An easy drive from Sofia, nestled deep in the leafy Sredna Gora mountains, Koprivshtitsa has all the elements of an exemplary Revival Period experience. The surrounding landscape is all high slopes, lush forests and meadows. Beautiful 200-year-old mansions line cobbled streets. Old stone bridges span the local river. Charming old water fountains, their worn inscriptions still legible, are here, there and everywhere. Koprivshtitsa's history is also captivating, as this was where the April Uprising of 1876 began.
The Valley of the Roses: until recently, the picturesque valley stretching between the ranges of the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains was known by this name, at it was the centre for the production of the expensive attar of roses.
The builders' inscription is explicit. The 100-metre-long five-arched stone bridge over the Struma River is the work of Ishak Pasha, Grand Vizier of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror. Ishak Pasha built the bridge in 1469-1470 to facilitate travel from Constantinople to Skopje and the western Balkans. Despite this, the stories that locals have told about the construction of the bridge over the ages have no reference to the name of the man who did this good deed.
A good sense of direction in circumstances where maps are of little use, a willingness to ask the way, and an adventurous spirit – if you possess at least two of these qualities, it is time to head to the Eastern Rhodope. Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.
The people of Sofia love to point to a peculiarity of their city. Many of the most prominent sites and monuments in the Bulgarian capital are dedicated to or bear the names of Russians. The most obvious examples are the nation's principal cathedral, St Alexandr Nevskiy, and the horseback statue of Emperor Alexandr II in front of the parliament. The yellow-brick paved boulevard, which is one of the most prominent features of Sofia, is named after the same man, Tsar Osvoboditel, or King Liberator and, on its way to the Largo, it passes by the picturesque Russian Church.
Perched on an outcrop of rock above the Chaya River in the Rhodope, Bachkovo Monastery is a place packed with all the hallmarks of Bulgarian-ness. Its mediaeval ossuary preserves the only mural portrait of a Bulgarian king. The last patriarch before Bulgaria fell under the Ottomans, Evtimiy of Tarnovo, is believed to have been exiled and to have died there. The fortress-like complex is one of the finest architectural creations of the Bulgarian national revival period, and some of the frescoes are by Zahariy Zograf, the most prominent Bulgarian artist of the 19th Century.
"Prince Carol pointed the gun at his brother, Prince Nicholas. The Queen jumped at him. The gun went off and wounded her fatally," recounted Georgeta Caloianu, a lady-in-waiting.
The official biographers kept silent about this shocking incident which led to the death of Queen Marie of Romania several months later on 18 July 1938. Before she died, the fairhaired, blue-eyed darling of Europe's high society expressed the wish to be buried in her favourite palace at Balchik in Bulgaria.
The quality of highways and other large-scale infrastructure projects built in modern Bulgaria with EU funding is a matter for public debate. Interestingly, one town in this country has been using the same bridge over the Maritsa River for the past five centuries. Until recently, it was still used even by trucks.
Treasure hunting has been a popular activity among the people in the southeast of Bulgaria since time immemorial. However, apart from the destruction that it continues to bring, there are a few occasions where this illegal activity has led to extremely interesting discoveries. The Thracian tomb discovered near the Mezek village, in the region of modern Svilengrad, is one such story.