The road less travelled in the Rhodope

Fleeing an unseasonably cool and wet July day in Sofia, we headed south to Kurdjali on an organised tour* – and what a difference a morning’s drive makes! In Kurdjali, the influence of the Mediterranean is more keenly felt; the sun has more strength, the sunbaked scrub-style vegetation is laden with grasshoppers (and even the odd snake!) while the air has an aroma of pine, herbs and jacaranda.

It’s a common perception – partly true – that many of the people in this part of the Rhodope speak Turkish. Some hold dual Bulgarian-Turkish citizenship, others are Pomaks who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule.

The area is a stronghold of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – the MRF. Peeling posters of erstwhile party leader Ahmed Dogan flutter in the warm breeze. Now, of course, the party is headed by “The Falcon’s” successor, Lyutvi Mestan. Judging by graffiti and official publicity material, the party’s popularity has withstood the scandals surrounding its leaders.

Back-breaking labour…and for a pittance

The region is heavily dependent on tobacco cultivation and that reflects in the faces and bodies that greet you when you go past the plantations – some of the older women bent double, their faces ravaged by the sun. It’s an understatement to say that tobacco-picking is an arduous and badly paid job. Pity the poor hands of those who tend the dreaded weed; they get covered with a reddish-brown layer that is difficult to erase.

The spring is spent growing seedlings, planting them out and hoeing them. Leaves picked during the day have to be strung out and left to dry by the evening. Unsurprisingly, many young people move out to the cities, aware of the lack of opportunities. Some of the precious agate stones found in the nearby soil (and which turn red in water) offer scant compensation.

Elevators since time immemorial

Our first official stop was the ruins of the ancient city of Perperikon, 15 km north of Kurdjali, and commanding majestic views over the countryside. Perperikon has been the site of various forms of religious activity from about 7000 years ago, having first been used by the Thracians. The first traces of civilization on the hill date from the Bronze Age while the ceramics found at the scene date from the early Iron Age. The site is a popular tourist attraction and long-term archaeological work continues to unveil new discoveries.

perperikon photo gabriel hershman-crop

Perperikon is a truly impressive site, a giant multi-storey palace and an imposing fortress built round a hill with walls as thick as 2.8m. The site, overlooking the Perpereshka River, even has a throne and an impressive round altar, almost 2m in diameter. The Romans were so advanced that they even used elevators – our guide told us – not, of course, the electronic kind (although, knowing the Romans, nothing would have surprised me!) but a pulley stem to bring provisions up to the fortress.

If you visit this archaeological complex in the summer – in a rather isolated area – a sunhat and bottled water and walking shoes are essential.

Nearby, on the road between Haskovo and Kurdjali, is a very arresting natural phenomenon – the stone mushrooms in the village of Beli Plast. They are about 2.5m high, symmetrical rock pieces that resemble natural mushrooms with their pink stumps and greenish hoods. They are shaped from volcanic tuffs. It took thousands of years of erosion to shape this wonderful combination of unique shapes and colours.

I am sailing…

Perhaps the highlight for the first day for me was the catamaran trip on the Studen Kladenets lake. The Studen Kladenets reservoir is one of the largest in Bulgaria. Situated on the River Arda 30km from Kurdjali, it is second in size only to Kurdjali dam. Lifejackets were available but even if you did fall into the water (and if you did it would be through your own carelessness because you are completely safe!) you are unlikely to succumb to hypothermia. The waters are a balmy 25 degrees in summer!

Around the lake are inaccessible towering hills of sunbaked scrubland with near vertical slopes plunging into the waters. Rare species of protected birds – vultures, eagle and falcons – fly overhead. When you reach the wall of the dam itself we tried to take photos but were warned this was a place of “national security”. Nearby the dam wall you can spot many waterfowl and on the way back we caught sight of deer grazing near the water’s edge.

In the vast emptiness, gliding across the smooth water, accompanied only by soaring birds and the odd lonesome fisherman, it occurred to me that this is indeed a hidden part of Bulgaria where most British visitors at least – usually confined to the Black Sea resorts – seldom tread. They don’t know what they are missing.

