Situated where the meandering Arda River carves through the last spurs of the Eastern Rhodopes, the Ivaylovgrad region boasts a mild southern climate, a Mediterranean natural environment and a remarkable variety of cultural attractions.
Though Ivaylovgrad is by all means off the beaten track, its direct proximity to Greece and Turkey and the new Maritsa highway makes it quite accessible. And with its quaint adobe villages, Byzantine castles and stunning Roman mosaics, the region is absolutely worth exploring!
From the best place to observe rare birds of prey to a church built in seven days, kashkaval tourist presents 7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria’s Mediterranean Southeast.
1. Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa
Mandritsa might be a tranquil village just west of the Greek border, but it impresses with its unique Albanian history and rarely-seen adobe architecture. Founded in the 17th century by three Albanian brothers, nowadays Mandritsa (Мандрица) is famous as the only Albanian village in Bulgaria – indeed, some of the locals have still preserved their peculiar Tosk Albanian dialect.
While only a handful of imposing three-storey houses remind of the village’s former prosperity as a silk farming centre, the cozy little hotel Bukor Shtepi attracts visitors to this serene location once again. What’s more, the hotel’s restaurant serves truly sensational interpretations of Albanian and Mediterranean cuisine which go perfectly with the homemade rakia!
2. Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo
A former mining town separated from Ivaylovgrad by the picturesque Ivaylovgrad Reservoir, Madzharovo has reimagined itself as the top place to see vultures in Bulgaria. Situated among the sharp rocks of an ancient volcanic crater, the bends of the Arda River near Madzharovo (Маджарово) host three vulture species and many other rare birds of prey.
The Eastern Rhodopes vulture conservation centre in town provides insights into the local flora and fauna as well as guided tours and rental kayaks. And if you’re thinking of spending the night under the stars, the camping site by the river is just about the perfect location to pitch a tent and prepare a bonfire!
3. Bulgaria’s most astonishing Roman mosaics: Villa Armira
The Ancient Romans seem to have been obsessed with lavish mosaics, and this suburban villa near Ivaylovgrad is perhaps the best example of this antique trend that you can see in Bulgaria. Villa Armira is famous for its mosaic depiction of the gorgon Medusa surrounded by personifications of the Winds, though the incredible portraits of the owner and his two sons are also to be marvelled at.
Villa Armira (Вила Армира) also impresses with its hypocaust system of central heating, its flamboyant pool surrounded by marble figurines and its sheer size. No other Roman villa in ancient Thrace can match the splendour of Villa Armira. Just don’t mind the vast number of swastikas in the geometric mosaics, the Ancient Romans were of course unaware of this symbol’s tainted modern significance!
4. Palms and olives on the hills: Ivaylovgrad
Ivaylovgrad’s secluded location deep in Bulgaria’s Southeast has blessed the town with a remarkably mild climate. In fact, the Ivaylovgrad region is one of the few places in Bulgaria where olives and palms can grow reliably, and the town’s mix of communist-style prefabricated panel buildings and thriving Mediterranean flora is quite a rare sight.
Along with its panoramic location overlooking Greece, Ivaylovgrad (Ивайловград) also features a few decent examples of 19th-century urban architecture, including the Mutafchiev and Paskalev Houses. A few kilometres out of town, you’ll discover the stone arch of the 16th-century Aterenski Bridge and the medieval Lyutitsa fortress.
5. Ancient sites and local wines: Mezek
A well-preserved medieval fortress, two Thracian tombs and two nationally-famous wineries: most villages in the world would be envious of what Mezek has to offer! Situated where the Thracian Plain meets the Eastern Rhodopes, Mezek (Мезек) is overlooked by the Byzantine castle of Neutzikon, which is the village’s main attraction. Its formidable walls are over seven metres tall and the views down towards Thrace are memorable.
After checking out the castle, be sure to enter Mezek’s ancient Thracian beehive tomb from the 4th century BC. And if you need a glass (or two!) of local wine to go with your cultural experience, the boutique winery in the village will certainly be happy to take you on a short wine tasting tour of their premises!
6. On the crossroads of three countries: Didymoteicho
Nowadays, it might be just a sleepy Greek town far away to the northeast of Athens and Thessaloniki. But hundreds of years ago, Didymoteicho was a major Byzantine and Ottoman outpost and this ancient heritage is still visible today. The town was even the capital of the Ottoman Empire for a few years. As a consequence, it is the site of the first mosque that the Ottomans built on European soil; sadly, its precious wooden roof was heavily damaged in a fire.
The fortress that once stood above Didymoteicho (Διδυμότειχο) is the locals’ preferred place for a lazy afternoon stroll. While its historic walls are only partially preserved, the vistas from the top are unforgettable, not least because you can see three countries (Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria) from the hill.
7. A church built in seven days: Dolno Lukovo
Considering it’s just 5 kilometres or so from Mandritsa, Dolno Lukovo’s architecture is remarkably different from its neighbour’s light brown adobe houses. In this village, you’re a lot more likely to see massive stone constructions. One of these, Dolno Lukovo’s 200-year-old church, was reportedly built in seven days. According to Ottoman law, it was illegal to demolish a building that already had a roof, so the locals rushed to complete it before the Muslim overlords could come to know of its religious purpose.
Other than this curious church, Dolno Lukovo (Долно Луково) is also home to perhaps Bulgaria’s rarest tree. The Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne) that has been growing next to the village hall for decades is practically impossible to see elsewhere in Bulgaria. With its smooth bark, evergreen leaves and fruits that somewhat resemble strawberries, it has a rather alien appearance too.