FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges

Posted in Asenovgrad, Bachkovo, Bulgaria, Plovdiv by folkestonejack on September 23, 2017

The Bulgarian long weekend started in earnest with a day trip to see some of the most spectacular sights located a short drive away from the city – Asen’s Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and the Wonderful Bridges.

The 13th century Church of the Holy Mother of God at Asen’s Fortress

Our first stop brought us to the ruins of Asen’s Fortress, a hilltop stronghold strategically located on a rocky crag overlooking the Chepelarska gorge. The winding road that climbs to the summit looked like quite a trek on foot and plenty were attempting that. I’m sure that has its own rewards, with time to soak up the stunning view across to the church of Sveta Bogoroditsa Petrichka, but I was glad that we were driving up with our guide.

The spectacular setting is matched by the interior of the church which includes some fragments of frescoes from the 14th century. Beyond the church you can walk up to the top of the fortress for incredibly scenic views and an even better shot of the church with the valley as a backdrop.

The refectory at Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest monastery in the country, was our second stop and proved to be the highlight of the day. The monastery was originally founded in 1083 and bridges three cultures – Byzantine, Georgian and Bulgarian – and this rich history is helpfully recorded on its the walls through some fascinating murals.

Entering the first courtyard we immediately saw a long line of locals queueing to enter the main church of the complex, the seventeenth century Sveta Bogoroditsa, so they could pray at a 11th-12th century icon of St Mary reputed to have healing powers. We were able to enter through a rear entrance so as not to disturb the serious business of the day and spent most of our time with our necks craned upwards to admire the stunning decoration throughout the church and at the base of the bell tower.

On the day we visited the gates to the second courtyard were open so we were able to take a look at the porch of another church in the complex, Sveti Nikolai, with its striking frescoes of the last judgment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see inside as the church doors were locked – it looked as though they were getting ready for a baptism later in the day.

The star attraction of the complex is the vaulted 17th century refectory that is entirely decorated with colourful frescoes depicting ancient philosophers and kings of Israel encircled by the holy vine, the akatis hymn of the Holy Virgin and domesday. The frescoes were restored in 1965-1971 and the monastery are justifiably proud of their unique attraction. Admission fee to the refectory cost us 6 lev each plus 6 lev for a photo permit.

Overall, I found our visit to Bachkovo Monastery much more satisfying than the trip to Rila Monastery last year. I would have to admit that the lack of tourists was a big factor in this – we only encountered one other tourist on our wanders round the site.

The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodope Mountains

The final stop on our itinerary brought us up a long, somewhat pot-holed road, to the wonderful bridges (Chudnite Mostove). The effort was worth it as these two natural rock arches in the forests of the Rhodope Mountains are just immense whether viewed from up top or down below. Sadly, none of the photographs I have taken do them any justice – it’s one of those sights that you just have to see in person to properly appreciate.

Practicalities

The guide books indicated that it is possible to make a visit to Asen’s Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery by bus but the little information we could find online suggested that it would be easier with a guide, sparing us the steep walk up the 2.5km road to Asen’s Fortress and the hassles of finding a bus to take us back. To be honest, I appreciated the simplicity of not working all this out for myself!

Travelling with a tour guide also allowed us to visit the third site, the Wonderful Bridges, which can only be reached by car. Our guide helped to order food for us during our trip and smoothed out minor issues that might have been tricky without a smidgeon of Bulgarian – such as asking the guardian of the refectory at Bachkovo to switch the lights on so that we could see the wonderful murals!

Our day trip was booked by email through Plovdiv Trips and the tour delivered matched up to all the promises made on their website. I would certainly recommend them.

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