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Feature 23 Oct 17

Rtanj: Serbia’s Magic Mountain

Even if you aren’t into the stories about aliens, ancient pyramids and wizards, Rtanj mountain is great place to explore.

Srdjan Garcevic
BIRN
Belgrade

Standing atop Rtanj it is easy to see why it has inspired so many stories. Photo: Srdjan Garcevic 

Rising majestically above the rolling hills of Eastern Serbia, Rtanj mountain has long captured the imagination because of the strange, pyramidal shape of its highest peak, Siljak (1560m).

The mountain’s reputation for the otherworldly goes way back, as a local legend says the mountain was the site of a castle of a powerful (and bling-loving) wizard who decked it out with gold and diamonds, before it sunk into the ground. Over the years the legend attracted local treasure-hunters, however Rtanj’s reputation for strangeness spread beyond Serbia.

Following many alleged sightings of strange lights around the summit, ufologists around the world became interested in Rtanj and some think it is the centre of alien activity in this part of the world. These days, there are numerous websites and YouTube videos dedicated to ‘de-coding’ Rtanj, analysing the angle of its slopes and drawing parallels with the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico. 

This trend reached its zenith in December 2012, when the mountain attracted a group of doomsday cultists who believed that aliens would take them to safety if they were close enough to the top. Thankfully the end of the world did not happen but Rtanj got into the pages of the international press.

Other New Age believers think that the mountain has healing properties and emits special beneficial ‘energies’. They often support their belief with the fact that its dry slopes are covered with winter savoury, a medicinal herb that is made into ‘the Rtanj tea’ and is said to help with respiratory problems.

Even if you do not believe in the paranormal, a strenuous 15-kilometre hike up to Rtanj’s summit will definitely make you fitter, even if at some points you will probably wish that there was a UFO to teleport you up there. A few friends and I discovered this when we took a path up the mountain from the sleepy former mining village of Rtanj, some two and a half hours’ drive from Belgrade.

Once we got to the village, there were a lot of signs on the houses advertising the local tea and honey. Thankfully we ran into a particularly helpful older lady who gave us directions, after boasting that she climbed the mountain at last fifteen times, the last time when she was 76.

The hike started out easy enough, but soon we were in a forest, huffing and puffing as we were climbing a steep stony path. Our spirits sank when we reached the bottom of the steep, bare pyramid that is Siljak, some hour and a half into our exhausting hike. Although we were soon looking over some majestic mountains of eastern Serbia, we were mostly focused on pushing up the steep narrow path and braving the strong cold wind. Three hours since the beginning of the hike and moments before I was completely overcome by despair from seemingly endless climbing, we saw the ruined chapel that marks the very top of Siljak.

Eerily perched at the top, with a wooden cross jutting out of white stones, the chapel has a romantic story behind it. It was built in 1936 by the wife of the owner of a local coal mine after he committed suicide. The construction was apparently pharaonic, as it took around 1,000 villagers to carry the stones up the mountain. In the end the chapel was blown up by treasure hunters, who thought that some family money was buried below it.

From the top of Rtanj, we could see why it inspired so many stories. Standing on the ruins of the chapel, we felt like we were hovering above the hills below as we were surrounded by steep drops on three sides. 

With our legs sore from the hike, we hoped that the healing power of the mountain would work its magic before our descent. I am not sure it worked on me as I had to toboggan down one part of the grassy slope to save some energy and my knees. Two hours later, we were finally in the village.

A very kind lady from the village invited us in for some Rtanj tea. We rested a little and bought a few dried bunches of the herb after our host helpfully informed us that the ‘herbs’ we were picking on our way down were just normal grass. 

Having missed the mystical energy and the aliens, we had to restore our energies with the culinary delights of the area around Rtanj. We bought some famous home-made cheese from the nearby village of Krivi Vir and enjoyed a lamb roast and a few plum rakijas (brandies) in a quaint kafana (traditional restaurant) in Donja Mutnica village.

Even if did not meet any aliens or wizards, Rtanj more than sated our hiking needs, so we could go back recuperated to Belgrade, which is a magical thing in its own way.

 This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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