When I visited the Belo Blato Sausage Festival a few weeks ago, I noticed an unusual level of civic pride among the exhibitors from the Zrenjanin area.
Not only were they inordinately proud of their sausage-making skills: “You have to try this sausage from Muzalj, it’s the best!” but they were greatly surprised that I, a Belgrader with poor knowledge of local geography, confessed to not knowing where their various suburbs were located.
I then remembered how my friends who hailed from Zrenjanin always emphasised how great the city was. Immediately, my friend and I decided to right the wrong of not having been to Zrenjanin before, despite the fact it is within easy reach of Belgrade, only one hour’s drive north.
Although the day was gloomy and cold, as soon as we reached the city’s beautiful main square my friend uttered the highest praise a Serbian can bestow on a local tourist site.
“It doesn’t look like Serbia at all – it’s so pretty.”
Indeed, I was immediately wowed by the palatial town hall from the Austro-Hungarian era, and the neat row of buildings housing the Tosa Jovanovic National Theatre and the National Museum of Zrenjanin. Beside their architectural beauty, both of these institutions are of great historical importance to Serbia.
The theatre was founded on the site of an old granary in 1839, allegedly to make an actress from Budapest move to the hometown of an admirer. It is the oldest in continuous operation in Serbia with its own dramatic and puppet theatre troupes.
The National Museum is notable for its art collection, part of which was gifted to it by Uros Predic, one of the most renowned pre-World War II Serbian painters who also hailed from the area.
My friend’s allusion from the non-Serbian character of Zrenjanin was also on point given the city’s historically diverse mix of communities. Beside Serbs, Germans, Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks and Roma, Zrenjanin, or Beckerek as is was known for most its history, was even home to Catalans who settled here in the 18th Century and founded the short-lived town of Nova Barcelona on its outskirts.
The city’s cultural mix is still evident in its many churches, which range from the wonderful baroque of its 18th Century Serbian Church to the snow-white neo-Gothic protestant church.
In addition to having an amazing history and architecture, Zrenjanin, even on a cold, wintry afternoon, looks pleasant and lively. Christmassy music was playing softly from speakers lining its pedestrianised main street, and families were wandering around. Although lacking old-time charm, cake shops on the main street more than made up for it with excellent traditional Austro-Hungarian cakes and were full of families and groups of friends.
This Mitteleuropean idyll is only shattered by the local tap water, which often has a menacing goldish hue due to the large content of arsenic that has made tap water here unsafe to drink for the past 14 years. We ordered bottled water, wondering if the locals still drink the water despite the health warnings.
Besides the tap-water problem, the post-socialist transition years were hard on Zrenjanin. The most notable casualty was Zrenjanin’s famous art-nouveau brewery, the industrial heart of the city, which traced its beginnings to the 18th Century. It closed in 2002 after a failed privatisation deal.
Apart from the brewery there are other signs of recent hard times. The ruin of a communist-era department store on the main street seemed out of place compared to the recently renovated belle-époque houses. A stone’s throw away from the Town Hall stands an abandoned old nunnery, which housed a medical school until 2009. It now looks eerie with open, broken windows.
Then there was Zrenjanin’s most bizarre monument – a bridge over nothing. Built in the 1960s, this concrete bridge lost its river in the 1980s when this part of the Begej was turned into an artificial lake. Although right in the centre of the city, the whole structure is slowly crumbling and graffiti sprayed over it reads: “Museum of Destruction” – only adding to the post-apocalyptic air.
Despite these signs of urban decline, Zrenjanin is determined to make up for lost time and regain its status as one of Serbia’s power-houses. The intention is to brand Zrenjanin as an attractive IT start-up destination. So far the results are promising, helped by the fact that it houses an off-shoot of Novi Sad University’s engineering school. To cement its new strategy, Zrenjanin also hosts Webiz, one of Serbia’s prime tech and entrepreneurship conferences, which is held annually in March.
Given its industrial heritage and proud, enterprising citizens, Zrenjanin might yet turn into a Serbian San Francisco and start attracting creatives and digital nomads to save its dilapidated pretty buildings. Maybe even at some point in the future its old brewery will start working once again, this time producing IPAs for hipsters who escaped big cities to come to this beautiful, cultured town?
Although I indeed hope that will be the case, I urge you to still try to get there before then and experience the city’s many charms as they are.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.