Rhodope (also Rodopi or Rhodopi) is the largest mountain in Bulgaria, spanning one seventh of the territory of the country. The mountain is situated in the Southern part of Bulgaria and the southernmost part of it is situated on the territory of Greece. The highest peak is Golyam Perelik (2191m a.s.l.). The name of the mountain has a Thracian origin. The Thracian tribes inhabited the Rhodopi centuries on end. Around the mountain there are lots of remains of their culture, such as megaliths and sanctuaries. In geomorphological aspect the Rhodopi is the oldest mountain range in Bulgaria. The mountain can be divided in Eastern and Western Rhodopi. The two parts are very different from each another. The Western part is much higher and the climate is mostly mountainous. The Eastern part has low mountainous and hill relief, where the average altitude is only 230 m. The climate is very mild during the winter and very hot in the summer. A significant part of Bulgaria’s hydropower resources is concentrated in the Western part of the mountain range. There are lots of hydro-cascades, built on dams used for electricity production, irrigation and as tourist destinations. Fifteen reserves have been established in the region, some of which are under UNESCO protection.
There are more than 50 huts in Rhodope Mountains. Unfortunately, some of them are closed down altogether; others are open only in the warm period of the year. Most of the hikers and visitors of the mountain prefer to stay in some of the numerous guesthouses and small hotels situated in the villages and the small Rhodopean towns, such as the towns of Smolyan, Chepelare, Kardzhali, Velingrad, Devin, Zlatograd and the villages of Shiroka Laka, Yagodina, Gela, Trigrad, Orehovo, Kovachevitsa and many others.
Lots of hiking and walking trails are crossing the Eastern and Western part of Rhodope Mountains. Unfortunately, only the most popular are very well marked. During most of the hikes it is not very difficult to get lost. The Rhodope Mountains are suitable for differently experienced hikers. You can either make short walks around some of the villages or the interesting sites (i.e. using as a centre for example Trigrad village (details HERE), or hike many days in line for more than 6-7 hours per day (some self-guided walking tours in the Rhodope (details HERE) offer the option to walk with just a daypack, having your luggage transferred between the accommodations in the meantime). In any case the walking trails here are easier compared to Rila and Pirin, providing good opportunities for easy to moderate difficulty hikes. The Rhodope Mountains are some of the best places in Bulgaria to combine sightseeing and hiking. Hiking for a couple of days here is included in all itineraries, coverning the best of the Bulgarian mountains. The parts of the mountains, close to the border with Greece had a very limited access during the communists’ times and now they slightly reveal their secrets and traditions. And they are unique. For sure this is the place to experience Bulgarian hospitality in the true sense of the word. The most visited is the region between the villages of Orehovo, Trigrad and Smolyan. The most often visited hiking trails and the most popular tourist sites are situated there.
Natural and cultural sights:
They are so many, but let’s mention some of them:
• Environmental centre “Eastern Rhodope” – located in the town of Madzharovo. There you can learn about the vultures and see them in their natural habitat.
• Chudnite mostove (Wonderful Bridges) – a marvelous rocky phenomenon. The two bridges are situated in the foothills of Golyam Persenk Peak and were formed by the erosive activity of the once high-water river.
• Some of the famous caves you can visit: “Yagodina”, “Bacho Kiro”, “Uhlovitsa”, “Snezhanka”, “The Devil’s Throat” etc.
• Kardzhali – in and near this town you can find many interesting places: the Historical museum; Kardzhali dam; the unique Womb cave; strange rocky formations – the Rocky mushrooms and the Rocky wedding; the ruins of three fortresses – Moniak, Hisara, Ustra.
• Perperikon and Tatul – two very famous Thracian sanctuaries.
• The Devil’s Bridge – a spectacular bridge over Arda River, near the town of Ardino. It was build 500 years ago and stands still this way. There are interesting legends about the architect and the erection of the bridge. Some people say that if you are observing the construction and the water below it in a particular moment of the day you can see the face of the Devil.
• You can take a walk along some of the nice Eco-trails, most of them are with duration 2-4 hours. The most visited and beautiful is the “Canyon of the waterfalls” near the town of Smolyan.
• Shiroka Laka village – an architectural and folklore reserve with preserved old houses.
• Rhodopian dams – you can relax and enjoy the picturesque scenery on the shores of the dams of Kardzhali, Beglika, Vacha, Shiroka polyana, Dospat, Toshkov chark.
• Zlatograd – in the center of the town is situated an open-air Ethnographical complex.
• Mezek – a Thracian tomb near the border with Greece.
• Belintash – a Thracian sanctuary, near the village of Mostovo.
• Bachkovo Monastery – the second biggest monastery in Bulgaria.
• Kovachevitsa – another small village with preserved old houses.
• Two wonderful gorges – Buynovo and Trigrad Zhdrelo.
The great climate and soil diversity determine the large biodiversity in the Rhodope Mountains. There are more than 2000 plants, 90 of them are Balkan Peninsula’s endemic species. The most famous plant in the region is the Rhodopean Haberlea. The legend tells that the plant grew from the blood of the Thracian singer Orpheus. Typical representatives of the deciduous trees are oak, hornbeam, durmast, wild pear, beech, ashtree. From the coniferous trees the most widespread species are spruce, white and black pine. You can see them only in the Western part of the mountain.
