Thursday, October 05, 2006

Weekend trip to Djavolja Varos (Devil's Town)

Prolom Banja
About 12:30AM, the bus left for the spa town in central Serbia, about 320 km from Belgrade. The bus was completely filled, with the four of us (Olja, Pat, Mima, and myself) receiving the last tickets. Thankfully the bus began to thin out as we headed towards our destination, giving us a bit more room. By the time we reached Prolom Banja around sunrise, it was just us and one other man. Things were still quiet at this time of the morning. Around breakfast time, more people began emerging – from the occupants of the spa hotel to the vendors of produce and household goods. Nearly everyone going up the many stairs was carrying empty plastic bottles, ready to fill with the special mineral water tap next to the hotel. Most of the people were elderly, likely taking advantage of the indoor therapeutical swimming pool for treatment of many conditions such as gastritis, gall stones, kidney, prostate glad and urinary tract inflammations, eczema. Not a very lively group, but we would be spending most of our time away from the hotel area anyway.

Djavolja Varoš
After breakfast (omelette with smoked ham and local cheese), we headed to Djavolja Varoš, which means “Devil’s Town”. While hiking through a wooded area across creaky foot bridges created by logs, we encountered streams and still pools with a distinctive rust color. The Djački potok stream was devoid of life, due to the high concentration of iron and sulfur. According to some literature I read, acidity levels range from 1.5 to 3.5 pH. The water is regarded by locals as having healing qualities (such as on the skin), and is collected and sold. Our driver (a resident from Prolom Banja) explained that the best water was found higher up, so he hauled his bags of plastic bottles up to our destination. While walking up, we passed the remains of an ancient temple, of which the foundation remained. Some religious artifacts and pictures of saints were placed inside, surrounded by a large collection of coins left by visitors. Emerging from the wooded area, the famous reddish stone columns began to appear above us. The unique natural phenomenon has similarities to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Climbing up more stairs, we reached the observation deck surrounded by the 202 stone columns, ranging in height from 2-20 meters (6.5-65 feet) and .5-3 meters (1.6-9.84 feet) in width. I had expected the columns to be much larger (like those in Colorado), but suspected that part of it was due to our relative position. Most columns were clustered together and lined up in rows. At the top of each finger-like column was a dark rock, serving as a protective cap, preventing the same level of erosion as occurred to the surrounding area.

A few trees twisted by winds dotted the reddish rocky landscape. As it was a sunny day with only a light breeze, I did not hear the ghostly wind sounds described by previous visitors. After enjoying the panoramic view of the rock formations and tree-covered mountains in another direction, we headed down a different direction towards the water source where our driver was busily filling bottles. After soaking our feet in the orange water and enjoying the warm sun, we headed back down the rocky terrain.

There are two mineral water wells in Djavolja Varoš. The “Devil’s Town” well is a cold and extremely acidic spring (pH 1.5) and high mineralization (15 g/lit of water). The “Red Well” has a pH of 3.5 but slightly lower levels of minerals.

Several legends have been created to explain the origin of “Devil’s Town”. In one, the figure-like columns represent wedding guests petrified by God in order to prevent them from encouraging their devil-urged encouraging of incestual marriage by a brother and sister. Another legend indicates that these are devils turned into stones by people who had been forced to carry them on their backs, suffered misfortunes, and tried to get rid of the devils while in the area.

Pat’s friend was expecting us to come some time this afternoon to her house near Djavolja Varoš, but we couldn’t reveal the exact time, as there was no cell phone reception up in the nature preserve. Flowers of various colors and sizes lined the path towards her village house. After being warmly greeted, we were served some walnut rakija, sweetened home-canned fruit, and mineral water. Between the discussions occurring in Serbian and the reduced sleep I had on the bus, I was getting quite sleepy. If we had more time (and energy), I’d have loved to have photographed some of the old buildings in her tiny village, consisting of weathered wooden slats and some with a straw-filled adobe-like surface. Once again we were on the narrow, winding roads back to Prolom Banja, comprised of pot-hole covered asphalt or dirt/gravel.

Lazarica Church
Fatigued by the long night bus ride, we all took a short nap. We then headed to Lazarica Church, a nice forest walk about 2.4 km away from the hotel. We spotted a sign saying Lazarica path, so we followed it. While this walk (presumably the path that Prince Lazar took) was picturesque, we were glad that we traveled through the narrow footpaths and rickety bridge while it was still light out. Although it seemed longer than 2.4 km, we finally reached the log church – the only one of its type in the Toplica region. According to legend, Prince Lazar’s soldiers (1389 AD) went around the church six times while praying for victory in Kosovo. While doing this, the trees intertwined and twisted in the direction of their movement. The original plum trees have died, but new ones grew and assumed the same look – always only six trees.

Lukovska Banja
The next morning we were once again greeted by the driver who planned to take us to Lukovska Banja, a spa about 36 km west of Kuršumlija. First he wanted to show us the rooms he had for rent at his house. With about 3 beds per room and one bathroom between 16 guests, the accommodations were very simple – but at a cheap price. Fine for the adventurous traveler, but too basic for those wanting more modern accommodations. After Turkish coffee, we climbed back into his car and were on the road to the high-altitude spa. After a short distance outside the town, the pot-hole filled asphalt road changed to gravel and then dirt. He stopped once to check the air filter, but there was nothing that could be done right then. He insisted that it was better if the windows were kept open – something we questioned, especially as the dust began clouding the inside of the car. Sitting in the back seat, I even noticed the dust spewing in from behind me. We could feel ourselves getting dirtier by the moment. At one point Mima asked to stop, so she could get a few breaths of fresh air. We stopped past an old wooden bridge that had planks of weathered boards on top, about wheel-axel length apart. In the creek, we found some cute tiny frogs and pollywogs.

Continuing on our way, we encountered road construction, in the beginning stages of straightening out some of the narrow windy roads and building a few bridges. These large construction vehicles really kicked up a lot of dust. We passed farmers driving tiny tractors which looked like they were simply a motor with a steering wheel. In the attached wagon, one could find people (smoking, of course), loads of wood, or hay. I even spotted a few oxen hauling large logs.

Finally we arrived at Lukovska Banja. Situated about 681m above sea level, it is the highest spa in Serbia. A geyser spouted out sulfur-smelling thermal water. Pat and I spotted some crocuses across the creek, so we headed over there. We were surprised to see them so late in the year. Their shape was different than the ones I saw in Zlatibor. Walking along another path (I didn’t want to take off my shoes again to cross the creek), I went past a pretty but small waterfall in the highly wooded area. Crossing a bridge, I met up with the rest. They were soaking their feet in a large pool of thermal water, about 65°C in temperature. Many local people (mostly elderly) joined us. One lady wearing a swimsuit sat in it – certainly tempting.

After a snack at the local hotel, we got back in the dusty car and headed back to Prolom Banja.