We awoke in the Pirin mountain range, and went to sleep in the Rhodopes! Our third mountain range – the Rhodope mountains.
The first visit was to the village of Kovachevitsa a small collection of beautiful buildings perched on the steep hillside surrounded by forest. Once the centre for blacksmiths now a town being renovated house by house as people see the beauty of the quiet and village life.
Unrestored houses with evidence of significant deterioration lined streets alongside beautifully restored traditional houses of stone, wood and with slate shale rooves.
As often happened as the morning progressed- a coffee stop was called for! This time it also included an impromptu tour of a lovely guest house – The White House.
My favourite room was a large partially enclosed veranda (this has a special Bulgarian name that I cannot remember just now).
Like an indoor/outdoor living room with open fire, local rugs scattered across the wooden floor and rustic furniture. The view stretches out over the village to the surrounding hills. It must be a spectacular spot to sit in the winter looking out over a snow covered valley.
From Kovachevitsa – a winding drive to Garmen where as we walked around the village we met an award winning ancient tree (well we did have a little help to find and understand what we were seeing). A Plane tree over 600years old – a tree that had won ‘European Tree of the Year’. What a lovely idea for a ‘beauty contest’.
Leaving Garmen we drove through another village, Dolen – old traditional houses and incredible views. Groups of older women gathered along the road in uninterruptible conversation. Wearing long plain coatlike tunics and head scarves with a splash of floral.
Before lunch we had a challenging (for Nadia as driver) drive to Dospat dam. We joked as we drove along that it was a living video game – once you reached one level more challenge and obstacle was forthcoming. In this instance an increasing number and depth of pot holes in the road.
Finally reaching the Dospat dam and lunch in a restaurant overlooking the dam. Fresh barbecued trout was on the menu – a healthy sized trout for 6.50Lev. Moist white flesh, crispy skin, simply and perfectly cooked – heaven.
A walk was planned for the afternoon but we voted for relaxing at our next guest house which had come highly recommended.
Arkan Han Family Hotel definitely lived up to its recommendation. Our simple attractive room had a bucolic view of green fields and horses. The staff were gorgeous, the food excellent and the beer good – what more could we want.
A bar with restaurant – open fire at one end and a covered outdoor area at the other.
Dinner again made more interesting by letting Nadia order and surprise us. Always new local specialities with a couple of old favourites. Most times including local white cheese – a soft Bulgarian cheese. We also had to (yes had to!) taste a variety of recommended Bulgarian reds. For this meal we had a bottle of a Gamza a Bulgarian varietal red – helped make the meal just a little more perfect.
A spectacular treat – caves, steep gorges and mystery. The road into the caves was spectacular with steep overhanging rocks making narrow passageways for the road.
We first visited Trigrad Gorge, and the Yagodina Cave . An added bonus came with a walk up a small overgrown path to caves where archeological excavations had taken place unearthing life in the 4th Millenium BC – not really comprehensible to me.
The Devils Throat – a twisting, pounding, rush of water down through steep rocks into a cavernous series of passages and halls and on underground. Stories and mysteries abound. It is believed to be the place Orpheus descended to the Underworld to rescue Euridyces. Creating in the past a gathering of mystic believers in Orpheus – Orphism.
The water rushes down through rocks before disappearing underground and emerging about 500 metres further along. Two explorers set out to establish the river path and disappeared into the underground in the 1970s. No trace has ever been found. Later a flood took a number of trees into the water at the top of the gorge and they too never emerged at the other end. More recently dye was put into the water at the entrance and took 3 hours to travel the 500 metres of river flow. Oh I love a good mystery and this seemed like movie material.
As we walked through the Yagodina caves there were a number of unusual sights. The first was a spot people had left money and charms. Sitting beside a small soft toy I thought was a toy frog. Nadia looked closely and pointed out it was a little, live, frog – unrequited love maybe?
Another was a small display of “cave pearls” – now unfortunately glassed in to prevent theft. Small round pearl like forming from salts calcifying around a small nucleus and rolled by the drip, drip, drip. Well that’s how I remember it.
A short walk from the cave to the upper entrance of the cave where items from the excavations are displayed. Dated from life in the 4th Millenium BC it is thought to be a family / community group who were ceramic pottery makers. Remains included a fireplace with many animal bones; along with tools from the ceramic making, including the ovens and polishing stones. The latter I found fascinating a smooth rounded shiny black stone used to put a sheen on the pottery.
