When the Arda, the river meandering through the Rhodope west to east, finally frees itself from the cold embraces of the Studen Kladenets and Kardzhali dams, it starts flowing, slow and calm, through a wide, pristine valley and by the town of Madzharovo. Surrounded by arable land, lines of poplars and the blue ridges of the surrounding mountains, the Arda stretches under a sky filled with the gliding silhouettes of a range of birds of prey, including the endangered Griffon vulture. 

The bucolic atmosphere as well as Bulgaria's only vultures reserve make Madzharovo one of the best places for rural and green tourism the country can offer. But the area is rich also in Thracian heritage, and deserves a dedicated trip. 

The concentration of historical sites from the early history to the mediaeval times in this part of the Rhodope is logical – for millennia the Arda has been a major trade and military route, connecting the inside of the mountain with the Thracian Plain and the Bosporus. Around Madzharovo, the remains of fortifications, settlements and a necropolis have been discovered. None of these, however, are as spectacular as the Thracian rock niches, scattered around the area. 

The dark spots of trapezoid niches, carved in precipitous rocks, can be seen everywhere around Madzharovo. One of the most spectacular groups takes no effort to locate. The array of about 100 niches spotting the limestone body of a massive rock called Kovankaya, or Beehive Rock, are right on the road near the village of Dolno Cherkovishte, about 20 km northwest of Madzharovo. 

Dolno Cherkovishte rock niches

Dolno Cherkovishte rock niches

It is easy to see why the locals have given such a name to the rock – indeed it looks like a giant beehive. But another story attributes the holes in the rock to the imprints of the hooves of a giant horse, ridden by a benevolent giant who would roam the area giving useful advice to the people. 

More, less spectacular niches can be seen in the area known as Sarakaya, or Yellow Rock. A couple of road curves to the northwest from Kovankaya is Harmankaya, or Threshing Floor Rock. It hosts the remains of three rock tombs. But be warned: this is a different site from the similarly named Harmankaya shrine, near the Bivolyane village. 

Most of the Thracian sites around Madzharovo have long been visited by treasure-hunters who still believe that the niches are signs left by the legendary Priest Martin to mark the whereabouts of the gold he stole from Ottoman tax collectors. Fortunately, not everything has been lost to looting. In the Okopa area, in the 1980s archaeologists discovered a tomb from the second half of the 1st Century BC which had already been destroyed by treasure-hunters. It offered a wealth of more than 350 clothes applications, buttons and threads, all of them made of gold. 

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