Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodope Mountains are the oldest mountains in the Balkans Peninsula, that boast some of the loveliest evergreen woods in the country and among the most amazing in the Balkan region that provide surreal experiences. The Rhodope Mountains is the largest part of the Macedonian-Thracian massif of the Balkans, and represent a complex system of various height, width and direction of ridges, deep river valleys, narrow gorges and internal mountain valleys. Rhodopes are about 240 km long and about 100 – 120 km wide, covering an area of about 15000 square meters of the southernmost part of Bulgaria. 83% of the Rhodope Mountains massif lies in Bulgaria while the remaining part extends into Greece. The highest peak of the Rhodope Mountains is Golyam Perelik – 2191 meters, situated in the Mursalitsa Mountain. The Rila Mountains and the Pirin Mountains are neighbors of Rhodope Mountains to the West, the Plain of Thrace borders the Rhodope from the North and the East and their southern border is the Aegean Sea Depression. The Pirin and Rhodope regions were gained by Bulgaria after the First Balkan War of 1912 and their integration was a main aim of Bulgarian politics at that time.

The name of the Rhodope Mountains comes from the Greek name Rhodope (rosy-cheeked), the name of Queen Rhodope of Thrace from Greek mythology. Rhodope Mountains are famous for the both karst relief and for its mild oval forms, the colorful nature animated by the authentic architecture of picturesque villages, and by the unique hospitality of the people and their well preserved customs and the legendary songs of Orpheus that make the real Rhodope Mountains. Pagan festivals such as Kukeri, the ritual that ushers in spring with erotic dances, scary masks and sheep bells, have their roots in the Thracian customs. So does the Bulgarians’ love of traditional medicine – herbalists from miles around gather on Belintash to pick plants thought to have magical properties for just one night in May. The Bulgaria’s fire dancers carry on a custom started by the enigmatic Thracian people.

The Orpheus is well known Greek Mythology figure for his voyage into the underworld to save his wife, Eurydice. The legend says that Orpheus ventured into the inner realm through Devil s Throat Cave, where he made a deal with Hades and Persephone: Orpheus could guide Eurydice back to the world of the living, but he could not look at her until they successfully returned…..
The Rhodope Mountains comprise of numerous rolling mountain ridges divided by deep river valleys and spacious hollows. The scenery in Rhodope Mountains is truly superb – gentle rolling hills, rich green valleys, and magnificent limestone gorges, numerous mineral springs, fascinating caves and lakes, Proto-Serb/Thracian sanctuaries and Roman roads and ruins, picturesque ancient villages with centuries old houses, mosques, churches and humpbacked bridges. The hospitality of the Rhodope Mountains people is famous and unhurried pace of life is just impressive to visitors who usually admire the remarkable traditional residences and mansions in the Eastern Rhodopes mountain. Group settlements of memorable traditional architecture are preserved in the Rhodope Mountain region of Ivaylovgrad – Shiroka Laka, Kovachevitsa, Odrintzi, Momchilovtsi, Kosovo, Mandritza and Dolno Lukovo and the old town of Zlatograd, that represent unique ethnographic areas. Visit to the village of Odrintzi is interesting for its unique sun-dried brick architecture and the village of Mandritza – unique for its „red architecture”. The Mandritza village is fully preserved with authentic interiors, silk-worm houses and one of the oldest preserved churches in the region – the burial church „Saint Nedelya”, built in 1816. Shiroka Laka is the village museum – an architecture and ethnographic open-air reserve, famous for its original Rhodope architectural style, musical and folkloric tradition and its rich history, built in the narrow and steep valley of Shirokolushka river in the 17th century at the foot of the Western Rhodopes at 1060 meters above sea level. The Shiroka Laka village is situated 6 km south of the Gela village and 11 km north-west of Pamporovo winter resort. Some of the most eminent singers and bagpipe-performers of the Rhodope folklore songs were born in Shiroka Laka village. Major plants grown in Rhodopi Mountains are beans, potatoes, and maize of superb taste, acknowledged and appreciated both by Bulgarians and foreign visitors. The Momchilovci village in the Rhodopes hosted the first Youghurt Festival, held in September 2015. The locals of Momchilovci village preserved traditional way of production dairy products and during festival promoted their delicious produces. Visitors had opportunity to explore the “Path of Longevity”, in the form of the digit 8, which symbolizes infinity and takes visitors to the remains of the ancient Thracian settlement from where spreads magic panorama of the National Observatory on the Rozhen peak and the Pamporovo Ski center. Mild climate, numerous mineral springs with spa resort, many caves with fantastic formations, abundant flora and fauna, and delicious locally produced food and produces make easy to explore and remember Rhodope Mountains as ideal tourist destination.

The town of Kardzhali is located in South-Central Bulgaria, in the very heart of the eastern Rhodope mountain, along the two river banks of the Arda river, 100 km southeast of Plovdiv. 6000 year-old remains of human life as well as ample examples of the presence of Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, late-Ottoman and Bulgarian culture have been found on the territory of the town. After the town’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke in 1912, Kardzhali became the “tobacco warehouse of the eastern Rhodopes”, because some of the best quality tobaccos are grown on the special soils in the region. The two big dams on both sides of the town of Kardzhali are perfect places for tourism, water sports and entertainment. Kardzhali is the starting point for touring sensational archaeological finds unearthed both in the town itself, but also in the region, as well as visits to the numerous rock formations in the region – the Stone Wedding and mushrooms, the Stone Forest, the Rock Widow, the Rocks at Ustra, and the exceptional Thracian fortress of Perperikon.

