Three major rivers flow through southern Bulgaria: the Maritsa, the Arda, and the Tundzha.
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.
The Maritsa is the mightiest of the three, flowing through Bulgarian territory for 322 of its total length of 472 kms. It springs from the two Marichini lakes, located 2,378m up Bulgaria's highest mountain range, the Rila. For the first kilometres of its life, the Maritsa twists and squeezes through rocks and ravines, falling from precipitous heights until it finally reaches Belovo, a town huddled between the Rila, the Rhodope and the Sredna Gora mountains.
From here, the river hits the plain and transforms itself. Swollen with the waters of dozens of tributaries and flowing unrestricted across the Thracian Plain, it becomes wide and slow, a state of grandeur it never abandons until it reaches the sea. Between the Rhodope to the south and the Sredna Gora to the north, the Maritsa has for millennia nurtured diverse peoples. It also defined the best route from the Aegean into the Balkans and beyond, a track repeatedly worn by Neolithic farmers, Greek merchants doing business with local Thracian tribes, and the Romans, who built along its banks their famous Via Diagonalis between the Bosphorus and Central Europe. The Ottomans used it for their European conquest, and today the international route E80 roughly follows its course.
Millennia of human interest in the Maritsa has resulted in an accumulation of cities and landmarks along its route. Plovdiv, which claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, is the most significant of these. Scattered on and around several rocky hills rising from the plain, it owes much of its historical and economic importance to the Maritsa which, until its delta silted up in recent times, was navigable as far to Pazardzhik.
There is much more along the river's banks: the ancient shrine of the nymphs at Kasnakovo village, Haskovo with its gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary, the painted Thracian tomb at Aleksandrovo village, and Dimitrovgrad, a city built from scratch in the early 1950s, which still boasts the best preserved Stalinist architecture in Bulgaria. Svilengrad, on the Turkish border, is where the Maritsa flows under the longest preserved Ottoman bridge in Bulgaria: the 295-metre Mustafa Pasha bridge. Nearby are the Thracian tomb and the mediaeval fortress of Mezek.
Spanning the Maritsa was an important task for generations of Plovdiv inhabitants. The first recorded bridge over the river here is from Roman times
Once it leaves Svilengrad the Maritsa enters Turkey, continuing on its way to the Aegean.
The greatest of the Maritsa's tributaries, the Tundzha is 390 kms long and springs from the Stara Planina mountain range, at an altitude of 2,083 metres near the Yurushka Gramada Peak. When it encounters its first town, Kalofer, the Tundzha is still a small, cold, mountain river, yet it is here that it has gained a peculiar place in popular culture. Each 6 January, the men of Kalofer celebrate the Orthodox Epiphany by entering the icy-cold waters of the Tundzha and dancing the horo.
The river continues on its way, passing by the village of Buzovgrad where a supposed Thracian megalith attracts new-agers eager to watch the summer solstice sunrise from it, and then it enters the Koprinka Dam near Kazanlak, in the so-called Valley of Roses. In the 4th century BC, this part of the river was chosen by a Thracian king, Seuthes III, as the site of his new capital, Seuthopolis. The city did not last long, and was abandoned and forgotten until the construction of the dam began in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, the Communist authorities decided that irrigation was more important than historical heritage, and Seuthopolis was lost under the waters.
Flowing south, the Tundzha passes by Yambol, a city that is the descendant of a number of settlements which existed there for millennia and made use of the river for transportation and its fertile plain for agriculture. The Roman city of Cabyle was the most notable of these.
At this point of its course the river is already calm and slow, and it remains so until it enters the Sremski Gorge between the Sakar mountains to the west and the Dervish Heights to the east. For several kilometres the river defines the Bulgarian-Turkish border, and passes by one of the best preserved mediaeval fortresses in Bulgaria near Matochina village. Soon afterwards, the Tundzha enters Turkey and joins the Maritsa near Edirne.
