My birthday was a few weeks away, Nov 7th, and I was searching around for somewhere to go. I was so very close to booking a flight to Tirana, Albania. That might sound like an odd choice since I’ve been a staunch Serbian supporter for all these years, but I really wanted to meet some Albanians on their home turf. You shouldn’t judge a whole race by the acts of a few freaks on Youtube and Facebook. :) It was time to open my mind and go for something adventurous.
Well, that all changed because of the video I made showing my support of Kosovo’s denial into UNESCO. I received some very scary, nasty, and threatening messages from Kosovo and all over Albania. What was I going to do now?
Eastern Serbia is a region that I haven’t had many opportunities to see. It’s filled with some ancient historic sites, beautiful mountains, canyons and untouched forests. It’s also home to a minority group here in Serbia that has always interested me…… Vlachs.
The Vlachs were totally unknown to me until about 2 years ago. Vampires, spirits, magic and superstitions have always interested me.They are big believers in all of them.
The Vlachs are a minority group that are spread between Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine,Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Greece and Bulgaria. According to the 2011 census, Serbia has roughly 35,000 Vlachs who mainly reside in the Bor and Zajecar districts of Serbia in the eastern part of the country. They have a separate minority council and are represented in the population censuses as a separate ethnicity. The language spoken by the Vlachs consists of two distinct Romanian subdialects spoken in regions neighboring Romania: one major group of Vlachs speaks the dialect spoken in Mehedinți County in western Oltenia, while the other major group speaks a dialect similar to the one spoken in the neighboring region of Banat .The majority of them follow the Eastern Orthodox faith.
I hadn’t had the opportunity to befriend any of them until last year. One of the students, Marko Radojkovic, signed up on our summer work and travel program last year and we became fast friends. I worked with him a lot on his English and how to get through the U.S. Embassy visa interview. He told me when he returned from the USA, he would take me to see how the Vlachs live in his hometown of Majdanpek.
Majdanpek is a little town of 7,000 folks nestled in the forests and hills of eastern Serbia. The town is famous as a copper mine district, since the early 17th century. The origin of the name is based on words majdan(related to Turkish madän, mine) and river Pek – mine on river Pek. Throughout its history, mining development was held by many foreign owners (Czechs, Belgians, Austrians) , and was extensively exploited. Today, it’s controlled by the Russians. The town was industrialized in the mid-20th century, by the industrial program supported by SFR Yugoslavia’s Government of that time, and the personal influence of J.B.Tito (marshal and lifetime prime minister since the end of WWII until 1980). He once referred to it as “The Golden City”. Through the late 20th century, the town was in a period of industrial progress and one of the most developed areas in copper mining and metallurgy.
I took off work for three days and decided I’d spend it at his place on Friday, and Saturday and Sunday in Donji Milanovac. I met Marko at the bus station in Belgrade early on Friday morning. We boarded the 8:45am bus to Majdanpek. It’s a long trip (3.5 hours) as the roads are not very developed and the bus stops in all the little towns along the way. Marko brought along a little bag full of snacks and a little bottle of homemade rakija, dunja mixed with apple, that made our ride a little more bearable. The bus ticket was only 1300 dinars ($13) for a round trip ticket and it was surprisingly empty. We took up the the 5 seats in the back of the bus and chatted about randomness for the entire ride to Majdanpek. The worst thing about Serbian buses is the lack of a bathroom. You need to make sure you take care of business prior to boarding or you have to ask the driver to pull over on the side of the road. :)
Marko told me a lot about the creepy tales of some of the places along the way. We passed this little abandoned house along the way that was known to be haunted. They say that people can hear a baby screaming late into the night from the depths of the old house. No one has been able to stay in the house for an entire night. It would make a great episode of Ghost Hunters.
We finally arrive into Majdanpek. The surrounding area is amazingly beautiful. There are untouched forests with a spatter of farm houses and abandoned homes. My first impression of Majdanpek was how massive the mine that’s located right beside the town was. They say it’s one of the biggest copper mines in Europe. It’s currently owned by a Russian company and is one of the biggest employers in this region.
The town of Majdanpek is surrounded by forests and almost every single resident lives in an apartment complex. You don’t see very many homes at all. We jump off the bus, grab our bags and head to his family’s clothing store that’s right in the center of Majdanpek. There’s a lovely little church right in the center.
The town has a downtown area that’s at the bottom of the hill and an uptown area that’s on the top of the hill. It’s no wonder we didn’t see many overweight folks, because it’s a workout to go from one side to the other.
We meet up with his mother at her lovely little clothing store. She’s a very cheerful and welcoming woman. We grab the house keys from her and head up to his apartment. The apartment is a charming little thing that has been remodeled with care. The mother had some hot Vlach pie waiting for us in the oven. It was delicious! It was made with layers of crust with meat and cheese inside it. We ate till we couldn’t eat anymore, showered, drank a coffee and waited on his parents to get home. They had a surprise for me!
