We had some great friends over from New Zealand this month. We flatted with them in London back in the late 90s and they’ve explored this part of the world before, but not the Rose Valley. Now, if there were a Rose Valley Tourist Board they’d have so many opportunities to create awesome, inspiring, magical tourist itineraries, fun and colourful information boards, funky trails to track the Orphic Mysteries, the ancient Thracian settlements and even the former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
But alas, for foreign tourists the experience can be puzzling at best and completely disorganised at worst. Last year’s Rose Festival saw even native Kazanlakers running around the rose fields in the surrounding villages, trying to find out where the Rose Queen ceremony had been moved to at the last moment. The mayor of our own village seems less than enthralled by the surrounding historical attractions. When I ask the locals if they’ve been up to the beautiful, spiritual Thracian megalith overlooking Koprinka they answer that no, that’s not the sort of thing they do.
All this is a shame, because the attractions in this area are out of this world. In the space of one week (these Kiwis are voracious culture-buffs), they saw….
This hare-shaped artificial reservoir was created under the Communist rule in 1945 in order to provide irrigation for the fertile plains of the Rose Valley. On making excavations, they discovered the ancient remains of a city, and archaeologists discovered that this was Seuthopolis, capital of Thrace and seat of the popular and powerful king Seuthes III (c. 4th century B.C.). The communists decided to flood it anyway, and now the regional council have proposed an ambitious plan to drain and recover the portion of the lake where Seuthopolis lies. Who knows whether they’ll ever raise the mammoth funds needed for this, but good luck to them.
The Kazanlak regional history museum and art gallery
In the meantime, this jewel of a small museum is the place to see some breathtaking Thracian finds from Seuthopolis and the surrounding tombs. There is a permanent exhibition of King Seuthes burial ornaments and decorations, fragments of frescoed plaster from the most beautiful tomb ceiling, exquisite silver and gold worked horse and human armour and embellishments, jewellery, coins and tools and vessels. It also houses bronze age pottery and bones, early Bulgarian history, and of course some fascinating art from famous Kazanlak painters.
Tomb of Seuthes III, Golyama Kosmatka
This is the largest and most impressive of the tombs in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, as our area is known. The burial place of Kind Seuthes II himself, this tomb is hewn from granite monolithic blocks, one of which weighs 60 tonnes. There’s a beehive domed antechamber, apparently the site of sacred rituals conducted by followers of The Orphic Mysteries prior to its use as a burial chamber, and an unusual corridor leading to the entrance. Once Seuthes was buried (with wine, adornments, gold, a horse…) the corridor was burnt and sealed with earth. This tomb was only excavated in 2004 by the late Gyorgi Kitov.
This is unprepossessing from the outside. An old caravan, a portacabin, a shack on a hill.
But once you go in, you’re treated to the remains of a much larger tomb complex. Another granite monolithic block (what’s even more amazing is that all these huge blocks were brought from the quarry at Rozovo, some 25 km away). But inside this small, rectangular room is a celing carved into the stone, finely panelled. Each tiny square would have had a painting inside: a red haired maiden is the only one remaining, but you can see vestiges of the other animal, deity and plant forms in the others.
The Thracian rock sanctuary and megalith (Goddess Gate) of Buzovgrad
This is a truly special place. Hard to find, but special. A badly-marked path leads from Buzovgrad village (5 km towards the Sredna Gora from Kazanlak) up through forest to the rock sanctuary. At sunset on the Summer Solstice (June 21st) the sun sets through the rectangular portal in the rock gate, overlooking Koprinka (and what was once Seuthopolis itself). In 2011, we went up for the Solstice, and a mellow crowd of a hundred or so sat chatting, draped around the rocks, calmly taking in the spectacular sunset. On one side there is a series of notches made in the rock: a Thracian astonomical marker or calendar. The energy in the rocks, if you’re into that kind of thing, is amazing.
The Russian Church at Shipka
This is very touristy. It’s even got a car park full of kitsch Bulgarian souvenirs. The onion-domed church, built in the Russian style to commemorate the Russians’ role in overthrowing the Turks, is so dolly-mix bright that it seems surreal. The golden domes glitter amid the forest of the lower Balkans, and act as a signpost to the Shipka tombs, the pass and beyond. Inside, there are beautiful religious icons, ornate woodcarvings and obligatory grumpy warden with candles you must buy and light. Downstairs in the crypt, if they turn the lights on (they didn’t, when we were there) you can admire in silence the memorials to various fallen soldiers.
