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Smolyan - home of Orpheus

Smolyan lies at the very heart of the one of Bulgaria’s most awesome mountain ranges, the Rhodope Mountains with its fantastic views and laid-back pace of life, quaint mountain villages still rooted in tradition and close proximity to arrange of good ski pistes and all of this set against the magnificent backdrop of the Rhodope Mountain range covered in rich green pine and spruce. This is a haven for nature lovers, with clean, fresh air scented with pine and a diverse range of flora and fauna from rabbits and squirrels, deer, foxes, wild goats, grouse to brown bears and wolves and kingfishers and golden eagles soaring through the skies. Winters are mild with plenty of snow and sun and summers are cool with beautiful blue skies. At night the star spangled skies are clear and perfect for romantic evenings dining and chatting al fresco.

 

Getting There

Smolyan lies in the Western Rhodope Mountains at 700 to 1,000 km above sea level in a narrow gorge carved out by the river Cherna. It is approximately 260 km from the capital, 103 km from Plovdiv, which is home to the nearest international airport, 46 km from the spa town of Devin and 16 km for the international ski resort of Pamporovo. The local bus service links Smolyan with Pamorovo and Chepelare and all of the neighbouring towns and villages. Another great way to get around the area is by car or if you like adventure a 4x4 is perfect especially if you want to explore some of the wonderful rock formations. Hitchhiking is also common practice here with locals and tourists thumbing lifts from all main junctions.

The Legend of Orpheus


Myths and legends are rife in this mysterious region, which is steeped in tradition and folklore. The most popular tale is that of Orpheus, the mythical singer who was said to charm people, birds and beasts with his magical music. He is fabled to have been born in the Rhodope Mountains and there are different variations of the story with the most common interpretation being something like this:-

In ancient Thrace, Orpheus was born to a Muse of King Oeagrus from the Odrysae tribe. Orpheus played the lyre so enchantingly that it enthralled animals and even trees who would dance. His songs had already helped the Argonauts to resist the ensnarement of the Sirens. Now he sang in the hope of bringing his wife, Eurydice, back to life from the underworld. But it was Charon the ferryman, Cerebus, guardian of the River Styx, and Hades himself, lord of the dead and ruler of the underworld, who allowed the return of Eurydice. And this on one condition: the couple must never look back during their journey from the underworld. Orpheus fatefully turned to smile at his bride as they emerged into the sunlight, losing her again, this time forever. The heartbroken Orpheus then roamed the Rhodope Mountains singing mournfully of his loss until the women of Thrace, otherwise known as the Bacchantes, ripped him to pieces and threw him into the river. Allegedly his head didn’t stop singing as it was carried along by the current.

Even today, people recognise the echoes of his sweet music in the tinkling of cowbells, the babbling of the brooks and the sound of traditional bagpipes - the hills here are certainly alive with the sound of beautiful music!

A Dip Back in Time

Archeologists have found evidence of civilization in the Rhodopes dating back as far as the late Stone Age around 20-15,000 BC. During Neolithic times, the Rhodope people inhabited the region’s caves and archeologists have discovered evidence of this in the neighbouring caves like the Yagodinska Cave and the Haramiiska Doupka Cave in the Trigrad Gorge, amongst others.

In the second millennium BC, the Rhodopes became home to the Thracian civilisation, followed by the occupation of the mighty Roman Empire. There are many artefacts remaining in the Rhodopes, which date from this period. Parts of Roman roads which joined Aegean settlements to the Upper Thracian Valley are still in evidence in certain places like Gela and the Chairski Lakes.

The Middle Ages bore witness to long internal feudal clashes. Ruined fortresses dating back to the Second Bulgarian Kingdom stand near the village of Shiroka Lûka. And three fortress ruins, Turlata, Gradishteto and Vracha, can also still be visited today. It is believed that these are the last Bulgarian fortresses to be conquered by the invading Turks.

In 1345, the Turkish invasion signalled the beginning of the bloodiest and most oppressed time in Rhodopean, and indeed Balkan, history. Not only were churches, and cultural monuments raised to the ground, but entire monasteries and villages were destroyed. A huge number of the local population were brutally murdered or forcibly converted to Islam.

The Berlin Treaty meant that the Rhodopes did not cease their fight for freedom when most of Bulgaria was freed in 1878, as they still belonged to Turkey. It was not until after the Balkan War in 1912 that this region once again officially became reunited as part of Bulgaria. When the Communists came to power in 1944, the country’s industrialisation meant that many people left the Rhodope villages to seek work elsewhere.

Nowadays there are many small traditional villages which seem to have been left virtually unchanged through the ages. The main occupations are still agricultural; potato growing and cattle rearing are the most significant although the tourist industry is starting to flourish, as this gem of a region is beginning to be discovered and in some places, the locals are taking advantage of this and promoting their own style of eco-tourism.

Eating and Drinking and Where to Stay


There are many traditional, warming Rhodopean dishes to taste, and fine wines to sup as you dry off and warm up around the hearth after a day’s skiing or sightseeing. In summer opt for the tasty fresh salads and Rakia. Patatnik is a typical potato-based dish. Klin is a deliciously filling rice pie type dish and for those who aren’t squeamish, the Cheverme is a lamb roasted on a spit, often seen at village fetes. Home-reared, home-grown, home-made - a large proportion of the food here is organic and very tasty. You can watch how certain products like Bulgarian yoghurt, butter, and feta cheese are made in some of the local working mills and you will see translucent rose and golden coloured Bulgarian honeys lined up for sale on benches along the roadside along with the fabulous Smilyan beans and a variety of sweet fruit jams.

There is a wide range of accommodation in this area. If it’s luxury you’re after you’ll be spoilt for choice with all the new hotels in the ski resort Pamporovo. Many of the older ones have undergone refurbishment to be able to compete. They have swimming pools, bars and restaurants, and lots of divine spa treatments are on offer. However, if you’d prefer something with a more regional character you’d be wise to stay in a traditional town house in one of the villages. There are real gems to found, steeped in local tradition with wood carvings and traditional home-spun, woven blankets as decoration but with all mod cons. Some of them have balconies with superb views over the mountains. Entertainment also comes in various forms like traditional singing, music and dancing the ‘horo’, bowling, clubbing or even karaoke – it’s up to you to choose what type of entertainment you prefer, but rest assured, there is something for everyone here.