The father and mother arrive in a big yellow van that they use to haul their clothing from Belgrade to Majdanpek. We grab our stuff and jump in the van. They still haven’t told me what we are doing, but we stop off at the tourist organization in the town center. A tour guide hops in and we are on our way to some surprise location. The tour guide is a middle aged lady who speaks English very well. She accidentally mentions something and I know where we are headed, Rajko’s Cave! This is the one tourist site that I had really wanted to visit in Majdanpek, but they had told me it was closed for the season! :) We were going to have a private tour of the cave!
Rajko’s Cave is a nature lover’s dream! The total length of the cave is 2.304 meters while the tourist path is 1.410,5 meters. Air temperature is 8 degrees Celsius and relative humidity is 100%. The cave consists of two physically separated caverns: an underground river channel and a spring cave, both of which have two floors. A series of attractive groupings are found in Rajko’s Cave: The Egyptian Goddes, the Snail, Stump with Mushrooms, Sleeping Bear and several cave halls. The Rajko’s cave has the highest quality of cave ornaments.
According to a legend, Rajko’s Cave was named after a leader of “hajduks” (outlaws fighting against the Ottoman rule) Rajko, who attacked and robbed people on the way from Donji Milanovac to Majdanpek and hid his prey in the cave. They say the area has been ripe with treasure hunters who have dreams of stumbling upon the riches of Rajko.
The guide takes on an hour long trip through the depths of the gorgeous cave (video available here). She fills us in on all the facts and mysteries surrounding the cave. I’ve been in numerous caves in my life, but this one takes the cake!
They tourist organization and Serbian government have done a great job making this cave tourist friendly. They have beautiful lighting in most areas and pristine walkways and stairs in all the locations. Rajko’s Cave is a must see on any visit to Serbia! You won’t be disappointed!
We depart the cave to explore the surrounding forests and hills. Marko’s parents and the guide head back in the van while Marko and I decide to walk the 3-4 km back to Majdanpek through the dense forests. The area around the entrance has some bbq pits and picnic tables for all of their summer campers. We sip some of the water that’s pouring out of the cave depths. The water is cold and refreshing and very clean!
November was a great time to come to this part of Serbia. The trees were an amazing array of different colors! The pictures do it no justice. We wander around this large lake that’s a few meters from the cave.
Marko tells me more legends of the area while we walk up this big hill surrounded by thick forests and layers of orange leaves. I’m hoping to catch site of some of the Vlach witches! :) There’s an episode of VICE Serbia that shows some of the strange customs of the old Vlachs that was filmed right around this area.
They show how some of the Vlach magic believers hang doll heads throughout the forest to rid themselves of evil spirits so that’s what I wanted to see. Well, I would have probably crapped my pants if I had, but it sounds good to say now. We reach an old wooden fence in the middle of the woods where there are bits of clothing wrapped around many of the little trees. :o We don’t know what it was for, but it spooked me a bit. A little later, we run into an old farmhouse up on a hill. There’s an old man entering into his gate with some wood on his back. I wanted to speak to him, but thought better of it.
We continue on our mission and run into this old bridge that’s made out of broken slats of wood. I’m glad Marko knew about the loose slats, because I would have fell through one or two of them if I had been alone!
We come out of the clearing by the Majdanpek high school and one of the biggest indoor swimming pools in Serbia. It was built during the Yugoslavian times for the Yugoslav National Swim Team to practice in. They don’t have enough money to keep the water heated in the winter months so it was closed. The high school is in very rough shape. There was spray paint and broken windows on many portions of the building. It was Friday evening so school was out, but there was a group of kids sitting on the front steps of the school. We walked around back to see this large monument that Tito had built. It had a large open space in front and seating for some kind of outdoor speeches or performances. The monument was in a similar condition to the school. It had been spray painted on, busted in a few places, and wasn’t worth much of a look.
The sun was rapidly falling and dinner was ready so we headed back to Marko’s house. Momma had prepared a delicious Vlach meal for us to eat. It was something called vlaski kacamak. It reminded me a little of cornbread-like substance that you place on a plate and then spread this thick, delicious stew of peppers, pork, and sauce all over it! It was terrific! I ate more than I should of while chatting with the family. Marko had to do all the translations so he was starting to get a headache. :) I hear that from a lot of people who aren’t used to speaking in other languages.
Time to head to downtown to check out the nightlife. We didn’t want to stay long because we had to get up early to explore a few more things and then head to Donji Milanovac. We took a long, easy, downhill walk downtown which was nearly empty for a Friday night. The thing I noticed most was the lack of cafes and bars. The majority of Serbian towns have a trillion of them, but not Majdanpek. We stopped in one of them that was pretty full. Marko’s cousin was in there so they chatted away for a bit while I sucked down a couple beers.
I saw this little kafana type place on the corner with a bunch of old men in it and told Marko that we had to go there. The old, places are usually some of my favorite places to visit in Serbian towns. I never go alone, but since he was with me we headed inside. It was a lot nicer than I had expected. We watched a little bit of Rocky I on tv, chatted with the waitress and threw down three or four beers.
It was time to head home. Marko didn’t want to catch a taxi which are only 70 dinars in Majdanpek so we walked the whole way uphill! It just about killed me, but didn’t seem to phase him. :)
The parents had my bed made for me and I crashed for the night in the home of a Vlach.
Continued in the next article……. If you want to see the video I made of this first part of the trip, click here.