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Exploring the Countryside beyond Smolyan

Any visit to the Rhodope Mountains would not be complete without a tour of the wonderful landscape beyond Smolyan. This is an area of incredible natural beauty with sheer rock faces, rolling mists, snowy peaks and the aromatic smell of pine that follows you wherever you go. This is an area where two ethnic communities, Orthodox Bulgarians and Muslim Bulgarians live side by side in relative harmony. The area is full of natural springs a legacy of the religious tradition here, that no traveller should go thirsty and road signs display a tap to alert you to the next spring.

Rock Formations

This is an area full of amazing rock formations like those in the shape of animals. The route along the Vucha River near to Devin is home to the Elephant or Slona whilst the road to Shiroka Laka is home to the Maiden or Momota. Local legend tells of a woman turned herself into stone rather than face the approaching Turkish army. Another rock formation called the Head or Glavata lies nearby. The ‘Wonderful Bridges’  known in Bulgarian as the Chudnite Mostove are some of the most amazing rock formations in this area. They are marble arches that were formed when a cave was destroyed during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The larger rocks were carried away by the floods, and now two natural marble ‘bridges’ stand side by side. The Icy Cave and the Big Cave lie within and are well worth seeing. There are also many unique caves in this area, which we cover in our caving article, the most famous are the Devil’s Throat Cave in the Trigard Gorge and the Yagodinska Cave near Yagodina.

The Lakes

The Rhodope Mountains have such spectacular water reserves, which have created plenty of lakes and mineral springs. The most famous natural lakes in this region are the Smolyan Lakes, often dubbed ‘the emerald eyes of the Rhodope Mountains’ thanks to their deep green colour. There used to be as many as twenty lakes, but today only seven remain with the deepest and possibly the most attractive being called "The Muddy Lake". Closer to the Trigrad Gorge, the six Chairski Lakes form part of a protected nature reserve. They were formed from landslides and are a lush oasis of truly captivating beauty. This area is a paradise for botanists, hosting some rare, even endemic, species including different thistles and orchids.

Nature Trails

There are a number of fantastic botanic trails that you can walk. Before starting out, it is a good idea to visit the botanic garden in Solishta village (4 km from Shiroka Laka). This way you will recognise the species you come across on the hike. The longest trail is from Mugla to Trigrad and takes you on a four-hour journey via the Chairski Lakes. The Silivriak (Heberlea rhodopaensis) flower is a symbol of the Rhodopes and is said to have grown from the blood of the slain Greek poet and musician Orpheus, after the Bacchantes threw his slaughtered body into the river. Hence the pink red colour of its petals in early spring. The mountains surrounding Smolyan are also rich in wildlife and brown bears have made this area their home along with many other species of animals. Indeed if you wander through the mountains here, you will pass old beech and spruce, see leaping young doe, squirrels and long eared rabbits as well as numerous herds of sheep and bell ringing cow herds led by a lone shepherd.

Outdoor Pursuits

If mountain biking is your thing, go no further than the Rhodopes. A great bike map is available from the Momchil adventure club for sport and tourism, situated at the snowboard park on the road, which takes you up and out of Momchilovtsi heading towards the Haydushki Polyani war memorial. They also offer many different outdoor activities, such as horse riding and quad biking, have a climbing wall and speak English. If gazing at the heavens is more to your taste then take a hike to the Rozhen Observatory owned and operated by the Institute of Astronomy of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Fifty astronomers work here making it one of the key centres for astronomical research and the largest observatory in south east Europe. Hikers will adore the many varied walks available in this region and climbes should head for the Trigrad Gorge to scale some of its near vertical rock faces. Fishing is almost a national pastime amongst men folk where and many sell their daily catch at the roadside. River trout is the most common fish and are definitely very tasty. For those who like the tradtion and culture that Bulgaria offers, then the real spirit of the Rhodope people is revealed in August when they celebrate the Rhozhen Fair. The event is biannual and you need to check which years it is being held, but it is one of the largest gatherings in this region and will give you the chance to see beautiful national costumes along with true Rhodopean songs and dances.