The Rhodopi are an mystical and otherworldly mountain range, steeped in myth and legend from the most ancient of times. In Greek mythology, Queen Rhodope, and King Hemus, were prone to vanity and liked to refer to themselves as Hera and Zeus. The gods decided to teach them a lesson, and turned them into mountain ranges far from one another. Rhodope became the Rhodope mountains (Rhodopi in Bulgarian and Greek), and Hemus became the Balkan mountains which transect Bulgaria across the middle from W to E. They are stuffed full of historical and prehistorical remains, ancient roads, bridges, hill-top acropoli, castles, roman forts, and hidden religious sanctuaries of all different flavours; historical significance weighs heavy in the air all around you as you walk through them. Bulgaria having the strategic position that it does, at the dividing line between Europe and Asia, has had more than its fair share of invasions as you go back in time. The huge impenetrable Rhodopi acted as refuge against these invading armies and alien occupying forces. It was both one of the epicentres of the Bulgarian orthodox national revival and rebellion against the ottomans in the 1870s (after 500 years of Ottoman domination – it was here that folk culture had survived the most intact), and was also a refuge for the Turkish Bulgarians in the persecutions that followed the triumph of the liberation of the Bulgaria from the ottoman empire in 1878. These persecutions lead to large scale population exchanges, and many ethnic Turks ended up leaving Bulgaria at this time, however, in the Rhodopi, the Turks largely persisted (1), thus many of the villages that I was walking through were Turkish and Muslim, which lessened the culture shock slightly.
The Eastern Rhodopi are lower than the western, and tend to be covered by a patchwork of broad-leaved woodland (beech, ash and oak) open pastureland, and rocky outcrops. The hills are rolling, averaging 600 m or so in height. It is a raptor paradise, and home to Europe’s only population of Egyptian Vultures. As I penetrated into the interior of this mountain refuge, I gradually encountered the things which had been worrying me about these mountains, and each time I did, they became a little less scary. My first night out I camped on a hill top above Madzharovo, it got down to –10 deg C that night and I could hear what sounded a lot like wolves howling. I managed to get a fire going and cooked up some nice pasta. After then, I knew camping and cold temperatures were nothing to be afraid of, and wolves – well I was still a little nervous of them. A few days later found me bivvying out in an ancient hill top city/shrine (Perperekon, again temperatures got down to –10 deg C – this time I had survived it quite happily without a tent, in a truly awe-inspiring location. Getting food and drink was no problem at all, as I passed through villages several times a day. By pushing at the edge of our comfort zone – we expand it. I started to enjoy myself more.
The first 5 days I didn’t have much interaction with the locals – I slept away from them, and no-one asked me what I was doing when I popped into towns to get supplies or stop for a breather. I noticed that the Bulgarian women (even the ethnic Turks) had a much more equal place in village society than I had experienced in Turkey. There were many female farmers and shepherds, and in the village pub/tea house, the women were just as represented as the men. 5 days in I made a side trip by bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, to pick up a package from home of winter equipment. The package was delayed and I ended up staying a week or so. It was here that I finally got to meet some Bulgarians. What do you do when stuck in a cool city, in a hostel over the road from a craft beer bar? Plovdiv finally fully dispelled any lingering doubts I had about Bulgarian people. I met, and got tipsy with, so many cool people: a bar manageress trying to make a success of the newest (and best) Irish pub in Plovdiv (Headshot-DX Irish pub- http://www.facebook.com/Headshot.Irishpub ); a barber, keen to try out a new concept in hairdressing – a barbershop/chill-space; A lawyer, helping Brits and others purchasing holiday homes; and an English teacher on the Bulgarian equivalent of teach first, who took me out for dinner and who I would be seeing a little more of in the coming weeks…
So I learnt a lesson – when people from countries which have historic beef (like Turkey and Bulgaria), tell you that the people in the other country are bad people, take it with a pinch of salt and go and check it out for yourself. To be fair, a few Bulgarians told me that Turks were bad people too, to which I would ask the person if they had ever visited turkey (almost always no).
