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An island in the Rhodopes

Touch the remains of a Mastodon for good luck and leave the rest to the cheerful people of Rakitovo

photos: Vladimir Machokov
photos: Vladimir Machokov
So much water everywhere. The rain kept falling for days, and sent all kinds of animals - mastodons, horses and rodents running, driven wild by their survival instincts. A last desperate push in an effort to save themselves from imminent death. The rain kept pouring own relentlessly, as the mortifying blood curdling screams of the dying animals filled the air. The end was near…
No, we are not referring to our favourite animation - ice age. Not unless hollywood script writes have in secret visited the rakitovo region, where the exact same thing happened, anyway.

Type of landmark: Historical and natural.
Appropriate for: lovers of little-known places in the country.
Not appropriate for: anyone who prefers the comfort and good infrastructure in famous resorts.
How far: 130 kilometres from the capital city of Sofia, 80 kilometres from Plovdiv, 470 kilometres from Varna.
How to get there: From highway Trakia you take the old road "Sofia-Plovdiv", pass through Belovo and Septemvri and you arrive at Rakitovo.
GPS coordinate: 41.990055, 24.087524
When to go: there is not an inappropriate season.
For the handicapped: there are some landmarks in the city, which can be visited by them as well.
GSM coverage: Good quality.
Prices: As in any other small town in Bulgaria, you can eat and drink your fill at prices considerably less expensive as the ones in the capital. The few guest houses offer a relatively inexpensive accommodation.
Contacts: You can find useful information and links on the local tourist association website at www.siva-dionis.org.

The story we are about to tell you did not happen yesterday, but 5 million years ago. Yet, it seems that time is more than relative - it is not hard to imagine the scene as you are standing there, in the field of the village Dorkovo in Rakitovo. The moist meadow is crossed by a river, which is so small you can cross it with a single step. It is the very same river that once drowned thousands of animals.
From afar, maybe a few hundred meters, you can see a big metal construction. As we approach, it turns out to be the abandoned construction site of the Paleontological museum, the „Jurassic Park" of Dorkovo. The sign says that it is sponsored by a European project and it costs more that 2 million leva and… to make the chaos in the space-time continuum, it says that we should have been looking at the finished building, as it is a few months past the construction deadline. However, instead of a building with a three-story parking lot and a mastodon model at the front, we arrive to see futuristic metal scaffolding.
On the positive side, there are no crowds of tourists, no noise and lustre, just the stories of our guides. 36 animal species were discovered near the village of Rakitovo, Petar Gelin- ethnographer and journalist tells us.
In the 80`s, he was lucky enough to be part of a Bulgarian-French expedition which explored the site. It was the first time that a team of specialists on both sides of the iron curtain worked side by side, and the first time paleontological studies had ever been done in our country. The French professor Robert Thomas was in charge of the project. In the beginning, he wanted to explore near Nessebar, but that idea was given up as the town was a reserve. Thus he stumbled upon Dorkovo and was astonished by the things he discovered. As it turns out, it is the only site in Europe of its kind- all other findings were dated back to earlier periods. Dorkovo provided information filling previously blank pages of history.
Just metres away from the sign indicating the end of the village, our most ancient history lies buried under 1100 square metres of land. Under just 70 cm of soil, there is a one-meter-thick layer of tangled bones, which have remained there for mysterious reasons, maybe because of the above-mentioned flood. The remains are more than 5 million years old, about 1 million years after the Rhodopes started forming.
French and Bulgarian scientists studied the bones for 3 years, yet they managed to uncover only fifteen square meters- 5 by 3, of the big field; the results, however, were more than worthwhile - they discovered more than 600 bones. Among them there were the remains of rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, antelopes, the ancestors of today`s horses and bears. The jewel in the collection was the last one to be uncovered: with the length of 2.95 meters- the tusk of a mastodon, the ancestor of the elephant. Unfortunately, left there, just a year later it was found broken to pieces, although the excavation site had been buried so as not to draw the unwanted attention of greedy treasure hunters.

A view from the fortress "Cepina"- once these fields were full of invaders.

