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Village Tour, South West Bulgaria - Rozhen Monastery

Popina Luka
This is an area of vast meadows and high waterfalls. Just 15kms from Sandanski, here you can take time out and really relax in stunning calm countryside. The Popina Luka Waterfall is a natural phenomenon which is impressive. The crystal waterfall comes down from a height of 11 m to the bed of the Sandanska Bistritza River. When you visit this place, all you will hear is the sound of the water cascading - serene and tranquil.

Rozhen Monastery
This historic monastery is the biggest sanctuary in the Pirin region and one of the few Bulgarian monasteries of the Middle Ages, which has survived relatively intact up to present days. It is well maintained and open to visitors all year round situated next to Rozhen village only 6 kms north east of Melnik.

According to annals kept in Atone, Greece, the monastery dates back at least to 890 AD. As a comparison, the biggest monastery in Bulgaria, Rila monastery, is believed to have started functioning in 917 AD.

During the rule of Despot Aleksii Slav, governor of the region at the time of Tzar Kaloyan (1197-1207) and Kaloyan’s nephew, the monastery’s complex was enriched with a number of buildings. Unfortunately it was repeatedly destroyed by fire and plundered but was rebuilt in the 18th Century with support of wealthy Bulgarians from all over the country. Today’s church dates back to the year 1600 and was renovated in 1732, and has some lovely murals from that period and earlier which are considered to be exceptional representations. You’ll love the woodcarving of the altar and the lectern.

Rozhen monastery is made up of an irregular 6 sided form with residential buildings surrounding a beautiful courtyard, at the centre of which is the church. Besides well preserved murals you’ll also see some stunning stained glass, the oldest of its type. As with nearly all monasteries there is one special icon-protector, Virgin Mary, which is kept in an ark in one of the chapels. Legend has it that the icon is one of the few copies of a sacred Icon which was owned by a widow of Nikea from Greece. During the time of emperor Theophilus who was famed for his persuction of icon worship, the widow threw the icon in the waters to avoid it being destroyed. The icon didn’t sink but floated for years until in 999 it reached the gates of the Iviron monastery in Greece.

This village will overwhelm you as you become immersed in the enchantment of ancient times. It is simply gorgeous! Totally removed from today’s world it’s a little piece of heaven.

Kovatchevitsa is surounded by a whole string of high ridges and has a labyrinth of cobbled streets, tall white houses, stone rooves... offering the visitor marvellous examples of the real Bulgarian architecture.

As an aside to get to the village of Kovatchevitsa you can pass through Leshten, another wonderfully quaint village with traditional architecture.

As this really is such a special place, it is worth looking in more detail at its origins and history.

The origin of the village is connected to the efforts in 1623 to 1625 and later in 1656 to enforce Islam on the population of Bulgaria. Those who didn’t want to accept these left their homes and fled to find shelter in the highest, inaccessible parts of the mountains. They felt safer there with natural springs for drinking water, pastures and away from the Turkish raids. Small hamlets formed mostly based around individual families and each ‘neighbourhood’ had its own name - the refugees coming from Tarnovo settled in the ‘Tarnovo neighbourhood’ and so on..

No one can be sure how the name of Kovatchevitsa came about but tales say that a farrier named Marko settled in one of the neighbourhoods. After his death relatives and customers from nearby hamlets visited, and when asked where they were going people would say ‘we’re going to the kovatchevitsa’ meaning the wife of the farrier. So, it is said, this is how the name of the village gained recognition and over time the small hamlets grouped around it to defend themselves against any attacks.

As there was no Turkish administration during the Ottoman reign, this allowed the village to become a centre of the Macedonian movement for national liberation and the locals patriotically assisted with arms supply to neighbouring counties. The village saw off many rebel attacks. To be safe they dug a tunnel connecting the upper and lower parts of the village enabling people to move about without endangering the village.

At the time of the Bulgarian Revival the village was a centre of educational and ecclesiastical movements. The church of St Nikola built in 1847 is an architectural monument and as it had to meet the rules of the Turkish administration at that time it had to be dug in the ground at the bottom end of the village.

In 1900, twelve years before the village was liberated, the locals built a four storey bell tower next to the church.

In the 1950’s Kovatchevitsa suffered from the inhabitants migrating to Velingrad and other towns. Naturally this led to the deterioration of many of the wonderful houses as they started to decline.

Suddenly, the village found favour with Bulgarian film makers and so the village was revived. No other village in Bulgaria has had so many films shooting on location. Over twenty films have been made here!

In 1977 Kovatchevitsa was declared a protected historical and architectural reserve. With this and the film makers, the popularity of the village increased and people came in to buy the houses and restore them. Kovatchevitsa was saved.

Although the nearby villages of Leshten and Kovachevitsa are well known, do visit the village of Dolen. Still relatively unknown to tourists it is less commercialised and you’ll find a serenity here which is sometimes hard to find in the other two villages.

This is not at all to say the village is less beautiful, it’s just that the other two caught the eye of rural tourism first. Dolen is now catching the eye of those with entrepreneurial ideas and the old houses are now being renovated. Most of the houses here are more than 150 years old and as so typical of this region, they are generally of two or three storeys, with the ground floor originally used for livestock.