As an extra bonus we walked up to caves beyond Yagodina cave. As we arrived at a view point up to the elevated cave – a figure in an bright red suit appeared then disappeared behind rocks before abseiling down. Animated conversation ensued – another friend of Nadia’s who described a further treat for us – another cave a short climb away.
This was a trickier climb that included scrambling hand over hand up a wire rope to a hidden cave – another worthwhile effort. Once inside the view was out over top of a wide area of forest. This had also been home to ancient peoples.
And then a second night at our favourite place to stay – Arkan Han. For one of us the beer combined with Rakia (for medicinal purposes of course – having been assured it was excellent for stomach upsets!) gave rise to a party mood. This ended with a late night with the younger more active climbers and workers we had met.
Today the Smolyan province in the central Rhodopes, where our first stop was Shiroka Laka a pretty village with traditional two storey white houses along the river and up the hillsides. We had a wander through the village and again the visit coincided with a need for coffee. This morning coffee and Baklava at a small café housed around, and named after a statue of Kapatain Petko a man who fought for the liberation of Bulgaria during the Ottoman era.
On to our final walk of the week – “a short walk not too steep” along the Nevyastata Eco-Trail also called the Bride Eco-Trail. The path was described as easy, short and not steep however we began with an off-trail hike up a reasonably steep though short climb to a magnificent view of surrounding mountains. Followed by a return to the trail and a stroll along its length to views across rock walls and down into the valley below.
My favourite legend about the naming of the area The Bride is that a girl from Smolyan was forced to become a wife of a local Turkish ruler. She agreed but before the wedding wanted to see her birth place from the rock. Once at the site she jumped from the high rock. Hence the name for the rock – Nevyastata (The Bride).
Our final visit of the day was to the Marvellous Bridges. A winding narrow difficult road to drive in to this. As we drove in we discovered name two – Wonderful Bridges. Take your pick!
A short walk in brings you to a café and a little further on the view of a multi-arched natural bridge formed through erosion and natural activity. Two bridges are visible thought the larger one is more accessible and more “wonderful” and “marvellous” we decided. Soft curves of the rock with views to the conifer forest around the bridges.
As we walked around a number of viewing points we met a couple from Georgia and in the short chat that ensued we reminded ourselves to add Georgia to our travel list.
Back at the café we had lunch – our now standard choice – meatballs and Shopska salad, while chatting to the friendly waiter who at meals end gave us a fridge magnet as a memory.
And on to Konakat – our mountain village family run guest house for the last night of our tour. A beautiful place in a small mountain village with a view from our room over the village and forest.
Again the guest house was decorated with local folklore and traditional clothing.
Chris was unwell again – was this the aftermath of Rakia I wondered. Nadya and I ate the delicious meal and the following morning we had traditional pancakes from the Rhodope area – filling and absolutely delicious. Thicker than usual but not heavy with what seemed like likely fermented dough mix.
Day 7 – Asenova fortress, Plovdiv, Sofia
Our final day – how are we going to continue life without Nadia we wonder.
For our final day we head back to Plovdiv ready for our next adventure. On the way we stop at the Asenova Fortress and Nadia kindly gave us an introductory tour of Plovdiv before heading back to Sofia.
On the way we drove through Asenovgrad well known as the wedding dress town. Quite astounding to see a town full of shops displaying an array of wedding dresses. We later met a young man who had taken his bride to be to Assenograd to buy her gown. I may be making this up but I seem to remember being told that this is the result of seamstresses being moved here during the Communist era.
The Asenova fortress was a grand and fitting end to a fantastic week of learning about the history, nature, archeology of this surprising little country. For me highlights of the fortress were
– it dates back to my favourite Thracian times about 5th century BC
– everyone had a turn – the Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Bulgarians, and Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Bulgarians, and Ottomans, Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Bulgarians, and Ottomans, the Ottomans.
– the view of what was once the ancient Roman way from the top of the fortress. Demonstrating the excellent vantage point the fortress had from all sides
– the reservoir for water built of bricks and from my memory lined with lime – was it for purification? This is the reason one should write up memories sooner!
– the beautiful frescoes in the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa Petrichka
– the carved stone which enable dating of the fortress again from memory to around 700AD.