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17 reasons to visit Rtanj i Sokobanja

The south-east of Serbia has a unique charm that attracts visitors any time of the year. After an hour and an half on the highway, for the last hour of the trip we move to a single-lane road lined with lush luxurious greenery, which brings us to the Green Heart of Serbia.

1. Because Sokobanja has been the most visited spa in the area for the last two centuries

The locals have always known the secrets of healing, as well as the secrets of hospitality. No wonder that tourism in Serbia started here – at 400 m above the sea level among the Carpathian and the Balkan mountains, at a center of a wind rose, in the area populated by the most hospitable and open people. The fist entrance ticket to the spa was issued as long ago as 1837, at the time of Prince Miloš Obrenović. The main promenade of the town is long and wide, and could befit a capital. Let us walk along the same picturesque route walked such famous Serbians as Isidora Sekulić, Stevan Sremac, Ben Akiba , and  Ivo Andrić (our only Nobel prize winner to date). Along the way, there are plenty of cafes to stop for a snack and a drink, and souvenir stalls.

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On the road with us to Rtanj and Sokobanja

2. Because local thermal sources have healing radioactive properties

First report of the unique healing properties of the Sokobanja water sources date back to the 15th century. Now the town has six thermal mineral springs with radioactive properties. The water is used for bathing, drinking, soaks, and inhalations, and is known to improve circulation.

The valley between the mountains Ozren and Rtanj has been long known for the health benefits of its water, so much so, that people with chronic issues built houses in the area to stay close to the healing springs.

3. Because you can bathe in the bath of Prince Miloš

The Turkish bath of Sokobanja, also known as hamam, used to be the privilege of the rich and powerful, but is now available for everyone to enjoy. The bath was built in the 15th century, during the Turkish rule, on the foundation of old Roman-era thermal baths. It was later renovated by prince Miloš, who put in a separate tub for himself. Now anyone can take a soak in the royal tub, though most prefer the larger pools. After bathing, guests can enjoy a massage or a facial. Be sure to book an appointment in advance, as the baths are popular and often filled with tourists, locals, and children waiting for inhalations, but definitely do not miss an opportunity to enjoy this wonderful piece of the Ottoman heritage.

4. Because the Moravica river has a gentlemen’s beach

A stroll through the Banjica Park, where local artists sell their works, takes us to the Moravica river, whose shady beaches are the perfect place to be in the sweltering summer days. The most popular beach is Župan, and if you ask some of the older Sokobanja residents, they will tell you a legend about a local Romeo, who visited this beach. The next beach along the narrowest part of the river is called Tesnac. With its six shallow pools and rocks to dive from it is perfect for a younger crowd. The quietest and most isolated beach is called the Gentlemen’s beach. Families with small children can enjoy a mini-waterpark with three water slides.

5. Because Lepterija has a Romeo and Juliet story

The most famous hiking area called Lepterija can be reached on foot, by bike, or ATV. If you do not lack the courage and the physical ability, you can also take a boat down the Moravica. The name Lepterija comes from the Greek word elefteria (freedom). The area is featured in an old local legend that tells a story of a young daughter of a Sokobanja landowner, who fell in love with a boy from the village of Vrmdža. Unfortunately, the parents of the young lovers were feuding over a land dispute, so they were not allowed to see each other. The couple decided to elope, but was soon captured, and the girl killed at this very spot at her father’s orders.

6. Because here even the rocks have healing powers

Now we cross the bridge over the river to examine the Virgin Mary’s image in a rock. Getting to the rock is not easy, especially with heavy backpacks, so non-slip shoes are highly recommended. This natural work of art is best seen from afar, from the other bank of the river. People believe that the rock with Mary’s image for it has healing powers, even though getting to it is no easy feat, at least for tourists, as the locals seem to have no problem scaling the steep rocks.

7. Because you don’t have to be a bird to get a bird-eye view

The trail to the Sokograd fortress, also known as Sokolac, goes along the green shady bank of the picturesque Moravica river. We reach a turn to the cave of Hajduk Veljko, a famous Serbian revolutionary. It is, unsurprisingly, also uphill, and after the climb to the Saint Mary’s rock seems almost impossible, but we carry on, inspired by the company of elderly women, climbing so effortlessly, as if it was a walk in the park. Not much is known about the fortress sitting on the top of the impregnable rock. It was supposedly constructed during emperor Justinian’s era and takes its name after its first occupants, who were hawk breeders (the Serbian word for hawk being ‘soko’). We have arrived to the summit and are left breathless – not after the exercise, but because of the magnificent view.

The magical Serbia

Although it is a heritage site, the only thing that is left are the ruins that tell the story of past wars. Like the fortress itself, the hawks are also free of their former masters, so it is pure luck we get to see them here. In this land of natural wonders, a flight of this magnificent bird strikes with its elegance and beauty.

8. Because this is a perfect spot to relax

After the Sokograd adventure it is time to get some rest. Our attention was drawn to a cozy restaurant named Kod Pudle, right above the waters of the Moravica river. Everything on the menu is homemade: the strong local rakija, aromatic coffee served the old-fashioned way, in a cezve with a piece of Turkish delight and two cubes of sugar, freshly squeezed juices from local fruit, and herbal teas that offer immediate relaxation. A perfect spot to sip your drink, look around, examine the interior, and let you mind wander.

