The summer heat is oppressive, yet the shallow mineral pools in the yellowish clay are packed with men and women. Pleasure, peace and silent ecstasy can be read on their faces, which seems strange, as the temperature of the water is 75°C, the air stinks of sulphur and the skin of some of the people in the pools is alarmingly red.
"I used to have high blood pressure, but since I started to spend an hour a day here, it has stabilised," says a man, soaking in a particularly hot spot. The others in the pool agree. Everyone had an illness or condition which disappeared or eased after self-prescribed therapy in the mineral springs at Rupite, an area near Petrich, in Bulgaria's far southwest.
Open to the air and free of charge, though there is a bath house where must pay, the mineral springs are an authentic spa experience. They are hugely popular with the local people; even in winter there are men and women testing the hot waters.
The mineral springs are the last remnant of a volcano which existed here a million years ago. The western slopes of the crater form the 282-metre high Kozhuh Planina, or Fur Coat Mountain, beside Rupite. The crater's eastern edge is the 280 metre Pchelina, on the opposite bank of the Struma River.
The Kozhuh Planina and Rupite were declared a site of natural importance in 1962, but they would hardly be known outside the area, but for a single woman.
Locals believe in the healing powers of the mineral springs in Rupite
It was Vanga (1911-1996), the blind and supposedly unerring clairvoyant from Petrich, who settled in Rupite in the 1980s in a tiny house on a spot she chose after throwing a viper.
When Vanga died, the number of visitors actually grew. While she was alive, one needed to be desperately in trouble, and often had to wait for weeks on end to meet the clairvoyant. Post-1996, Rupite became an ordinary tourist destination, welcoming anyone interested in seeing the place where Vanga made her predictions, in lighting a candle in the controversial St Petka Church she sponsored in 1994, or in visiting her grave beside the church. Those prone to spirituality try to feel the "cosmic energies" that, according to Vanga, made Rupite a place like nowhere else in the world.
Mysticism is still making profit in Rupite. This sign points to the office, in a ramshackle building in Rupite, of a new clairvoyant who receives paying visitors
The tourist potential of Vanga is ruthlessly exploited in Rupite. Until the mid-2000s, the approach here towards what is called the "Vanga legacy" was relatively liberal. The manicured 20 hectares with the house, the church and Vanga's beloved guinea fowl were open to visitors. Today there is a massive, pseudo-Revival Period wall surrounding the complex, and strict opening hours. The house has become a museum, and the whole complex is listed in the 100 National Tourist Sites of the Bulgarian Tourist Society.
According to the Vanga Foundation, which takes care of the premisses, the blind "prophetess" predicted that, slowly but surely, Rupite will rival Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. They have already started building the so-called "monastic quarters," where pilgrims will stay.
Vanga was positive that thousands of years ago there was a city at Rupite. It was called Petra and was inhabited by "tall, strong-built people dressed in thin clothes, shiny like tin-foil." The citizens were very "enlightened and pious, and had three big temples, and the city's main gates were decorated with gilt winged animals." It all ended, according to Vanga, on 14 October, the feast of St Petka, when the volcano erupted. "The fire void which engulfed the city is now sending us its warm breath, to heal us. The steam is the sighs of those who died. They want us to remember them, and to revere them," was how Vanga explained the mineral springs.
In the 2000s, the Vanga Foundation fulfilled the wish of the clairvoyant, and carved a 40-metre cross in the rocky slope of the Kozhuh Planina. It is dedicated to the victims of the eruption.
Truth be told, there was indeed a city near Kozhuh Planina, but the volcano definitely did not destroy Heraclea Sintica, as the town was built around 300 BC by Cassander, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. The city grew in prominence and even became the scene of a 2nd Century political murder which led to the Roman conquest of the Kingdom of Macedonia, in 168 BC. Heraclea Sintica was abandoned in the 5th Century AD, when the people settled in the more easily defended heights of what is now Sandanski.
Historians spent a century searching for the whereabouts of lost Heraclea Sintica. The quest ended in 2002, when a 4th Century AD inscription with the name of Heraclea pointed to the city having been at Rupite. Archaeological research continues; a cooperation between the Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the American Research Centre in Sofia.
This, however, does not prevent sensationalist media claiming that the archaeologists are just following the lead provided by Vanga.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.