Road to the Rhodopes

  • Thracian pottery on display at the Historical Museum in Kazanlak.

    Thracian pottery on display at the Historical Museum in Kazanlak.

  • A space-age temple to Bulgarian Communism, the Buzludzha monument has been left derelict since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.

    A space-age temple to Bulgarian Communism, the Buzludzha monument has been left derelict since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.

  • Inside the Devil's Throat Cave, where Orpheus is said to have entered Hades.

    Inside the Devil's Throat Cave, where Orpheus is said to have entered Hades.

  • The Trigrad River as it plunges into the Devil's Throat Cave and drops more than 40 meters to the cavern floor.

    The Trigrad River as it plunges into the Devil's Throat Cave and drops more than 40 meters to the cavern floor.

  • Detail of a mummer's costume for the Kukeri festival in nearby Shiroka Laka village.

    Detail of a mummer's costume for the Kukeri festival in nearby Shiroka Laka village.

  • The sound of cowbells worn by festival performers is meant to drive off evil spirits and bring hope for a good harvest.

    The sound of cowbells worn by festival performers is meant to drive off evil spirits and bring hope for a good harvest.

  • A Shiroka Laka dowager on festival day.

    A Shiroka Laka dowager on festival day.

  • A Kukeri performer unmasked.

    A Kukeri performer unmasked.

  • A young mummer in Shiroka Laka doffs his goat-head mask.

    A young mummer in Shiroka Laka doffs his goat-head mask.

  • A Kukeri dancer on parade in Shiroka Laka.

    A Kukeri dancer on parade in Shiroka Laka.

  • Crowds descend on Shiroka Laka's main street to take in the Kukeri festivities.

    Crowds descend on Shiroka Laka's main street to take in the Kukeri festivities.

  • Mountain scenery in the pine-clad Rhodopes.

    Mountain scenery in the pine-clad Rhodopes.

  • At Villa Gella, whitewashed walls and unfinished concrete are offset by the owner's collection of modern art and Asian and Bulgarian antiques and artifacts.

    At Villa Gella, whitewashed walls and unfinished concrete are offset by the owner's collection of modern art and Asian and Bulgarian antiques and artifacts.

  • One of the six individually designed bedrooms at Villa Gella.

    One of the six individually designed bedrooms at Villa Gella.

  • The indoor swimming pool at Villa Gella.

    The indoor swimming pool at Villa Gella.

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Villa Gella, though, was aglow. Despite its traditional-looking exterior, the chalet was a sleek, white beauty inside, with modern furnishings, artwork from Bulgaria and beyond, roaring fireplaces, and six individually designed bedrooms. Public areas were organized to encourage mixing, whether in the library, the living room, on the terrace, or even in the sauna and swimming pool on the lowest of the building’s five levels. And its position on a steeply sloping site afforded panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, including Mount Perelik, highest of the Rhodope peaks.

Managed by the unflappable Darina Dobreva, the niece of owners Dimka and Ivan, Villa Gella was the reason for my visit. That and Kukeri, a pre-spring mummer’s festival with ancient roots set firmly (and visibly) in the pagan past. Celebrated all over Bulgaria, Kukeri is considered to be at its most traditional in the village of Shiroka Laka, a convenient 10-minute drive away. I’d seen some footage of the previous year’s performances online and had been mesmerized. Dancers in shaggy goatskin costumes and outlandish animal masks, men in bad drag as peasant women, and women in even worse drag as Orthodox priests jingled and jangled their way through grotesquely funny performances revolving around death and childbirth—the end of one season and the beginning of another.

All that was still two days away. For this, our first night, we had an evening of eating and drinking ahead. Dimka and Ivan also own vineyards on the slopes of Mount Sakar and produce organic wines under the Terra Tangra label. I had sampled a bottle of their rosé in Sofia and was looking forward to trying some of their other vintages. I wasn’t disappointed. Over dinner, a seemingly simple spread of country fare innovatively tweaked by Dimka and bordering on the gourmet, Darina popped the cork on a bottle of Yatrus, their syrah. Smooth but powerful, the tannin burn chased away the last of the day’s chill.

The next morning, we drove to hell. Or perhaps more accurately, to Hades. Lake Avernus, Fengdu, Glastonbury Tor, Mount Osore—the underworld has various points of access, depending on whose mythology you’re reading. For the ancient Greeks, the main gate to hell was a cave in the Rhodopes called Dyavolsko Garlo—the Devil’s Throat.

It was here that the mythical Thracian musician Orpheus came to persuade the lord and lady of Hades to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. Orpheus was so skilled a musician that no one—not even the notoriously hard-hearted rulers of the underworld—could resist the sound of his lyre. Moved by his music, Persephone, Hades’ wife, told Orpheus he could lead Eurydice’s ghost out of their realm. The only condition was that he not look at her until they both stood in daylight. But as he exited the stygian gloom ahead of Eurydice, Orpheus forgot Persephone’s warning. Turning back, his words of longing withered on his lips as the shadowy form of his wife, who was still partially in the shadows, dissolved and blew away on the breeze.

My own descent into the Devil’s Throat was via a rough-hewn tunnel cut into the mountain several decades ago. As it wound its way down to a terrace above a massive cavern, the tunnel filled with the roar of falling water. On the terrace itself, that roar became a thunder, as the Trigrad River plunged in a fury of froth and foam 42 meters from its upper course to the cavern floor. From there, a narrow, switch-backing walkway punctuated by ladder-like stairs wound down and around the dark vault before rising steeply to the surface via the cave’s natural entrance. This is where Orpheus would have made his descent, a treacherous wall of sheer rock with few visible handholds, bathed in slippery spray from the waterfall. Even from below, it seemed a challenge of Augean proportions. Without crampons and a harness? Suicidal. Orpheus’s rescue attempt may have come to naught, but as she dissipated in the breeze, Eurydice must have marveled at the man’s gumption.

Yet the cave’s mysteries aren’t all of the mythological kind. After plunging into the Devil’s Throat, the river rushes across the cavern floor and disappears under a rock wall. Though it reemerges in daylight half a kilometer away, anything that falls into the water at this point is never seen again. Dye testing suggests that the river travels through more than 20 kilometers of subterranean tunnels before re-surfacing. Somewhere along the way, anything solid gets trapped, perhaps in another cave. The Trigrad has swallowed up branches, tree trunks, soda cans, and, because several attempts have been made to map the underground network, people, too. According to my guide, a German diver, the last to try in the 1970s, is still down there somewhere. Nor has a technological approach succeeded. According to our guide, for some reason—possibly surge, possibly sediment in the water, possibly divine intervention—every robot camera sent into the network has stopped transmitting shortly after submerging.

Despite ominous skies the following morning, Shiroka Laka bustled in anticipation of the Kukeri festival. In a parking lot at the entrance to the village, mummers were shrugging into their costumes and practicing their moves. On the opposite side, the main street was jam-packed with festivalgoers browsing street stalls selling devil masks, shaggy sweaters, colorful wool carpets, and, as is the case in almost every market in the world, cheap and cheerful kitsch from China. The food stalls were also doing a roaring trade. At 10 in the morning, they were already busy dispensing cups of aromatic beef stew, foot-long sausages, plates of kebabs and fries, and Technicolor clouds of candy floss.

We’d arrived early to secure a space at the front of the square, where the dancers would be performing. With 10 minutes or so to spare and with Darina zealously guarding our space, I decided to lope off for a quick look around.

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