The sparsely populated area of the Rhodopes has been for hundreds of years a place of unique ethnic and religious diversity. Throughout the period of Turkish rule /15th-19th century/, the Rhodope Mountains were a bastion of Slavic /Serb/ culture. The ethnic makeup of the Rhodopes remained largely unchanged until the massive Turkish colonization and displacement of the indigenous population in the late 18th and early 19th century took place. Apart from the Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians and Greeks, the Rhodope mountains are also home to a number of Muslim communities, including the Rhodope’s most enigmatic inhabitants of the unique identity – the Muslim Bulgarians /ancient Serb tribe/ – Bulgarian Mohammedans, locally called Pomaks. Pomaks are indigenous inhabitants of territories on the Balkans, predominate in the western parts and a large concentration of Bulgarian Turks, particularly in the Eastern Rhodopes, who have preserved its traditions for more than 14 centuries, surviving innumerable assimilation attempts and “revival processes”. The Pomaks are a Slavic /Serb/ people who live in the Balkan region and in several countries of southern Europe, who speak Bulgarian as their mother tongue, but whose religion and customs are Islamic. Pomaks confess a local version of Islam, with additional pagan and Christian ritual elements and practices. Pomaks are usually considered to be a type of Bulgarian since they speak a Bulgarian dialect, have Bulgarian features, and have cultural practices similar to the Bulgarians. The Rhodope mountains are also one of the regions associated with the Sarakatsani, a nomadic Greek people that traditionally roamed between Northern Thrace and the Aegean coast. The Sarakatsans are the Balkan nomadic ethnic minority speaking Greek language, present nowadays mainly in southernmost Greece and Bulgaria and in lesser numbers in Albania, Macedonia and South Serbia.

Arda is a river whose source lies in the Rhodope Mountains near the town of Smolyan, flowing 290 km eastward past Kardzhali and Ivaylovgrad and through Greece in the northern portion of the Evros prefecture, including Kastanies to enter the Maritsa River, just west of Edirne, Turkey. The portion of Arda River in Bulgaria is 241 km long and is accented by three hydroelectric and irrigation dams, making the Arda River longest river in the Rhodopes. On its course in Bulgaria Arda River makes beautiful meanders. The medieval Dyavolski most, arch stone, very interesting bridge crosses the river 10 km from Ardino.

The Eastern Rhodope Mountains are the richest in the Balkans in megalithic monuments from Thracian antiquity, dated to the 1st millennium BC. There are numerous amazing places of interest in the Rhodope Mountains – Perperikon Temple of Dionysos, Tatul Tomb near Momchilovgrad which is one of the most imposing megalithic monuments in the Bulgaria comprising the carved pagan peaks and Medieval structures, Belintash Thracian sanctuary site /30 km southeast of Asenovgrad/, wonderful Rock Bridges, Gela village – the birthplace of Orpheus, Kovachevitza village, intriguing ancient Gradishte Fortress at elevation of 1850 meters, Yagodina Cave, Asenova Krepost Church on the top of a cliff, on the left bank of the Asenitsa River, Smolyan Lake, The Devils Throat Cave, Devils Bridge, Krastova Gora Christian Center of Pilgrimage at the altitude of 1545 m…. Thracian Art Museum of the Eastern Rhodopes is one of the most well-equipped and representative museums in Bulgaria, and since 2011 it is included in the list of the One Hundred National Tourist Sights.

Assenovgrad is town situated in the Western part of the Upper Thracian Lowland, in the northern foot of Rhodopi Mountains, along the two banks of Asenitsa River. The town is located 170 km away from Sofia and 20 km south of Plovdiv. Asenovgrad is one of the popular spiritual and sacral towns in Bulgaria as it features very interesting historical past. Nearby the famous Assenova Fortress and many churches and monasteries are found/Bachkovo Monastery/.

The Rhodope Mountains resemble a sea of dark-green hills merging one into another. A single instant of feasting your eye on the beautiful panorama and breathing in the crystal pure air is enough to make you fall in love forever with the magic Rhodope Mountains. Pamporovo is one of the best-known ski resorts in southeastern Europe, located in the heart of Rhodope Mountains, at the altitude of 1650 meters. The Pamporovo Ski resort features 150 days of snowfall which allows a very long ski season in the southern Rhodope Mountains, with over 20 km of ski runs of various difficult levels. The highest peak in the area, Snezhanka at 1928 meters, is several hundred meters above the Pamporovo resort. Pamporovo is around 260 km away from Sofia, 85 km south of Plovdiv, 15 km north of Smolyan, and 10 km south of Chepelare.

On November 13th 2014, the Rhodope Mountains have officially become a part of the Rewilding Europe initiative, after a period of intensive preparations for it within the region. “The Rhodope Mountains is a very beautiful area and one of Europe’s real biodiversity hot-spots, with huge re-wilding potential,” explains Stoycho Stoychev, Conservation Director of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds and a member of the Rewilding Rhodopes team. A record high number of 75 griffon vulture pairs were registered in the Eastern Rhodopes within the regular monitoring of the species. “The positive trend of increase of the population of the griffon vulture in the Eastern Rhodopes continues this year as well: 5 more pairs compared to 2014,” says Dobromir Dobrev from the local rewilding team.