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Southern Bulgaria - Birds PLUS
Vultures, Wine, Tombs & Castles
Trigrad - Madzharovo
07 - 14 May 2020
The southern Balkans and especially Bulgaria are full of rich biodiversity, colourful culture and ancient history. This tour will combine all these three elements in the most interesting parts of Southern Bulgaria.
The Western Rhodopes have many of Bulgaria’s highest summits, canyons and caves, while the Eastern Rhodopes are lower, warmer and milder due to the warm air coming from the Mediterranean, along the river valleys.
Into this mix of landscape and climate comes some of Europe’s largest birds of prey: griffon, Egyptian and black vulture, golden eagle, (Eastern) Imperial, spotted, short-toed, and booted eagle too. Whilst this is a Bird PLUS trip, so we take things a bit more on the gentle side, we’re still likely to see over 110 species of birds, and may get over 120.
The misty mountains and volcanic craters create a mystical atmosphere as it is. But the Rhodope gorges are also full of legend. One tells us that the mythical Thracian singer Orpheus was born here. His musical talents were such that he was signed up to join Jason and the Argonauts on one of their own pre-Balkan tours. He also entered Hades near Trigrad and was buried at Tatul, both of which we’ll visit.
Southern and central Bulgaria were also home to one of Europe’s most ancient civilizations – the Thracians – who left more than 60,000 larger and smaller tombs in the Bulgarian lands, numerous cities and religious sanctuaries. Many of the most spectacular are situated in the Eastern part of the Rhodopes, which the Thracians considered holy.
Moving forward a few centuries, the last part of our tour will take us to the beautifully preserved village of Koprivshtiza, with its unique houses and being the scene for one of the most important moments of the Bulgarian National Revival in the 19th century.
Arrive in Sofia. Transfer to Trigrad.
We will meet you at Sofia airport for the morning flights from the UK. We recommend the Easyjet Gatwick flights, but there are similar options for Luton and Manchester. Gatwick arrives earliest on a Thursday and departs the latest, allowing for more birding the first and last days. (Manchester has an early return the next Thursday, so means organising an early taxi from Koprivshtitsa on the final day, which has an extra cost. There are also no Friday flights from Manchester, so one would have to stay in Sofia until Saturday - no bad thing! Luton flights also depart early on Thursday, but they have three Friday options. Ask us more about flights and Sofia options).
Once we have everyone, the drive from Sofia to Trigrad takes about three hours, but on the way we’ll stop at a few interesting lakes and places on the way, to stretch the legs and see who's in the air. [As of Sept 2019 we're looking into driving via a superb little village, Kosovo, on a slightly different road, which doesn't go past the lakes. It has preserved traditional architecture and a quintessential Rhodope feel.[
By evening, we’ll arrive in the small village of Trigrad, having driven up the spectacular Trigrad Gorge. The village is inhabited by Muslims who speak a Slavic dialect (Nb. in Greece and parts of Bulgaria they are referred to as “Pomaks”, but whilst one will see this in writing, some Bulgarian Muslims do not consider themselves to be Pomak) and have a rich and interesting culture on what is now the border region between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Visitors to other parts of the Balkans will find that these communities, like many Balkan Muslims, have lived alongside their Christian neighbours peacefully for many centuries. Some of them join celebrations for Christians feasts, and churches and mosques are often built next to each other in the village.
Our hotel is normally the lovely Arkan Han, which is just outside the village and with incredible views for breakfast.
Overnight Trigrad village
Trigrad Gorge & Devil’s Throat Cave
After an early-ish breakfast, we will visit the stunning Trigrad Gorge. Words and photos here can’t describe it. The narrow gorge makes the cliffs seem even higher and more imposing. They tower over the river below and a local subspecies of black pine (Pinus nigra) grow out of the rocks at angles, seemingly without any soil for their roots. Whilst we are there we cannot help but stand in awe before nature’s magnificent grandeur.
The gorge is a popular site for wallcreeper, a difficult bird to see, but they nest here and with patience, we hope to see one flap past and flash its dazzling red feathers. Easier will be the pallid swift, Eurasian crag martin, red-rumped swallow, white-throated dipper, black redstart and ring ouzel. Some groups see the spotted nutcracker in the gorge too.
Walking along the Trigrad gorge, we’ll arrive at the Devil’s Throat cave, which, since ancient times, has been told to be the place where Orpheus descended into the underworld to search for his beloved Euredice. We will visit the cave (which shouldn’t be busy in April, but if it is, we may go to a neighbouring cave in the next gorge) and will make a short stop for lunch at local mountain hut to taste delicious local trout. We’ve a good friend and beekeeper here, who depending on his day, tries to join us for lunch and a discussion of bears.
Trigrad Gorge & Devil’s Throat Cave
Today there are plenty of walking options in and around Trigrad and the neighbouring gorge. Two of the options, to provide examples are:
Drive to the nearby village of Yagodina for a two-hour walk to the “Eagle eye” observation platform, for a panoramic view above the equally spectacular Buinovo gorge, 680m below, double the Eiffel Tower (or 4 times the Blackpool Tower, if, like us, that’s your reference point).
A walk through meadows and the wild, forested areas along the Greek border.
Neither of the walks are demanding, but would be around two hours and they’re the only long walks on the tour, but if they sound a bit too much, do get in touch with us when you book to discuss check elevation profiles or make arrangements for you to return for an afternoon at the hotel, which is itself in a superb location.
