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.
The Rhodope is geologically ancient, and has been around for long enough to allow nature to create a number of stunning gorges, caves and rock phenomena. Some of them require an investment of time and effort from the modern visitor, like the so-called Petrified Forest, near Raven Village in the Tatul area. This phenomenon is 20-odd scattered yellowish logs still standing in a deep ravine. About 30 million years old, they are the calcified remains of a prehistoric forest that was engulfed by the eruption of a volcano. Some even claim that you can see the annual growth rings in the logs. This interesting site, however, is not clearly marked. To find it, it is better to ask for assistance from one of the villagers.
Petrified Forest is hard to find and not that spectacular, but makes for a nice trek
The Rock Window also requires walking on a path that is not clearly signposted. Located near Krushka and Golyama Bara villages, in the Kardzhali area, it is a rock bridge 10m high, 15m long and 7m wide, formed by the waters of the Kostinsko Dere river.
One of the most popular rock phenomenon in the Rhodope is the Vkamenena Svatba, or the Petrified Wedding, which is easy to access. Close to Kardzhali, near the village of Zimzelen, it is beside the road. The wind and water have carved the soft volcanic rock into a group of white conical columns. Among them, two reddish pillars stand out. According to legend, these are the petrified remains of a bride and groom. The white stones around them are the rest of the wedding party.
This is the story of how they all froze into eternity and into legend – while the wedding party was descending the slope on its way to the home of the groom, a gust of wind lifted the veil covering the bride's face. The father-in-law saw the beauty of the bride and an unholy passion overtook him. Enraged by this breach of decency, God turned everyone to stone.
Petrified Wedding, near Kardzhali
Nearby, close to Beli Plast village, stands a group of stone mushrooms. The most spectacular of this "species" rise up to 2.5 m. This phenomenon is the result of underwater volcanic activity, combined with erosion when the sea, where the Rhodope now is, withdrew. The Stone Mushrooms are also easily accessible by car.
Farther to the west, by the village of Zabardo, you will find a phenomenon so magnificent that the locals have named it Chudninte Mostove, or the Wondrous Bridges. Among the dense green pine forests at the foot of Golyam Persenk Peak (2,091 metres above sea level), rise two huge arches of white marble.
The larger of the bridges is almost 100 metres long, 15 metres wide and the highest of its three arches rises to 45 metres. The second bridge is 60 metres long and 30 metres high. There is a third, smaller bridge, which ends in a cave. The rocks are about 600 million years old and once formed an enormous cave with an underground river. The river is now a small stream.
The Wondrous Bridges, near Zabardo village
According to legend, the arches were created by a dragon. The monster did not eat humans, but its appetite for sheep was insatiable and one day the people of Zabardo decided that they had had enough. They loaded a donkey with tinder, set the tinder on fire, and rushed it to the dragon's den. The dragon was delighted, and devoured the "Trojan" donkey without giving it a second thought. It was too late when the dragon felt the fire burning inside him. He rushed towards the stream and dug himself into the ground, but he could not extinguish the fire and died. His giant corpse, buried in the ground, finally rotted and disappeared. The marble arches of the Wondrous Bridges are the only trace left of him.
In the course of the millennia, people did not only marvel at – and tell legends about – the strangely shaped rock formations of the Rhodope. They also venerated them as manifestations of divine powers. A number of rocky peaks and plateaus in the mountains were sanctuaries of the ancient Thracians, like the rock city of Perperikon and the shrines at Tatul and Golyamo Bivolyane. Even today, the modern imagination is eager to see in the strangely-shaped rocks of the Rhodope human faces and animals, such as snakes, turtles and even crocodiles. The most popular site of these "rock menageries" is near Dolno Dryanovo village, in the western Rhodope.
The ancient Thracians used odd Rhodope rocks for their sanctuaries, like Kovan Kaya, near Dolno Cherkovishte village (above) and Belintash near Asenovgrad (bellow)
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners