The Jerma River canyon has an abundance of natural beauties, but what makes the whole area even more attractive is the cultural and ethnological heritage. This unique space, at the crossroads of important roads, shows the traces of many cultures in the form of material and non-material heritage. Cultural and historical monuments, beliefs, customs and mystical tales and legends testify about this today.
MONASTERIES AND CHURCHES
The Poganovo monastery
The Poganovo monastery, and the church dedicated to John the Evangelist, is one of the most valuable monuments of the Serbian medieval culture. Situated on the left bank of the Jerma River in the heart of the canyon, it presents a centuries-old guardian of this region. This masterpiece of Serbian heritage has been under state protection since 1949, as a cultural asset of great importance, and it has been on the UNESCO list of the world’s cultural heritage since 1979.
The monastery was built in 1395, as an endowment of a Serbian nobleman Konstantin Dejanović Dragaš and his daughter Jelena, the names of whom are engraved in the round rocks on the east side of the temple. It was built in the Morava architectural school style and there is a splendor of medieval frescos in its interior. The frescos which were painted by artists from northern Greece in 1499 belong to the order of the greatest paintings of that era in the Balkans.
The sukovo monastery
The monastery, with the church dedicated to the Ascent of the Blessed Virgin, is situated on the right bank of the Jerma River in the village Sukovo. According to historical sources, the church was built on the foundations of an old place of worship which dates back to the 4th century. The construction of the present church lasted from 1857 to 1859 and the monastery has been protected by the state since 1968. Wall decoration presents a chronological cross-section of the history of the Old Testament, Christian and Serbian church. Unique frescos which can be seen in this church are the fresco Saint Christopher with the head of an animal and the fresco of the Virgin Mary with wings.
VILLAGES AND PEOPLE
Villages in the Jerma River canyon are characteristic for the Balkan type of houses and beautiful landscapes which surround them. What used to be a developed area with lively villages and raspberry and tobacco-growing households is now an area with decreasing number of inhabitants, and an increasing number of ruined houses and overgrown fields. The villages Vrapča, Petačinci, Iskrovci, and Banski Do have a few inhabitants. Larger and more developed villages which are situated near the Jerma River recognized tourism as an opportunity for development, and there is an increasing number of ethno and rural households in the villages Poganovo, Trnski Odorovci, Vlasi and Sukovo, which will gladly host you.
In conversations with the locals, most of whom are the elderly, you will find out about numerous interesting stories, but also about mystical legends. Conversations with the locals are the best way to feel the soul of the Jerma River, and they will find the conversation with you as an interesting topic to recount in the coming days.
Cliffs and gorges in the Jerma River canyon were hidden and inaccessible until 1927, when the narrow track railway was built for the purposes of the miners working in the dark coal mine “Jerma” in Rakita. The railway stretched from the village Rakita to the village Sukovo and several stone bridges were built in that section, which depict the economic progress of this region and a famous train “Ćira”, which was a “miracle” of that time.
The film “The Miner’s Luck”
During the construction of the mine, one of the first Yugoslav films “The Miner’s Luck” was recorded in the Jerma River canyon. The film drew great attention of the public, among other things, because of a scandal caused by a love story between two actors during the filming. It had been thought to be lost, but during the 1990s its parts were discovered in the archives and they were recreated and comprised together.
The film “The Miner’s Luck” can be seen on the website of the Virtual Museum Caribrod.
TALES AND LEGENDS – In pursuit of priest Martin’s treasure
Stories intertwined with historical records led to “a gold rush” occupying the hearts of many searchers who go there even today to search for treasure. It is believed that during the Roman, Ottoman and Circassia empires, a great quantity of gold was buried in the Jerma River canyon. In their pursuit, gold trackers use maps, old maps drawn on animal skin, symbols on caves and trees to solve the puzzles and find at least a gold coin, if not a whole load of gold.
The most famous story, which can be heard in a unique way from any inhabitant in the canyon of Jerma, is linked to the famous treasure of priest Martin, which has been looked for for centuries. Gold hunters mainly search on the Vlaška Planina where, according to the legend, one of the entrances to the alleged “Golden City” can be found, where there is an entrance to “Smukova dupka”. It is believed that the entrance to the “Smukova dupka” (“Snake’s Pit”) – which is protected by numerous traps which need to crossed, the last trap being a mechanism in the form of a golden snake – is a snake which kills anyone who enters. According to the locals’ stories, many have never returned from there.
According to the legend, priest Martin Himović, originally from Dubrovnik, served God and lived a quiet life in this area with his wife, who had been famous for her beauty. That is why the Ottomans abducted her and he then became a “Hajduk” and he revenged by intercepting and robbing caravans in the gorges of the surrounding canyons. Nobody knows where he hid the treasure, and many are still searching for it in caves and rocks of the mountains which surround the Jerma River, near hundred years old oak trees, underneath the foundations of monasteries and surfaces of frescoes, but all stories end in the same way – nobody has found it, and some of the hunters lost their lives wandering through this area.
This century-old phenomenon is depicted in the documentary film about Priest Martin’s treasure, which was filmed within the series “Stories of a Double-headed Eagle”.
Making of “the Pirot kilim”, pottery and traditional production of cheese are rare crafts which have managed to survive in the Pirot region. Pirot used to be famous for its craftwork and stores, and in the surrounding villages, almost all households weaved rugs – blankets which can be seen in many houses even today. It’s a rarity, but in certain households, there are still handicrafts made of hemp by women.
In these areas, brick and pottery were baked, wood was being processed and pieces of furniture and household objects were being made – water bottles, saltcellars, plates, spoons, spindles and spindle lathes, wooden coat racks, troughs for washing and pig slaughtering, beds, benches, shelves and tripods. Cereals were ground in watermills, and cloths were being rolled. Barrels and tubs were made by coopers, blacksmiths and horseshoe makers could be found in almost every village. Goat hair was gathered for weavers who then processed it.
This region is widely famous for its specialties of protected origin. The Pirot cheese, ironed sausages, cheese from Stara Planina, lamb, Serbian traditional salad, Caribrod dried meat, curd, “gibanica” (traditional pastry), “zeljanik” (pie with greens), moruznica (cornbread), homemade bread, stuffed dried peppers and vine leaf rolls are just some of the specialties which are made according to recipes passed down through generations. Almost all housewives in this area know how to make some of these local specialties, by applying culinary secrets of their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. The influence of folk customs and food preparation according to old recipes can mainly be seen when preparing food for celebrating “Slava” and ceremonial breads for religious holidays.
Dialect (language) is what makes this area authentic as well. It represents a combination of Shopski and/or verbal expression typical for Pirot.