Eventually my winter equipment arrived and I could be on my way. I took a bus back to Kardzhali, and set off again on the walk. Next on the plate I had the higher, colder, and wilder, western Rhodopi. The villages gradually became more spread out, the forests more continuous (and coniferous), and the views from the peaks more breathtaking. By this time I was really getting into the walking – whenever I walked I often felt like I was on a natural high – I suppose from all the serotonin released from so much exercise in such beautiful locations – and I was often moved to sing spontaneously – quite a wonderful feeling.
On a trip such as this, every day is full of surprises, challenges to be dealt with, and memorable experiences – its part of the joys of travelling in this way. In the interests of brevity I will recount just a selection of the ones which left the strongest impressions on me. In the mid-afternoon after a tough day walking up unreasonably steep hills in unseasonably warm conditions, with an unaccustomedly heavy pack due to all the new gear (over 20 kgs when fully loaded – ouch) – I arrived to an hill-top village with open views along verdant valleys, and across to the snow covered peaks further west. I was knackered, and thinking of where I was going to sleep. A villager outside in his garden hailed me over and we had a fun charades based conversation. I managed to convey that I was British – and he excitedly pointed to the next door house – apparently there might be more of us strange Brits about. I went and knocked on the door, and was welcomed in by Melly and Lee. They immediately produced some coffee and biscuits and we quizzed one another on our stories. Melly and Lee got tired of the rat race; sold up all they possessed in the UK, and moved out in their 40s to the Rhodopi to set up an organic guest house. The guest house was closed for winter, but they said they were glad to have a bit of English speaking company, some rakiya was produced, followed by a wonderful fully organic dinner (much of which came from their garden or from the village), and I was offered a comfy sofa bed to spend the night. They would accept no payment, despite my unannounced turning up at their door, proving that perhaps Balkan hospitality is catching :). Their guest house is a really magical place, with a jaw dropping location, hidden away deep in the hills at the end of a dead end road, you would struggle indeed to come across it by chance – as I did. I cannot recommend it highly enough, if anyone fancies an ecological/organic break far far away from the stresses and strains of the modern world (Melanya Mountain Retreat, www.melanya.com).
Central and Western Rhodopi
After leaving their wonderful secret haven of a guest house I pressed for a few days on over the rolling mountain ridges towards Smolyan, the administrative hub of the Central Rhodopi. As I neared Smolyan, I nasty cough I had been nursing for days turned into a fever – I was forced into a tough few days rest staying at a comfortable spa hotel in the centre of town. After Smolyan – I had my biggest physical challenge of the trip so far – my route was over the highest mountain in the Rhodopi, Golyam Perelik at 2191m (although you can’t get to the very top, as the military have unfairly placed a base there).My walking up until this point had only been up to about 1200m or so – so this was a different order of magnitude – and I knew I would now be above the snow line for much of the following 2 weeks. Using snowshoes for the first time on the trip revealed their limitations – no you do not “float” over the snow as I had envisaged – you still sink in, just slightly less, and now you have heavy unwieldy things tied to your feet. But you just accept the new reality, adjust your daily distance goals and keep moving – accepting that moving about would now be much slower, and much more laborious – but still possible. On one of the following days I managed just 14 km forward progress in about 12 hours walking without break – that’s an average speed of just over 1 kmph (On a flat good track, I can average 6 kmph+)!! I made it over Perelik and down the other side, and had my first camp on snow- mmm frosty.
The day after Perelik I made it to Trigrad, and stayed in the hotel Deni (Семеен Хотел Дени, 4825, Trigrad) – owned and operated by Rumen and his hospitable family. I was the only guest at the hotel – and when I came down for dinner the family was sitting down to a dinner and drinks with friends. I was welcomed to the table like an old friend and a selection of local delicacies brought out for my benefit – (I can recommend the horse sausage) prepared by the hotel chef Svilen. The beer and rakiya flowed, Rumen said (translated via his daughter Stasi) I reminded him of his eldest son who was about my age, and off working as an engineering contractor in Africa. I tried to pay at the end of the meal – no payment accepted – you are a guest. Such warmth and hospitality again given to a lone stranger – it was indeed heartening.
