Bulgaria is a quiet country, full of nice towns and villages. Some of them are just places for relaxation, but others also hide ancient secrets- remains from more than two thousand years ago. Let’s make a journey to two of these mysterious places. They are called Hisarya and Starosel- a small town and a big village in a hilly area, in the southern part of the country. And let’s also travel back in time, in an attempt to touch the life from that ancient era, in this part of the Earth.
The secrets of Hisarya and Starosel
First, let’s open the map. Can you see the wide plain valley between the Rhodope and Sredna Gora mountains? This is the Upper Thracian Plain. Look at its northwestern part, at the foot of Sredna Gora. You can see the small city of Hisarya. And it is different than the other villages and towns nearby because it has excellent mineral sources. These sources were noticed by the ancient Romans, and they established here a city that remained well-preserved to this day.
Now let’s look northwest of Hisarya. You can see the village of Starosel. It looks like a normal village, but it has other secrets, this time much older than the Roman era. These secrets are remains from the oldest known civilization on the Eastern Balkans- the Thracians.
So, we can make a journey to these places, which is also a journey back in time. But before we do it, let’s get into some historical details.
Some ancient history
The area around Hisarya and Starosel has been inhabited from prehistoric times. The first known civilization is the Thracians and their kingdoms. Initially, they have built their own settlements in these places. Around the 6th century BC, one of their kingdoms- the Odrysian Kingdom becomes predominant, and its kings built a big religious complex with a temple, a tomb, and other attributes. The next kings of the same kingdom built several more religious structures, not only around Starosel but in other places, including Hisarya.
During the next centuries, several invaders conquered this area partly and temporarily, until finally, the Romans took it for a long time as a part of their empire. They noticed the mineral sources in Hisarya and built a city. This city reached its bloom during Emperor Diocletian, who built a strong fortress wall around it in 293 AD, and called it Diocletianopolis.
Its golden era lasted for several centuries, but later, with some destruction caused by other invaders, it declined and eventually was abandoned. It was not before the 17th century when a new village, called Hisar was established around the ancient ruins. This village became a city and a resort.
At the same time, the ancient Thracian ruins in Starosel were abandoned too, but a new village was established in Medieval times. Then, in the 15th century, migrants from another part of Bulgaria came and built today’s Starosel.
Our trip to Hisarya and Starosel
Although these places were not far from my home city Plovdiv, I haven’t explored them yet. So I decided that I must make up for that omission. We traveled by car the distance of 45 km from Plovdiv to Hisarya, and the first thing we saw was an ancient Roman tomb. Then we stopped in the center and walked around the best of the ancient Roman ruins and the mineral springs. We enjoyed the beautiful park beside the ruins, then we proceeded to Starosel, some 20 km away.
Starosel looks just like a normal village, similar to the other villages nearby. But when we went out of the village, we saw the difference. First- it was its local vineyards and the large wine complex. Then, we reached the ancient Thracian ruins. The first one that we visited was the Thracian tumulus “Horizon”, and the second was the largest one- the Underground temple on the Chetinyova Mogila Hill. These sites are small, but enough mysterious and impressing to take you back in time. After that, we back to Plovdiv.
Now, let’s make a journey to Hisarya and Starosel, diving into more details. Let’s start with Hisarya.
Today Hisarya is a small city, famous mainly for its mineral baths and its ruins of Diocletianopolis. This has turned it into a resort, and a tourist destination. Let’s visit the places of interest in Hisarya.
I always recommend visiting museums. Thus, you can get better information about what are you going to explore in the area. „Armed” with more knowledge, you would not just walk around ancient stones without a clear idea where are you walking, but this knowledge would help you back in ancient times and get the best impression of the ruins.
So, the Archaeological Museum of Hisarya is located in the center of the city. It presents a lot of artifacts from the Thracian, Roman, and early Bulgarian eras. Here you can see models of the ancient city of Diocletianopolis, with its main landmarks.
The Museum works every day. Buy a combined ticket for the three main sites in the ancient ruins. Its price is 7 BGN. Then, you can enter the ancient Diocletianopolis.
This is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Europe. And it is no wonder since it has been the third-largest Roman city in Thrace. Today its traces can be seen almost around the whole modern city of Hisarya, but its main part is in the city’s southwestern part.
If you arrive from the center of Hisarya, the first thing you can see is the Colonade. Although it is a new construction, made in 1960, it is designed in ancient Roman style and features a mineral spring. Now it is one of the best places for photos in the city.
From there, you can enter the beautiful Lily of the Valley („Momina Salza”) Park, full of exotic trees like Gingko Biloba, Paulownia, Magnolia, etc. Soon you will descend into the valley with the hot springs and the Roman ruins.
The Roman Thermes
The Roman ruins around the springs are the so-called Roman Thermes (Roman Baths), some of the best-preserved one in Europe, almost to their roofs. Use your combined ticket and enter inside the ruins. You can see the „cells” where the ancient people spent their time enjoying the hot water of the springs. Although it has been 1800 years ago, you can still notice the smart ancient water supply technology that has been used.