Overnight again in Trigrad village
Transfer from Western to Eastern Rhodope – Trigrad to Arda river
We will pass through some magnificent mountain scenery, and stop at the superb roadside town of Shiroka Lake on our way to our next hotel, for three nights, on the River Arda. During the transfer, we will have several stops, often including a picnic lunch, with possible species including black stork, Spanish sparrow and lesser grey shrike.
As we descend away from Trigrad and the western Rhodope, the conifer forests change to deciduous woodland, which then becomes sparser and sparser until we reach the rolling, scrub-covered hills of eastern Rhodope. As well as lower altitude, the area is of volcanic origin, with dramatic crags and rock pillars.
In the late afternoon, we will reach the Eastern Rhodopes and our accommodation located in a remote area a minute’s walk from the Arda river and surrounded by nature and ancient monuments carved into the cliffs.
Accommodation at Complex Arda
“Studen Kladenetz” volcanic area & vulture feeding place at Madzarovo.
In the morning we will drive to the vulture feeding place near Madzharovo, which will give us the chance to observe 3 of the 4 possible species of vultures in Europe – griffon, Egyptian and, with a bit of luck, black vulture. The first two breed here, whilst the latter breeds just over the border in Greece, but can frequent the feeding stations. Hopefully, there’ll be good sightings of other large raptors: golden, booted, lesser spotted and short-toed eagles, long-legged buzzard, black kite. And as well as roller, bee-eater and red-rumped swallow, which we should have already tick off in the west, we’ll have good chances at rock nuthatch, common and blue rock thrush and our four shrikes: lesser grey, masked, red-backed and woodchat. Then there’s sombre tit, black-headed and ortolan buntings, plus barred and Orphean warblers.
Further down the river valley is the village of “Studen Kladenets”, where the landscape seems reminiscent of the moon in places and it’s actually the crater of an extinct volcano. And with vultures, raptors and black stork circling above.
The people in the ever-decreasing villages about here made their livings from tobacco, which the wider region is famous for. They are also Muslims and we’ll join a farmer for lunch and some of the local firewater.
In the Footsteps of the Ancient Thracians
Today brings an incredible mix of birds habitat and ancient civilisations.
The Thracians were a people of many tribes and kings, each with their own small kingdom in the southeast of the Balkan peninsula, around what is now Bulgaria, Greece and western Turkey. They never unified and were constantly fighting amongst themselves. Indeed, its oft said that as fine warriors and craftsmen, they would have been invincible if they united. They left us with some fascinating tombs and places of worship though, and some incredible golden jewellery.
We’ll visit a quite spectacular monument: the ancient town of Perperikon. This archaeological complex is a megalithic structure on a whole other scale, entirely carved into the rocks. Amazingly its excavation was only seriously undertaken in the early 2000s. During the Thracian civilization, the town was probably a royal residence for the Thracian tribe Bessie, and it is now believed that the world-famous temple of Dionysius is located within the town. According to legends, two famous prophecies were made from the altar of this temple. The first predicted the conquest of the world for Alexander the Great. The second, made several centuries later, foretold power and strength for the first Roman Emperor – Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.
After spending some time enjoying Perperikon, we'll spend the rest of the day enjoying gentle walks in more of this excellent habitat, maybe returning near the hotel to explore the river forest and cliffs. Wherever we are today though, we’ll enjoy plenty more chances to see some of the super birds listed above, together with spoonbills and purple and squacco heron.
From Eastern Rhodopes to Koprivshtitsa
Before leaving the Rhodope for Koprivshtitsa, we’re going to try to see the Eastern imperial eagle, which hunts and breeds in areas with a good population of ground squirrel - itself a species in decline because of habitat change, the souslik as it is otherwise known, is not doing too badly here, hence the eagles. Still, the birds are not a given, but as we’re in the area and it’s an hour from the hotel, why not. Even without it, we’ll enjoy more of these hillsides, a picnic lunch and look out for masked shrike, isabelline wheatear & olive-tree warbler.
Then we’ll drive through the country, back towards Sofia, but actually on the way to the historic town of Koprivshtitsa. It’s famous for having dozens and dozens of beautifully decorated 19th-century houses, and it must be one of the best places in the Balkans where they still remain in such number and good condition. The style is closely related to one of the most important moments of the Bulgarian National Revival period of the 19th century, which you’ll learn about once there. Here we will have the chance to taste some more Bulgarian dishes.
Before getting to Koprivshtitsa though we'll stop off at our final Thracian monument, and this one is quite unique throughout the Thracian world as it is a tumulus shape, like those found in the plains, but built into the side of a hill. Archaeologists believe it to be a temple site as opposed to a tomb.
Once in the centre of the village, we’ll stay at the very friendly
Transfer from Koprivshtitsa to the Bulgarian capital – Sofia & Departure
After breakfast, we will have the chance to explore the gorgeous town and one of its house museums, for those interested. The Gatwick flights are in the evening, so give us a full day to see Koprivshtitsa and then the slopes of Mt Vitosha outside Sofia. Ask us about a taxi option if you need an earlier flight today.
Sofia is well worth an overnight or two. It became the capital of Bulgaria in 1879, but like everywhere around here, it's full of ancient history, with digs bringing evidence of inhabitation from as early as 7,000 years ago. It has some great examples of architecture from the last 10 centuries and we’ll take a short walking tour around the centre to see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world), Communist Party House (now used for by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers) and the presidential palace, which has St. George’s church inside its courtyard. The church is Sofia's oldest preserved building, dating back to the 4th century.
One of Sofia's parks has 60+ bird species, so some people like to book an extra night’s stay themselves. If you need an early morning flight, then the airport is only a short taxi ride from the centre and we could help you find one when we arrive in the city form Koprivshitsa.