Several large rivers define Bulgaria's geography and historical landscape. The mighty Danube has constituted the northern border of the Bulgarian territories for centuries. The Iskar bypasses Sofia (locals still jokingly declare it to be the deepest river in the world) and then carves its way into the Stara Planina gorge, oft-described in the late-19th century Bulgarian literature. The Maritsa flows through the Thracian Plain: an ancient route used by generations of invaders, merchants, emissaries and empires. Today, the international route E80 runs along much of its course.
Compared to these, the Arda, in the Rhodope, looks insignificant.
For most of the time, it runs through the mountains, and soon after it leaves them, it joins – you guess it – the Maritsa.
And yet the Arda is a true wonder. Its banks, bends and meanders across the Rhodope form a picturesque landscape: often charming, sometimes otherworldly or magnificent, always crammed with stories old and new.
The Arda springs from a karst water source picturesquely located at the roots of an old tree at the northern slope of the 1,730-metre Ardin Peak, by the village of Gorna Arda in the western Rhodope. Until recently, Arda's springs used to be in the border zone with Greece and hence visiting was not possible. Now, however, it is perfectly easy to take a trip on horseback, organised by the villagers, to the source of the river. This area offers other sites of interest, such as the Uhlovitsa Cave and the Agushevi Konaks in Mogilitsa village.
An early morning drive through the Madzharovo-Borislavtsi road offers superb views of the nearby meanders
From its source, the Arda flows eastwards for 272 kms, carving its way through the slopes of the Rhodope, passing through stunning landscapes of rocky cliffs, green forests and abundant wildlife. Here and there there are traces of human life: hamlets and villages built of stone, a few cities, and several old bridges. The best of these is the 16th century Devil's Bridge, near the town of Ardino. Once it used to facilitate travel on the old route from the Thracian Plain to the Aegean, but the road was abandoned during the Cold War, and now the bridge, as well as the nearby ghost village of Dyadovtsi, stand by the Arda, quiet and alone.
When the river enters the eastern Rhodope, its waters get captured by three large reservoirs: Kardzhali, Studen Kladenets and Ivaylovgrad. Their construction has changed the landscape, turning the river into a string of large artificial lakes connected by thin strips of water. The landscape is still picturesque: a mosaic of rising slopes and still water, and of volcano rocks frozen into prismatic shapes, along with the menacing canyon of Sheytan Dere and the bucolic beauty of the calm river lined with poplars near Dolno Cherkovishte.
There is also the historical heritage. In addition to the Devil's Bridge, some stunning Thracian megaliths like the shrines at Utrobata Cave, Tatul and Bivolyane, the clusters of rock niches and rock tombs at Orlovi Skali near Ardino, the Gluhite Kamani near Harmanli and near Dolno Cherkovishte are located around the Arda.
Once the Arda leaves the last dam on its course, it frees itself from the Rhodope. Passing through Ivaylovgrad city, around which are the Roman villa Armira and the Lyutitsa fortress, the river enters the Thracian Plain, passing through Greece and joining the Maritsa at Edirne, Turkey.
Arda meander by Madzharovo
The best part of Arda's course in the Rhodope, however, are the places where the river meanders, snake-like, hugging the mountain's slopes into formidable gooseneck bends. They are so impressive that you will be excused if for a moment you get mentally lost, imagining yourself in Utah rather than in Eastern Europe.
Some of Arda's meanders appeared naturally. Others were either created or enlarged by… human activity. These are mainly seen near the dams that cram the river.
The so-called Zavoya, or The Bend, at the beginning of Kardzhali Dam, is arguably the most impressive of those. It is best seen from the southern bank of the river, by the village of Star Chitak.
There are two more intriguing meanders of the Arda nearby, by the Rusalsko and Lyubino villages. They are harder to reach as the road is far from perfect.
The Arda's stunning meanders near the town of Madzharovo, by the beginning of Ivaylovgrad Dam, are just by a road that was once asphalt. Their natural beauty is coupled with their environmental importance: the meanders are the home of Bulgaria's only vulture sanctuary and of a number of other rare birds, including black storks.
Morning mist envelopes an abandoned church at the village of Borislavtsi
Vultures nest at these rocks above the Arda
River Arda along the Rudozem-Smolyan road
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.