The Rhodope

YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOOSE

There are moments when time and place merge, creating an overwhelming sentiment which makes you wish the world would stop spinning.

Sunsets, for example, can be glorious and sites like Santorini have made a business out of them. In Bulgaria, a similar experience could be enjoying a cold menta, or mint liquor, with a dash of Sprite in the shade of a beach bar, while the mid-day sun shines in the bleached sky. Or it could be entering the warmth of a tavern, filled with the smell of burning wood, with the anticipation of a hearty dinner after a day skiing.

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RIBNOVO WEDDINGS

Muddy streets, soulless buildings and stunning Rhodope landscapes: at first glance, Ribnovo is like every other Pomak village in the western part of the mountains. However, Ribnovo is like no other village in the Rhodope, or indeed in Bulgaria. What gives the village vitality and a sense of colour, even in the dullest months of the year, are its people.

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PARADISE OR HELL?

The precipitous stone cliffs of the Trigrad Gorge, in the western Rhodope, constrict the tiny Trigrad River, and the sound of rushing water blends with the buzz of tourists. Gathered around the entrance of the Devil's Throat Cave, they are waiting for the guide to come and lead them to the highest cave waterfall in Bulgaria.

"That's the real thing," our guide says and points at the opposite side of the gorge. There is a plain stone wall, high and impenetrable. "Inside, there is a cave, too, the Haramiyska Cave."

"What's interesting about that?," someone asks.

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IF ORPHEUS PLAYED BAGPIPES

The Rhodope, some insist, are the mountains where Orpheus roamed, charming all things living and non-living with the magical music of his lyre. If that mythical hero were to reappear, he would surely play the bagpipes.

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VILLA ARMIRA

Vineyards and ghost villages deserted by those who left because of wars, strict border controls and economic hardship, plus a medieval fortress tucked into the easternmost slopes of the Rhodope: there is not that much to see in and around Ivaylovgrad. Greece, which is just across the border, is even less impressive; a patchwork of fields and tiny villages.

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DOLEN

The elderly woman who holds the key to the church in the village of Dolen, in the Rhodope, gets up slowly from her wooden chair and shambles towards the altar. The scant light coming from the high windows falls on her. The theatrical effect attracts the attention of the small group of tourists freezing in the damp room who, in the gloom, have been trying to make out the famous wood frescoes that the church of St Nikola (1834) prides itself on.

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BORDERLANDS

A land the size of a palm: this was how Bulgaria is described in the still quoted verse by Communist poet Georgi Dzhagarov. What is not mentioned in that poem, however, is that under Communism this "handful of land" was strictly guarded. Socialist Bulgaria was surrounded by enemy NATO-members Turkey and Greece, and the deviant Comrade Tito's Yugoslavia and the maverick Comrade Ceausescu's Romania. Bulgaria needed the highest protection. So went the thinking, and the protection was organised accordingly.



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DEAF ROCKS

You have probably visited Perperikon, the mighty fortress inhabited for millennia and hailed as the site of the famous oracle of Dionysus, where the destinies of Alexander of Macedon and Augustus were foretold. It is now popular to use it as evidence of the ancient and sophisticated culture of what is now Bulgaria.

The Rhodope, however, is home to a site which can rival Perperikon in importance, grandeur and charm. Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, about 13 kilometres by car from Lyubimets is much less crowded. There, the Thracians created a rock sanctuary about 3,000 years ago.

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ORPHEUS TOMB?

Orpheus's harp was so captivating and his songs were so beautiful that there wasn't a single creature on earth that was not enchanted by his gift. Wild beasts, rocks and stones, and even the gods stood becharmed.

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TOWN OF GOLD

The waitress in the café approaches the table, carrying a tray with two small cups of steaming Turkish coffee. Then she stops nearby and starts spinning the tray round and round in the air, the cups rapidly turning upside down. You might think that she has gone mad and you are going to end up with coffee all over your clothes, but this doesn't happen and in a few seconds you are enjoying the so-called coffee on sand. This is a specialty one must definitely try when in Zlatograd.

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IN THE DEVIL'S FOOTSTEPS

Travel agencies often use the word "paradise" to describe Bulgaria’s natural landscape and holiday hideaways. If you consult any Bulgarian about somewhere in the countryside you are thinking of visiting, you will probably hear the phrase "a piece of heaven" at least once. Even in the national anthem Bulgarian land is referred to as "Heaven on Earth". However, as you become more familiar with the country's geography and history, you'll come across fewer signs of heaven and many more of hell. The Devil and his kingdom appear in the names of rivers, caves and natural phenomena.

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SITOVO LETTERS

A Soviet undercover agent tries to decipher an ancient inscription protected by a stone guardian… this could be the beginning of a Dan Brown novel but is, in fact, a true story set not in Rome, Paris or Washington, but near the village of Sitovo, on the northern slopes of the Rhodope.

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TOBACCO ROADS

Being overpowered by the heady aroma of tobacco while travelling through the Rhodope is as easy as buying contraband cigarettes in downtown Sofia. Pull over near a field. Step out of your car and face the endless rows of tall stalks undulating in the soft breeze. Can you feel it? They give off an intense odour that crowds out the usual aromas of thyme, yellowing grass and parched soil.

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LOST REPUBLIC

"Tomrush is a picturesque village, with grey-roofed houses clustering on the side of a steep ravine; but its beauty has been marred by the wholesale destruction of the surrounding forest," James Bourchier, a reporter for The Times, wrote in the early 20th Century. The village is just a few kilometres from Plovdiv, in the northern Rhodope, but to get there Bourchier had to cross the border into the Ottoman Empire, escorted by Bulgarian soldiers.

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BATAK

One of the golden rules of good writing says you must never start a story with description of a landscape.

In the case of Batak, however, the desire to do so is overwhelming. You are tempted to begin with the narrow road that meanders into the Rhodope all the way from Pazardzhik and Peshtera, and the fresh highland air. You search for the best adjectives to describe the water of the nearby Batak Reservoir (crystal? tranquil?). You remember that the Tsigov Chark resort has long been regarded as a pleasant and inexpensive place for a mountain holiday.

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