Let me take you to Serbian town of Arilje and believe me, you will be surprised! The town is known for raspberries and local cotton, but it’s also home to caves, waterfalls, medieval fortresses, authentic frescoes, beaches and healing springs. Just keep reading and see for yourself what a journey this is going to be!
FROM BELGRADE: About 190 km
FROM NIS: About 220 km
If you are coming from Belgrade, the easiest way to reach Arilje is to take a turn from the main road in Pozega. From Nis you will go via Kraljevo town. I was driving from Ivanjica last October, the town that is only 30 km away. If you have the time, you can see both of these towns in one go – they are close to one another with a lot to see.
It is located in the southwest of Serbia, on the basin of mountain rivers Rzav and Moravica. The population of the whole municipality is 18,725, while the town itself houses about 7,000 people. The town is established in 1880. Arilje is famous for crisp clean springs and waters, and Rzav is proclaimed the cleanest river in the country. Numerous beaches and fishponds adorn its banks today.
Never the less, the municipality is best known for the raspberry cultivation since the 1970s. It is cultivated across 1,200 hectares with the annual production of 2,000 wagons of fruit.
They say that ancient Romans took over this area and there are excavation finds in Brekovo village (an ancient fort stood here once), along with the Roman road remains that went from Ivanjica towards Pozega, next to the Moravica river. Still, when you get to the center of the town and come out to the pedestrian St. Achillius Street, it’s immediately clear what the main landmark is. (The street goes from the municipality building to the church.) Step into the church and you’ll find out why!
Saint Achillius Church was built in the 13th century as the endowment of Serbian King Dragutin Nemanjic. It belongs to Raska architectural style and it was the seat of the Bishop of Moravica, one of the 12 eparchies established by Archbishop Sava in 1219. After the first church was destroyed in the 13th century, King Dragutin built another one at the same spot. His son Urosic is buried here. The famous frescoes date back to the late 13th century.
According to beliefs, Greek migrants from Larissa came here in the 11th century and brought St. Achillius’ remains with them. He is still celebrated as the town’s slava (Serbian custom where each household celebrates one saint).
The most famous fresco is the so-called Blue Angel depicting St. Archangel Gabriel, and it is considered to be in the same artistic range as the White Angel of the Mileseva Monastery. One of the rare things to witness here is the display of royal dynasty members which is not to be found anywhere else. Artist’s names are not known even though we know that they originated from Thessaloniki. These frescoes represent a turning point towards the new painting style at the court of King Milutin in the 14th century.
It is assumed that the Dragutin’s court was located nearby, given the fact that his younger son was buried in the church. There are also couple of fortresses in the area that date back to the same period – Golubinjak in Visoka village and Gradina in Tresnjevica village.
While strolling around the town, taking pictures of the picturesque mural painted by ARLEMM Festival participants, I also recalled few facts I read about Arilje. They say that, according to Serbian tradition, you could find local kafana (small traditional restaurant) at every corner. This was the place to have lunch, meet people, seal business deals etc. There were 17 kafanas before the World War II, which is a lot for such a small town. Today, however, it seems there’s not even one authentic place as such to be found. Still, as any other town in Serbia, Arilje is abundant in cafés and restaurants with all sorts of food.
They told me not to miss the local burek with meat because “there’s no better way to start a day in Arilje”. If you visit during summer, make sure to try the local ice cream with fresh raspberry syrup. This fruit seems to follow you everywhere – there’s also a sculpture of a girl carrying the box of raspberries on the main square.
Located in the Tresnjevica village this is the medieval fortress still referred to as Gradina (big town in Serbian), because there are no data regarding its original name. It’s strategically important, being situated high up on the hill at the altitude of 1,140 meters. The recent excavation revealed how bastion, walls and towers were positioned. It is believed that the fortress was destroyed at the same period the famous Uzice fort was conquered by Serbian Princ Lazar in 1373. Next to the fortress there is the small church, erected at the same spot where the old one stood, the one that was built in 1811.
Even if you are not into history, Gradina should be on your list of places to visit because there is one breath taking view from its walls that stretches over nearby hills and valleys. I took numerous photos, standing next to the cross that is visible from the main road, while Dejan the archaeologist was trying to explain that there are walls here that date back way before the 13th century. Try to imagine how magnificent this medieval fortress must have been with all those towers on the top of the hill.
There is also a nice anecdote regarding the small church. They say that it just “happen to appear on Gradina one morning”. According to one local legend, the church actually flew itself from the nearby village when the Turkish invasion began, while according to others, Serbs moved it up the hill “during one night with the help of God”. There’s also a saying that if you are pure and without sins, you can easily go around the church, even though it stands at the very edge of the hill.