Even without the museum, history is laid bare in front of us… in our very hands. There are hundreds of tiny rocks scattered around, which turn out to be something quite different, once you take a closer look. They are bones! You can touch them, feel them. Let your imagination run wild. This is what remains after millions of years of life on these lands, left here to remind us that the history of all our great civilizations, nations and people is the pitifully short …
We are left to wonder where in this "Ice Age" scenario is the inevitable Scrat? If you have watched the funny animation, you are bound to remember the squirrel tilting at windmills in its persistent battle to get that acorn… Well, it is here as well. Countless ancient rodents add the final touches to the picture of the cataclysm, which led to this astounding collection of the remains of so many different animals. It is sheer geological luck to have all that history within reach. Five million years should have been enough to accumulate 300m of soil over the remains, but the elevation of the layers brought the just underneath the surface and 3 layers of clay kept them in good condition.
A more than curious fact: the local people have many folklore songs regarding… elephants! Rumour has it, if you find a bone you have to press it to your lips. If it sticks, it is from the big animal. Whether this is some form of collective memory, we can only guess.
It is time to head to Rakitovo itself.
We called our hosts from the tourist association "Sutkya", named after the peak near the village, which is the second highest one in the Rhodopes. Across we hear a cheerful salute: "The Stoichkov Magazine? He is number 8, right? First corridor, Rrrumen, from Rrrakitovo reports!" I immediately start considering whether the name of the village – Rakitovo does not have something to do with rakia after all, but the truth is quite different- we have just been welcomed by the oddest person it town. Like on an island, contrary to the dark weather, smiles are all around us. They cannot wait to tell us about yet another "Unique" (we just have to use a capital letter here) wonder in the area.

The clock tower beats every half hour more than one hundred years now.

After two days we discover that people here are simply made that way; they are warm-hearted and honest. They love drinking coffee. As the 80-year-old professor Assen Kartalov tells us- in Rakitovo you do not need or sense in talking to psychologists and therapists because they drink coffee.

Communication is not limited to 15 minutes on the clock, and it is all about sharing, sincerity and jokes, so the person in front of you becomes your psychologist and trusted friend, as you do, too.
It is no surprise that the locals are truly open-minded: they come from a region where the two main religions in the country have mixed; yet, the people live without any apparent problems, the stories of the forced conversion to Islam centuries ago long forgotten and buried in the past. Mixed marriages are becoming more and more common. Even the big church here was built on land, donated for the purpose by the former mayor, who is a Muslim.

The centre is hardly distinguishable from the ones which can be seen in any other small town. Still, the main attraction here are the sculptured heads of the three Asenev brothers - the local sculptor Krum Damyanov arranged the original copies of the figures, which were then turned into the impressive monument in Veliko Turnovo. The three glorious rulers are staring at the neon sign of the "Kaligula" bar. Not far away, there is also an abandoned megalomaniac construction to keep them company. A far more impressive souvenir of times gone by are the remains of a church called "Nikolitza". The 14th century temple may have given shelter to Nikita Remesianski himself- the person who christened the Rhodopes, igniting the flame of Christianity among the local Thracian tribe called "besi". Destroyed during the Islam conversion, the chapel has now been partially "taken over" by the local stadium. It was, nonetheless, really large for its time- 32 by17 meters, which indicates its special significance.

It is worth it to travel through the mists of time back to the times when the besi embraced the ideas of Christianity. Many specialists suggest that the name of the tribe was actually derived from the word "believer". They spread over a large area and we have already told you about their mythical alphabet and the probable translation of the Bible (see Magazine 8 –2/2012). They were a highly spiritual people - some of them "worked" as shamans for other tribes as well. The contemporary inhabitants of Rakitovo are proud of their famous ancestors and jokingly claim to be their descendants. They call each other not besi but "besni" ("furious" in Bulgarian). Because of the remains around Dorkovo they also call each other "fossils", but us they unfailingly refer to as friends. Judging by the relationships between them, they seem to know the true meaning of this word.
There is pain in their hearts, though, when it comes to comparing them to the nearby city of Velingrad- before 1946 Rakitovo was a prosperous town but then the government favoured Velingrad – a resort created by uniting three villages into one, over them. Today Rakitovo is far from flourishing due to the lack of livelihood. This has its advantages, however. It provides opportunities as well. Back in 1933 the popular newspaper "Borba" (meaning "struggle") published the following about Rakitovo: " There the Zephyr of youth and freshness is gently blowing, {...the place...) is surrounded by greenery, pines and fresh water, {...and it} is rightfully called the palm of resorts. Impeccable cleanliness, houses, all of them in modern urban style, with ridiculously cheap rents for tourists and with modern well-furnished hotels and restaurants at very good prices." 80 years later the above-said is just as true. We called Rakitovo an island not because of the sad fate of the mastodons and their brothers by fate. The town is located right in the middle of a valley almost perfectly sheltered by the high peaks surrounding it. This makes the town one of the sunniest in the country- with cool summers and short soft winters, yet still undoubtedly part of the magical Rhodopes. The valley which is only 106 square kilometres, has it all. Fresh air due to the lack of well-developed industry, mineral water springs with temperatures of 51 degrees and healing properties, as well as some of the fastest growing forests in Bulgaria. Only a few kilometres away there is Tsigov Chark, which offers to the tourist all the modern comforts of the hotels and ski slopes.

