Below we bring you an interview with Zdenka Mitić, the manager of Podunav Citizens Association from Bački Monoštor, a woman who is responsible for raising awareness of the importance of ecology and rural tourism among the population of this area. In this revealing interview, Zdenka describes the goals of the association she leads, tells us about the importance of the Upper Danube region, rural tourism and future plans.
- You are the head of Podunav, a citizens association. What are the primary goals of your association?
Podunav Citizens Association from Bački Monoštor was founded in 2007, with the primary goal of improving the local community through the development of eco-rural tourism. Thanks to the cooperation with the WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature, it is recognized as a sustainable way to improve the local environment, given the rich cultural heritage and natural resources that surround us. By promoting and realizing the program of eco-tourist offer of the village, at the same time we work intensively on preserving the nature of the Danube region and the cultural heritage of all ethnic groups living in Bački Monoštor.
The activities of the association are also focused on the promotion of the Upper Danube Special Nature Reserve and Bački Monoštor, education of children, youth and all locals on the importance of nature conservation and environmental improvement, empowerment of women as key drivers of change in small communities, preservation of traditional crafts, promotion of healthy styles life, sustainable agriculture…
- A large number of people know the characteristics of the Lower Danube in Serbia, especially because of the magnificent Djerdap, can you tell us what makes the offer of the Upper Danube unique?
The Upper Danube, together with the Kopački Rit Nature Park in the Republic of Croatia and the Danube–Drava Nature Park in Hungary make up the so-called Middle Danube Region, which after the Danube Delta, according to the richness of flora and fauna, and the diversity of ecosystems, is the most important area on the entire course of this river. Another name for the Upper Danube is the European Amazon, because it represents an endless mosaic of swamps, ponds, backwaters, meanders, Danube floodplain forests, meadows, salt marshes, reeds, aits and small aits. Another important fact is that the Upper Danube is the habitat of the largest population of marsh deer in our country, and that pairs of extremely endangered and unfortunately few black storks and white-tailed eagles – the largest birds of prey in our region have found refuge in the forests of the Upper Danube. The offer we promote and realize includes walks in the woods along marked walking paths, cycling, boating, catamaran, horse-drawn carriage rides, photo safaris, yoga in the woods, sport fishing, etc. The natural aspect is complemented by the cultural one. On the edge of the Upper Danube Special Nature Reserve there are villages whose locals have tied their way of life to the Danube River and its forests, and even today they work intensively on preserving and revitalizing traditional crafts and skills, offering traditional gastronomic delicacies of fish and game meat, and the multiethnicity of this area is an inexhaustible cultural wealth, presented through customs, costumes, dialects, local handicrafts… This blending of nature and culture is exactly what the tourist offer is based on, and it is recognized as a key element for proclamation of the Bačko Podunavlje Biosphere Reserve in 2017, by UNESCO. This reserve, in addition to the Upper Danube, includes other protected areas in the cities and municipalities of Sombor, Apatin, Bač, Bačka Palanka and Odžaci. Biosphere Reserve status provides numerous opportunities for the development of these local communities.
- Especially during the pandemic, did it not become clear that rural tourism would become important for tourists again? Apart from staying in nature, what are the advantages of rural tourism compared to its traditional forms?
The pandemic “forced” people to turn to nature and their environment. Some saw it as a great opportunity to get to know their country and all its beauties, while this phenomenon had negative consequences for nature, due to the irresponsible behaviour of many “nature lovers” who do not understand the basic meaning of this phrase. But in this case, we will stick only to these positive aspects of last year’s expansion of rural tourism. The advantage of rural tourism and natural oases of our country is definitely the feeling that guests have when staying in such localities. It usually implies, in addition to close contact with nature, a close relationship with the hosts, and even passers-by in the street, and the guests emphasize the feeling as if they have come to visit relatives. There is also the possibility of enjoying local food that cannot be compared to that of large markets and restaurants, and the feeling of peace and relief, relaxation and that easy pace of life in Vojvodina.
- How do you manage to motivate residents, especially the youngest ones, to get involved in ecology?