The Arda springs from a karst water source picturesquely located in the roots of an old tree, by the village of Arda in the Western Rhodope. Until recently, Arda's springs used to be in the border zone with Greece and hence visiting was not possible. Now, however, it is perfectly easy to take a trip on horseback, organised by the villagers, to the source of the river. This area offers other sites of interest, such as the Uhlovitsa Cave and the Agushevi Konaks in Mogilitsa village.
Military bridge over the Arda, near Dolno Cherkovishte. According to the military strategy of Communist Bulgaria, all three dams on the river were packed with explosives. In the case of an attack from Greece or Turkey, they would be detonated, flooding the river course. Civilian casualties were, apparently, not taken in consideration
From its source, the Arda flows eastwards for 272 kms, carving its way through the slopes of the Rhodope, passing on the way stunning landscapes of rocky cliffs, green forests, and abundant wildlife. Here and there are traces of human life: hamlets and villages built of stone, a few cities, and several old bridges. The best of these is the 16th century Devil's Bridge, near Ardino town. Once it used to facilitate travel on the old route from the Thracian Plain to the Aegean, but the road was abandoned during the Cold War, and now the bridge, and the nearby ghost village of Dyadovtsi stand by the Arda, quiet and alone.
When the river enters the Eastern Rhodope, its waters are captured by three large dams: Kardzhali, Studen Kladenets and Ivaylovgrad. Their construction has changed the landscape, turning the river into a string of large artificial lakes connected by thin strips of water. The landscape is still picturesque: a mosaic of rising slopes and still water, and of volcano rocks frozen into prismatic shapes, along with the menacing canyon of Sheytan Dere and the bucolic beauty of the calm river lined with poplars near Dolno Cherkovishte. The Arda's gorge by the town of Madzharovo is the home of Bulgaria's only vulture sanctuary, and the river banks are inhabited by a number of rare birds, including black storks.
There is also the historical heritage. In addition to the Devil's Bridge, some stunning Thracian megaliths like the shrines at Utrobata Cave, Tatul and Bivolyane, the clusters of rock niches and rock tombs at Orlovi Skali near Ardino, the Gluhite Kamani near Harmanli and near Dolno Cherkovishte are located around the Arda.
Once the Arda leaves the last dam on its course, it frees itself from the Rhodope. Passing through Ivaylovgrad city, around which are the Roman villa Armira and the Lyutitsa fortress, the river enters the Thracian Plain, passing through Greece and joining the Maritsa at Edirne, Turkey.
IN FOLK MEMORY
According to a tale, Maritsa, Arda and Tundzha were three sisters who constantly quarrelled who of them was more beautiful. Finally their parents were fed up with the incessant quarrelling and cursed the girls. Consequently, the trio was turned into three rivers. But this didn't stop the three of them to compete. One day, while they were by Adrianople, they decided to race towards the Aegean Sea. The Tundzha, the youngest, cheated. She woke up before her sisters and ran off to sea. When the Arda saw what had happened, she woke Maritsa and both of them rushed after their sister, but not before the Maritsa cursed the Tundzha to have meandering course passing through deep forests and high mountains. They eventually caught up with their sister. The three rivers merged and went together to the Aegean. Ironically, the river they formed bears the name of sleepy Maritsa.
Men from Kalofer dance the Horo in the Tundzha on Epiphany, 6 January
The 16th century Mustafa Pasha bridge was built over the Maritsa to ease crossing, and soon a settlement appeared by it. It would later become modern Svilengrad
Plovdiv was founded 7,000 years ago due to the Maritsa which provided irrigation and was a major travel route. Back then, the river was navigable
Because of the dams, the Arda is often so shallow that you can cross it on foot
The Tundzha in its lower course. Around Elhovo, the river's banks are the home of the largest longose forests in Bulgaria
Devil's Bridge over the Arda
Botev Peak looms over the springs of the Tundzha
The springs of the Arda
High Beam 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.