Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Undiscovered Bulgaria II
- our journey continues -
We left Sofia, for Villa Gella, a luxurious retreat at the Rhodope Mountains and our home for the next few days. On our drive to the Villa we made a detour for Plovdiv, the city so-called “founded” in 342 BCE by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia.
Plovdiv turned out to be a thriving modern city – the second largest in Bulgaria - with one of the most unique and delightful old towns to explore… if you can persuade a cab to take the torturous drive up the hill or if your legs have the stamina to provide your own transport. Luckily we secured a ride with a cab that looked, and drove, as if the kindly proprietress gave in to many a pleading tourist. As was the custom of the day, the original settlement was established at the apex of the hill purely for defensive purposes.
Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in all of Europe – perhaps as old as the 6th millennium BC - and already existed when Philip conquered the area and named the town “Philipopolis” after himself.
When exploring the old town take care to wear good walking shoes with thick traction soles as the streets are more cobblestones stones then paving stones, steep and slippery, and its easy to be distracted by the delightful Bulgarian Revival style houses; many well kept 19th century originals, with unique exterior decorations.
And for fun, have a snack at one of the cafés overlooking one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman Amphitheatres. Unearthed in 1972 after a freak landslide, the ancient theatre originally held 6,000 spectators; after restoration, it once again offers theatrical and musical performances with the same perfect acoustics experienced over two thousand years ago. And this is not the only original Roman still-standing building in Plovdiv, nor the only reason to visit this city. Plovdiv was the European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Sadly we departed Plovdiv and headed towards Thrace, the mysterious region that the Greeks believed to be the birthplace of Dionysus, the God of Wine. It is also where the Valley of the Thracian Kings is, a vast area pocked with burial mounds, many of which are still unexplored. There are potentially priceless golden treasures and decorated tombs still to be discovered. We visited the UNESCO World Heritage Thracian tomb at Kazanlak that graphically depicts the funeral tradition for royal or noble deaths described by Herodotus (mentioned in last month’s’ article). The original tomb is too fragile to accommodate visitors but an exact replica has been constructed next to it that is open to the public for a small fee.
From the valley, we drove up into the Rhodope Mountains, which provided endless scenic views as we wound our way on a two-lane highway around its continuous curves. After some time I asked if the endless curves had ever been counted… a silly question that elicited an equally silly response – “the locals claim there are only two curves – left curves and right curves”. After a warm welcome at Villa Gella and a delicious dinner, we were entertained by a traditional bagpiper who described the bagpipe as a musical instrument that originated in Bulgaria.
Located in the hills above the traditional village of Gella, the Villa was our base for exploring Orpheus’ cave know as the Devil’s Throat; the Rila Monastery; and for enjoying the absolutely stunning views of the area.
After a sumptuous Bulgarian-style breakfast we left Villa Gella for the one-hour drive to Devil’s Throat. Our path was through the spectacular Trigrad Gorge, carved out of the mountainside by the Trigradska River, which flows sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, of the ever winding road…and always the rock face of the gorge towers above, often blocking out the sky, with its wind-shaped sculptures that captivate the imagination.
Devil’s Throat is a huge cave the roaring river hollowed-out from under the mountain, so massive it could accommodate a large cathedral with room left over for the colonies of bats that call it home and terrorize tourists. Legend claims it is the entrance to the underworld that Orpheus (a Thracian Prince) entered to bargain for the life of his beloved Eurydice. The way into the cave is slippery and steep with handholds only at the most terrifying spots… all the while the continuous thunderous roar of the river cautions that one misstep could sweep you away. We descended past the depression in the wall where legend claims Orpheus, fearful that Eurydice was no longer following him out of Hades, foolishly turned, only to see her lost to him forever. This celebrated place is called “Orpheus’s tears” and there is a leak in the wall that mirrors flowing tears. Once we reached the bottom of the cave peering into the raging river, we were told a 240 step staircase would lead us out to the natural entrance of the cave… or we could simply retrace our path – with only 140 steps along with steep grades to maneuver… piece of cake! We finally exited the dark, dank, cave congratulating ourselves on escaping Hades wrath… too bad Eurydice did not fare as well.
The following day we drove to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Rila Monastery, located in one of Bulgaria’s highest mountains and regarded as a spiritual, educational, and cultural center. The fascinating story of Rila recounts the life of a 10th century hermit called Ivan. Ivan lived in a cave and existed solely on herbs – some say he was crazy and tried to embalm himself – others say he devoted his life to fasting and prayer – regardless, he somehow survived his self-imposed punishment and began to treat and heal the locals with the herbs that had sustained him during his period of exile. His fame spread all the way to the Tsar and Tsarina who rewarded him by building the monastery. Rila Monastery is a spectacular expression of devotional iconography. The buildings are painted inside and out with Biblical scenes by Byzantine Russian Orthodox monks and it still serves today as a working monastery. Ivan’s cave as well as his grave can be visited.
On our trip we visited only a small percentage of the vast riches of Bulgaria and we look forward to a return visit to continue our exploration of Undiscovered Bulgaria.
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