leaving Trigrad the following morning, I had one of my most memorable experiences so far, when I wandered in to the Bulgarian liberation day celebrations at the next-door village of Yagodina. I arrived into the village just as a pipe band were starting up a tune, and setting off towards a nearby hill followed by a crowd of onlookers. I thought it looked like fun, and decided to follow on behind, even though it was off my path. The procession continued all the way up to the top of the hill (a solid 400 m climb), I found out towards the top of the hill what was going on “Bulgarian liberation day, free kofte, games”. The procession was split up by the climb, and gradually reassembled on the top. Speeches and poetry were followed on by music and folk dancing. We then moved down from the top of the hill, to a tent set up to provide the previously mentioned free kofte –they were delicious. I started chatting to a group of volunteers from the vulture sanctuary at Madzharovo which I had passed weeks before. They asked me to join them for the games later, and I was honoured to be a part of the fastest losing tug of war team (our opponents forearms were the same size as our thighs!), and narrowly avoided being last in a sack race. The band struck up again, and I got involved this time. The sunny weather, dancing and good natured competition all on top of a hill with views down hair-raising limestone canyon topped off a wonderful morning and early afternoon. Later in the afternoon, I was truly scared for my life, as I attempted to traverse a narrow rickety walkway covered in snow and ice along bottom of an impossibly deep and narrow gorge past a geological formation known as the devil’s bridge. The snow was melted from the entrance to the gorge, which tempted me in – once I had got a certain distance I felt unable to turn back. The experience took me crashing down from the highs of earlier in the day, and served to remind me of the dangers of taking your safety for granted when travelling in the mountains in winter – they can always surprise and scare you.
In the following few days I hiked through Borino an ethnically Turkish village with a sheltered location in a wide bowl of mountains and a great base for exploring the wild western Rhodopi. I had a loooong snowshoe traverse up to the high altitude reservoir Golyam Perelik. I thought I would have to camp out in the horrible melting slushy snow, but chanced upon a wonderful secluded set of holiday cabins on the shore of the reservoir. The guardian, ‘Stan’, lived in this remote and lovely location year round – saying truthfully that he had very few guests in the long dark winter months. But he was just firing up the wood-fired shower, and had plenty of food and beer, and yes I was welcome to stay!! I ended up staying two nights at the isolated idyll (Chatama, https://www.facebook.com/chatamalive/?fref=ts). Chatama was followed by more slogging through rotten melting snow over Golyama Syutka (2186m)along snow-covered paths untouched by human footprints since the last snow (a week ago!), all the way to Velingrad, where I had an appointment to meet the English teacher who had taken me out for dinner in Plovdiv. Dana bussed in from a distant part of Bulgaria, bearing a cake complete with candles to help me celebrate my 29th birthday in a vaguely traditional style (cake, candles, and wine).
(1) Many of the Ethnic Turks had been forced out from the eastern Rhodopi, and Bulgaria. They suffered periodic persecution at the hands of the orthodox majority ever since the Bulgarian liberation in 1878, this persecution culminated a paroxysm of religious and nationalistic intolerance right at the end of the communist period in the late 1970s and 1980s. They were forced to change their names from Turkish names, to more Orthodox sounding ones, and forbidden to speak Turkish, the language they had grown up speaking in the home. The reason for the persecution was depressingly familiar, an entrenched regime which was failing to provide its people with even basic goods, and freedoms, looking for a scapegoat to distract the population. Finally towards the end of the 80s the persecution reached fever pitch, and then abruptly, the regime told its Turkish subjects that if they didn’t like their treatment, then they were free to leave and go back to Turkey (a country many had never even visited). 300,000 Turkish Bulgarians took the opportunity to escape the brutal persecution, and moved to an uncertain future in Turkey, leaving behind livelihoods, property, friends and animals with no recompense. It was a particularly sad ending to the sad story of the communist regime in Bulgaria. Many of the villages I passed through in the eastern Rhodopi were wholly or partially abandoned and fast becoming derelict.