Momina Salza Spring
The alley proceeds southward, with a beautiful spring, called „Momina Salza”, from which the name of the park is derived. Its water is 42°C hot and is used for drinking, known as one of the most delicious mineral waters in Bulgaria. And there is a splendid construction over the spring, perfectly fitting the surrounding ancient ruins.
Proceed a bit more, to the southern end of the park. Then turn left, cross a small stream, and will reach an ancient Roman tomb, at the end of the city.
The Roman Tomb
This is an ancient tomb, dated from the middle of the 4th century when Christianity is set as an official religion in the Roman Empire. There are several other ancient tombs, but this one is the biggest and the most interesting. It belongs to a rich Roman trader, whose name is unknown. And it is richly decorated with stone mosaic.
Now it is opened as a small museum. It works every day but Monday and Tuesday.
The southern part of Diocletianopolis
After the tomb, you can back to the ancient Diocletianopolis. But this time walk beside its southern ruins. You can see the remains of ancient houses and military barracks. Soon you will reach its southern gate- one of the most significant parts of the ancient city, and one of the largest preserved Roman gates in the Balkan Peninsula. Today, it is one of the main landmarks of Hisarya.
From here you can back on the street to the center of Hisarya. But that’s not all. Don’t skip its contemporary mineral baths, where you can enjoy the hot water even in winter.
The modern mineral baths
Most of the mineral baths in Hisarya are located in the eastern part of the city. And if you want to go there from the ancient Diocletianopolis, you will most likely cross the beautiful Orpheus Dol Park. It is a nice place for a walk, and its most noticeable spot is the Summer Theater- a modern stage for live performance, built in ancient Roman architectural style.
Then, you can reach the resort part of Hisarya. There are a lot of mineral swimming pools, SPA hotels, and other resort attractions. You can choose a hotel and spend 2 or more days relaxing in this amazing place, combining your beach activities with ancient history. Or you can come even for several hours and enjoy the hot water after your history exploration.
We finished exploring this amazing small city, and proceeded further to the northwest, to the foot of Sredna Gora. The distance between Hisarya and Starosel is 21 km, and we took it quickly, enjoying the beautiful hilly landscape. Soon we arrived in Starosel, ready to dive back in time again.
Starosel looks like most of the big villages in this part of Bulgaria. It is well-known for its active collaboration with the Bulgarian rebels against the Ottoman power in the 19th century, giving many fallen heroes for Bulgarian independence.
It is interesting, but our goal was much further back in time, further even than the Roman era. For this purpose, we had to leave the village and proceed several kilometers beyond it. We passed by the modern complex Starosel, and soon reached the first site- ancient Thracian tumulus „Horizon”.
Ancient Thracian tumulus Horizon
We stopped our car in the parking lot and walked on the path to the tumulus, passing by the Orthodox temple St. Spas. The tumulus was silent for more than 25 centuries.
But first, let me explain a bit what is „tumulus”. It is an artificial mini-hill (mound), a Thracian version of the Egyptian Pyramids and other ancient tomb constructions. There are a lot of tumulus tombs around Bulgaria, but this one is more special. Obviously, there was someone rich Thracian man who was buried in the tomb. Unlike the other Thracian tumulus tombs, this one is designed with more than 10 pillars in Dorian style, richly ornamented by color decoration.
From here, we proceeded further to our main goal- the Thracian Underground Temple at Chetinyova Mogila. We paid our entrance fee of 3 BGN and entered inside.
Thracian Underground Temple Chetinyova Mogila
It is one of the many remains of the ancient Odrysian Kingdom. But this remains is not like the other sites of its kind- it is bigger. And it is not just a tomb, it is a temple-mausoleum, built inside a tumulus. It was made not just for a rich Thracian, but for one of the Odrysian kings, probably Cotys I.
We ascended to the tumulus and reached its main stairs, established as the main entrance to its stone gate. A corridor with pillars led us to the inner round hall, with a dome-shaped ceiling. Various ornaments or traces of ornaments could be seen everywhere.
Then we went out and made a circle around the tumulus. There was a stone wall surrounding the mound, and we saw another, smalled artificial cove on its backside. This is a small pool, made for wine procedures. As we know from the historic sources, the ancient Thracians loved wine and used it also for religious purposes.
There are many other, smaller tumulus tombs nearby, but they are hidden in the hills around the southern foot of Sredna Gora. But there is something else that makes Starosel and the whole area favorite not only for the Thracian kings but for the modern people today- wine.
Wine and SPA complex Starosel
I already mentioned it on our way from the village to the ancient Thracian sites. Wine is the main agriculture of the area, and this is the main theme of the complex. You can see the vineyards, the distilleries, and the wine cellar, then you can test various kinds of wine. Finally, you can enjoy it in the bars and restaurants in the complex.
And there is more- you can enjoy the SPA centers, including some exotic procedures like wine therapies, and even a Thracian stone style SPA hall. All this is arranged in a large complex with hotels, conference halls, entertainment centers, and more- a beautiful resort in one of the most historic parts of Bulgaria.
We enjoyed most of this and left Hisarya and Starosel. We back to Plovdiv, which is the city of the same theme- ancient, full of culture and modern colors. And what we saw on the foot of Sredna Gora impressed us, so a desire to proceed to explore further deep into the mountains, villages, and history, in the middle parts of Bulgaria.
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