It’s interesting to know that this is where the border between Serbia and Turkey was once established and that in the nearby Tresnjevica village the famous battle took place in 1806.
Given that you are here, you should also visit the Klisura Monastery which is at 13 kilometers from Arilje on the way to Ivanjica. The name derives from the fact that the Monastery is located at the Moravica river gorge (klisura in Serbian). It is believed that the place is the Archbishop Sava endowment and the church dates back to the 13th century. At the time of my visit, the Monastery complex was calm and empty, with one or two dogs in the courtyard and the sound of rushing waters under the small bridge.
THE WATER CAVE
The cave is located at the Panjica river gorge, at about 20 km from Arilje, and it is not yet fully explored. Research results point to the fact that the water that flows out of the cave actually comes from numerous springs. Speleologists believe that there is also a lake inside the cave halls. In order to get to the cave, one should walk one km or so along the Panjica river. Next to the cave entrance there is also the 8-meters-high waterfall.
You don’t really know what to expect when you are on your way to the cave. Marija from the Tourist Info Center of Arilje took me to have breakfast in the morning (we had that burek with meat), and then we were off to get me some rubber boots. I knew that this is not going to be an ordinary visit. We drove for a while, put on those boots and took a walk. Soon we were at the Panjica bank, shallow river that we crossed few times. (I felt like a kid who was finally allowed to jump around a pond!) They plan to build small wooden bridges over the river this year for tourist visits. The whole area seems wild, lush with greenery and when you get to the waterfall, you just stand in awe. There is the river below while the water cascades over the rocks covered in green moss.
You may think that this is it, but after few dozen meters up the hill you reach another shallow area. While you step on large rocks to cross over, two huge holes appear on your right and the water just bursts out with a roar!
This is all accessible and easy to reach. When entering the cave, you will notice it’s also full of water. (Hence the name!) It’s not deep, those boots were enough to walk around. It’s not advisable to go further on your own, since the cave is still to be explored and there is no light. Still, it’s more than enough just to come to this natural vestibule and witness how the water comes from within, tumbling down into the river, illuminated by the sun coming from huge holes in the stone.
The spa is situated in the Big Rzav gorge at 30 km from Arilje, towards the Visoka village. The water comes out from the underground lake, cooling down at the certain depth where minerals dissolve, and springs out in bubbles through small rock holes. This type of gorge springs represents the natural thermal rarity and it is the only one in Serbia and the region. The water temperature is 27 degrees Celsius and it is believed to be beneficial for healing rheumatism, heart and neurological diseases, and good for your eyes.
Driving to Visocka Spa is pleasant, especially when you turn from the main road towards Visoka village. The narrow road curves up and down among tall trees. There is the 400-meters trail along the Rzav river near the spa parking space. You just have to admire the transparent river that ranges from green to light blue. Ana, Head of the local tourism organization, was showing me the canyon and two stone pools with healing water where you can easily see the bubbles. Such tranquil atmosphere with sun rays reflecting against the river surface that you almost feel as if you could get the healing from the landscape alone!
This was once the place for fishermen that are now replaced by tourists craving genuine natural surroundings. At the beginning of the trail there is also a restaurant where you can take a break and have lunch on its terrace overlooking the Rzav river.
This river is pretty important for Arilje. Not only that its waters are suitable for fishponds – so that you can have the best trout on the way to Visocka Spa – but there are also numerous beaches along its banks. The Town’s Beach is easy to reach by foot, following the trail from the town center. Then there is the Narrow Whirl, about one km away from the center, the small island that houses the ARLEMM Festival every year – the celebration of classic, traditional, spiritual and jazz music, with numerous performers and thousands of visitors. Further away there are the Yellow Beach, the Green one etc.
There is abundance of beaches to choose from during summer months, and some offer volleyball or football terrains, while others organize live music shows in the evenings.
The town is packed with tourists in the summer and especially during the ARLEMM Festival in July, and you should probably book an accommodation in advance. You can choose whether to stay in the hotel or private rooms. The interesting Villa Ravijojla is also available, the one that houses various workshops, yoga weeks etc., and where the hostess greeted us in a traditional outfit. I have spent few pleasant nights at the Migro Lux Apartments at only five-minute drive from the town center.
And I almost forgot! Make sure to stop by the Tourist Info Center in Arilje to try the local recipe – raspberries dipped in chocolate!
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