And to make our journey in time complete, after the mastodons and the besi, we will take a walk to the remains of the medieval fortress of "Tsepina". They are also in close proximity to Rakitovo, situated on a hill, which splits the valley in half. The stronghold stands proud both literally and figuratively speaking. For many centuries it was besieged and attacked, yet never conquered. It has only been surrendered by its governors. On three sides it is surrounded by extremely steep slopes, which makes it very easy to defend. It lived through its golden age during the rule of despot Slav. He ruled from here after he seceded from Bulgaria following the death of tsar Kaloyan. It was here that he brought his beloved. She was the daughter of the Latin emperor Henry of Flanders and died at childbirth only two years later.

Some parts of the walls of the old fortress can be seen in their authentic look.

At the time the city was really impressive with a population of 7000 people which was extraordinary by the standards back then. It was protected by several layers of mighty walls, sections of which may have been preserved, had fortune been kinder. The five-metre-tall gate stood high as late as 1870, when, alas, the local imam had a dream that there was a treasure hidden in the columns. In two days it was all destroyed and no stone was left unturned. Much of the city walls was turned into a convenient source of construction material for the people living in the towns and villages nearby.
Yet much of it survived. Here were discovered two exquisite bas-reliefs of the apostles Peter and Pavel, which are currently exhibited in the Hermitage. The story of how they ended there is interesting. They were found by the archaeologist Polychronis Sirku, who first studied the fortress. Her left them with the local authorities. However, a few years later he saw them lying in the backyard of the city hall, exposed to the harmful weather conditions. So, he decided to take them with himself so that they would not be destroyed.
The key of Tsepina`s success against so many invaders was the skill of locals to preserve water. They built two large tanks at the very core of the fortress. The bigger one was 12 meters deep and contained 600 cubic meters of water. An interesting fact: archaeologists discovered large quantities of egg shells in the mortar used on the walls which was probably a way to preserve the water fresh.
The fortress was the last one in this area to fall under Ottoman rule in the year 1372, seven years after Plovdiv. Even the Ottomans did not succeed in conquering it. The notables of the city fled the siege through secret passageways, leaving only 130 warriors behind. They headed to Plovdiv and proudly "bargained" for the price of their surrender. The Ottomans permitted administrative, and more importantly religious, autonomy. The local priests were never subordinate to theGreek patriarchate.
Well, there is another version. Downhill there is a natural spring called the Mule spring. According to legend, the Ottomans fed a mule with salt and the animal, driven to madness by thirst, instinctively started digging the earth, showing them where the spring supplying the fortress with fresh water began. The invaders traced the flow of the water upstream and blocked it, dooming the defenders of the fortress to thirst and impending capitulation.
It is more than clear that this is all just a legend. However, it is true that this fortress is still hiding many of its secrets. Several years ago nobody knew its name and it was simply referred to as "Kaleto" (an old Bulgarian word for fortress). The name "Tsepina" appeared in the old chronicles and it became clear that this was the former capital of the Rhodopes.
Today only 20 percent of this area has been thoroughly explored. There are numerous local legends of the countless underground tunnels encompassing the fortress, which are rumoured to have hidden mystical secrets and buried treasures. It was through one of these tunnels that the noblemen sneaked out to negotiate with the Ottomans. Whether or not all this is true, we can only guess…

On the way to Rakitovo you can see strange installations with nets of cables. No, it is not the Bulgarian contribution to the mystical US system HAARP. It is actually a framework on which people grow hops (TN:Humulus lupulus.) What we see, however, are only the remains of the plantations, which used to stretch for kilometres, the rest has long been stolen for scrap metal.
Unfortunately, we could not get to see all the beauty of the impressive fortress "Kulata – Gradot" and the nature reserve "Mantaritza", due to the bad weather. We can now only say "thank you" to the lovely hosts, because this is how you do it in Rakitovo. In 1935 the mayor ordered his administration to say "Please, sir" and "thank you", rather than the common "merci" when communicating with clients as the Bulgarian word for thank you - blagodarya(literally meaning a gracious gift) is far more substantive and meaningful.
The wide spectre of landmarks in the region ends with the cave Lepenitza – according to the locals, what is remarkable about it is the variety of its routes and rock formations. It has not been electrified, but they have guided tours instead. It is the only place where you can see cave craters. There are six kinds of bats living in the cave. For the sake of the animals, in order not to disturb the peace of the flying mice, we do not get the opportunity to see the cave- it is closed until May. We could not have disrespected their need for some privacy during the mating season.
In Lepenitza they discovered cave pearls - several of them, at least, which have been taken to Sofia. Rumour goes that cave lovers came upon 500 of these beautiful formations, but decided that it would be far more generous on their part to block again the entrance to the trove.
There are many more treasures to be found near Rakitovo, waiting for you to explore them. To touch them you do not need to break down walls, it is enough just head that way...