The Rhodopes (Родопи, Rodopi), a forested mountain chain in Bulgaria’s southern reaches, are a land that has preserved its age-old traditions to this day. A serene place of legendary natural beauty, the Rhodope Mountains were reportedly the home of Orpheus in Ancient Greek myth. Today, these verdant and extensive mountains remain a magnetic destination where visitors find peace and tranquility.
Thracian sanctuaries, scenic villages, medieval castles and enigmatic bridges: read on to find out more about 8 magical cultural attractions in the Rhodopes. And the Rhodopes’ natural attractions – its stunning gorges, caves and rock arches – undoubtedly deserve a whole future article of their own!
1. Arched wonder of architecture: Devil’s Bridge
Spanning the Arda River not far from Ardino and linking the Aegean coast of Greece with the Upper Thracian Lowland of Bulgaria, the Devil’s Bridge (Дяволски мост, Dyavolski most) has fascinated tourists and researchers for many years. This picturesque arched stone bridge was constructed in the early 16th century by the Ottomans and numerous legends attempt to explain its curious name.
According to one of the most popular tales, the violent currents of the river long prevented the locals from building a bridge at the place. Only when a young master builder made a deal with the devil (involving cryptically depicting the face of Satan on the bridge) under the danger of losing his and his wife’s lives was the bridge able to survive at the cursed location. And so it has continued to stand, for 500 years.
- How to get there: There are daily buses from Sofia’s Central station to Kardzhali, where you can catch a local bus to Ardino. A couple of the afternoon buses from Sofia go directly to Ardino too.
2. 8000 year-old sanctuary: Perperikon
Archaeologists were looking for the lost Thracian sanctuary of Perperikon for decades until they discovered it in 2000. Nested on a rocky ridge above the village of Gorna Krepost in the Eastern Rhodopes, this ancient compound is regarded as the largest megalith complex in Southeastern Europe.
Reportedly, Perperikon was the site of a famous Temple of Dionysus, the god of wine, whose oracle rivaled the one at Delphi. Modified and expanded in Roman times with fortress walls and an imposing palace, Perperikon survived until the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, when it was destroyed… and forgotten.
- How to get there: Perperikon is not far from Kardzhali, which is connected to Sofia and Plovdiv by bus. It may be possible to arrange a taxi from Kardzhali to Gorna Krepost, the site of Perperikon.
3. Authentic Rhodopean village: Shiroka Laka
If you want to see the true face of the Rhodopes and delve into the local culture, look no further than Shiroka Laka (Широка лъка). Scenically located on the meandering banks of a small river 1200 metres above sea level, this quaint Rhodopean village will enchant you with its antique stone architecture, white facades and slated roofs.
Sit at a local restaurant and order a patatnik (пататник), the characteristic grated potato dish of the Rhodopes that you will not find in the rest of the country. And if you’re into traditional music, you’re in luck – Shiroka Laka is famous as the birth place of Bulgaria’s most renowned bagpipe players!
- How to get there: A few buses a day travel from Plovdiv and Smolyan to Shiroka Laka. Plovdiv and Smolyan are serviced more regularly from the rest of the country.
4. Castle fit for a king: Asen’s Fortress
In the northernmost section of the mountain, just above the charming town of Asenovgrad, lies the once-majestic Asen’s Fortress (Асенова крепост, Asenova krepost), the main preserved feature of which is the two-storied medieval Church of the Holy Mother of God, a unique monument of the Byzantine Middle Ages.
Though inhabited since antiquity, the fortress gained importance in medieval times, when it was a chief defensive outpost guarding the mountain passes to the Aegean Sea. The name of the fortress commemorates its conquest and renovation by the powerful Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II in the 13th century. Nowadays, the most prominent remain of the castle is the magnificent 12th-century church which is the earliest one in the Balkans to have an integrated bell tower.
- How to get there: Asenovgrad is very close to Plovdiv and there are regular train and bus connections between the towns from Plovdiv’s central railway station and the bus station on the other side of the boulevard.
5. Extensive Ottoman estate: Agushevi Konatsi
You wouldn’t think you would find an imposing Ottoman residence in the remote hamlet of Mogilitsa (Могилица), just next to the Greek border. But believe it or not, the Ottoman estate of Agushevi Konatsi (Агушеви конаци, “Chief’s Mansions”) is the largest feudal residence in the Rhodopes and a unique example of grandiose local architecture.
A work of the early 19th century, Agushevi Konatsi took 20 years to build. In total, the extensive complex of residential buildings boasts 221 windows, 86 doors, 24 chimneys, three separate courtyards and one tower with exquisite exterior murals. Remarkably, the complex, now an ethnographic museum, continues to be owned by the local descendants of the influential Ottoman nobles who originally built it.
- How to get there: Though remote, Mogilitsa has a local bus connection to the local centre Smolyan. Smolyan is reachable from Sofia and Plovdiv by another bus.
6. Mysterious sarcophagi on top of the mountain: Tatul
Much like the Thracian site of Perperikon above, the ancient ruins of Tatul (Татул) were discovered by archaeologists as recently as the 2000s. Located on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding Eastern Rhodopes, Tatul’s name alludes to the precarious herb jimson weed, a powerful and highly toxic hallucinogen.
Tatul is notable with its ancient sarcophagi etched into the rocks on top of the hill. The sarcophagi are thought to have housed the remains of Thracian rulers (perhaps Orpheus and King Rhesus?) from the time of the Trojan War, when the area was an important spiritual place and the site of ritual sacrifices.
- How to get there: It is unclear if there’s a regular bus between Kardzhali and Tatul. However, Kardzhali is only 27 kilometres away, so arranging private transport in town is a feasible option. Kardzhali has regular buses to Sofia and Plovdiv.
7. Uniting Bulgarian, Byzantine and Caucasian culture: Bachkovo Monastery
Along with the Rila Monastery, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Bachkovo Monastery counts among the oldest and most important Orthodox religious centres in Bulgaria. The Bachkovo Monastery was founded in 1083 by the Caucasian Prince Gregory Pakourianos and continued to be a leading hub of Caucasian, Byzantine and Bulgarian culture throughout the ages.
The monastery impresses with its delicate architecture – in particular, the main church from 1604 and the older Church of the Holy Archangels in the main courtyard will captivate you with their gorgeous exterior proportions. Enter the refectory to gaze at its elaborate frescoes and go on a short hike to the nearby ossuary to see the oldest monastery building, dating to the establishment of the complex by the Caucasians. Then, have a traditional lunch at one of the restaurants while listening to the rippling Bachkovo Waterfall.
- How to get there: Two buses run daily from Sofia to Bachkovo via Plovdiv and Asenovgrad from Sofia’s Central bus station.
8. Picturesque mountain town: Zlatograd
Zlatograd (Златоград), the name of which means “the town of gold”, truly has a golden location. This charming little town is set in the verdant valley of the Varbitsa River which separates the Rhodopes into Western and Eastern and just next to the frontier between Bulgaria and Greece.
Zlatograd’s well-preserved old town part is dotted with monumental houses in a style influenced by the urban fashions of Plovdiv and Xanthi (the two big cities it happens to connect), though retaining an unmistakable local flavour. Historically, Zlatograd was and is a tolerant community of Christians and Muslims, and it has two traditional churches and an old mosque you can visit. Today, Zlatograd’s cobblestoned alleys continue to be perfect for a lazy afternoon walk.
- How to get there: There are three buses a day between Sofia’s Central bus station and Zlatograd. Transport from Xanthi in Greece, 1.5 hours away, is possible too.