RHODOPE'S MANMADE LAKES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Communist industrialisation brings unexpected change to mountain landscape

rhodope star chitak horseshoe bend.jpg

Owing to its geological history, the Rhodope mountain range – in contrast to the nearby Rila and Pirin – lacks any impressive Alpine-style lakes. However, where nature erred, man stepped in. In this case the Rhodope man-made lakes, or reservoirs, are worthy of attention as some have even become tourist and holiday spots.

In the second half of the 20th century the Communist government set off a massive water reservoir construction effort throughout the Rhodope. Back then, rural Bulgaria was pushing to become a genuine industrial power with large factories and an even larger agricultural system. To achieve this, it needed dams. Building them involved bulldozing landscapes, villages and archaeological sites.

After the collapse of Communism, along with its planned economy and the dreams of industrial might, most of these bodies of water remained in use. In 1999 the government trumpeted it would build a cascade of reservoirs on the Arda river's upper part, but the project never took off and was eventually shelved, in 2017. The only reservoir built in the Rhodope after the collapse of Communism is Tsankov Kamak.

Kardzhali Dam

In the 1950s-1960s, the lower course of the Arda river, which flows west to east through the Rhodope, was tamed by three huge dams: Kardzhali, Studen Kladenets and Ivaylovgrad. The newly created Arda Cascade was meant not only to produce water and electricity for the towns and villages of the Rhodope. The walls of the dams were also packed with explosives. In the event of an attack from neighbouring NATO-member Turkey, the Bulgarian military surmised, these would be activated, flooding the border city of Edirne.

You will hardly be aware of this when you stand beside these huge bodies of water that stretch between the lush Rhodope hills. Due to the Arda's meandering course, the higher waters of the dammed lakes have created a series of picturesque horseshoe bends.

Arguably the most famous of these is at the beginning of the Kardzhali Dam, near Star Chitak village. Deep and extending through almost 360-degrees, it looks like a part of the American Southwest transported to Bulgaria.

The Kardzhali reservoir is the uppermost in the cascade but was the last to get built. Theoretically, it was completed in 1963, but it was first used in 1977. It is 103 metres high, the third highest in Bulgaria.

Studen Kladenets

This is the third largest water reservoir in Bulgaria. Inaugurated in 1958, it took several years to build as the works were interrupted by the overflowing Arda. The Studen Kladenets reservoir takes 25 km of Arda's length and its upper part reaches the town of Kardzhali.

Just in front of the 67 metre high dam wall there is a lesser known but very impressive site known as Sheytan Dere, or Devil's Gorge. A cleavage in what use to be the rocky bed of the Arda river, it now has just a little water oozing from the dam. It is narrow, dark and ominous.

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.

One of Studen Kladenets's enigmatic legacies is... a railroad station. The Sredna Arda station is perched in the middle of nowhere, on the northern bank of the reservoir. It is an evocative reminder of what life in these parts of the Rhodope was like before the massive hydropower construction effort. The S station appeared on the Ruse-Podkova line as a self-styled hub serving the residents of a few small villages around. As the reservoir construction works progressed in the 1950s, the villages were submerged and their inhabitants resettled. The railroad itself was moved to higher ground. So was the Sredna Arda station, though no one would be taking the train from it any longer.

Dospat Dam

Built in 1967, Dospat Dam is one of Bulgaria's largest reservoirs and is a crucial part of the grand Dospat-Vacha cascade.

Dospat Dam lake stretches in a 3-kilometre wide, 19-kilometre long strip of water that follows the erstwhile course of the Dospatska river. For centuries, the valley was famed for its grain production and skilled farmers. Two villages, Orlino and Barduche, were destroyed in the construction of the dam, while a third, Krushata, had to be partially abandoned. At least, the end result is picturesque.

Vacha Dam

The last of the string of reservoirs in the Dospat-Vacha cascade was built in 1977 and has the highest dam wall in Bulgaria, rising to 144.5m. Sadly, walking along the top is forbidden, as the Vacha dam is guarded as a "site of strategic importance." This is also why you can only marvel from afar at the gigantic concrete monument dedicated to a local unit of Communist guerrilla fighters at the other end.

The scenery around compensates for this. The 10-kilometre stretch of the Vacha dam lake offers stunning vistas around every bend. You can enjoy them from the small hotels and restaurants on the bank and, if you want to get closer, opt for the pontoon islands that dot the calm surface of the reservoir. On some of these there are holiday houses for rent.

Batak Dam

Unlike other Rhodope reservoirs, the Batak is not on a particular river – it is an artificial creation. With its area of 22 sq km, the reservoir is the most spectacular part of a very complicated and rather old system of smaller dams connected with canals and tunnels that provide water and electricity to thousands of households. The system was mostly built in 1953-1963. It covers 3,600 sq kms and the combined length of the tunnels between the dams is 78 kms. 

For the visitor, Batak Dam stands out with its picturesque location, the options for fishing year round, the Tsigov Chark resort and… and island. Golaka is actually a minor mountain summit that became an island after the dam was created.

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