Representatives of the mammal species are wolves, wild boars, brown bears, wild goats (Balkan Chamois), rabbits. The connoisseurs can enjoy a variety of 200 ladybirds. The East Rhodope is a paradise for the ornithologists. There are more than 270 bird species. Among them are three species of vultures and almost all European eagles and falcons. The region hosts the largest populations of Griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture on the Balkan Peninsula. Trigrad Gorge is world-famous place for watching Wallcreeper.
The number of festivals and events taking place in the mountains is huge and some of them have century-old history. There are just a few of them:
• National Bagpipe festival – takes place every first weekend of August in the village of Gela. You can enjoy the unique sound of Bulgarian bagpipe. (video clip HERE – the official world record – ensemble of 333 bagpipes)
• Festival of the bread – takes place every year in August near the village of Rabovo. You can see the path of the bread, from the mowing of the spelt (the oldest cereal plant in Bulgaria) to the baked bread.
• Beglika fest – takes place very year in August around Beglika dam. A festival of the activity and creativity in open air. It combines sports, art, education, music, environmentalism. A festival with sustainable environmental thinking.
• July Jazz – an open-air festival for ethno-jazz music. It takes place near Perelik peak, every year in July.
You can enjoy the cosmic voice of Bulgaria: The song “Izlel e Delyo haidutin” performed by Valya Balkanska was one of the chosen and included in the Golden disc of the space ship Voyager in order to be a musical message from the Earth to the distant space. In 2004 Voyager exceeded the boundaries of the Solar system (video clip HERE).
The Rhodopi (also Rhodopes or Rodopi) are a land of mystery, rife with history and legends. It is the birthplace of Orpheus – the Thracian musician who enthralled all animals and people with his harp and even descended into the underworld to search for his beloved. The Rhodopi is the largest mountain in Bulgaria, it takes one-seventh of the territory of the country. The mountain covers the south part of the country. The southernmost part of it extends into the territory of Greece. The highest peak Golyam Perelik is 2191m a.s.l., but climbing it is prohibited because a military base is situated on top of it. The mountain is divided into Eastern and Western Rhodopi – despite being part of the same massif, the two parts differ in various ways. In fact, they have little in common. There are numerous dams and the Rhodopi, especially the Western part, are rich in water resources. More than 10 reserves, some of which under UNESCO protection, preserve precious wildlife and habitats.
The Rhodopi is Bulgaria’s largest mountain, nevertheless, there are few functioning mountain huts in it. The ones that do work offer only basic conditions. The gap is filled in by a vast number of cozy guesthouses and small hotels in Rhodopi’s numerous picturesque villages. Luxury hotels are to be found in some of the bigger towns. The village guesthouses are highly recommended where visitors can taste the delicious Rhodopian dishes and the quintessential hospitality of the “rodopchani” (local inhabitants of the Rhodopi). As a mountain close to the border, Rhodopi guards its secrets well and only the most popular trails are well marked. It is easy to get lost in between those identical-looking hills covered in vegetation. The same hills do make for spectacular landscapes though and are a favorite destination for professional and hobby photographers alike. Rhodopi is very convenient for short and easy walks (much easier compared to Rila and Pirin), as well as for longer hikes from a village to a hut or vice versa. Many tourists prefer to come to Rhodopi for center-based holidays. The region between Orehovo, Trigrad and Smolyan is most preferred by tourists and is well developed with hiking trails and other activities, including sports and local arts and crafts.
There are so many sights to visit in Rhodopi, both cultural and natural, but let’s mention just some of them:
• Wonderful Bridges (Chudnite mostove) – a beautiful natural phenomenon, which consists of two enormous rocky bridges formed by the erosive activity of the water.
• You can pay a visit to several unique caves such as “Bacho Kiro”, “Uhlovitsa”, “Yagodina”, “The Devil’s Throat”, “Snezhanka”. Legend has it that this is where Orpheus started his descent into the underworld kingdom of Hades in order to save his beloved Eurydice.
• Two wonderful gorges are situated in the western part of the mountain – Buynovo and Trigrad Zhdrelo.
• Bachkovo monastery – the second biggest monastery in the country.
• Leshten, Kovachevitsa and Dolen – three small villages in Western Rhodopi with cozy preserved old houses from the 18th and 19th centuries and cobblestone streets. Leshten and Kovachevitsa have undergone extensive restoration activities in the past decades. Kovachevitsa is a preferred shooting location for many Bulgarian movies, while Leshten features a tourist complex of several hobbit-like houses made of adobe and cob.
• Shiroka laka village – similar to Leshten, Kovachevitsa and Dolen, Shiroka laka is a well preserved architectural ensemble of Bulgarian Revival period houses. It is also well-known for its musical school for authentic Bulgarian folklore.
• Numerous Thracian sights – Mezek tomb, situated near the Greek border; Belintash sanctuary and ancient open-air observatory near the village of Mostovo; Tatul and Perperikon – the most famous Thracian sanctuary and ancient Thracian town in Eastern Rhodopi.
