was even the capital of the Roman Empire, in 293 AD, during the rule of Galerius.
Today’s Sremska Mitrovica developed mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. But underneath the more modern buildings lie an unexcavated Roman hippodrome, about 1,700 years old, as well as walls, forts, trenches and a palace. Digs in the 20th century also uncovered luxurious villas decorated with wall paintings and mosaics.
The remains of the oldest discovered Christian church in Serbia, built in the 4th century AD, have been found and conserved.
Remains of some public baths, a necropolis and Roman shops still remain visible above ground, surrounded by the streets and buildings, but much of the treasure is still hidden underneath.
In 1972 a group of American enthusiasts allegedly offered to move the whole town of Sremska Mitrovica in order to make way for a complete excavation of Syrmium, but Yugoslavia’s then Communist regime said no. True or not, Sremska Mitrovica has plenty of mystery to it.
On a more melancholy note, there is also a memorial park made by Bogdan Bogdanovic, commemorating the 3,500 local Serbs killed in 1942 by the Croatian Ustase fascists.
Sremska Mitrovica’s monuments are part of the world’s cultural heritage and some, like the sundial with representations of Atlas, Hercules and other Greek deities, are unique.
Besides its colourful history, Srem has plenty of natural wonders nearby.
The best known is the Fruska Gora National Park, which contains the highest peak in Vojvodina. These hills were an educational, cultural and religious centre for Serbs long ago.
The tradition of winemaking here goes all the way back to the Romans, who called it the “fertile mountain”.
Nearby is also the Obedska bara lake whose bed is a remainder of an old stream of the Sava that flowed here thousands of years ago, and now flows to the south.
Today more than 200 species of birds live at Obedska bara, including such rareities as the spoonbill, little egret, black stork, white stork, white-tailed eagle and many others.
In its water swims an autochthonous kind of fish called the “Cikov”, while among the animals here are wild cats, martens, otters and several species of bats, as well as snakes.
Zasavica, another nature reserve in Srem, is a wetland area with meadows and forests covering a surface of 1,825 hectares and a length of some 30 kilometres.
Several hundred species live here, some of which are unique, such as the “Umbra” fish. Beavers donated in 2005 from Munich have already brought new generations of beavers to Zasavica.
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