Eastward ho, to the Eastern Rhodope: an ancient city, puzzling niches and even a stone circle – In this part of the mountain, mysteries and enigmas crop up at every step

A good sense of direction in circumstances where maps are no use; a desire to ask the way; an adventurous spirit: if you believe you have at least two of these qualities, it is time you headed for the Eastern Rhodope. Even if you think you know this part of the mountain, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories on each trip there. Some of them are natural, others are man-made. What they have in common is their ability to challenge the imagination. PERPERIKON The rock city near Kardzhali is the best-known landmark in the area. And quite rightly so. From the Neolithic until the Middle Ages it was inhabited by people who relentlessly carved sacrificial altars, cisterns, necropolises, wall foundations and churches in the rock. The theory that in Perperikon was the sanctuary of Dionysus, famous in antiquity for the prophecies about the glorious future of Alexander the Great and Emperor Augustus, has also played its role. Tourists are quite a few. The city is worth visiting over and over again for a couple of reasons at least. It affords a magnificent view and the ongoing excava tions change the appearance of the rock city every season. THE CROMLECH NEAR DOLNI GLAVANAK Until recently, not even the most daring historian could presume the existence of a cromlech, an ancient stone circle of the type usually associated with Stonehenge, in Bulgaria. In 1998, however, a group of archaeologists discovered one by the village of Dolni Glavanak. The stone circle in the Rhodope Mountains is often compared to Stone henge, although it is not so grandiose. It has a diameter of about 10 m, or 33 ft, and its stones have an irregular shape and are not more than 1.5 m, or 5 ft, high. Nevertheless, the cromlech has a particular atmosphere. To see it, you should park your car by the new information centre on the road from Dolni Glavanak to Topolovo and walk down the gravel-covered tourist path. ROCK NICHES Rock niches are something you can see only in the Eastern Rhodope. They have a trap ezoidal shape and are carved at vertiginous heights on inaccessible cliffs. They always come in groups ranging from several to dozens or even hundreds of niches. Nobody knows their exact number. Every season archaeologists discover new ones. Nobody knows for sure how they were hewn or what their purpose was, but there are plenty of theories. The niches could have been: memorial complexes of eminent dead Thracians; necropolises; sanctuaries; star maps; maps of gold and copper mines; dedications to the gods by young Thracians. If you are new to the area, start with the niches by the village of Dolno Cherkovishte. There are many of them and most can be reached without any particular difficulty. Other well-known groups are the ones near the village of Dazh dovnitsa and Gluhite Kamani, or the Deaf Stones, by the village of Malko Gradishte.

High Flights magazine

Text by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff and Internet