Orthodox branch of Christianity is not very known in the world, outside of the Orthodox countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Russia and most of the former Soviet republics, as well as some other Orthodox communities in the world. It is an inheritance of the earliest form of Christianity from the time of the apostles, at the beginning mixed with the Catholic branch until 1054. Then it took its own way, forming a unique culture, influenced by the main political events during the centuries, especially the dealing with the Islam, which came in the 14-15th centuries by the Ottoman Turks.
As a result, when you enter an Orthodox church, you can feel mystery and silence. You can feel like you back in time, centuries ago. And you can feel it stronger than in a Catholic church.
The Orthodox monasteries in Bulgaria
Some of the most tranquil and mystical Orthodox centers are the monasteries in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria. Since this country has been the longest time under Ottoman Islamic rule, the local Christian communities had to be often hidden in the mountains, finding safer places to flourish. Some of these places were the monasteries, some built before the Ottoman era, some during it. Yet even in the mountains, these monasteries were often destroyed by the Turks, then rebuilt again, depending on the ruling Sultan and his policy’s period.
The biggest Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria is Rila Monastery, established some 1000 years ago, deep in the Rila Valley. The second biggest one is Bachkovo Monastery, built in the Rhodope Mountains, in Chepelare River Valley. And there are many other monasteries, most of them in the mountains of the country.
Now we focus on Bachkovo Monastery. It is an important Orthodox center, located some 28 km south of Plovdiv, the oldest living city in Europe, and 9 km from Asenovgrad- a smaller city on the entrance of Chepelare River Valley in Rhodope Mountains, well known for its religious diversity. A good road connects Plovdiv with Asenovgrad, then proceed further inside the valley, in Rhodope Mountains. The road proceeds more than 80 km deep in the mountain, to Smolyan City, passing through a lot of interesting places to stop. One of these places is Bachkovo Monastery.
History of Bachkovo Monastery
Bachkovo Monastery is established in 1083, where all this area was a part of the Byzantine Empire. And it is built by a Georgian prince Gregory Pakourianous, who served in the Byzantine army at that time. Thus the monastery had mixed Bulgarian, Greek, and Georgian influence. It soon became an important educational center too. Later an important role in its development had the Bulgarian King (Tsar) Ivan Alexander.
In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks conquered the whole territory of Bulgaria, including Rhodope Mountain. At first, Bachkovo Monastery survived the Islamic invasion but later was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt in 1601, and gradually got today’s image until the second half of the 19th century, which is the Revival era of Bulgaria and time of the state’s independence.
Arriving in Bachkovo Monastery
So, the best place to start your trip to Bachkovo Monastery is Plovdiv. There are a lot of buses going to Smolyan and Pamporovo (the most famous mountain resort in Rhodope Mountains). The buses pass Asenovgrad, Bachkovo village and only about one kilometer further is Bachkovo Monastery bus stop.
When you stop there, you will see the first image of the place quite touristy. There is a restaurant (with an artificial waterfall) and a narrow road with a lot of souvenirs and local food stalls. Then you will see an arc gate with Orthodox painting and a short prayer in old Bulgarian: “O, Holy Mother of God, show mercy and save us!”. There is a mountain water source with nice and cold drinkable water (actually there are a lot of such fountains with drinkable water in the mountains of Bulgaria, with the best water that I have even drunk).
Proceed around 200 m further and you will arrive at the gate of Bachkovo Monastery. There are a square and a magnificent old building, part of the monastery’s complex. And there are two water fountains at both sides of the gate, made in an old traditional style.
The monastery interior
When you enter through the gate of the monastery, which is inside its surrounding building, you can feel for the first time the mystic of this place. There are a few main constructions of the monastery complex, all bringing you back in the history.
The Main Church and St.Archangels Church
The first thing that you see when you enter inside, is a large church building with a high Cupressus tree at its eastern gate. This building is actually two churches, joined together- the Main Church and St.Archangels Church. However, the Main Church is built in 1604, on the ruins of its old version. And the history of St.Archangels Church is more obscure. It is built in the 13th century, and later probably hasn’t destroyed completely by the Turks, but it has been renewed after the Main Church. The two churches are active now and present a lot of Orthodox murals, icons, and other relics.
The southern yard and St.Nicolas Church
Actually, Bachkovo Monastery has two yards, so when you enter through the gate, first you find yourself in the northern (main) yard. And the southern yard has a church too. This is St.Nicolas Church. It is smaller than the first two churches and now is used mainly for Orthodox baptism. One of the paintings that are very prominent, is the scene of the Last Judgement, with the punishment of the wicked in the eternal lake of fire.
The Old Refectory
It is a room still in time, where the monks of the monastery used to eat together during the last few centuries. It is a silent place with the arc-shaped ceiling and Orthodox art paintings on the wall. The atmosphere inside is really special and worth to feel.
For so many years of history, Bachkovo Monastery has a lot of artifacts remained. So there is a small museum in the surrounding building in the southern yard. The museum is on two floors and exhibits many of these remains, giving us deeper information about this unique place.
The long Red Wall trail of mystery and adventures
A visit and explore of Bachkovo Monastery is a really unique experience. But that’s not all. If you go there, an important part of your journey is a trail from the monastery to Red Wall reservation and Martsiganitsha chalet, high in the mountain. It starts from around 380 m altitude and finishes at 1412 m altitude. And there are a lot of spots on the route, first more Orthodox and even more mysterious than the monastery itself. Later the route gradually becomes wild and adventurous.
