City in deep south may appear dull, but environs are marvel of nature, history
When you have a long weekend ahead and the weather looks good for a trip, heading to Kardzhali is a great option. The Rhodope mountains are beautiful – pleasant and refreshing in all seasons – and this city is the perfect base to explore some interesting sites.
Kardzhali itself is hardly an attraction. It is a relatively new city dominated by faceless Communist and post-Communist architecture. Besides its Regional History Museum, located in a beautiful building initially constructed in the 1920s for a Muslim religious school, there is nothing more to see.
However, its environs more than make up for this. The idyllic hills around are scattered with natural phenomena, ancient Thracians shrines and stunning landscapes.
The rock city of Perperikon is a puzzle of buildings and fortifications
Arguably the best known of these is Perperikon, the rock city a few miles north of Kardzhali, which was carved out millennia ago. It is said to have been the seat of the famed ancient oracle of Dionysus who predicted the glorious future of both Alexander the Great and Emperor Augustus. It is also dubbed "the Bulgarian Machu Picchu."
What you will encounter there reinforces Perperikon's reputation, although the Machu Picchu comparison is a bit of an overstatement. Rising above the picturesque valley of the Perpereshka River, Perperikon stands atop a rocky hill. The site has been extensively excavated, revealing walls, stairs, cisterns, churches, palace buildings, a necropolis and the remains of a medieval fort.
A medieval tower is the sole survivor of Perperkion's extensive fortifications
Covering more than 5 sq km, Perperikon is the largest megalithic site in the Balkans. People visited here to fill crevices in the rocks with fragments of pots as offerings to unknown deities or spirits as early as the 6th millennium BC. Suddenly, and for reasons that remain enshrouded in the mist of history, all activity ceased. It would resume a thousand years later. Significantly, people started carving niches, altars, and basins into the rocks much later, in the 18th to 12th centuries BC. Gradually, a rock settlement was built around the shrine, boasting a fortified acropolis, a mighty palace and two neighbourhoods on the southern and the northern slopes of the hill.
When the Romans took over the region, in the 1st century AD, they added their own buildings to Perperikon. The old fortification walls on the acropolis were reinforced, reaching almost 3m in width.
The easiest way to make sense of Perperikon's topography is to see it from above. The city was located on a domineering hill that used to control the main routes in this part of the Rhodope
Christianity came in the early 5th century, but unlike other pagan sacred places in the Balkans, Perperikon was not abandoned. Instead, Christians moved into the empty temples, built churches over them and turned the place into a stronghold for the local bishops.
Life on Perperikon came to an end in 1362, when the Ottomans invaded and the hill was abandoned for good, leaving it to nature, which soon swallowed up the remains of the churches and the Thracian shrines.
The site became a household name in the 2000s, when large-scale archaeological excavations started. These continue to this day. As a result Perperikon looks different every year, warranting repeated visits.
In the past few years Perperikon has found a rival in fame. The Thracian rock shrine at Tatul, east of Kardzhali, is a strange sight by any means. It is dominated by a rock in the shape of a truncated pyramid, with two tombs carved into it. None other than Orpheus, the legendary Thracian musician who descended into Hell and came back alive, lay buried there, or so a popular tale goes. How is it possible for a mythological personality to have a real-life grave? According to another hypothesis, the Orpheus from the Greek myths was based on a real man from Thrace, whose achievement was to reform the religion of the ancient Thracians, introducing into it Apollo, the god of light and enlightenment.
Who was buried in this strange rock tomb? Tatul shrine is one of Bulgaria's greatest archaeological mysteries
If rock shrines are your thin, you will find a lesser known, but equally impressive one near Tatul. Harman Kaya near the village of Bivolyane is on a high plateau that rises above a meandering river. Like other Thracian rock shrines, it is packed with carvings, niches and basins. What makes it special are the two large circles that seem to have been deliberately cut into the rock floor. Some researchers have interpreted them as bases from which the ancient Thracians used to make astronomical observations.
Harman Kaya shrine by the Bivolyane village
More Thracian riches await west of Kardzhali, at the village of Dazhdovnitsa, and east of it, at Dolno Cherkovishte village. There you will find some of the most mysterious objects created by the ancient Thracians, the rock niches. Made three millennia ago, they were carved into prominent rocks at precipitous heights. No one is sure why or how they were made.