9. Because the Ripaljka waterfall was the first official natural monument in Yugoslavia

The easiest way to reach the first natural monument in ex-Yugoslavia is by a dirt road. Make sure to drive carefully, as there are many hikers on the way. As you get closer to the waterfall, you will be amazed by the views. The name of the waterfall comes from a local word for jumping, ‘ripanje’, because of the way the water skips over the stones. This natural treasure is composed of a number of rifts with the tallest waterfall between 11 and 14 meters high (depending on the amount of water). Some summers, the waterfall dries out if the Gradašnica River that feeds it is redirected for water supply purposes. As you continue exploring the woods, you are sure to find more hidden jewels.

10. Cause here you can step on the stone where two Serbian national heroes first kissed

Up the road from the waterfall, you will find the old Očno holiday complex where an old ophthalmological hospital used to be. In the center, there is a green meadow with an impressive rock in the middle, known locally as the Love Rock. It was here that the legendary Serbian revolutionary, Hajduk Veljko knelt in front of his equally legendary girlfriend, Čučuk Stana. Legend says, Stana had to chase Veljko around the rock three times, before finally getting hold of him so that they could consummate their relationship. Now all couples visiting this historical spot know that if you you’re your love to last forever, just make the three magical circles around the rock, climb it, and kiss, and your wish will be granted.

11. Because the Sokobanja petrol station is magical too: pay with a card and get cash in return

If you forgot to take cash, you are not very likely to come across an ATM anywhere around the woods, waterfalls, and caves, described here. However, on your way to Sokobanja you will find the Sokobanja 2 petrol station that offers a great service of cash withdrawal. All you need to do is to fill up you tank or buy something in the store, no matter the price, and pay with your Mastercard. In this case, you will be able to withdraw up to 5,000 dinars in cash. This amount will be enough to enjoy the rest of your adventures stress-free.

12. Because the Bovansko lake is fisherman’s heaven

Only seven kilometers further along you will find a man-made lake with nicely maintained beaches, perfect for swimming, boating and sailing. The area is quiet, so motorboats are strictly prohibited. The lake is beloved by anglers as it is brimming with carp, pikeperch, barbel, and even pike. If you decide to go camping in the area, you might see a hare, fox, or a deer.

13. Because Vrmdža is hard to pronounce, but great to see

A small cozy hilltop village full of fruit orchards, with clean rivers and streams, Vrmdža is located on the site of an ancient Roman settlement only 30 minutes away from Sokobanja by car. Drop by for a couple of hours to talk to the friendly locals, admiring their unique dialect, and visit a fascinating ethnographic museum in the center, showcasing traditional clothing, dishes, and tools.

14. Because kaymak in the area is serbia’s best

Now let’s take a picturesque dirt road to the Vodenica tavern, nestled neat a stream at the food of the Rtanj mountain. The place is pet friendly, so feel free to bring your dog, but keep it leashed. The tavern serves amazing traditional baked foods like gibanica and projice, fresh river trout and organic lamb. Whatever you order, one thing you absolutely have to try is the kaymak, a creamy butter-like dairy concoction, which, spread on fresh bread, is to die for. Many Serbian towns, like Zlatibor and Čačak compete for the title of best Serbian kaymak-makers, but nothing can compare to the delicious creamy goodness you’ll try here. After a filling lunch, take a leisurely stroll to the nearby Vrmaš lake, which, according to local legend, was created by an especially heavy rainstorm.

15. Because you can climb the Serbian mount olympus for a breathtaking view

After enjoying a hearty traditional meal, it is time for some hiking adventures. There are many mountains in the Balkans, but only this one comes in the shape of a perfect pyramid. Shrouded in mystery and blessed with natural beauty, the Rtanj mountain is a place unlike any other. Everyone’s experience of Rtanj is unique and deeply personal. All you have to do is bring some water, comfy shoes, and a good mood.
No matter whether you believe in the supernatural powers and mystical properties of this magnificent mountain, the nature here is simply breathtaking, the air clean and fresh, and the famous medicinal herbs that grow here do not grow anywhere else. Of course, the biggest reward for the climb will be the panoramic view of the entire Serbia from the summit. Do not forget get some famous herbal Rtanj tea before you leave. Whatever you do, do not get too deep into the woods covering the mountain, as they are believed to hide an entrance to the inside of this perfect pyramid, and whoever enters it will never come out sane.

16. Because here you can become a real Hajduk

Fifteen kilometers towards Knjaževac you will find the Sesalačka cave. Legend says that this place has been a refuge for hajduks, Serbian military leaders, for centuries. The cave’s total length is over 2.5 kilometers, but you can only get as deep as 200 meters by walking its narrow passages. In the summer months, you can see huge bat colonies in the dome. Do not worry; they are far enough and totally safe. Feel free to take a dip in the nearby lake after your cave adventure.

17. Because you can stay here for days without getting bored

No matter how long you stay in Sokobanja, it simply will not be enough. Wherever you wander, expect to find natural, historical, and cultural sights. Each of them has a legend or a story to tell. Although it takes a bit of physical effort to explore all the sights of the area, you will be rewarded in full. There may be more popular tourist destinations in the country, but Sokobanja it truly a jewel in the crown of Serbia.

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