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Belgrade Insight has stepped back in time to discover the once glittering world of the country’s palaces and stately homes. They give a rare insight into a colourful part of Serbian history that is often overlooked.
Serbian palaces and stately homes differ significantly in architectural style from their more famous Austrian or French counterparts and are well worth visiting.
The best-known is to be found in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje. Built in the 1930s in Serbian-Byzantine style for the Karadjordjevic family, the complex actually consists of two palaces, the Royal Palace and the White Palace.
The Royal Palace was built for King Aleksandar I, while the White Palace was intended as a home for his three sons. The Karadjordjevics, however, were not given much time to settle in. King Aleksandar was assassinated in Marseilles in 1934 and the remaining royals fled the country at the start of World War II.
When the war ended the palaces became the home of the new Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, who moved in when the Communist Party took control of the country. One of his lovers is buried in the garden.
Structurally, both palaces look as they did before Tito took up residence but, sadly, most of the original and numerous artworks and valuables collected by the royals are missing, having been spirited away by the communist elite.
Besides the complex in Dedinje, Belgrade boasts another royal home. The residence of Princess Ljubica in Kneza Sime Markovica Street, which was built in 1831 and is one of the best preserved examples of the Serbian style of architecture that combined both Oriental and Western styles.
The building is now part of the Belgrade City Museum and offers a special guided tour in English, ‘A coffee with Princess Ljubica’.
Dressed in an early 19th century costume, the curator tells tales from Serbian history and offers intriguing insights into the private life of the Obrenovic family that then ruled Serbia, over a cup of coffee and homemade lokum (Turkish delight). The trip back in time costs 500 dinars [€5], needs to be booked in advance and must have a party of at least ten people.
|Palace at Ecka today. | Photo courtesy of hotel Kastel|
Besides those in the capital, most of Serbia’s other palaces are located in the north of the country. Although between the 18th and early 20th centuries almost a hundred palaces and great houses were built across Vojvodina, only a handful survived the wars and subsequent nationalisation of the communist period. The lucky ones were turned into hotels and museums, but most of them were converted into local government offices, schools and agricultural cooperatives or were simply abandoned.
Palace at Ecka when it was built. | Photo courtesy of hotel Kastel
Serbia’s best preserved castle is Fantast near Becej. The castle, which is 135 km north of Belgrade, was built in 1920 and was turned into a hotel in 1983.
The estate includes the house itself, a small watch-tower, the chapel of Saint George, a stud-farm for racehorses, a park, tennis courts and even a landing strip.
According to legend, local landowner Bogdan Dundjerski was determined to disprove rumours that he was bankrupt by putting on a glittering show of luxury. Today much of the magnificent furniture, artwork, crystal chandeliers and valuable rugs that once decorated the house have gone. They were stolen when the Communist Party took power in 1945.
Dundjerski’s stud farm once covered more than half of the estate and was home to over 1,400 thoroughbreds. Today there are still around 80 horses in six stables which form part of a riding school with a racehorse training track, offering tourists a chance to saddle up and go for a ride.
The Dundjerski family were also once the owners of three more beautiful estates.
In 1882 Lazar Dundjerski bought the Berezdi Castle, which had been built for aristocrat Nikola Berezdi in the early 19th century. The Berezdis, who had residences in both Vienna and Budapest, only used the castle during the summer and its beautiful parkland, laid out in the English style, was famous throughout what was then Hungary.
Once Dundjerski took up residence, the castle became a magnet for the political and cultural elite. Among those who spent time here were scientist Nikola Tesla, famous Serbian painter Paja Jovanovic and poet Laza Kostic.
It was during a stay at Berezdi that Kostic fell in love with Lenka, the daughter of his friend Dundjerski, who was considerably younger than him and for whom he wrote one of the most beautiful Serbian love poems, ‘Santa Maria della Salute’.
Carlsberg Srbija now takes care of the park and it is still possible to see some of the exotic plants that were carefully laid out in the gardens by the Berezdi family.
Lazar Dundjerski also owned the Stratimirovic estate in the town of Kulpin, which is 120 km north of Belgrade.
The two stately homes here were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Stratimirovics, who were one of the first Serbian families granted noble status in the Habsburg Empire in gratitude for their military service.
Dundjerski refurbished the estate in 1912 and lovingly took care of it until 1945, when the land was nationalised. Today the larger of the two castles is an agricultural museum, while the smaller has been converted into local council offices.
The only Dundjerski mansion with an interior that has survived intact is Sokolac.It was the dowry of Lazar Dundjerski’s oldest daughter Emilija who, with her husband, threw lavish balls and held exciting poker parties there.
Legend has it that he managed to lose both the grand country house and his wife during one night of gaming. However, his opponent generously offered him the chance to try to win both back by shooting an apple from Emilija’s head. He shot the apple and kept the house, but not the wife: Emilija left him.
The castle offering the best insight into the glittering world of 19th century Serbian aristocracy here in Vojvodina is Kastel near Backa Topola.
Count Arpad Falcione built this simple stately home in 1846. Twenty years later his son surrounded it with a magnificent park. The interior is original and is open to visitors. A restaurant, hotel and sports facilities are nearby, making Kastel a lovely place for a day trip or short break.
Backa Topola has another draw: the Zobatnica Estate, which was built in 1882 and is well known for its stables, hotel and restaurant.
Built in a classical style, Zobatnica has an impressive entrance with eight pillars. There is also an observation tower with a splendid view, as well as an enchanting secret passage that leads to a lake.
One of Serbia’s oldest well-maintained palaces is Ilion in Sremski Karlovci. Built in the first half of the 19th century for Baron Rajačic, today the grand house is home to the town’s museum and its interesting ethnological collection.
One of the country’s most popular stately homes is in Ecka. Once a hunting lodge, today it is a hotel specialising in seminars and conferences.
A nobleman, Lazar Agoston, built the Ecka house on the left bank of the River Begej in 1820. The whole village was dressed up specially for the opening ceremony. A chef was brought all the way from Vienna and famous composer Franz Liszt was even invited to entertain guests.
Spitzer falimy palace in Beocin. | Source: Wikimedia
These examples, however, are just the few rare palaces in Serbia that survived the test of time. Many, such as the palace of the Spitzer family in Beočin, became ghost houses – in this case after the family abandoned its cement factory stake following the outbreak of World War II.
The land was nationalised and since then the palace has operated as a library, sport club office, radio station, home for veterans and a restaurant. The palace was completely abandoned about a decade ago and is just a skeleton today. Dozens of Vojvodina palaces suffered a similar fate.
Donors spent hundreds of thousands of euro building a new museum in Gjirokastra - but the results were questionable and it ultimately closed over an ideological dispute.