|Excursion to Sokobanja|
During Thanksgiving break Olja and I headed to Sokobanja, a health resort town about 236 km from Belgrade. The area was already known in Roman times and became quite popular during the Turkish occupation, at which time the town’s first thermal spa was erected. Today people still visit Sokobanja for its clean, rich air and its thermal springs, which provide healing benefits for people with respiratory ailments.
Upon arriving at the bus station, a taxi driver took us to a small pension place. It was nothing fancy, but we had all three meals included and it was close to the walking street. After dropping off our suitcase and eating a late lunch, we headed into the downtown. The snow was beginning to melt, but still covered much of the wide walking street. There were people walking about doing errands or simply enjoying a walk, but it was not crowded as Olja had recalled when she visited here during a warmer part of the year. After stopping briefly at the information center and nearby gallery, we went for a walk in the hills just outside of town. Unfortunately it got dark quickly, so we headed back into town, stopping by a café for a rich hot chocolate drink. Since they had many different flavors, we vowed to come back the next evening to enjoy another flavor.
The next day, the morning blue sky provided a positive sign that we would have a great day for hiking. After a hearty breakfast, we headed up towards the mountain. Along the road, tractors with chains around the tires were parked. Wood was neatly piled up next to homes, ready for winter consumption. Heading back once again to the walking street, the sun began turning the snow into slush. On the wide street, people were walking at a relaxed pace, not overly busy. Recalling our experience in Rudnik with its confusing and poorly-marked trails, we decided to ask some locals which path to take to reach some of the desired sites. Different advice and directions were given, and others couldn’t help us at all. I found that a bit odd, but Olja explained that many of those who hike in the mountains are visitors, many of whom come for the healing benefits. In fact, Sokobanja’s spa tourism officially began in1837.
Spotting a sign in Cyrillic to one scenic spot, we headed up the snow-covered narrow road. Here we had a great view of the surrounding mountains, rivers, hills, and some of Sokobanja. Snow still peaked through the openings between the bare trees and pine trees. We then proceeded up the main road to the Sanatorium, as we knew that road would be open. In areas where the sun hit gravel, the snow had melted; in others, it was slushy. To avoid getting wet feet, we often walked on the tire track paths. When the sun rays hit us, we sometimes unzipped our coats, only to zip them back up later when gusts of wind cooled things down. As we headed up the mountain, things became quite calm and peaceful. The sun shone through the bare tree forest, with the snow shimmering below. We heard a hawk cry from above. The air was fresh and invigorating.
In the distance we spotted some larger buildings, which we assumed were part of the sanatorium. Occasionally we spotted a bench or some shoe prints, indicators of people from the sanatorium who walked as part of their healing regimen. We now had a good view of Sokobanja below. It was larger than I expected, with a number of larger hotels jutting above the modest residential areas. Indeed, this area must be quite busy during the high tourist season. In front of one of the sanatorium buildings, we met a kind man. He offered to take us to the waterfall, as he was going quite close to there to feed some poultry. As we passed the heating plant for the complex, I saw a man pushing a cart of coal on rail tracks. We proceeded down the snow-covered hill, a short distance to the man’s birds. Thanking the man for his kindness, we headed down the path to the waterfall. With the cold temperatures, the waterfall (the largest in Serbia) wasn’t very active, but the frozen icicles jutted out in beautiful abstract formations. Pausing there for a bit, we enjoyed the sound of the falling water surrounded by the peace of nature.
Although we would have liked to explore more paths, we knew that we must head back in order to arrive at the Turkish hammam in time for our appointment. Located right on the walking street, the 16th century Turkish bath structure is a beautiful, well-reserved historical landmark. After a quick lunch at the hotel, we grabbed our swimming suit and headed to the hammam. On the left side of the entrance, a newer reception area and special room for inhalation therapy was located. Young women workers in their white lab coats sat in the office, chatting merrily as they ate cookies and drank Coke – rather strange, I thought, for a health spa. After paying for the session (about $10) at a nearby building, the receptionist escorted us to the changing area and large room with the thermal bath. She explained that the tiles in the baths and faucet areas, all in very good preservation, were original. Steam rose gently to the small vent in the sloped ceiling. The natural thermal water was body temperature and felt very soft. We stayed in the bath for the full 25 minutes recommended by the receptionist, enjoying every minute. A massage then followed, completing the experience.
With the remaining light available, we went to visit the small church on the walking street, dating back to 1884. It had old frescoes on the ceiling dome, in varying states of condition. Religious, iconoclastic paintings adorned the altar and surrounding walls. As in other Serbian churches I had visited, cloth-covered pedestals held other iconoclastic paintings. After saying a brief prayer and kissing the painting, church members left coins around the painting as a token of gratitude. The sound of church bells and the arrival of the priest indicated that a service was about to begin, so we exited the church and headed towards the café for our second sampling of hot chocolate.
I would like to visit Sokobanja again when it is warmer, taking the opportunity to visit the famed medieval Soko grad castle and other destinations in the oxygen-rich mountains. When the leaves are out on the trees and the flowers are in bloom, the nature must be quite beautiful. Of course, another visit to the Turkish bath would be a must….
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