With the exception of Perperikon, all of the sites mentioned so far require little or no walking. However, you will need to hike for about an hour to see the mysterious Womb Cave, west of Kardzhali. It was discovered in the early 2000s, and as its name suggests, it looks like a vulva. The shape is not a coincidence. The Thracians deliberately carved the entrance to the cave as a symbolic representation of their much venerated Great Goddess, the mother of the entire universe. The cave was supposedly a temple to her. Some researchers even claim that on one particular day of the year the rays of the sun, which represents the Great God, reach the bottom of the cave and symbolically impregnate the goddess, thus continuing the eternal circle of life on earth.
The landscapes around Kardzhali are equally impressive, with rolling hills, cliffs and rock formations rising above meandering rivers and photogenic nature phenomena.
The Petrified Wedding by the Zimzelen village is an intriguing natural phenomenon with a dark legend. Some claim that there is a small pond by the feet of the stone pillar that was supposedly the groom. It formed from his tears
By far the most popular is the Vkamenena Svatba, or the Petrified Wedding, near the village of Zimzelen, a couple of miles out of town. Wind and water have carved the soft volcanic rock into a group of white conical columns. Among them, two reddish pillars stand out. According to a legend, these are the petrified remains of a bride and a groom. The white stones around them are the rest of the wedding party.
It is said that while the wedding party was descending the slope on its way to the home of the groom, a gust of wind lifted the veil covering the bride's face. Her father-in-law beheld the beauty of the bride and was instantly gripped by an unholy passion. God was quick to turn everyone into stone.
Stone Mushrooms by the Beli Plast village
Nearby, close to the village of Beli Plast, stands a group of stone mushrooms. The most spectacular of this "species" is 2.5m tall. This phenomenon is the result of underwater volcanic activity, combined with erosion when the ancient sea, which is now where the Rhodope mountain range rises, disappeared.
Both the Petrified Wedding and the Stone Mushrooms are easily accessible by car.
The so-called Petrified Forest, near Raven village in the Tatul area, consists of 20-odd scattered yellowish logs standing in a deep ravine. About 30 million years old, they are the calcified remains of a prehistoric forest that was engulfed by a volcano eruption. Some even claim that you can see the annual growth rings in the logs. This interesting site is not clearly marked, and to find it, it is better to ask for assistance from one of the villagers.
The horseshoe bend by the Star Chitak village appeared when Kardzhali Dam raised the water level in this part of the Arda
Kardzhali is situated between two large dams on the river Arda: Kardzhali west of the city and Studen Kladenets east of it. Built in the 1950s and the 1960s, they inevitably changed the landscape with their massive walls and still waters stretching between forest-covered slopes. Kardzhali lake has a girdle of hotels and restaurants by its banks, and is the place to see arguably Bulgaria's best known horseshoe river bend. Located near Star Chitak village, it is deep and swirls almost 360-degrees, evoking the American Southwest rather than eastern Europe.
Studen Kladenets's own famed horseshoe bend is on the road to Rabovo village. If you continue from there towards the walls of the reservoir you will see Sheytan Dere, or Devil's River. It lives up to its name. After the Arda was dammed, a narrow, menacing canyon became visible on the river bed. Until then, it had been hidden deep under the water.
Congregation at Podkova's Wooden Mosque
If you want to see a monument of culture that is full of life, head south of Kardzhali. In Podkova village you will find Bulgaria's southernmost train station and a charming old mosque built entirely of wood, supposedly without the use of a single iron nail. The origins and history of the mosque are lost in time but, according to a legend, it was built by seven maidens whose fiancés were killed in battle. The girls vowed to remain unmarried, spent their dowries on wooden beams and built the mosque in a single night.
Tobacco is a traditional crop for Kardzhali and the area. It has been in a steady decline for several decades now but many locals stick to it
Wherever you go in this part of the Rhodope, do not miss out on the opportunity to chat with the locals: shepherds in the lush mountain meadows, elderly women walking the hills, and young and old sitting in the shade of their yards, stringing sticky and smelly tobacco leaves. Friendly and hospitable, they embody the best character traits of the people who live in the mountains. It is these often unexpected encounters that bring a particular charm to travelling around Kardzhali, an experience that is hard to match elsewhere in Europe.