Bulgarian Diaries #3: The sacred womb, camels and the temple of Dionysus

This time I am taking you to the magical Eastern Rhodopes, located in southeastern Bulgaria: green and full of ancient, sacred Thracian sites and natural beauty! This is the place where you can step away from time and immerse yourself in exploring forests, rock sanctuaries and Pomak villages. It is believed that somewhere in these lands stood the mythical temple of the god of wine, Dionysus.

The starting point is the town of Kardzhali, situated on the beautiful Kardzhali Dam. A car is certainly needed to get around all the sites. The roads are narrow, mountainous and time consuming.

Amazing Kardzhali Dam

Interesting facts about the region: welcome to the land of the silkworms, camels, tobacco and sesame
The Pomaks are a group of people in southeastern Europe who, during the Ottoman Empire, converted to Islam, retaining parts of their original culture and Bulgarian dialect. In these villages, people live very modestly.

The clucking of chickens mixes with the chants of the imam from the nearby mosque.

Traditional livelihoods in this part of Bulgaria have been silkworm cultivation, sesame and tobacco farming. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bulgaria produced 1,250 tons of silk cocoons per year, so that in the early 1980s, Bulgaria was ranked 1st in Europe. Another traditional livelihood was the cultivation of sesame and tobacco. Many of the school brigades during communism were held here – my parents also used to string tobacco leaves for drying. The Eastern Rhodopes were also famous for the breeding of camels used to transport goods – can you imagine this? By 1925 there were 1,000 camels in Bulgaria, the last camel transportation was used in 1974.

The camillars transported cargo to hard-to-reach areas throughout southeastern Bulgaria (1934)
© Municipal History Museum in Topolovgrad

Where should your base camp be?
17 km from Kardzhali, following a narrow mountain road with curves down to the very shore of the dam. With a tent, a van or a room overlooking the water in a small family hotel with a beautiful courtyard – it’s up to you.

Waking up to this view every morning is simply incredible!

Ancient Perperikon
The Thracian megalithic sanctuary of Perperikon is located 15 km northeast of Kardzhali. Carved into the rocks, it is one of the most ancient monumental megalithic monuments.

Among the Thracians Perperikon was a sacred rock city, capital and fortress with a royal palace

There, according to scholars, the famous sanctuary of the god Dionysus was located, and the prophecies made there came true. Here it was foretold that Alexander the Great would conquer the world. It is no coincidence that famous personalities of the past turned to the priestesses who performed the wine-fire ritual. The first traces of life date back to the late New Stone Age, at the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth millennium BC.

Cave The Womb and the Paradise View
The Womb is a man-made womb-shaped cave with an altar where the sunlight reaches on the day of the vernal equinox. The fusion between the rock and the sun represents the beginning of life. The well-maintained and marked trail to get there takes about an hour and goes through a forest.

If you start from the cave along the ridge, you can descend to the village of Pudartsi on the dam itself in about two hours, passing the so-called Paradise View. This is a trail that winds along the ridge until you get down to the dam. Since there are no water fountains along it (15 km), it is advisable to bring enough water. From the Paradise View you can see the meanders of the Borovitsa River and the Arda River, which draw smooth, beautiful curves.

The Paradise view

The Stone Wedding and the Stone Mushrooms
The rock formation “The Stone Wedding” near the village of Zimzelen is another natural landmark in the region. These are volcanic tuffs about 35 million years old, when the region was the bottom of the sea. Whoever is early for a wedding can start with a stone kiss.

About 20 minutes away, directly on the road, you’ll find the stone mushrooms: volcanic tuffs of iridescent white, pink, green and black.

The Village of Nenkovo and its bridges
Following the bed of the Borovitsa River, which is empty during the hot Bulgarian summer but shows how full the river is, about 9 km from the base camp you reach the village of Nenkovo. Two picturesque bridges tower over the sprawling, rocky, empty bed, looking as if they have been torn away and forgotten by time.

One of them, about a kilometre before the village, is a Roman one.

It is believed to have been part of the Roman transcontinental road network linking Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) and Adrianople many years ago. The other is a ropeway, with steel cables, which connects the 20 village houses with the decades-old remains of the local pub. It was pretty rocking coming home after a few rakhis. The bridge may have saved quite a few marriages at the time.

Contact me and start learning Bulgarian!
If you want to know more about other interesting places around Bulgaria, drop me a line! I’d be happy to share and help you even with the organization. For this trip, I recommend, you learn a few basic phrases in Bulgarian!

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