How to find the rock
Walk to rock and back
Bus to Smoylan
Well, we are in Ardino this morning. There are two things to see in the region, one is a Roman era bridge, that we will not make it out to. This is a pity, as the replica model in town is a small imitation. It is not surprising that it is a good bridge if it is still standing today. Our only problem is that it is 10km away, and that makes for a long walk!
The other thing we want to see are some rocks. These are supposed to be interesting rocks though. Well, the rocks themselves are not that interesting. Just a clear bit of stone sticking out of the tree covered hillside. What makes them interesting are the niches carved into them by the Thracian’s. There are no markings, or other indicators on what they were for, so we thought we would go and work it out. Solving one of the great archaeological questions of our time!
The first hurdle we had to face was: Where is it? The bridge is signposted, but this wasn’t.
Our simple solution is to ask the old men. They know everything and are usually pretty good. We have not met that many grumpy old men on our trip. Probably because they wouldn’t talk to us, so we remember the good ones! These guys were good. After getting over the shock of two foreign tourists coming up to ask for questions they were very helpful. Trying to explain where we wanted to go (we had a photo, so it was not too hard) they gave us a very long and complicated reply. It is about 2 or three kilometres away. Maybe as far as five. But it is a weird track. Apparently it is better for us to go by car. We stressed that we were walking, but that was not good enough. A young man was passing by at that moment in his car. He was duly flagged down and commanded to give us a lift up the hill! We were then told to get in. A bit hesitant at first, we were also told that it was going to happen this way. You have to love old men!
The young man had no issue with driving us up, but spoke no English. A pity, but not that unexpected being in a small town in the boon-docks. As we went, we realised there was no way we could have found this road by ourselves, and the hill was pretty steep as well, so were more than happy for the lift. Towards the top of the hill the road got pretty bad, and we were dropped off where it turned to dirt. With a gesture along this new section, our chauffeur disappeared down the road towards town. He had refused our offer to pay for the trip, as he was probably afraid the old men would find out!
This road went on for some time, and in a couple of sections they were doing roadworks on it. There did not seem to be much reason for this, as there were only a few houses around. As we passed some of the work crews they asked us where we were going. Telling them that we were going to the rock sanctuary we were waved forwards. A lot of the men had very surprised looks on their faces though. Tourists? Here? And not even Bulgarian tourists! At the end of the road we came across the almost finished section. It was a perfect road. Until it stops dead. A bit of a drop at the end and nothing around. Not even room to park cars or turn around. Strange. Still, there was a track here we could follow. This went in a steep zigzag up the rest of the hill. Occasionally we could see rock formations through the trees, and were wondering which ones we wanted to get to. At the top we intersected another path, and followed the well trodden one, as the other way lead back in the direction we had came from. This was a well set up path and also very new. Maybe they are hoping for this site to be added to a tour company’s itinerary. Eventually we found a signpost. It was broken in half, but still pointed the way we were going. Down another steep section of hill and we were there.
The rock Sanctuary Orlovi Skali. As said above. Thracian with no other explanation. It is a rather large monolith sticking up out of the hillside. On the most sheltered side there are numerous niches carved out of the stone. Most of these are 50-60cm high and about 30cm across. Not sure how accurate that is, as I had no tape measure, and although I could have climbed up to get a better look, I am not sure I could have gotten back down. The holes are in sets and all over the face of the rock. There are other ones on the exposed sides, but these are very worn and you can only just make a few of them out. They are that old and the erosion has been that harsh.
Looking around the area, we could see no other signs on the surrounding rocks, so it was only this one that had been carved. Now we needed to solve the problem. This is guessing in the dark, as we know nothing on Thracian culture or customs, but we thought it could be burial niches. Dig up the bones and place them in the holes. No. Too exposed, and even if you put a flap on, it would not be secure. Sacred shrines. One hole per god? This is possible, but it seems strange that they are all over the place and not nicely lined up. They are also all roughly the same size. If I was an important god, I would be a bit pissed if I got the same sized shrine as the god of snail slime. A transgalactic switchboard (OK, so we have seen a bit too much of Ancient Aliens on the history channel!), Measurement holes. Stick a candle in a hole and see what level it is on from the next peak? An oracle? A game? Throw stones at it and you get points from which one your stone stays in. We tried that one out. Plausible, but pretty hard. Carved birds nests for pigeons (their guano is very useful for phosphates) but there was no buildings near by to make for easy collection. Just to play with our minds? Any which way, it was a good walk out to see them, and they are mysterious, and have to stay that way for now.
