Some two hours north-west of Belgrade, almost at the border with Croatia, Bac’s mighty fortress juts out majestically from the fields and tree-lined streets of this quiet town. As you approach, its damaged towers overlook one-storey homes from which elderly ladies snoop on visitors, probably with the passion of medieval guards.
Although its current size and sleepy vibe would suggest otherwise, this town was mighty once. One of the oldest cities in Vojvodina, Serbia’s northern province located in the Pannonian plains, Bac gave its name to the surrounding region, Backa, located between the Tisa and the Danube. Despite its many great sights, the town is not widely known around Serbia which makes it perfect for a history geek day trip.
Bac was first mentioned in 6th Century Byzantine chronicles, however the history of its famous fortress probably dates back to the 9th Century when it was inhabited by the Pannonian Avars, one of the many nomadic tribes that settled in the region after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the following centuries the town and the fortress gained prominence and were frequented by Hungarian royalty and used as a place for entertainment.
In the 12th Century, Bac was a booming city and an Arab geographer at the court of King Roger II of Sicily, al-Idrisi, described it as a prosperous, highly cultured place in one of his guides to Europe. The fortress was rebuilt in the 14th Century to protect the region from the Serbian and later Ottoman armies. It remained largely intact throughout the Ottoman reign and Habsburg re-conquest, but was blown up during a Rakoczi’s rebellion in the 18th Century, when Hungarian nobles rebelled against the Habsburgs. Since then the city never quite recovered.
Another remarkable medieval landmark in Bac is its Franciscan monastery, which was originally founded by the Templars during the town’s heyday in the 12th Century. It was built on the spot of the town’s old cathedral and it contained the first hospital in the whole of the Pannonian plains before it was sacked by Mongols. It was rebuilt in mixed Romanesque and Gothic style and its honey-coloured tower still looks over the town. The monastery will open for public visits after an extensive renovation in May 2019.
Close to the monastery is the house where the oldest pharmacy in Vojvodina was founded, and the baroque church dedicated to St Paul, as well as a former catholic convent.
Uniquely for Vojvodina, the town also has the remains of a 17th Century Ottoman hammam. Although it is largely a ruin overgrown with weeds, you can still make out the plumbing and steam baths where the locals relaxed. Just across the Mostonga river from the hammam, there is an eerie medieval gothic gate which marked the old entrance to the fortress precinct. Behind the gate is Kalvarija – a complex of shrines dominated by three crosses, representing the Stations of the Cross and the Passion of Christ.
In the unlikely case that you haven’t had enough history in the town’s tiny centre, there is Bodjani monastery some 15 kilometres west from the town. The monastery is not only beautifully decorated with frescoes, but also contains an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is believed to cure infertility.
When you decide to unwind from sightseeing, you should head out to nearby Karadjordjevo, but even there you will not be able to escape history.
The tiny village is famous for its hunting grounds and a stud farm, now part of a military-owned resort, which attracted grandees after its foundation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The resort also contains a villa built by former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito where he hosted Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit in 1972. It was also the place where the then met in 1991 to discuss the future of Yugoslavia.
Apart from the storied past, the resort offers hearty game dishes and a chance to unwind while being driven in old-fashioned carriages, before heading back home from this wonderful historic region.
This post was originally published in Belgrade Insight.