Setting an example and example of good practice are always very important. Our association and those we closely collaborate with (CA “Bodrog”, SFC “Šaran”, BA “Pčela”, CA “Dondo”, Hunters Association…), and the Local Community, the 22nd October Elementary School from Bački Monoštor and PE Vojvodinašume, invest a lot of effort to raise environmental awareness, both of our locals and beyond. Volunteer actions of cleaning watercourses, roads, reserves, public areas, planting trees and flowers are often organized, as well as special actions of collecting recyclable waste, where the funds collected from its sale are directed to the local community – arranging kindergartens surroundings, installing district heating in kindergartens, equipping outpatient clinic… All this points out to the locals the importance of engagement and the fact that it is not difficult to be responsible towards one’s environment. The future certainly belongs to the youngest, so we have been working with children for more than a decade, in cooperation with the 22nd October Elementary which is also aware of the importance of nature and ecology, so it has the status of an ambassador of the Upper Danube. Every year, children participate in the celebration of important environmental dates the Earth Day, Environmental Protection Day, Forest Day, Water Day, Danube Day, they participate in actions, education and workshops of the project The One Respecting the Flower will Respect the World, and we are especially proud of “A Stick Against a Mouse” – a small fishing school, and “Bodroška Pčelica” – the Children’s Beekeeping Section which has 30 young beekeepers. Through all these activities, organized jointly by citizens’ associations, schools, local communities, with the support of public companies and individuals, we want to point out to children and all locals, and the general public through the media, that only a tiny amount of good will and love for their environment is needed to create conditions for a beautiful and orderly life in it.
- Do local institutions support your work?
As can mentioned above, we have successful cooperation with citizens’ associations, sports clubs, professional associations, the local community, the school, local businessmen and institutions. The support of the City of Sombor is also important, which co-finances our projects through competitions that it announces for such activities, and we are also financed through other competitions, at the provincial and national level, as well as European calls and funds. Cooperation with the WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature is very important as the WWF recognized the possibilities and riches of Bački Monoštor and the Upper Danube almost two decades ago. We have logistical support for various activities, from volunteer, through educational ones, to the organization of festivals and events, by public companies, both utility service companies and the reserve manager – PE Vojvodinašume, Agricultural extension Service Sombor, Red Cross Sombor, the Tourism Organization of the City of Sombor, the Provincial Institute for Nature Protection and numerous media that gladly cover our activities.
- What are your plans for the future?
I think that a lot has been done so far, but also that constant development and work on improvement is necessary, both in terms of knowledge and skills, as well as capacity development, enrichment of the offer and constant promotion. We are currently involved in several international projects related to the Upper Danube SNR, the Bačko Podunavlje Biosphere Reserve, and the Mura–Drava–Danube Cross-border Biosphere Reserve, which should be officially declared as having the status in the coming days. We have recognized the importance and possibilities of these initiatives, and we are preparing for new competitions and projects. Thanks to the efforts of the local community, we have managed to secure the mud removal from of the old Danube tributary bed that flows through the village, so the plan is to turn this gem and the island that is located there into a unique tourist complex. Also, in the center of the village there is an old school building, and a project is being prepared for its adaptation and formation of the Cultural Center which will include a museum exhibition, gallery and multifunctional space for conferences and accommodation. We are working intensively on the registration and categorization of new private accommodation facilities, and the provision of tourist infrastructure. In cooperation with project partners from Germany, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria, we are implementing the Danube Guides Action project, which involves the formation of a network of specialized tourist guides – the Danube guides emphasizing the cultural and environmental features of this river. The formation of the international cycling route the European Amazon is underway, the promotion of which is something we will deal with in the upcoming period. In the coming period, we plan to realize and improve existing events, festivals and happenings, such as the Danube Regeneration – an ecological-music festival, Bodirog fest – Festival of Tradition and Nature, the Cakes, Pastries and Agricultural Products Fair, SFRY Rakijada, Dondo Art Colony, Photo Safari…
- Describe to us the ideal weekend in the Upper Danube region.
The ideal weekend in the Upper Danube region can be realized throughout the year, of course with certain specifics. Currently, the so-called “Roar of the Deer”, the time of year when these kings of the forest play their love games, and, invite the hinds and warn their opponents with their specific call. The roar of the deer is heard in Bački Monoštor in every part of the village, since we are surrounded by forest, and it is really a unique experience to listen to it, especially in the evening and at night, when it is heard most intensely. Our weekend programs include a visit and lunch in an ethno-house (mud house, covered with a thatched roof), a visit to a Roma ethno-house, to craftsmen who make objects from natural materials, a visit to a beekeeping household, with a tasting of famous honey brandy and local gingerbread, a walk in the woods – along the Štrbac Trail and Dondo Green Trail, horse-drawn carriage ride, fishing boat or boat ride, enjoying traditional specialties – primarily fish stew, on one of the csardas, a visit to the church with a priest’s story about this structure whose parts have a cultural monument status, an overnight stay in one of the private accommodation facilities, a brandy (or two) with the host, a visit to the Karapandža Eco-center … and certainly there is Sombor, with rich history and the status of a noble city.