Do you know that you can go cycling on Ozren mountain, take the canoe in Bovan Lake, climb the old town of Sokograd and then get to the beach, that you can also grind your own flour and make buns, or to ride a quad bike with the view of Rtanj mountain?
FROM BELGRADE: 230 km
FROM NIS: 60 km
Sokobanja is well known for medical and health tourism, but it has so much more to offer if you are into slow adventure. Make sure to read what I did here – from riding a horse and a quad, soaking in Turkish hammam, to climbing the old fortress’ walls. With all that fresh air and good traditional food, what more can one need!
Sokobanja is situated in the valley at the altitude of 400 meters. It is surrounded by various mountains, such as Ozren, Rtanj, Devica. There are almost no misty days during the year, and no water or air pollutants in the environment. Because of the colliding winds this is the clean and fresh air oasis. Thermo-mineral springs are another great feature of this spa town with waters that help in healing rheumatism and post-traumatic states.
The municipality population is 16,000, while the town itself houses 8,500 people.
I visited in mid-June when the tourism season was at its peak. The promenade goes all the way from the Homeland Museum towards the municipality building. You will go by the Church of the Holy Transfiguration of God dating from 1892 and the 1894-school, but also by the central ‘Amam’.
It was built by Turks over the Roman bathroom remains in the 15th century. The women-hammam-floor is covered with the original tiles. Two of the seven Sokobanja springs are here. The bathroom was firstly restored in 1834 by the Serbian ruler Milos Obrenovic, and it is the only one still operational in Serbia. Milos made his own bath the same year, with the small window overlooking the women’s hammam.
People from Sokobanja are proud that there is Milos’ written order from June 1837 to send one of the solders to this spa for treatment, saying that “he should be given bread and salt, and one candle”.
And when you enter such a building, beneath its domes and among the two-century-old-walls, and you step into the warm thermal water, it becomes clear why this hammam was preserved for so long. It so happened that I used the bath on my own, while another lady was given a massage next door and few people were waiting to get into the natural inhalatorium. It’s hard to grasp that even today people are waiting in lines to get in, just as the Romans did, the Turks, or the Serbian ruler himself.
There is also the ‘Milosev konak’ building across the street. Even though it’s not the original one, it’s still at the same spot where the main administrative center in the spa was. This is where Milos moved his entire administration for three months he spent here. The building now serves as the restaurant where you can have lunch or grab a snack at the Irish Pub next door, with the great view of the ‘Amam’.
Further down the promenade you will get to Moravica bridge. If you are into walking or jogging, the vast park here is the place to come. That’s exactly what I did the first morning here – grabbed my snickers and ran towards the park. One of the must-see places, especially in summer, are Sokobanja’s beaches, which are next to the park. It doesn’t really matter if you are going to swim or not (with the water being a bit cold, around 18-19 degrees Celsius, even though people didn’t seem to mind that much). This is the place to visit because of the nature and the contrast of its mesmerizing colors – with green forest, small gorge with grayish banks and bright blue sky.
I came here few times, took pictures of bright pebbles and walked by the famous beaches called ‘Zupan’ and ‘6 kace’. Marija from the Tourism Organization showed me where those six natural baths are that the beach was named after.
You might be wondering about the name of the other beach? Oh well, that’s certainly a story to tell, the Serbian version of Romeo and Juliete I heard on the way to Sokograd.
LEPTERIJA AND SOKOGRAD
This is the most visited picnic region, situated in the area of the outstanding natural features ‘Lepterija-Sokograd’, two km from the center. There is the Church of the Birth of the Holy Mother and the phenomenon ‘Holy Virgin in the rock’. Following the paths through forest, the Popovica Viewpoint can be reached, along with the medieval fort.
Sokograd was built at the end of the 13th century over the remains of the Roman fortress that dates back to the 4-6 century AD. It is believed that the town existed during the rule of the great Serbian leader Stefan Nemanja. The town was destroyed in 1413.
Now listen to this! Once upon a time, there lived a fair Lepterija, Sokograd master’s daughter, and Zupan who was the son of another town’s master. The two families were enemies. When these youngsters decided to run off together, her father found out and send his men after her. She was found and put to death rather than to marry the family’s enemy. Zupan was on his way to meet Lepterija. When he found out what happened, he threw himself of the cliff into the Moravica river! The place where he drowned now bears his name, while the whole picnic area where Lepterija died is named after her.
