The Rhodope

BULGARIA'S ROMANTIC VILLAGES

Tranquility combined with landscapes untouched by tourism: if you have a longing to visit, Bulgaria will deliver. Here and there isolated and lesser known villages lay scattered over vales and hills, offering the chance to awaken to bird song, spend the long days exploring quiet lanes and traditional houses, and the evenings contemplating the surrounding vistas, preferably with a glass of cold Rakiya.

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HARMAN KAYA THRACIAN SANCTUARY

The rock of the threshing floors. One can easily see why the people from the Bivolyane village gave that name to Harman Kaya. The area's defining features are two large circles in the bedrock, which resemble the threshing floors where people, in the times of pre-supermarket bread, used to separate wheat from chaff.

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FROM UTOPIA TO DYSTOPIA

Like Dimitrovgrad, Smolyan appeared under Communism as a result of the amalgamation of several villages. But while Dimitrovgrad is an example of Stalinist urbanism, Smolyan is perhaps the epitome of city planning under Mature Socialism.

In 1960 the National Assembly decreed three old villages along the Cherna River in the Rhodope to be combined into a town called Smolyan. It was also proclaimed the centre of the region.

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MASTODONS OF DORKOVO

The mastodons roamed along the banks of a river, munching on the vegetation under the canopy of a tropical forest, oblivious to the screams of the monkeys and the presence of rhinos, but watching out for the lions and sabre-toothed tigers that were never far from the watering hole.
 

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MARITSA, ARDA AND TUNDZHA: TALE OF THREE RIVERS

Springing from the most prominent Bulgarian mountain ranges, they carve, wind and splash their way though ravines and canyons and across plains, passing by cities ancient and new, before they finally join together just after the border with Turkey and flow south until they reach the Aegean.

Each of these rivers has its own route and landmarks.

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AGUSHEV KONAK

Between 1825 and 1842, the local Muslim lord Aguş Aga built a sumptuous konak, or residence, for himself and his three sons. High whitewashed walls protected the aga's greatest treasures: his peace, his money and his family.

The building and its three yards, 221 windows, 86 doors and 24 chimneys occupied an acre of land by the Arda River.

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THE ALLURE OF 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.


Perperikon

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BACHKOVO MONASTERY

Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.

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STONED RHODOPE

Traditional architecture and music, great food, and mystic landscapes: the Rhodope, the mountain range that covers a significant part of the south of Bulgaria, is cherished by nature lovers for many a reason. Its strange rock formations are one of them.

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ASENOVA FORTRESS: MEDIEVAL REMAINS ON EDGE OF RHODOPE

The Asenova Fortress is about 3 km south of Asenovgrad, on the road to Smolyan, and impresses from afar. A tiny church is perched on a steep rock overlooking the narrow gorge of the Chepelarska River. A winding road leads up to the height, where the remains of the castle are. The church, Holy Mother of Christ, is the best preserved building in the complex: a brick-and-mortar confection in the Byzantine style popular across the Balkans in the 12th-14th centuries.

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THE BEST BULGARIAN BRIDGES

A legend is told all over the Balkans about a bridge and a stonemason. Once upon a time, a group of builders was commissioned to construct a bridge over a river, but whatever the men had built during the day was mysteriously destroyed during the night. Each morning the builders had to start from scratch.

Finally, the men saw the writing on the bridge, and realised that it wanted a human sacrifice. They reluctantly made a deal among themselves: on the following day, they would inter in the bridge the first person who came near.

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TAKING THE SLOW TRAIN FROM SEPTEMVRI TO DOBRINISHTE

Some people see it as an anachronistic oddity in the age of affordable cars, but others depend on it for their daily commute. The government shut it down a couple of years ago, but reopened it in 2014. One thing no one can deny: Bulgaria's only narrow gauge railway is a tourist attraction drawing in not only Bulgarians but also, increasingly, an international trickle.

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6 MUST-VISIT SMALL TOWNS

With about 1.1 million out of 7 million Bulgarians living in cities with up to 20,000 inhabitants, small-town Bulgaria is not exactly populous, and for a good reason. The small towns in Bulgaria suffered heavily from the economic reshaping during the post-Communist Transition. In the 1990s, factories were shut down and thousands migrated, both internally and abroad.

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SHIROKA LAKA: PICTURE-PERFECT IDYLL IN THE HEART OF THE RHODOPE

Made with stout beams and massive stone foundations, the houses smell of ageing wood and geraniums planted in old earthenware pots. The streets are made of cobbles.

Sadly, the old Rhodope villages are slowly disappearing. Some have been transformed beyond recognition by their inhabitants, who fancy new plastic window frames over wooden ones, and shiny roof tiles over stone slabs. Others are dying out, with their ageing and diminishing inhabitants leaving their abandoned houses to the mercy of the elements.

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DRAMATIC BULGARIA

Bulgaria never quite caught on to the 19th Century European passion for the sublime, known to us mainly from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, but the country has its own share of locations which inspire awe and amazement; inviting you to revel in nature and experience a sense of spirituality. Most are the creation of mighty tectonic forces, or rivers and seas scouring solid rock, while others result from more ephemeral natural phenomena, such as mists and rainbows, rain and clouds.

Chepelarska River

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BULGARIA'S FORTRESSES

Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland - and most other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th Century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites combining stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.

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BORDER OF DEATH

Black winter birches cover the steep slope, their naked skeletons creating a colonnade which hides the foot of the hill, so the creek running there is only heard, not seen. White mist rises from the ravine, red leaves cover the ground. All around are more trees, more hills, more mist: this secluded landscape in the Rhodope, beyond the now disused barbed-wire fence which, under Communism, sealed off the border with Greece, stretches to the horizon.

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OTTOMAN BULGARIA

As you travel through Bulgaria you will inevitably be confronted by remnants of its Ottoman past: mosques, water fountains, bridges, forts, baths and public buildings. It would be strange if you were not – Bulgaria spent 500 years under Ottoman domination. It began with the invasion at the end of the 14th Century, which brought chaos to the Balkans and destroyed the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and ended for the different parts of the Balkans inhabited by Bulgarians between the 1878 San Stefano Peace Treaty and the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.

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ESCAPE TO LESHTEN

Rural tourism in Bulgaria was barely known 20 years ago, but in the early 2000s it experienced an EU-funded boom.

But in the late 2000s the still ongoing economic crisis hit and now many guesthouses are struggling to survive with the decreased number of visitors. In the western fringes of the Rhodope, however, is a traditional village which is still one of the best places for rural tourism in Bulgaria.

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PERPERIKON: MAGICAL RHODOPE SITE

The priestess raised the gold bowl and the strong, dark Thracian wine in it reflected the light of the fire burning on the altar. There was only her and the nervous Roman officer standing in the oval-shaped roofless inner sanctum of the shrine of Dionysus, yet the place seemed filled with an invisible presence.

The officer swallowed his fear and moved closer to the priestess. Dionysus was about to reveal the future of his son, Octavianus.

The priestess closed her eyes and poured the wine over the fire.

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