Driving down to Vrnjačka Banja, on a hot July day without a working AC in my car, like we did in our Lada in 1990s, was my Madeleine moment.
I was there only once before – with my maternal grandparents in May 1990 – when they decided to christen me on the sly to avoid my atheist father’s protestations, which made that trip have an almost mythic, if contentious place in my family lore.
Unlike Proust and his “Balbec” (actually Cabourg), I never had a particularly strong desire to visit again, but the name was always very evocative. We brought back a small metal souvenir tray from Vrnjačka banja which I always liked eating from and the mention of the name (I always hear it in my head in the eager way my Grandma pronounced it), brought back vague feelings of peace and happiness. It was one of the last holidays I had with my “Deda i Nana”, before Deda’s heart condition worsened, and Nana had to care for him. After he passed away during the hyperinflation of 1993, the chaos brought by the dissolution of Yugoslavia discouraged her to use her shrinking pension on travel, even to a spa in Serbia.
And on that Friday, there I was, in front of the statue of Gočko, a sparrow wearing Serbian traditional clothing.
This winking bird is the mascot of the spa town ever since it was a designed for Jeux sans frontières – yet another staple of Yugoslav nostalgia, which I heard about a lot but never watched – which were held in Vrnjačka banja just a few days after my grandparents and I left that spring. I have a vague memory of seeing a photo of me in front of Gočko, however it might well be a false one given the timeline, and I have no clue where those photos could be, given that both of them, as well as my Mom – the family’s official keeper of memories – are no longer alive for me to ask.
I started making my way up to the old local church where my controversial christening took place so I could get my certificate of baptism (the original is also lost in the depths of the family papers, maybe next to my Gočko photo), and trying to see if I remembered anything from my first visit.
My friends tend to tease me about my claims of early childhood memories however I can swear that I remember scenes of my second birthday in Bečići, travelling to Venice from Poreč and returning on the Brotherhood and Unity highway as Croatia was splitting away from Yugoslavia in 1991, and the time when my parents almost left me to drown in a pool in Slovenska plaža resort in Budva that same year. Anyhow, my vague memory of my baptism included a white church on a hill, with steps and with a forest behind it, and going towards the old Vrnjačka Banja church I was excited to see if was at all correct.
It wasn’t. The church, in vague Serbo-Byzantine style, was indeed white and on a hill, but it looked nothing like what I thought I remembered: the hill was much higher, the building was less squat and the elaborate stairs I (mis)remembered were missing.
While the two year old me did not care about the church’s architecture, 33 – year old me liked it a lot. To ease my disappointment about my memory, I busied my mind with trivia – the priests’s home was designed by the great Aleksandar Deroko, while the nearby fountain, one from the series which bring healing waters to visitors of Vrnjačka Banja, was built according to the designs of my beloved Momir Korunović. Great.
I took the baptism certificate from the lady who sold candles and there were no surprises there. The only new thing I found out is that my godmother was a certain Nadežda, a pensioner from Belgrade. The main witnesses of this grand event for me, which I have no real memory or proof of, apart from a certificate of which costs RSD 500 no less, can no longer tell me how it went, how they decided to baptise me on that day, and why exactly in Vrnjačka Banja.
I decided to amble around and peek into the grand socialist hotels – Breza, Partizanka, Merkur, Zvezda – to admire their majestic architecture (truly some of the best Yugohotels are in Vrnjačka Banja), but also in futile hope that I will recognise the one where I stayed with my Deda and Nana. Breza looked the most promising and I tried to have a cake on its massive terrace overlooking the main promenade to celebrate my being back. I ordered Srneća leđa – my childhood favourite – but they did not have it. After a few more attempts at ordering childhood favourites – refroma, Triglav – I gave up and continued my stroll.
Besides being much larger than other spa towns in Serbia, Vrnjačka Banja is much better preserved and much prouder of its long history, which allegedly dates even before the Romans.
The immaculate lawns of the main spa park warned against being trampled on and there were little plaques explaining histories of various buildings. Finally, the fantastic pavilions built over spa springs designed by Mihajlo Mitrović were well looked after, with rows of pensioners filling up their bottles with waters which are best suited for those with diabetes and diseases of the liver and pancreas (as indicated on the very, flower-shaped retro signs). Unlike my mind as I was walking around it, the town was not stuck in the past. Although it was the prime tourist destination in Serbia and the whole of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for decades before WWII, attracting almost thrice as many tourists as Dubrovnik in 1930s – it was obviously trying to rejuvenate as evidenced by the scaffolding going up for LoveFest, its rompy dance and pop festival which was to take place the following weekend, a Wes-Andersonesque Kafeterija kiosk and a tasteful new Japanese garden.
I was firmly in the past, wondering what the modernist central baths looked like in their prime, and admiring masterpieces by some of Serbia’s pre-WWII starchitects, like Branko Tanazević and Svetozar Jovanović. I tried to read the notes abou who stayed where during the spa’s heyday and what happened to the owners after WWII.
It was after the war that Vrnjačka Banja had to climb down from its throne of Yugoslav tourism, which was to be developed in impoverished coastal areas in Dalmatia and Montenegro. In the post war years, it not only lost its bourgeois guests but the original, Roman-era spring in the centre of the spa was covered up, only to be dug up and presented once again decades later by Mihajlo Mitrović. Much of the story of Vrnjačka Banja is told in the museum inside the palace, which housed General Belimarković, the man who is the most responsible for Vrnjačka Banja’s rise in popularity in the late 19th century. The ambitious but dated museum, displayed many interesting press clippings – some warning about unplanned overdevelopment as early as 1940s – and also a collection of souvenirs from the Spa, including those with the same design as my childhood metal tray.
Going back to my hotel I wanted to try and buy a metal mug or something like that, with the same design, but I quickly realised that it was futile. There were magnets and bottles, but the stuff from 1990 was long gone. But there was something to lift me from my melancholy, nostalgic mood: Ceca, Serbia’s turbofolk mega-star just happened to be performing in town the next night.
In 1990s, liking Ceca was a forbidden fruit for me, in a family which disliked but tolerated turbofolk. My Grandmother and Mom balked at anyone with as obvious a connection to the booming crime scene so Ceca, married to the uber-mobster Arkan, was out of the picture. Still, I knew most of her songs by osmosis, and she had a sort of dark magnetism for me, making her an anti-Berma to my poor, confused childhood M. Although by the age of 10-11 I firmly accepted my family’s cultural mores which made Ceca haram, I remember liking her a lot as a kid and being dazzled by the ostentation of her videos and persona, the way you can only feel when you are around the age of 7.
Unlike M. at Berma’s performance, I was enthralled by my first Ceca sighting, who now in her late 40s, had to content herself with singing to a smallish audience in front of a half-finished building with a less than amazing tech on stage. Nevertheless, she was more than professional, only briefly complaining about the sound quality, but eagerly belting out her hits to the small mixed audience which ranged from 7 to 77, as if she was singing to hundreds of thousands in Belgrade.
I saw a family – a teenager, her mother in her 40s and her grandmother in her 60s – hugging and singing all the lyrics together, as Ceca introduced most of her best known songs alternately as “speaking to all of us”, “telling the story all women found themselves in, at least once” and “being for the gents”, recalling some the most skilled kafana performers, who are at the same time comically banal and masters at touching their audiences very deeply.
As Ceca was singing and I was slinging my third beer, Vrnjačka Banja felt once again like that place of joy and pease that I vaguely remembered, now regained, as I fulfilled my boyish desires and had newer, happy memories of Banja to keep me going as the old ones were stuck between fact and fiction, and without anyone to help me navigate them.