The Prince of Mirijevo — King Peter the Liberator & the Architectural Languor of Zrenjanin

With the beer, the rain and the pizza seemingly in the rearview mirror, I headed back to Zrenjanin’s main square for a better look. Trg Slobode (Freedom Square) is a typically elegant Vojvodina square, a large expanse ringed by the city’s most important buildings and no small amount of social activity. There was the green and blue City Hall, a 19th-century building that was once the most modern building in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary. Next to this stood the Cathedral of St. John the Nepomuk, a church built in 1867 that managed to look as elegant as it did humdrum. Small town churches are pretty enough, but it takes something truly special to stand out in the crowd and this wasn’t doing so. I didn’t think at the time about how strange it was for a church in Zrenjanin to take its name from a particularly tight-lipped Czech saint, although monuments and dedications to the man who refused to rat on the Emperor’s wife can be found all over the continent. In the centre of the square stood a statue of a regal man on a horse, so I moseyed up to take a closer look. This was a statue of Peter I Karadjordjevic, the last King of Serbia and the first King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a fabulously mustachioed man fondly remembered as the Old King.

Peter wasn’t old forever of course. Born in 1844, he was the grandson of the leader of the First Serbian Uprising and thus born into expectation, although with the added help of being born into wealth as well. His parents weren’t exactly thrilled with his birth, suffering as they were from the early death of their first child. These were different times, and the fact that Peter was the third-born son of a royal couple meant little more than confirmation that the King and Queen still had an active sex life. This all changed when the second-born son died in 1847, leaving ol’ Peter (then lil’ Peter) as the heir to the Serbian throne.

A bigger change came in 1858, when Peter’s father was forced off the throne by the Obrenović family, continuing the age-old feud between the two families. Peter went from being the heir to the throne to being an international student in Geneva and Paris, albeit a very adept one, although you have to be extremely lazy or substance-ridden to fail as a wealthy international student. Peter spent his time in Paris doing exactly everyone does in Paris, taking an interest in painting, philosophy, democracy and art, before eventually returning to the Balkans to take part in the Herzegovinian uprising against the Ottomans. Given the choice between musing over paintings or planning military excursions, Peter chose the latter, but all it brought him were accusations of treachery and an eventual death sentence. The ruling Obrenović family wasn’t overjoyed with his presence in the county, especially not his presence among the embattled guerrillas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and successive attempts to make peace between the two families fell on deaf ears. Peter was sentenced to death by hanging, but luckily for Peter he wasn’t around for the gallows. He eventually went to Montenegro, where he married into the royal family and caused geo-politics to get mixed up in the process.

None of this crossed my mind as I looked at his statue in Zrenjanin, because I wasn’t actually aware of it at the time. What I was aware of was the crumbling grace of Zrenjanin, and I ventured away from the main square in the direction of the main pedestrian drag. The rain meant that the street was extremely quiet, although any pretense that I had it all to myself was swiftly shattered by the cocky laughter of a group of children and the realization that their laughter was directed at me.

Zrenjanin’s main street is a veritable buffet of magnificent architecture that has seen better days. The procession began with the delightful Bukovac Palace, a Neo-Renaissance charmer constructed 1905 by the trader who provides its name. A little further up are the grand windows and pink arches of Bence’s House, the 1909 department store financed by furniture magnate Miksa Bence who envisaged a showroom of the future, a showroom that now acts as a window to the past. The street was full of buildings that seemed to exist in the modern age purely on memories, held up by a belief that they were once beautiful and they may well be again. For my money, my worthless, worthless money, the prettiest building on the street was the so-called Šeherezada, an almost Turkish-style yellow and orange number that could have been plucked from the coastal seaside or Islamic-era Spain. The lower levels now housed a clothes shop and a currency exchange.

A little overwhelmed by the architectural nostalgia in front of me, I ventured back towards the main square and the statue of Peter. His own marriage and family-making went about as well as that of his parents, having five children but losing two, the second of which came with the double-whammy of his wife dying in childbirth too. He made plans to overthrow the Obrenović clan, but eventually eschewed the idea in favour of moving back to Geneva. There he stayed until 1903 when the poor romantic choices of an Obrenović heir meant that the time was right for the balance of power to move back in the direction of Team Karađorđević. I’ll get on to the end of the Obrenović line a little later on, but for the time being let’s say the 1903 coup went off without a hitch and no royal couple was murdered in their own bedroom. The Karađorđević family was back on top, and Peter was welcomed by throngs of support in Belgrade openly referring to him as the ‘first Yugoslav king’. The times they were-a-changin’.

Peter’s coronation took place in 1904, in order to coincide with the centenary celebrations of the First Serbian Uprising, and the man was quickly held up as a bastion of modern thinking in the problematic Balkans. His reign is remembered fondly in Serbia as a time of creativity and culture, although much of the goodwill towards Peter’s time in charge comes from territory regaining as a result of the First Balkan War, and by territory, I mean ‘Kosovo’. The almost constant state of war in Serbia between 1912 and 198 did a number on his health, which wasn’t helped by old age in the first place, and he eventually died in 1921, with ‘being old and ill’ the likely cause of death. The town now known as Zrenjanin was quickly renamed Petrovgrad, a name it retained all the way up until 1946. There is an active moment in the country to bring that name back into focus, but it remains to be seen how successful that movement is.

John Bills writes books about what was once Yugoslavia, tomes covering history, travel, booze and the rest. These magical pieces of literary competency can be purchased at this link, so get yourself over there and do the right thing. Pay attention to the discounts.

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