Frugality is the mother of all virtues.

Justinian I

In a country where tradition, history and legend are so entangled with the past, present and probably future, you don’t have to dig deep to find a day trip out of the city. A few searches on the internet and we found an absorbing read by a wanna-be travel writer who listed the 10 best things to see in Sirmium, or Sremska Mitrovica. With a population of less than 80000 souls you would think that 10 is overstretching things, but they were described so tantalisingly that you wanted to eat them, not just see them!

Serbia has the largest number of Roman emperors born outside of Italy – 17 altogether, among them Constantine I and Justinian I but the determining factor, and listed as number one of the ten, was that Sirmium was the birthplace of not just one, two or three but ten Roman Emperors! How many cities in the world can brag of having given birth to ten Roman Emperors? The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus even called Sirmium “the glorious mother of cities.” That was enough to get our travel glands overworking and send us off to the western part of Serbia on an unusually sunny November day.

Meet the Romans in Serbia (or not)

The drive through the countryside was a perfect reflection of past centuries, despite the ravages and torments of the last one.  A bank, a coffee shop, churches, usually the Orthodox on the right and the Catholic on the left side of the road, duly followed by a grocer’s, then a detached ruined house, followed by a new three-storey house made of the cheapest possible building materials imported from brotherly China. Then a huge space filled with freshly ploughed soil made it look like the enormous painting would melt into a different composition, only, unfortunately, it was to be just the same undeviating landscape…. a bank, a coffee shop…occasionally broken by a school or police station. There were no big-name companies. Or factories. It was Sunday and without people mingling on the streets the whole picture looked even more grim. Driving steadily through the countryside, I often wondered where the people worked. How did they make a living?

“They deal with it.” One of so many phrases you hear from the locals very often. It means working at two or three low-paid jobs, paid cash in hand and, if they are lucky to be registered for at least one job, it’s usually at the lowest contribution level, killing in the bud any idea of a comfortable retirement. While we in the West are worried about the rising age of retirement, here they are ferociously fighting for any kind of pension. It is no surprise that Serbia is losing 51,000 citizens per year according to the OCED. Not to a high death-rate or low birth-rate but to pure emigration to any country in the world which would pay more than a pittance.

Leaving numbers and reality behind us, we arrived in the early afternoon welcomed by empty parking spaces. The first stop was a regional museum which was number 5 on the travel writer’s list. We didn’t plan to follow the list but the museum was right in front of us in a nice, white 18th century building so we decided to start from there.  Our excitement was short lived as the building was closed on Sunday. Luckily the Sirimium Palate Imperiale was just across a small roundabout located in a grey warehouse building which we dismissed upon arrival as another one of the architectural monstrosities raised in the name of the transition period from communism to capitalism. It was closed too, even though we had checked that it was open on Sundays! After cursing in a few different languages to the utter dismay of the local tramp, the only human on the empty street except us, we discovered big French windows which gave us a glimpse of what we were missing.

The Roman ruins at Volubilus in Morocco or Leptis Magna in Libya simply dwarfed the ones in front of us. These ones were small. Simply tiny for 10 Roman Emperors. And whatever you might think – size does matter! If 10 Emperors had been born in and around any city in the world, that city would have been on the UNESCO list a long time ago!

Mangulica Sremska Mitrovica Tara Goldsmith readyclcikandgoSlightly disappointed, we turned our backs and come across a monument to the sheep pig, something this area is very famous for. The Mangalica pig is international, well, Eastern European, a cross breed between Hungarian and Serbian stock with the small addition of wild boar who contributes the wool, although my knowledge of pig breeding is limited and I may be misinformed. But the meat is tasty as there is not much fat. Next to the pig statue there was a small creature which we couldn’t identify as a pig until someone recognised it as a dog. It was a type of dog called a Pulin. Yes, I heard Putin too. The Pulin is a traditional sheepdog from this area and it’s immortalised next to the sheep pig. I know. I was confused too. We crossed number 3 from the list.

Quickly, we moved on to the main pedestrian zone in quest of a sundial, wondering how to find it. By looking up at the buildings or down at the ground? There was no point asking anyone as no one was passing by. We crossed the whole main street to the other side of the modern town where we were surprised by another set of Roman ruins. Again, not on a huge scale but in good condition. A kid, hidden on a bench and immersed in a loud game on a new device, and annoyed at being asked for directions threw his right hand out towards the end of the road, with his eyes glued to imaginary friends on his tablet. Then sensing our confusion, he started shouting, still not looking at us: “There. Just there!” We quickly moved forward, leaving the distressed young human with his obsession. St Irinej Bridge over Sava Sremska mitrovica readyclickandgo

Slowly, we come across the longest footbridge in Europe. Apparently. Later, at home we checked this claim and pages came up with the same  story. However, this one was also the prettiest one. The official name is St Irinej Bridge and its length of 262.2m connects two different parts of Serbia, Srem and Macva, over the River Sava. The views are amazing and we spent a considerable time walking up and down taking photos of different parts of Serbia, which actually looked exactly the same, flat. It’s worth noting that we didn’t need passports to cross from Srem to Macva. Not yet anyway.

On the way back we haunted a young, tipsy woman, asking her about the sundial. She shrugged her wide shoulders, pulled her face while trying to retrieve any information from her intoxicated brain. Looking very far over our heads she remembered vaguely a clock somewhere in the city but that was in the museum now. What about the street art? Does she know where we can find it? It was on our list. Her face grimaced this time. It was the sign to give up. Slightly disappointed, we drowned our sorrows at an empty coffee-shop nestling in someone’s garden. The waitress, a pretty young thing, didn’t know anything about Roman ruins, while an older lady sitting in the corner, cursed her bitterly for not knowing anything about her city. It turned out that it was not her city, that she had emigrated from Kosovo, in the south of Serbia which declared independence in 2008. We sit quietly worried in case we sparked another war.

Impenitent, the old lady continued: “There are ruins, every time they build a house, the ruins burst up like popcorn.” Not sure she was convincing enough she added the urban legend how someone from the city found not one but two cups full of gold coins while building his house. Tired, we didn’t ask what had happened with the gold coins as somehow, we knew they were in the museum which was closed today. As it was Sunday. And tourism doesn’t work on Sunday.

 

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About the author: Tara

 

The travel professional with years of experience in the travel industry – in guiding, reservations, operations, contracting, customer service and product development – and have travelled extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe not just on holiday but also for work, inspecting hotels, visiting attractions and seeing exactly what each destination has to offer. The only way I could do this properly was with my own guide, car and driver and this inspired me to create my own range of customised private day tours for other people to be able to explore in-depth and learn to love their destination as much as I do.

Website: www.readyclickandgo.com