Walking back by the path less travelled took us all along the ridge to where a small shed was set up with a drinking fountain. Bulgaria is full of these. The water is so good that even bus drivers will pull their buses up to fill their water bottles (not ours of course, only theirs). We have learnt that under the communists, it was assumed that walking was good for the mind and the body, so a lot of these trails and fountains were created back then. A lot have fallen into disrepair but some, like these, are being redone and fixed up.
The walk back into town from there was just along the road. This was fine. At least it wasn’t up! In town we met one of the men that had helped us. Letting him know we had made it and enjoyed the walk made him happy as well.
We grabbed our bags and made it to the bus station. There was a bus going to Smoylan. It is the main town closest to Trigrad. Our next destination.
On the bus, we met a nice Bulgarian from America that was home on holidays. Chatting to him as the bus wound its way up and down hills, along valleys and over bridges. Apparently there is a town called Gela and it has a festival on this weekend, so we should go. The international Bagpipe festival! We have seen a few Bulgarian Bagpipes. One even had a stuffed goats head on the end of the pipe that lets out the air! So we thought we would try to make it. That meant staying in Smoylan, as the festival is very popular, and we would most likely not be able to get accommodation in Gela. We were told that Gela is only about 10k away and it would be easy enough to go by bus.
At Smoylan, we all caught a taxi and headed into town.
Smoylan is a strange place. It is built along one side of a river up a very steep slope. I can’t say hill, as it is a long valley and town is 12km long by about 200m high and maybe 300m wide. The taxi driver took us to a nice guesthouse/hotel that was pretty good, but on the outskirts of town. Apparently 1km from the centre. Our friend helped us check in then set off to the other bus station on the far side of town. We settled in, then went out for a walk. The town centre may have been 1km away. Straight down! Winding our way down the hill using roads and staircases we came to what we thought was the centre. Some massive old (1960’s?) buildings. These seemed to be unfinished, but sections were being used. They are HUGE! For a small town there was no need for anything on this scale and is just another reason we find Bulgaria more than slightly confusing. There has not been much to town yet. We know that it is three villages that have merged into one town, but so far the two villages we have seen have had a large section of nothing between them and could still be considered separate. Then you have these buildings. A large walkway above the road level that is a walking boulevard and even more monumental buildings. Past this you eventually come to down town. OK, it is not that far, but when you are walking a new place it can seem further.
We even found tourist info! And they were OPEN!! But a little useless. The only map of town we could get we had to buy. They gave us bugger all information on the region and didn’t know much of anything. Mentioning that we had heard of a festival (they wouldn’t have) we were told that there is only one bus tomorrow to the town 6km from there, and we would have to hike the rest of the way, or rent a car. This festival apparently has 8000-12,000 people turn up each year, and you can’t get to it by Public transport? Oh, and there is this eco walk. It is a little out of town. Not sure where, but you can find it.
We decided to walk to the other bus station to check the info given, as tourist info so far has been less than accurate. The first station to our hotel was about 6km, and we just hoped it was not 6km to the other one. We passed through the walking street of the centre, which is set out in the traditional way. Bars, cafes, food shops, and everything else. All with seats under umbrellas. A fountain or two and a few kids running around. It is nice, but pretty standard for us now. Not that much different to any other walking street in the world. Unless you look up at the hills and see town climbing the walls above you.
The other bus station was a little further on. That is a little further then the expected 6km… Here they were also not that helpful, however with direct questioning, we would get single word answers before the lady at the bus information office retuned to her earth shattering conversation with her friend about last nights reality tv show. I have no idea on what they were talking about, but it must have been important as they had no time for us. Still, we managed to find out there were no buses to Gela at all tomorrow. Even with an international festival on, there are no buses on Saturday, not even to the closer town of Sriloko Laka. Seems like we will be missing the music. Its bagpipe music after all. 5 minutes of it and your earwax starts melting out your nostrils.
So, that was about it. I will not describe the hell of walking back through town and up the hill to where we are staying. You will just have to imagine it. However I will say that Smoylan is a town where you need your own car. There seem to be buses running along the main road, but never when we want one!