The heritage of the ancient Thracians, a people that inhabited what is now Bulgaria between the 2nd millennium BC and the 7th century AD, includes lavishly decorated tombs, gold treasures, and mysterious rock shrines.
Tourist crowds tend to spoil places and Begliktash is not an exception. Located near Primorsko, on Bulgaria's crowded southern Black Sea coast, the Thracian megalithic shrine gets crammed in the holiday season. There are package tourists, there are independent visitors, and there are garish and sometimes rather kitschy reenactments of ancient Thracian rituals organised by the local authorities.
Dragon houses: until not that long ago, this was what Bulgarians called the squat, sturdy dolmens littering the low ridges of the Strandzha and Sakar mountains.
A short drive north of Primorsko, a resort town on the southern Bulgaria Black Sea coast, you will find a site that challenges the imagination.
The ancient Thracian sanctuary known with the Turkish word Begliktash stands in a meadow that opens up dramatically before you after a 40-minute walk along an overgrown path through the oak forest of the Strandzha. Anticipation builds even before you start on the path because just where it begins is the Dragon's Houses, a Thracian dolmen hidden by a canopy of tree branches.
The Valley of the Roses: until recently, the picturesque valley stretching between the ranges of the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains was known by this name, at it was the centre for the production of the expensive attar of roses.
"Idolaters! You are not true Eastern Orthodox Christians," the monk at St Spas monastery near Yambol scolded us while he was locking the gate of the supposedly miraculous cave spring his abode is famed for. Our sin? We had not lit candles when we entered the church. He, however, did not see any contradiction in the fact that the veneration of "healing" springs is a tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy in Bulgaria has inherited from paganism.
A good sense of direction in circumstances where maps are of little use, a willingness to ask the way, and an adventurous spirit – if you possess at least two of these qualities, it is time to head to the Eastern Rhodope. Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.