Bulgaria,  Recent

The Hidden Charms of Kardzhali

The last stop off on our Bulgarian tour is the small city of Kardzhali. A city which, at first glance, may not appear especially aesthetically pleasing but has hidden charms for those who look. Close to the borders of both Greece (just 1.5 hours from the Mediterranean) and Turkey, it makes a great last resting point.

Kardzhali Wetland

One of those hidden charms is under the “new” bridge in town. Clearly not many environmental concerns were taken into consideration with the planning of this bridge as, unfortunately, it’s been built over a wetland. I say unfortunately because, as with all bridges, some *****gnreflksnfelk*** throw their crap over the side directly onto it. However, the birds themselves, despite their somewhat unfortunate choice of nesting ground, seem pretty happy.

Kardzhali city is famed for it’s herons and from the bridge you have a fantastic view of many endangered species including Little White Herons – with fancy fluffy tail feathers, Night Herons – who look and sound a bit villainous, and black Little Cormorants. Signposts provide information on other birds you can see but as usual we didn’t have our binoculars with us.

There is a footpath you can take which leads you under the bridge. In spring when we were there, there is an abundance of wildflowers and grasses. It doesn’t really bring you a better view of the birds but it’s a pleasant walk.

Where we stayed in Kardzhali

Our Airbnb host for the two nights, Victor, is a fascinating guy. He’s a Bulgarian in his 60s, speaks to us in German but when he quoted something in English it was also perfect (with a very strong American accent!).

Victor worked all over the world including in the US – where he manages a transport company remotely from Bulgaria. He even showed us his app where you could see all the trucks driving around the States. An aspiration digital nomad, he tried out a few weeks in Sri Lanka and loved it. His boss doesn’t care as long as the work gets done – a sentiment I think we can all support. The apartment is the perfect size for a short stay, is very quiet, and has great access to the city, plus private parking.

The Ancient City of Perperikon

For the next hidden charm, only unearthed in 2000, you must venture into the hills. The Ancient City of Perperikon is impressive not only for it’s size and beauty but also for it’s uniqueness.

We visit a lot of ancient cities and I can tell you that this one is special! The largest megalithic site in the Balkans, here you can find a Thracian Palace complete with a throne. There are Bronze Age altars, Christian basilicas, and an enormous 432,000 L water storage tank. Extensive remains of stone guttering suggests an advanced sewer system.

Finds on site date back as far as the Neolithic period with Thracian, Roman and Byzantine structures remaining. Wars and invasions have left their mark with evidence of the destruction and rebuilding of the city at various times. Perperikon is a walk-through history book.

With research having begun only 20 years ago, work is ongoing at the site and new finds are continually turning up – such as this temple which has only been reported on since we left! Unfortunately, as Professor Nikolay Ovcharov says in the above article, there is a lack of funding available for the project which will bring this important work to a halt for now.

The state of the facilities is another story.. In short – you will find:

  • Well-made footpaths
  • Very few signs
  • A couple of stalls selling water, trinkets and maps ( 4BGN, highly recommended as they provide some information at least)
  • Parking, 2 Lev
  • Entrance, 6 Lev
  • Portaloo toilet usage, 1 Lev
  • Potentially unlicenced tour guides

The long story…

As of our visit in May 2023, there was a half-constructed visitor centre on site. I looked into this further for information on the expected completion date. What I found out is that the visitor site has been under construction for 14 years, having eaten up millions of euros in funding. The first grant for a visitor centre was 2.5 million Euros from the European Union received in 2009. In 2019, a further 3 million BGN (1.5 million EUR) was put into the project, to be run in partnership with Greece and completed the same year. According to an article published 2 years later, there was still no running water, toilets or electricity, let alone a visitor centre, and the contract with the former supplier had been terminated.

When we visited, it looked like there was some work happening. However, even something simple like putting up signs with information has not been completed. Professor Nikolay Ovcharov, the “Bulgarian Indiana Jones” who rediscovered Perperikon, estimated the cost of signs to be “no more than 15,000 Lev” (7,500 EUR). Not a huge amount, in comparison to the budget.

In regards to the delay, Professor Ovcharov is quoted as saying the project has thus far failed “for various reasons”. I won’t speculate on this but it may include magically vanishing cash. It’s a shame that, for a country as rightly proud of it’s historical heritage as Bulgaria, more effort hasn’t gone into ensuring the preservation of this world-class site.

Kardzhali History Museum

Not wanting to end on a downer, I have to say that the Kardzhali Regional Museum of History is fantastic. The building itself is an impressive structure surrounded by gardens. Built as a Madrasa but never used as one, it’s quite a nice turn of fate that it still ended up being a place of learning.

The museum appears to be well cared for and funded. Exhibitions range from the very early finds in the area (5-6000 BC if I remember correctly) to memorabilia from the modern era. Some of the discoveries made at Perperikon have been moved here to preserve them including a very early example of a Christian pulpit made of finely carved marble. The ethnographic section is really well-made with displays from the household, textiles etc. There is also a section on geology and natural history.

This post has ended up being far longer than I intended (especially considering we were only there for two days!) but I think it really summarizes our Bulgarian experience. We entered with open minds and were continually surprised and delighted by this country. The nature and the countryside is exceptional, there are not many places left in Europe where the nature seems so untouched still. Little towns and villages have so much to offer in rich cultural experiences.

Almost without exception, we had good food and felt welcome. However, you really feel the impact of the declining population in Bulgaria although we probably noticed it more because we stayed out of the major cities. You see few children, and many little old grandmothers usually struggling along a path. There are a lot of abandoned buildings. And there’s a reason it was voted the most corrupt country in the European Union for years.

I think back to back to our waiter in Sapareva Banya, who, when we asked why he was still in Bulgaria if he wanted to make it for himself, answered: “Because I love my country”. I find it reassuring now that there are some young people there that haven’t given up and believe in Bulgaria. I don’t think it’s the last we will see of this beautiful country.

A Road Trip through Southern Bulgaria

Check my other Bulgaria Posts for other off-the-beaten track destinations on Southern Bulgaria

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