Sonja from the Tourism Organization was telling me about them while we walked from the center. The trail is two km long and goes up the hill, but it’s surely worth it. That’s why you came here after all, right – to experience the slow adventure in the natural surroundings. There is a nice view of Rtanj and the town on the way.
We went over the Moravica gorge bridge and took left towards the ‘Holy Virgin in the rock’. There are various versions explaining how the Holy Virgin image appeared in the rock and when can one see it, but that was enough for pilgrims to start visiting, offering icons, candles and small personal items. There is also a woman’s hat on the top. Make sure to look at the view behind your back if climbing up here, and pay attention to how you descend because of the slippery rocks.
Going further along the Moravica gorge is more than pleasant. The trail is in the shade with the sound of the clean river. There are marked places on the way where the Serbian Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric took his refuge during the WWII, but also the spring where in the particular time of the year one should flip a coin and wait for his personal wish to come true. This water is drinkable, right from the spring. (I filled my small bottle after coming back from the Sokograd fortress, being all tired, sweaty and thirsty. Don’t know if this was the reason, but the water was delicious!)
There is the narrow, steep path towards the fortress and then – the old stairs, heavy walls that go up the hill, the rectangular tower, more steps… But what a view from the top! There were visitors who preferred to stay beneath the walls, because it was too steep and too hot, but only the ones who made it to the top were able to admire the magnificent view. Like the set was made by the Game of Thrones’ scenographers themselves! Bright green hills were all around me, while I was standing on the gray rock which stood there for such a long time and was probably stepped upon by inhabitants of what was once the bustling vibrant city!
It is located in the Sesalac village, 19 km from Sokobanja. There is the 200-meters visitor’s trail inside. Its specific cave decorations can be seen, along with the small river. The picnic space is set in front of the cave, while there is also the artificial lake nearby.
Going towards Sesalac, we stopped by the Vrelo-Istoci village at the foot of the Device mountain. This is where the spring of Moravica river is. They say that it’s the natural phenomenon because of the spilled-river-like appearance. You can also visit the St Elijah Church. They say that Princess Persida Karadjordjevic saw people gathering here around the stone cross in the 19th century, took off her neckless made of 18 golden ducats and gave it away for the church to be built in the spot.
Although the visitor’s trail is not that long inside the cave, there are various cave decorations to be admired, along with few bats to be seen. You go through low cool corridors, while the summer heat awaits outside. Next to the picnic area you will find the ‘Pecura’ restaurant terrace. Goran and Natasa Simonovic lead us through the cave and then to one of the tables “for refreshments”. They welcome guests for three years now with traditional dishes, some of which we were able to taste. Our hosts also enjoy all the gatherings by the cave, such as the stew cooking competition in July.
I also had the opportunity to take a ride on the quad bike to the top of the hill. Pedja was telling me how the bungalow camp was being built by his father Vojkan Markovic since 2017. The family lives in Sweden, but Pedja would gladly come back when the camp opens. They expect to welcome their first visitors in 2020. Few bungalows will be ready for sleepovers on the nice hill top surrounded by lavish greenery. Quads will also be available even for visiting the Vrmdza Lake on Rtanj mountain, which is 30 km away.
If you haven’t been on a quad, don’t worry, it’s pretty easy. As the macadam road curves going up the hill, the quad also seems to turn by itself. It easy to control it though. Pedja was saying that “these roads were just like made for quads”. When you reach the top of the hill, there’s the sight to admire – flat lush meadow with beautiful view of Rtanj!
This village is at the foot of Rtanj mountain, being the example of the rural development. There are 32 new households that settled here during the last few years. They are mostly highly educated and freelancers who don’t have any relatives here. Vrmdza was mentioned for the first time as the Roman fort defending the emperial road. The Byzantine masters moved here in the 14th century.
There are only walls’ remains nowadays on the top of the cliff where the old Vrmdzan or the Latin town once stood. It’s interesting to see the Vrmdzan Lake, the only natural one in Sokobanja. You will admire the view of the pyramidal Rtanj peak above the water.
If you have the time, stop by the Homeland Museum. There is a beautiful view of the whole valley behind it. You can also take a break at the viewpoint and enjoy the surroundings.
Or go and visit the cliffs where people go free climbing. On the way to the lake there is also a lovely Watermill Restaurant. (You can buy freshly milled wheat, buckwheat or corn flour.)