The Shipka memorial to the Bulgarian-Turkish battle of 1877
It is obvious that men built this. It’s kind of phallic, and surrounded by Very Large Cannons. Anyhow, an impressive memorial to the bloody battle between the oppressing Turks and the On The Point of Liberation Bulgarians.
The former communist headquarters at Buzludja, in the mountain above Kazanlak
The boys reckoned this was one of the highlights of the trip. And this ufo-like concrete behemoth, sitting in a windy spot on the Balkan ridge, is certainly mind-blowing. And dangerous: it’s falling to bits. Which is a shame, for it should really be preserved as a memorial to the depths of human greed and cruelty inflicted on a gentle people by the Communist regime. Last year, the Bulgarian premier Boiko Borisov washed his hands of it, handing it over to the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Who knows what fate befalls it now.
Apparently, in the past, all Bulgarian schoolchildren were routinely bussed up to pay tribute here, and admire the glittering mosaics of Communist thought-leaders in the main room. The mosaic of Zhivkov’s face has been obliterated, the copper laminate on the roof has all been stolen, as has the electrical cabling, all of which has fast-forwarded the monument’s fall into decrepitude. Can you believe it was completed, after 7 years and hundreds of master craftsmen, as recently as 1981? A stark contrast to the two thousand year old monuments which survive below.
You are not supposed to go in, but even from a distance, it is really something. Huge concrete block cyrillic letters (socialist slogans) dangle precariously from the imposing entranceway. A new addition: someone has emblazoned in red graffiti: FORGET YOUR PAST. Indeed. I wonder when this building will fall down.
Photographer Timothy Allen travelled to Buzludja earlier this year to document it. His photos, and his account are mesmerising. http://humanplanet.com/timothyallen/2012/02/buzludzha-buzludja-bulgaria/
The Roman bridge near Dabovo
We have a Roman bridge up the road (you can even see it from the train to Tryavna). It’s thin, so thin it looks as if it might fall. Elegant, and an interesting spot to paddle in the river among huge stones and tree roots.
Tryavna (by train)
Tryavna is nestled in the Balkan mountains, an hour and a bit from Dabovo by train. The train ride itself is brilliant. The (old, Russian, compartments) train chugs up the steep incline past ancient abandoned-looking halts with blue signs in Bulgarian and French, does a figure of eight, and makes it over the hill into the beautifully restored centre of woodcarving excellence. Oh yes, and there’s a microbrewery on the river too, just off the cobbled square lined with artisan workshops.
And heaps of mountain biking and walking trails.
Stara Zagora – a newly-renovated museum of religion comprising layers of Roman, Early Christian and Muslim buildings culminating in a mosque with a beautifully painted cupola and an exhibition of 100 year old authocrome? photos from all over the world
The neolithic dwelling at Stara Zagora
This is spectacular. Behind the huge ugly hospital building sits a squat 70′s museum building which was built over the remains of what is known as the best-preserved neolithic dwelling in the whole of Europe. It’s 8,000 years old. Because this pair of mud and wood houses were suddenly destroyed by fire thousands of years ago, they’ve remained well preserved, with remains of large grain urns and a central fireplace still visible in the ruin. Downstairs, in the exhibition room all the pieces start to really come together and you can see scultpture, ornaments, pots, tools, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vessels and very advanced decorative techniques. It really is mind-blowing.
The Roman remains of Augusta Tryana and amphitheatre, Stara Zagora
Stara Zagora (literally ‘old behind the hills’ is a very ancient dwelling. The relatively recent Romans left their mark everywhere, with almost casual bits of portico and plinth dotted around. In the summer, the open air amphitheatre still hosts opera. And if you duck in to the main post office, in the surreal atmosphere of the babas and dyados lining up for their pensions, you can gaze at a well-preserved floor mosaic too.
This was a real whistle-stop. We only had a week, yet each one of those sites could easily take up a whole day. They didn’t even get to the massive, impressive regional history museum of Stara Zagora (which, incidentally, houses an entire reconstruction of a Roman street in its basement), nor the numerous art galleries or house-museums in the region.
Another day was spent taking in the beautiful timbered houses of Koprivishte (where we also saw a new straw and mud building, yay!) and the laid back and Roman-wall-clad spa town of Hisarya.