ATEREN BRIDGE: While its origins are disputed, the bridge over the Armira River on a mountain outside Ivailovgrad is estimated to have been built sometime in the 15th to 16th century.
LUTITSA FORTRESS: One of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in Bulgaria, Lutitsa is believed to have been built in the 12-13th centuries. About six km from Ivailovgrad atop a mount reachable only with a 4x4 vehicle, the remains of the six m-high walls offer stunning views towards nearby Greek and Turkish territory
ST ELENA AND KONSTANTINE MONASTERY: A stop along the road up to the Lutitsa Fortress, the monastery is opened only one day a year in September for an icon procession.
CROMLECH: Dubbed the ‘Bulgarian Stonehenge’, the circle of standing stones, about a km from Dolni Glavanak in the Eastern Rhodopes, is believed to date from about the eighth to sixth century BCE.
It may be that finest travel is that to the land to the imagination. Finer still is travel to land where the imagination is set afire. This is the story of travel to places where stones were built up – as megaliths, a monastery, a bridge, a fortress – that serve as foundations for tales and imaginings about the people who moved those stones.
To the Eastern Rhodopes, as guests on a media tour organised by the State Agency for Tourism and the Bulgarian Association of Alternative Tourism to show off the attractions of alternative tourism in the region, a journey that stimulates the mind much more than the mindlessness of mass tourism.
Mid-morning heat is baking the hill as we begin the short but steep climb from the information centre along the road near the village of Dolni Glavanak, about 36km from the town of Harmanli, up a gravel path to Cromlech, which signboards (in Bulgarian and English) describe as the "Bulgarian Stonehenge".
Stonehenge on a much smaller scale, but a site of some significance, and happily like much of the rest of the Eastern Rhodopes, unspoilt.
A photographer’s dream, the standing stones – megaliths – form a silent circle, and much like their vastly larger British cousins, stimulate the layperson to conjure up visions of whatever rituals were enacted here in the years and millennia after they were put in place, which archeologists tell us was some time in the eighth to sixth century BCE, commonly described as the early Iron Age.
The view of the grassed and wooded hills and mountains that stretch in every direction is breathtaking, and yet the mind returns to envision whatever transpired here, and why. A few paces from the circle is a shape of stones amid the grass, which we are told has been found on examination at one of the burial sites of the cremated remains of children.
Even amid the bright sunshine of early May, it is an eerie reminder of how commonplace among some long-gone societies of Europe the practice of human sacrifice was. If indeed human sacrifice it was; that is mere speculation.
Cromlech was discovered recently, in 1998. Its age was established by archeologists a year later, who tell us that its use as a place of ritual continued in the late Iron Age, the fifth to first centuries BCE, and evidence suggests that it was in use again in the Middle Ages. Perhaps, even as Christianity spread in the area, there were those who came to the plateau, remembering older forces and older gods. Spring flowers grow wild around the sacred circle where, according to those who have made a study of such things, only the anointed priests could step.
A journey further to Ivailovgrad, through Eastern Rhodope villages where it is clear that some community life continues notwithstanding the pull of the cities and the Europe-wide phenomenon of the abandonment of the countryside, and then along a curving pass with enchanting views of the River Arda. On the other side of Ivailovgrad, a town that while it is now Bulgarian has seen the shifting fortunes of history in turns place it in the past in Turkish and Greek territory, respectively, and we transfer to Lada Nivas, because ahead lies an ascending mountain road that would make short work of light and lesser vehicles.
A brief stop at the monastery of SS Konstantine and Elena, a 13th century work in an area where time was that Ivailovgrad rose to the status of an episcopate and boasted a large number of churches in the surrounding valleys, villages and hills. Amid the long grass and nearby a twinkling stream, the monastery is serene yet sterile. Under communism, it was used as a high school and now, while it is in structurally sound condition, its solid wooden gates are opened but once a year, for an icon procession in September in honour of the saints whose name it bears.
On, and a diversion from the road that leads up to the Lutitsa Fortress, down a track to the Ateren Bridge which spans the Amira River, a tributary to the Arda. While some locals colloquially refer to it as a "Roman bridge", there is some consensus that the structure – 4.5m wide and 5.1m high – dates from somewhere in Ottoman times, from the 15th to the 18th century, or 15th to 16th if you prefer, allowing for the fact that in this field, a span of centuries in the estimate of its origin is acceptable, if only because it is inevitable.
Even while we photograph from the bridge, from one side and another, into the sun and with the sun behind us, from beneath and where its stones, soldered with mortar, peak in a sharp line in the middle, it is only the gentlest stretch of the imagination that allows one to hear, amid the birdsong, hum of insects and the rush and flow of the river – other sounds; the creak of the wheel of merchants’ carts, the clatter of the cantering hooves of a horse bearing an Ottoman messenger on his mission.
Perhaps watering his horse in the stream, a pause on a journey to the Edirne vilayet no long distance away, vigilant to any threats the bushes might hold, given that this region would see violence between the governors and the governed before this otherwise placid place would be settled to be part of today’s Bulgaria.
The Nivas make the summit, and tread flattened tracks in the springing grass within the punctuated remains of the walls, buttresses and tower of the Lutitsa Fortress.
Mobile phones chirrup as they jackrabbit over to Greek service providers. The Greek border is the second horizon, indigo amid the green and brown of the stretching landscape that, with a half-turn atop the walls and a clear day, we are told, also offers a view of Edirne.
We are six km from Ivailovgrad, but in a faraway land of history. The present structure was built in the 12th to 13th century, around the time of Tsar Kaloyan, although the name of the fortress first appears in records at the time of Byzantine Emperor Lion VI, who lived from 886 to 912 CE. Over the years, Lutitsa was laid waste and rebuilt a number of times. Amid patchy records, one is of an episode in the mid-14th century, in which the garrison took the surrender of a group of Alexii Apokvak’s troops who became trapped by harsh winter conditions while foraging in the Rhodope Mountains.
Lutitsa has six m-high walls, 1.75m thick, and boasted 12 towers which were nine m high. The living areas and reservoirs were of stone while wooden ladders took those on duty to the combat platform.
At the centre of the site – which within its walls embraces 14 000 sq m – are the remains of a church building, a memoir of the time that Lutitsa was the seat of an episcopate. Alongside the church is a necropolis with 15 graves, said by some to be the remains of members of the garrison. The site has not been without its archeological finds, notably a rare coin from the time of John IV Palaiologus.
As with the other sites visited, apart from signboards, there are no guides or other personnel on duty. With Lutitsa, as soon as our small convey of Ladas departed, the site would have returned to its silence and its long memories, a stature in history that inspired even at least some of the party of journalists to retrieve their cigarette butts and remove them with them.
Some useful sites:
Ivailovgrad.com (in Bulgarian)
Ivaylovgrad.info (theoretically bilingual, but the English version does not open)
Ivaylovgrad.org (the municipal site, only in Bulgarian)
Baatbg.org – the Bulgarian Association of Alternative Tourism
Tourism.government.bg – the State Agency for Tourism