Driving out of Plovdiv and leaving the Thracian Planes behind, the Rhodope Mountains curved up as a dark green haze in the nearby horizon, growing taller the closer we approached them. Ever since my fascination with the myth of Orpheus, the Thracian king famed for his music and whose journey to Underworld and back out of love for his dead wife Eurydice inspired centuries of art, literature and music, I wanted to visit the lands of ancient Thrace. The story is universal, but what many don’t know is that the legend of Orpheus began here right in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria.
Eroded down over millennia, the Rhodope Mountains seem like hills when contrasted with the towering snow-capped peaks of younger ranges like the Caucasus or the Alps. Orpheus supposedly hailed from this ancient mountain range where local legend has it that the “Devil’s Throat” cave set the stage for Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld. Fictional or not, the cult of Orpheus sprung up around the ancient cities of the Rhodope Mountains, like Perperikon, immortalising this superhuman musical king not in Bulgarian myth and legend, but on a global scale.
Sadly, a single day from Plovdiv wasn’t enough to follow in Orpheus’s mythical footsteps, but it was enough to get a feel of his ancient land. While Plovdiv itself seduces with its narrow cobbled streets set on its hills dotted with relics from the city’s Thracian, Roman, Bulgarian and even Ottoman heritage, the legends that shrouded the nearby mountains like a misty haze is enough to seduce any traveller.
Our guide Kamen drove up the mountain road that took us above Asenovgrad. Plovdiv was now a speck in the distance, with a shimmer of the even larger Balkan Mountain Range hovering like dark clouds before the storm that lay beyond the Thracian Plains.
The mountains opened up in a tapestry of green. Deciduous trees carpeted the hillsides rolling into a continuous viridian landscape. On a outcrop up up the hill, we could make out the fortress perched on the rocky cliff face.
“The fortress here dates back to the Middle Ages, but this has always been a strategic point,” Kamen told us, “They found archaeological relics up here from the Thracians and also even the Romans. It’s a key position for entering the Thracian Plains below from the south. The name comes from the Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan Asen II. He renovated the fortress as it is today in the 13th century.”
High above the ruined fortress, the white, green and red striped Bulgarian flag fluttered in the wind.
“Our flag is our history,” Kamen said as he handed us our entry tickets, “The white stripe is peace and liberty, the green represents our agricultural wealth, the greenery of Bulgaria, and freedom. The red stripe is the colour of blood, this stands for the bloodshed in the name of freedom. Bulgaria has a complex history, and while our flag is simple, our history is not.”
I broke sweat on my hike up to the fortress under the May sun, clutching onto the old wall as pieces of masonry crumbled under my feet with pebbles falling down into the valley below. The wind gained strength on our ascent, beating the Bulgarian flag at the top. The view across the mountains, over the tiled roof of the 14th century church, offered a sense of inner peace. Only the church stands in its former glory, being the only part of the fortress that doesn’t lie in ruins.
The fortress that once guarded the region for centuries, perhaps more, now lies as an archaic relic left over from feudal times.
Kamen drove us along the mountain road and slowly descended into the valley below, tracing the banks of the Chepelare River until we reached one of Bulgaria’s holiest sites. The Bachkovo Monastery is one of the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe, and the second largest in the country. It’s a curious cocktail of various faiths, embodying Byzantine, Bulgarian and even Georgian culture within its Orthodox complex.
“Leave your camera in the car,” Kamen tells us, “We’re not supposed to photograph inside. It’s a Holy place and still functions as a living monastery.”
Beyond the gates, the complex is set in a the garden with the 17th century Church of the Virgin Mary dominating the centre. Its domed top set with scaly tiles and ivy clad brick walls stand in the shade of the stretching Diospyros lotus tree brought over from Georgia over 200 years ago.
Stepping into the church, the smell of incense hung in the air to the sounds of low chants. It was the week of the Orthodox Easter and the resident monks, clad head to toe in black, stood in the haze of incense smoke during mass. Candle light flickered on the walls, illuminating the frescoes from the era of Bulgarian Enlightenment, gold dappled icons and painted wood carvings on the walls.
We exited the church and crossed over to the refectory for its faded, yet beautiful frescoes that adorn its vaulted ceiling, designed to make the smoke dispersion easier.
“The fresco dates back to the 17th century,” Kaman whispered, “we don’t know who the original artist was. You can see figures from Classical History with Biblical ones, like the Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and saints or monks.”
We stopped besides the painted fresco on the outside of the refectory depicting the entire monastery from above.
“This is the largest scenic mural in the whole Balkans!” Kamen commented as we stopped to look before returning to the car.
The Wonderful Bridges
Our final destination in the Rhodope Mountains took us into the heart of the mountains. The road turned into a what was more or less a dirt track as we drove up. The Wonderful Bridges is a rather underwhelming name for an incredible geological structure.
We parked the car and hiked up the hill until we came out onto the ridge. A giant structure of rock curls round on itself in a loop; hollow on both ends acting as a natural stone dome structure unlike any I had seen before.
“This used to be a cave millions of years ago,” Kaman pointed out. He led us down the gritty path to the river that ran between the two stone monoliths. One side, the river flows into a cavern, where the opening was high and the entrance was much thinner by comparison to the hollowed out curve. “There was an earthquake here millions of years ago and the inner chamber of the cave collapsed. This river used run underground before, but swept the stone debris over time leaving behind this unusual place.”
The cave part to the left is inaccessible, but the other more impressive umbrella of rock is easy to access. The water rushed past, its rumbling amplified under the echoes of the hanging stone structure. Stretching to a height of 45m over the river, it dominates the landscape. Grassy banks still trail up inside the former cave, and the arched view carries along the river to the second “bridge”, the forest up on the banks. Between the two caves, more adventurous travellers scale the structure with a zip line connected between the two.
We hiked back up to the top, our appetites whetted from scrambling the rocks, so we sat down to a Bulgarian feast of fresh salad, white cheese and the local flatbread on a bench outside a wooden cabin. The music from the old stereo played across the valley echoed with Thracian pipes.
“This is the music of the Rhodope Mountains,” Kaman said as he took a bite from the spongy bread, “these pipes are an ancient tradition in this part of the region.”
I looked out across these ancient mountains steeped in legend, and wondered if the pipes resembled the fabled music of Orpheus. In this magic place, I could see why ancient Thrace and the Rhodope Mountains became the backdrop of mythology.
Featured image by Klearchos Kapoutsis.