A good sense of direction in circumstances where maps are of little use, a willingness to ask the way, and an adventurous spirit – if you possess at least two of these qualities, it is time to head to the Eastern Rhodope.
Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.
The rock city near Kardzhali is the best-known site in the area, and rightly so. From the Neolithic times until the Middle Ages it was inhabited by people who relentlessly carved sacrificial altars, cisterns, necropolises, wall foundations and churches in the rock. The theory that Perperikon was the oracle of Dionysus, famous in Antiquity for prophecies about the glorious future of Alexander the Great and Emperor Augustus, has also played its role. The city is worth visiting over and over again for a couple of reasons at least. It affords a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside and the ongoing excavations change the appearance of the rock city every season.
The fishermen sailing their boat in Sheytan Dere were astonished by the appearance of an unknown island in front of them, but decided it was a suitable spot for a picnic. When they lit a fire to cook their fish, the island began to shake. The men managed to escape seconds before the island, which was actually a giant fish, dived under the water.
The locals will tell you this story without really believing it, but when you stand at the edge of the vertigo-inducing canyon, at the bottom of which Sheytan Dere, or the Devil's River, flows and look at its dark water, the legend seems less fantastic. Sheytan Dere is the stretch of the Arda River right after the wall of the Studen Kladenets Reservoir. Walking along the canyon is not for the faint-hearted. If you want to have a go, take the road from the village of Rabovo to the village of Potochnitsa, after passing the Artesian Wells sign.
Cromlech near Dolni Glavanak
Until recently, not even the most daring historian would assert the existence of a cromlech, an ancient stone circle of the type usually associated with Stonehenge, in Bulgaria. In 1998, however, a group of archaeologists discovered one by the village of Dolni Glavanak. This stone circle in the Rhodope is often compared to Stonehenge, although it is much smaller in size. It has a diameter of about 10m and its stones have an irregular shape and are no more than 1.5m high. Nevertheless, the cromlech has its own atmosphere. To see it, you should park your car by the new information centre on the road from Dolni Glavanak to Topolovo, at the start of the tourist path.
The Eastern Rhodope abounds in fantastically shaped rocks, which occur in various locations so you should not be surprised if you hear theories that, centuries ago, they were regarded as sacred or that they have human shapes. The Stone Mushrooms near the village of Beli Plast near Kardzhali are an entirely natural phenomenon. They stand up to 3m high and were declared a protected natural landmark in 1974. You can find them by the road from Haskovo to Kardzhali.
The rock formation by the village of Zimzelen near Kardzhali combines the work of nature with the work of the human imagination. The stone pillars displaying a whole range of hues from white to dark pink formed from the sediment of an ancient sea, which dried up millions of years ago and began to weather. For the people of the area, however, these remarkable rock figures are a petrified wedding party. The legend goes that while the bride and groom were walking to their future home followed by a celebratory procession, the wind blew and lifted the bride's veil. Her father-in-law saw her beauty and felt a strong, unfatherly desire for her. Nature chose to stop the inevitable tragedy before it began – and turned the whole wedding party to stone.
It is said that this stone burial chamber situated on a picturesque rocky hill is the tomb of none other than Orpheus. Even if you regard this theory as a rather literal interpretation of the ancient myths which claimed that, after it was cut off by the bacchantes, the poet's head was placed on a tall column and continued to prophesy, do not miss Tatul. Located near the eponymous village, the ancient shrine has been partially restored recently. The stone tomb on the top is the most impressive part of the complex. Take care when you look around it – especially if you are acrophobic. Research conducted in the 1980s revealed that the burial chamber carved into the rock atop the hill is oriented to the four cardinal points.
Rock niches are something you can see only in the Eastern Rhodope. They have a trapezoidal shape and are carved at vertiginous heights on inaccessible cliffs facing east or west. They always come in groups ranging from several to dozens or even hundreds of niches. Nobody knows for sure how they were hewn or what their purpose was, but there are plenty of theories. The niches could have been memorial complexes for eminent dead Thracians, necropolises, or sanctuaries. They might have been maps of the stars, maps of gold and copper mines, or dedications to the gods made by young Thracians. If you are new to the area, start with the niches near the village of Dolno Cherkovishte. There are many of them and most can be reached without any particular difficulty. Other well-known groups are those near the village of Dazhdovnitsa, and the Gluhite Kamani, or the Deaf Stones, by the village of Malko Gradishte.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners