Romping through the Rhodopi in Southern Bulgaria

My husband doesn’t like hikes or heights, so I planned to explore Southern Bulgaria and its beautiful Rhodopi Mountains on my own.  Armed with a guidebook and the ability to read a little Cyrillic, I charged off on my adventure.  First on my agenda was figuring out which bus to take into the town of Smolyan.  Smolyan was created by the Socialists in the 1980’s.  The Rhodopi’s were considered primitive and backward, so the government decided to change that image.  They took four villages and connected them by building factories between them.  Large governmental buildings were built and Smolyan became the official center of Southern Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, had a central bus terminal with service to Smolyan every three to four hours.  The guidebook stated that the ride would take about three and a half hours.  I booked a ticket leaving at noon.  I thought this would give me plenty of time to check out the tourist information center at Smolyan before they closed at 5:30pm.  This did not prove to be the case.  The bus rolled into Smolyan at 5 pm and the information center had closed early.  I didn’t have accommodations. The first place recommended to me by street vendors was the old Soviet hotel near the town center. This was located about 1.5 km from the bus drop-off point.

Wildflowers at Thracian Ruins

Wildflowers at Thracian Ruins

Happily, there was a sign for a pension only a few blocks away.  Off I trudged with my backpack. What I found there was a little slice of Western Europe.  The owner, Milena, spoke German and English.  English is a rare commodity in this part of Bulgaria.

Milena told me that she had been in the tourist industry for over 25 years.  She had worked with Balkan Tourist in the Black Sea resort region and later switched to the ski resort north of Smolyan in order to work closer to home.  She loved the Rhodopi area.  She wanted to open a pension in her hometown since the 1980’s. Financing didn’t exist.  She could only make her dream come true by saving a little bit at a time to refurbish an old house.  Her pension was opened seven years ago.  Only this year was she able to finish the apartment downstairs.

The next day, I took Milena’s advice and went to check out the Canyon of Waterfalls.  A huge sign at the start of the EcoTrail west of Smolyan was written in English and Bulgarian.  The tourist industry had created and connected several well-marked trails during the past few years.  I was hoping to follow the trails for a few days and stay at some of the trail huts overnight.  Unfortunately, I was informed that the huts were closed due to lack of sufficient foot traffic.

Unfortunately, the Canyon of Waterfalls Park had an eyesore at its entrance–a defunct trout farm, but once on the beautiful nature trail a sense of timelessness crept in.  The trail felt wild.  There were no sounds other than streams and birds.  Wildflowers abounded. The coniferous forest and terrain reminded me of  North Carolina and Tennessee.  However, there were no signs of the acid rain damage I saw in the States.  I encountered no other hikers.  The log footbridges were a bit rickety adding to the sense of solitary adventure.  Milena informed me that upkeep of the trails has been an ongoing issue.  Although the trail was rated as a four hour trek, I managed to stretch my hike to eight hours.

Walking through the forest at the Waterfalls Canyon Path

Walking through the forest at the Waterfalls Canyon Path

The following day, Melina took me and another guest, Stefan from Stuttgart Germany, to see a historic site that had opened in 2007.  The tourist industry was proud to have something other than hiking and skiing to offer in the Rhodopi’s. The ruins of a fortress on the mountain top were attributed to Momchil, a famous Bulgarian medieval ruler.  Archaeologists found traces of Bronze age Thracian use as well as other artifacts. Milena loaned me a walking stick, which made my life easier.  Unfortunately, the little museum at the base of the complex was closed.  Again, not enough visitors to justify keeping it open.  Lunch was at a local cafeteria where I ordered “schembe chorba” to the amusement of Milena.  Most foreigners don’t eat tripe soup.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit the Rhodopi area was to see the Trigrad region.  It’s famous landmark, Devil’s Throat Cave, sported an underground waterfall.  The whole area was supposed to be gorgeous.  I was thinking of hiking there on my own, but Milena told me it would take three days to get there and back.  Buses only run at 6a.m.  I found out later from another hiker that one can hire a taxi for 50 cents a kilometer to get from one village to another.  Anyway, Stefan and I opted for a day tour, which included the caves and a trip to the Devin Mineral Springs spa.  The price for the tour was reasonable at $35 USD, but did not include entrance fees.  Along the way, we saw birdwatchers waiting on the side of the road.  They were camped out for the day intending to spy on a wall-creeper nests.  Only three hundred and fifty pairs of these birds are known to exist. Birders pay thousands of dollars for this treat.