Food fit for comrade Zhivkov

Now, let’s pause for a brief culinary investigation. No trip to rural Bulgaria would naturally be complete without the obligatory over-stuffing. Our stomachs were treated like those of royalty at every stop on the way – or should I say like former communist leader Todor Zhivkov’s stomach? I say this because we stopped at numerous riverside restaurants, taverns and hotels during our tour. One of the latter was Zhivkov’s former hunting lodge. It seems that Zhivkov liked hunting for game and lived quite luxuriously. All apparatchik are equal but some are more equal than others…

Food in the region consists of delicacies like Shashlak (grilled meat) gyuzlemi and baklava (a Turkish sticky pastry) ayran, white and yellow cheese and rich local yoghurt, the latter often served together with cheese in enormous salads and washed down with rakiya.

A particularly charming hotel was the Trifon Zarezan, a rambling Rhodope villa converted into a hotel, with wooden beams, hand-woven red rugs and wonderful views over Kurdjali lake. Just down from the hotel we had a delicious dinner at a “boat” restaurant by the lake. The fish are, of course, the real treat and they can be viewed in nets on the quayside. Seafood salads included oysters and crab among the more traditional tuna and sweetcorn while the main course offered a diverse choice of the day’s catch.

A museum for all seasons

Kurdjali’s regional history museum – opened to visitors from 1987 onwards – captures centuries of traditions and customs, in many ways unchanged with the passage of time. That is indeed one of the many charming aspects of this corner of southeastern Bulgaria. You sense that if you had visited 40 or 50 years ago, then much would be the same as it is now.

History Museum, Kurdjali, southern Bulgaria. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
History Museum, Kurdjali, southern Bulgaria. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer

The museum itself is very impressive but perhaps a little “unsung”. If it had air-conditioning during the summer, then it would be very easy to spend the entire day there. It has three sections: archaeology, ethnology and nature. Each section occupies a separate floor with rooms devoted to different themes.

The museum illustrates the region’s agricultural practices. It has – among other exhibits – ploughs, tobacco plants, petrified stones, a reconstruction of a dairy and even some knotted motley stockings. There’s also a wide display of iron instruments – dating from between the 9th and 14th centuries – pendants, petrified wood, amulets and traditional local earrings, bronze belts, buckles, candlesticks, clay pots and ceramics and even some Byzantine coins from the 14th century. You can find Christmas Eve rolls of bread snake-shaped bread for Shrove tide (designed to ward off evil spirits) and a reconstruction of a shoemaker’s workshop and photos of regional bird-life as well as “cityscapes” of Kurdjali down the years.

Tatul, a village in nearby Momchilgrad, is another – recently discovered – gem, a religious complex that makes for essential viewing on a trip to the region. It was  shortly after 2000 that archaeologists discovered an ancient Thracian surface tomb and sanctuary close to the village. Latest archaeological finds date the earliest settlement to 4000 BCE. Some archaeologists think that the site is the sanctuary and tomb of an influential Thracian leader. Around 30 clay altar and other items from the 18-19th century have been excavated as well as a nude male figure from the Iron Age.

Wooden but full of spirit

We have mentioned that the area is predominantly Turkish. Minarets decorate the skyline throughout. One of the most historic places of worship is the wooden mosque “of seven girls” in Podkova, built in 1438. It’s made entirely out of wood, without using a single nail. According to legend, the temple was built by seven girls whose loved ones had not returned from war – hence the mosque’s name. They sold their entire dowry to purchase materials and built the mosque in one night.

It’s a fully functional mosque and we arrived in time for the Friday service. We removed our footwear and crouched down on the floor while the sermon was broadcast on loudspeakers and older members of the congregation read from prayer books. The mosque was partially reconstructed in 2009 but again without the use of nails. Tourists are welcome to visit the site and we found the worshippers most welcoming – we were offered drinks and refreshments.

It’s all too easy to imagine that the highlights of Bulgaria are just Sofia, Plovdiv, the Black Sea and the Revival Towns. This corner of Bulgaria is blessed with great climate, wonderful food and a Mediterranean feel, all without the crowds that make some areas of the seaside rather trying in summer. There are also great archaeological finds that make this an especially exciting trip and the town of Kurdjali itself is a great city with a lively pedestrian area and main square, full of street artists and exhibitors. All in all, I can thoroughly recommend this part of Bulgaria to everyone. I’m just grateful that I don’t have to join the tobacco-pickers to scrape a living!

*I would especially like to extend my appreciation to Kurdjali’s local guide Marina Kutelova, who made this trip so memorable, as well as Kiril Nikolov for inviting me on this tour.

(Photos: (c) Gabriel Hershman)



Gabriel Hershman

Gabriel Hershman is a British journalist and writer with special interest in politics and cinema.