I often get obsessed with some places I would like to visit. These obsessions can last for decades and can be affect places near or far. The place I want to see starts appearing everywhere: every mention gives it more of a mysterious aura and in turn makes everything related to it magical and significant, much like Balbec for the protagonist of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
A bit like Balbec in Proust, the place, once visited, retains this strange aura, even if it is ultimately disappointing as it reminds me of the yearning I felt for it. For example, last year I drove alone for about an hour from Guča to a “Roman bridge” by Ivanjica. It was a very underwhelming place, I felt like an idiot doing it and would, of course, never go see it again. Although I still cringe thinking what I did, I am happy that I could be so hopeful about the beauty and significance of such a place, especially as the older I get the fewer places have this sort of aura, and not only because I got to visit a lot of them.
One such place, located 50km from my home, is Slankamen.
For a while, a few years ago, everybody seemed to be connected to Slankamen somehow (usually they had a holiday home there) and it seemed to pop up everywhere. My friends and family always mentioned it as a wonderful place and I was thinking how awesome it would be to see it: climb up its Celtic fortress, check out the healing spring and just see the wonderful holiday homes around it.
I put off driving some 40 minutes from Belgrade to see it as I was waiting to do it with some of my Slankamen friends, yet, as these things go, those plans never materialised. My invites to barbecues seem to have been lost in the main, and the much planned boozy visits to the apparently beautiful Vinarija Šapat ended up not happening.
One morning a few weeks ago, I almost drove to see Slankamen, but my plan got knocked off track by a prospect of a boozy Sunday in Belgrade. That Sunday turned out to be particularly catastrophic and today, finding myself, once again, with no plans for the day and no prospect of making any, I decided to finally see Slankamen and avoid the repeat of that awful weekend.
As I parked my car below a loess cliff in the heart of Stari Slankamen, I was disappointed.
The ruins of the fortress were less imposing and accessible than I hoped they would be and the little town less picturesque than I hoped. Still, as I was making my way to the monument to the Battle of Slankamen I started getting why it is so beloved. The hill below which Slankamen in located juts out of the Pannonian plain, just as the Tisa joins the Danube, bringing some dynamism to the depressingly monotonous terrain. The elevation means the air is fresher, something I especially appreciated in late August heat. Approaching the handsome, but by no means unique obelisk marking this key battle, I was slightly happier.
The rest of my three hour visit was pleasant, although I did not actually see much.
The old Slankamen church of St Nicholas, built 550 years ago, was closed as it seems its back is crumbling. The winery housing the remains of the Ottoman Hammam was only to open later in the day, and the mineral water spring – located under a clunky water tower – was closed. The only place that I planned to see that was actually open was the Danube-side kafana, where I stopped for coffee, but did not go for their famous fish soup. Still I busied myself thinking how cool this place could be with a bit more effort: imagine the fortress rebuilt, the salty spring open and with a nice spa centre (like the new one in Pribojska banja) and Slankamen branded as the heart of Vojvodina, given that it is on the intersection of its two main waterways. Still, even as it is, Slankamen was what I needed.
Just before going back to Belgrade, looking over the Danube and seeing the locals board their small boats, I thought of Cavafy’s Ithaka.