The lake is an artificial accumulation with the damn built on river Moravica in 1977. It’s situated 10 km away from Sokobanja, its length is 8 km and the maximum depth 50 meters. There are beaches on the lake, but it’s also popular for picnics and fishing.
There are canoes often to be seen on the lake nowadays. This is also where the sailing boats regatta takes place. I was shown around by the passionate fisherman (and cyclist) Darko. While we go by fishermen’s tents, he remembers that during the 1990’s he was able to catch perch here. This fish is not to be found that often any more. Still, the lake is abundant with white fish, with a sporadic catfish or a pike.
Bird lovers would love the Bovan Lake where one can watch them in the wild.
“We sometimes see a deer or an otter early in the morning when they swim to the other shore”, Darko says, stating that the Sokobanja Ecology Society was established recently.
There is also the 35-kilometers-bicycle track around the lake. One cycles over the damn and two small rivers on the other shore, where the macadam road gives the additional charm to cycling through nature.
Before I add few more things related to Sokobanja cycling, I should mention that visitors can also try cooking traditional dishes here. At the Hacienda ‘Gane’ I was welcomed by Danijela and Gane. They had a restaurant in Nis and then decided to move to Trubarevac village and open this hacienda with only three rooms for now, domestic cooking and traditional natural juices and jams. They make the original pie crusts and bake pies under the bell according to Serbian old recipes. They say that Gane “always adds few secret ingredients” that makes the dish even more tasty. While I help making the stuffed peppers according to Gane’s recipe, they are telling me how the Thailand ambassador enjoyed the traditional ‘muckalica’ dish here (stew of barbecued meat and vegetables).
“The gentleman came the next year with the Japanese ambassador, and even had ‘muckalica’ for breakfast”, they say.
The Nature Park Ozren Meadows is protected in 1973, stretching between Ozren and Devica mountains. There are 22 protected herb species here. It is also known for the Ripaljka waterfall which was the first nature monument to be officially declared as such in Serbia in 1948.
So, back to cycling. The track length in the whole Sokobanja is about 115.5 km long, while you can enjoy your bike ride on Ozren on the 20-kilometers-trail. I had the opportunity to speak to Brigita and Marko, passionate cyclists. They say that almost all the unpaved roads can serve as mountain tracks. If you like riding a bike through the forest at the altitude of about 680 meters, this is just the track for you. You can get all the info at the Tourism Organization office and even ask about renting a bike.
Ljubinko, who is head of the local Tourism Organization, took me for a walk in Kalinovica here. In this Ozren picnic area there is a nice glade with the spring and the sequoia tree that doubled itself as a twin tree growing from the same root. We reach the Ethno Park Kalinovica, while Ljubinko is telling me about “the negative ions in the air that influence the overall human wellbeing”. The thing that I didn’t see coming was that our hosts Dragan and Milan were waiting for us with a white horse. (Her name is Princess.)
Horse riding lovers will be thrilled that other than cycling and walking, refreshments at the Ethno Park (with all the traditional dishes made by our host Vesna), they can also make friends with Princess. If on the other hand you prefer donkeys, Dragan has one for you as well – she is called Ana and didn’t mind taking a selfie with me. (If you followed my Instagram stories, you certainly caught the famous selfie.)
And well… Should I mention that I don’t really have any experience with horses and that, as much as Princess was nice and patient, my first attempt to hop on was not really successful – they even brought me a chair!
WATERMILLS OF GRUDONJCI
The Ethno Corner Watermills of Grudonjci is located in Gradasnica village, two km away from the center. There are two watermills more than two centuries old, and the large one is turned into the ethno kitchen where visitors can prepare their own dishes according to traditional recipes with the help of the ethnological workshops ‘Etnos’ instructors.
It was time to do some cooking again. In order to really experience the place in slow adventure terms, you should try yourself in preparing the local food. Experienced housewives are the best teachers.
While Mr. Golub is telling us how his family bought these mills in 1833 “for two pairs of oxen and four hectares of land”, Mrs. Vida is showing me how to make small buns out of the dough made of freshly grained flour. They call them ‘kravajcici’ here. Those that rose earlier, we put in the fire under the bell.
“It only takes flour, salt, yeast and water. You make the smooth dough, leave it to rise a bit and then shape it as you like”, Mrs. Vida says while pulling the dough from the traditional plate.
And when we smelled that freshly baked brown crust and they brought out some domestic cheese, the conversation immediately stopped. How to resist!
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