The winding road to the Trigrad caves narrowed down through gorges and eventually became one way lanes. Any two-way traffic had to wait or backup to make room for a single car to pass.  If Trigrad ever becomes popular, there will be major traffic headaches.

Last stop was the mineral springs spa which was only $5 for use of the pool, hot tub, and jacuzzi.  Stefan was in heaven.

River flowing into Devil's Throat Cave, Trigrad

River flowing into Devil’s Throat Cave, Trigrad

Our final tour was a visit to the Neviastata Rock and surroundings.  It was a lovely spring day.  The trail began easily enough, with signs depicting the flora and fauna of the region.  There was an area for picnicking and rock climbing. Again, we had the place all to ourselves.  Milena, who has been climbing this mountain since she was a child, decided we needed more adventure.  She took us off the trail to climb another rocky outpost.  Now I know how it feels to be a mountain goat! We also visited a modern monastery where six nuns live.  No photography was allowed.  They appeared to be doing well as tourists enjoy the peaceful quiet of the retreat.

My last day in Smolyan fulfilled my originally reason for stopping there.  The guidebook had recommended the regional history museum and art gallery.  I discovered that the museum was located way on top of a hill off the main road.  My first attempt to find the museum failed.  After climbing innumerable stairs, I made a wrong turn and ended up at an apartment complex.  Going back down the hill to double-check my directions with the locals, I discover that I should have turned left instead of right.  A simple arrow pointing to the museum would have been useful at the fork.  Anyway, I returned to the top to find the museum door open but no one around. It was dark inside, but air-conditioned.  I sat and waited.  It was 12:15 pm.  The museum closes for lunch between 12:00 and 1:00pm.  Eventually, the manager appeared. After determining that I was not with a group, she let me explore.  The museum had excellent English signage.  It also had additional information in various other languages on laminated sheets in each room.  The ethnic costumes, customs, and historical information about the Rhodopi region was fascinating.

Rhodopi was home to the legend of Orpheus.  His songs were so compelling that they were alleged to tame beasts and even to resurrect his lover.  Folk music festivals are held in the Rhodopi and bagpipes are part of their tradition.  The cult of the wild Maenads and wine-drinking Dionysius were also considered to be based in this region.

Right across from the entrance to the history museum was the Art Gallery.  The door was locked.  The manager of the history museum told me to wait and then disappeared.  Eventually, the manager of the art gallery showed up and opened the door.  The lights were turned on for me and I had the place to myself.  These curators were very trusting.  I wandered around their museums wholly unsupervised.  One room of modern art was not well lit, but I came prepared with a flashlight. Upon departure, both managers gave me token gifts for coming to visit them.  These visits were a very refreshing experience–a window into another culture’s respectful trusting attitude.

During my stay, a professional photographer came to the pension to check out the region.  He was fascinated by the Bulgarian obsession with mortality.  Death notices with the deceased person’s portrait are posted as memorials on bulletin boards and doorways in each town.  This is done not only when the person dies, but also on the anniversary of a death. The Rhodopi region has it’s own personal take on this custom.  The family pays for a well to pipe up a natural spring.  This memorial often has a portrait of the deceased along with wishes for good health. It is a place to sit and drink in memory of the dead.

My week was over.  I left $250 USD lighter, but I felt I had received excellent value for my money.

I recommend a visit to Rhodopi for fresh air, nature, history and a little slice of safe, friendly Bulgaria. Moslems and Christians have lived peacefully in this region for centuries.  Quick, grab the opportunity to visit it before it is discovered. The government is planning on re-opening a road to Greece.  This will bring more traffic to the region…and change.

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