• The Rhodopi abound in dams – Batak, Beglik, Kardzhali, Dospat, etc. Apart from providing water for electricity production, they are marvelous recreation sites with numerous bungalows, camping grounds and small hotels situated along their shores. Tourists can rent boats or kayaks in the summer or take a hike towards the nearby hills which uncover majestic views to the deep blue waters below.
• Zlatograd – the central area of this small town is turned into an open-air ethnographical complex featuring architecture and crafts from the Bulgarian Revival period.
• The town of Devin and the village of Ognyanovo – they are famous for their mineral springs and are desired SPA destinations.
• Kardzhali – the biggest town in the Rhodopi. Near the town, you can visit the Kardzhali dam; the rocky formations – the Rocky mushrooms and the Rocky wedding; ruins of a couple of fortresses – Hisara, Ustra, Moniak.
• The Devil’s Bridge – this impressive work of art and architecture was built above Arda river at the beginning of the 16th century at the order of the Ottoman sultan. Almost everything about it is shrouded in mystery. There are no historical records about its construction but according to legend, it was built by the Bulgarian mason Dimitar from a nearby village. He struck a deal with the Satan who promised him to tell him a secret that would make his work eternal if he managed to finish the construction in 40 days. If he did not succeed, the Satan would take his soul. Dimitar managed to complete the task in record time and the Satan kept his promise, unfortunately, though the skillful builder died short thereafter, taking the secret knowledge to his grave. People say that if you stood at the bridge between 11.00 and 12.00 at noon and looked at the river’s waters, you would be able to see Satan’s face. Moreover, some say that the Devil’s footstep is cut out into one of the bridge’s stones.
• Many pleasant eco-trails with short durations such as Devin eco-trail near the town of Devin and the “Canyon of the waterfalls” near the town of Smolyan.
• Pamporovo and Chepelare – ideal places for winter sports lovers. Pamporovo is a purposely-built ski resort with a variety of ski slopes and facilities, while Chepelare is a cute little town with only a few slopes. The whole region enjoys a lot of snowfall during the winter.
Since there are variations between the climate in the Western (mountainous with heavy snowfalls in the winter) and the Eastern Rhodopi (very hot summer, mild winter), as well as great soil diversity, it is only natural that the diversity of animal species and habitats is quite amazing. Some species are present in both parts of the mountain, others are peculiar only to one of them. Out of the 2000 plants encountered in Rhodopi, 90 are endemic to the Balkan Peninsula and one of them is extremely well-known – the Rhodopean Haberlea. According to one legend, it first grew from where the blood of Orpheus had dripped, according to another – the tears of Orpheus were the beneficial growth medium for the flower. More impressively, the plant is a pre-glacial relict that evolved around 2 million years ago. It is extremely resilient to drought and can resurrect itself even after 30 months without water. Vast areas of Western Rhodopi are covered in coniferous forests dominated by spruce, white and black pine. Oak, hornbeam, durmast, wild pear, beech and ashtree are among the common deciduous trees. Out of the mammal species, today one can encounter wolf, wild boar, brown bear (the largest population of bears in Bulgaria), chamois, rabbit. With more than 270 species, the Eastern Rhodopi are a true paradise for bird-watchers. Among them are three species of vultures and almost all European eagles and falcons (Aquila heliaca, Aquila clanga, Falco naumanni, Gyps fulvus, Neophron percnopterus, Aegypius monachus, Emberiza melanocephala). The region hosts the largest populations of Griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture on the Balkan Peninsula. Trigrad Gorge is a world-famous place for watching Wallcreeper. This amazing bird diversity is the result of the dedicated and intentional efforts of bird protection NGOs and the professional reintroduction campaigns they have undertaken in recent decades. A special bird center operates in Madzharovo where ornithological tours are regularly offered.
The guests of the Rhodopi mountain can enjoy numerous festivals. Here are some examples:
• Beglika fest – a multifaceted event that combines live music, sustainable lifestyle workshops, demonstrations and discussions. It takes place every August on the shores of Beglika dam.
• Gela festival – national bagpipe festival, which takes place in the village of Gela in August. The bagpipe is a national instrument in Bulgaria, similar to Scotland, however, the Rhodopi bagpipe is a different kind that produces deeper, low-pitched sounds. The official bagpipe world record is held by a performance of 333 Rhodopi bagpipes.
• Perelik Jazz fest – fusion guitars, authentic rhythms and Balkan ethno-jazz music fill the Rhodope at the foothills of Perelik peak every July.
• Rozhen fest – one of the most visited folklore festivals in Bulgaria. When the meadows of Rozhen are full of colors and sounded by the sounds of the Rhodopi bagpipe.
We would like to end our tour of Rhodopi with one of the most famous Bulgarian songs – “Izlel e Delyo haidutin” performed by the cosmic voice of Valya Balkanska. This song was chosen to be in the Golden disc of the space ship Voyager which brings messages about the Earth and its inhabitants to the distant space and possible other conscious life forms. In 2004 Voyager flew past the boundaries of the Solar system.