Go out of the monastery and get the right alley. Some 300 m ahead you will see another old building. This is the Ossuary- the oldest remained building, belonging to Bachkovo Monastery. It hasn’t been destroyed and still remains like a silent witness from 900 years ago. Actually, it is the oldest Ossuary in the Eastern Orthodox world. It has two floors. There are 14 monk’s tombs on the first floor, and the second floor has served as a church place for funeral service. Now the Ossuary is closed, but it is possible to enter inside with special permission from the monastery.
The alley proceeds ascending and soon enter Kluviata valley and divide into two roads. A nice forest covers the mountain slopes. Take the left road which leads you to a nice meadow, great for a picnic. There you will see a beautiful waterfall, which is really glorious in the rainy springtime, and sleepy in the hot summer.
Proceed further upward. The alley passes a few old buildings, then proceeds on two long meadows, again favorite picnic places. There are also a few fountains with mountain water. And the view around the meadows is really stunning because the valley is surrounded by steep, almost vertical slopes and rock walls of Dobrostan massif, part of Red Wall reserve.
The Baptism Chapel with “holy water”- Ayazmo
You gradually enter a deep, dark and silent forest in the valley. Soon you can see a lonely chapel with a surrounding wall. When you enter inside, you will see the small pond inside. And the place within the walls, around the small chapel, is great for relaxing in the silence, taking you somewhere in the centuries.
The cave cell and the chapel
Here the alley gradually turns to a mountain path. And the path divides into two branches, from which the left branch leads you to the foundation of the steep mountain slope and stairs, hollowed in the rock. The narrow stairs ascend into a small cavern with a door.
This is the most mysterious place around Bachkovo Monastery. The cavern has been used in the centuries as a hermit dwelling. You can imagine the hermits living there, far from the world, far from civilization, in the eternal silence. Actually, they were not completely separated, they still used to go down to the monastery and join the service, then back to their cavern.
During the Ottoman era, this cavern was empty, and the monks used it to hide some relics from the Turks. One of the most important relics is the “Miraculous icon”, which was hidden here just before the Turkish attack which destroyed the monastery. It has been found a few centuries later by a shepherd.
Now you can see there some other relics, candles and a notebook, where you can write your impressions.
The stair proceeds further upward to a rocky terrace, then descends to a small chapel, called “St.Archangel Michael”. This is the last and most remote Orthodox building in the valley, and the last trace of civilization in the area. A little further the path joins the other branch, coming directly from the Baptism Chapel.
The Red Wall trail to Dobrostan Plateau and Martsiganitsa
From here the steep rocky slopes close the Kluviata valley. There is only a small path, which enters a deep and narrow dry karst canyon. It becomes more and more extreme and there are a few places with metal stairs and ropes to help the hikers. Somewhere at 800 m altitude, it starts ascending steeply on the slope with many curves. This place is called “The 40 Curves” and is a well known among the hikers. Then it proceeds following the canyon, through the stunning landscape until finally reaches a more opened place, at around 1300 m altitude.
This is the wide summit of Dobrostan karst plateau. Here you can enjoy a splendid panorama of the wide meadows and distant peaks. The path reaches Martsiganista chalet (now it is closed, can’t be used for accommodation) and the southern edge of the plateau, where you can see a breathtaking view of a large part of Rhodope Mountains.
Proceed further or back
From here you can proceed further and deeper into Rhodope. There are a lot of wild, adventurous, mysterious and remote places ahead, like the ancient Thracian sanctuary Belintash, the historical peak Krastova Gora (Cross forest), and many deep valleys, forests and small isolated villages.
You can also back to Chepelare valley on another trail, descending to the highest waterfall in Rhodope Mountain, called “Slivovdolsko padalo” (Plum Gorge Fall) and finally reaching the main road to Smolyan, somewhere around 7 km south of Bachkovo Monastery.
Or you can just back on the same trail to the monastery. The whole trail to Dobrostan summit is walkable for about 3 hours in one direction (if you don’t stop at the places of Kluviata), so you can do you for one whole day, starting early morning from Plovdiv by bus, and back again by bus to Plovdiv at evening. But if you have included Bachkovo Monastery as a part of a longer trip, you can proceed on the road to Smolyan, deeper into the wild mystery of Rhodope Mountain.
There are also some accommodation options in Bachkovo village, as well as in the monastery itself. In Bachkovo you can choose Megdana Hotel, Vila Bachkovo, Guesthouse Perla and Hotel “Eco”. The prices are between 25 and 35 USD per room. And the accommodation in the monastery (which is in the surrounding buildings of the complex) is cheaper- only 7 USD per person. It offers not just sleeping overnight, but a special feeling of the monastery’s atmosphere. However, there are some limits- no parties, no alcohol and only married couples allowed in one room.
Check out the accommodation availability in Bachkovo!
No matter what is your choice, a trip to Bachkovo Monastery and Dobrostan can really bring you to another world and another time. It is full of impressions, especially for hiker, who can combine the mountain adventure with the historic impression. And this place will give you really unforgettable memories of Bulgaria and its secrets.
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