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Rhodope Mountain Towns and Villages

The majestic Rhodope Mountains are home to some wonderful towns and villages, which offer all of the rustic charm that the real Bulgaria has to offer. This is an area with welcoming friendly folk, tasty regional cuisine, panoramic scenery and a sunny climate – even when it snows! We take a look at some of the best areas to holiday or invest in Smolyan district.

 

Gela: Birthplace of Orpheus


This is the legendary birthplace of Orpheus, and one of the oldest settlements in the Rhodopes. Now there remain only a few dozen inhabitants of this beautiful remote village. If it is peace and tranquillity you are after, come to Gela. But if this is the case, avoid the first Sunday of August, when the lively Illinden Festival takes place – it’s a bagpipe competition and there’s liable to be lots of noise, but if you want to join in you can actually buy a set of traditional bagpipes, known as the gaida, or the larger kaba gaida, which are made from an airtight sheep hide. As in the other villages, weaving, leatherwork and dyeing are all local crafts that are linked with sheep breeding and still performed. The Karakachanski sheep are a local breed which used to be widespread but are now becoming extinct. You can see the ruins of an ancient monastery and two churches here, and Gela is the starting point for various rambling trails.

Smilyan: Beans, Cows and Craftspeople

The gateway to the Central Rhodopes, Smilyan, lies on the Arda River valley 830 m above sea level. It is one of the oldest settlements in the Smilyan district and also one of the largest, with around 2,000 inhabitants. The town’s biggest landmark is the 18th century clock tower but there are many other beautiful sites here such as the traditional, white, stone houses with timbered erkers. They are spread upon a fairly flattish area just above the river, which promises endless possibilities for walking and exploring. The town is most renowned for its beans and its skilled craftspeople that stitch beautiful slippers and weave intricate rugs. One place to visit is the working dairy, which also doubles as a guest house called the Dairy Inn, where you can even try the machinery out for yourself. Smilyan hosts an unusual Milk Festival, which takes place during the last weekend of August; it includes a ‘Miss Cow’ competition where the cows are decorated with bells, beads and bows. If you head out of Smilyan towards Rudozen,take the scenic route and be sure to stop off at the wonderful restaurant complete with chimney, which straddles the river.

 

Rudozen: Bronze Animals and Property Potential


South-east of Smolyan, the town of Rudozen is attractively laid out along a river valley wide enough to allow some decent sunlight to penetrate. Some factories are in disrepair here whereas others, including a shoe factory, are fully functional and have been renovated and smartened up to look blend with the local environment. The centre has a pretty square with colourful flower beds, bronze animals and a fountain, and there are ample shops and cafes. The town is undergoing some regeneration, and the blocks of flats are only three-storey high, unlike in some places. With just a lick of paint, they could be glorious and surely worth a fortune in the future.

Shiroka Laka: Rooted in the Revival


Built along the banks of the Shirokulashka River, the village’s name translates as ‘broad meadow.’ Shiroka Laka is picture-postcard pretty with its tinkling river and traditional old-style buildings. A meander along cobbled streets, among houses typical of the 19th century transports you back in time to the Bulgarian Revival period. Indeed, this village is an architectural, folk and ethnographic reserve. There are three bridges spanning the river here, which date from Roman times. The Sgurov Konak building houses the Ethnographic Museum and there is a reconstruction of a typical Rhodope house interior in the Tourist Information Centre, a place where the friendly staff will help you find accommodation, organise folklore evenings, or find you a guide for your walking treks. Make sure you visit the Church of the Assumption called Uspenie Bogorodichno; it was built in only 38 days in 1834 and has some fantastic frescoes featuring, for example, Adam and Eve, and a funeral procession complete with dancing devils. There is a unique music school in the village, which teaches traditional Rhodope folk music. In early March there is a spectacular festival where the men dress up as ‘Koukeri’, wearing animal masks often made from leather and bizarre, somewhat frightening monster costumes. They perform ritualistic dances and are covered with jangling cowbells. The ‘Pesponedelnik’ is a pagan dance and a symbolic re-enactment of the world’s creation.

Momchilovtsi: Protection from Evil and Disease


On the steep approaching road to Momchilovtsi you can see the 550 houses (and counting) stacked up on the hillsides. It quickly becomes clear that they must all have a breathtaking view. Many of them are second homes for rich Bulgarians, among them poets and artists, and there are a number of developments being built, signifying that the village is undergoing some fairly rapid changes. The main square has a good choice of small cafes and there are a few restaurants in the village, most of them with very good traditional tucker, like the Rodopchanka, and one (the ‘Mehana’) with an exceptional view from its terrace. There are numerous small shops dotted around the village. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay there are some small hotels, but you may prefer to stay in a traditional guest house, furnished in typical Rhodopean style, and often allowing you a full suite of rooms for a very small fee. This village is 1,250 m high so it can get nippy in autumn, but the climate is fairly mild and sunny. Bulgarians from neighbouring Plovdiv and Asenovgrad spend summers here to escape from the suffocating city heat. Known as Gorno Derekyoi in the 15th to 17th centuries, under Turkish rule, this village was renamed after Momchil, defender of the local people and he is still revered as a hero here. There are 24 chapels on the surrounding mountains forming a ‘fire ring’, said to protect the town from evil and illness, and there are crosses, lit up at night-time on the hill-sides, which give a unique impression. Centuries-old black pine forests in the nature reserve of Momchilovtsi Dol surround the village, which is said to be healthy for those suffering bronchial and respiratory ailments – apparently the unique phenomenon of negative air ionisation in the area is the key to this healing power. The thick covering of coniferous forests on the mountains produces what are known as phytoncides, which are antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds, which prevent the growth of an attacking organism. For keen skiers or snow-boarders, this could be the perfect place to be based with the snow covered pistes of Pamporovo and Chepelare just a few minutes away and the snowboard park even closer.

Devin: Bottled Water and Mineral Spas


With over 6,000 inhabitants, Devin stands 710 m above sea level and has a healthy micro-climate as it is protected from strong winds by the surrounding mountains. Devin is well known for its bottled mineral water. So it is no surprise that it has a balneotherapy centre - open air hot mineral springs, with water temperatures averaging 43 C. The centre is 4 km from Devin, past the mineral water factory, where they will happily give you free samples. The outdoor mineral water swimming pools are said to have healing properties for a whole range of ailments and even if there’s nothing wrong with you, why not just go and have some pampering treatments?

Mogilitsa and Agushevi Konatsi: Rhodopean Architecture and Local Crafts


The Agushevi Konatsi is an interesting example of Rhodopean architecture preserved from the early 19th century. This complex, which includes residential as well as agricultural buildings, was once owned by a regional Turkish feudal lord, Agush Aga. It stands near the Arda River spring in Mogilitsa village, which is 920-950 m in altitude and its 570 inhabitants are involved in the tourist industry. There is a craft centre where you can watch local craftsmen at work, and buy the rugs and other souvenirs that they produce. The welcoming family-run hotels surrounded by the fantastic scenery of the Smolyan Lakes are only a couple of kilometres from the chair lift, which will carry you up Mount Snezhanka.