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THE RHODOPE MOUNTAINS

The Rhodope Mountains are the main range in the Rila-Rhodope massif. It spreads over an area of approximately 18,000 km2 (7000 miles2), nearly 15 thousand of which are within the borders of Bulgaria (the remainder is in Greece). Its average altitude is 785 m (2550 ft), reaching its maximum of 2191 m (7121 ft) at the highest Rhodope peak - Greater Perelik. In antiquity the mountain range was called Slaveevi Gori or Dospatdag, but it reached us later as Rodopi or Rodopa (Rhodopes), which are connected with the heathen goddess Rhodope. Others explain it with the meaning of the Slavic words ropa (pit) or ruda (ore). This is not without foundation as mining has been known here since ancient times. It is also known as the mountain of Orpheus as, according to tradition, the ancient Thracian singer was born and lived here. The Rhodopes are the oldest of all Bulgarian mountains. They are made up of gneiss, amphibolites, karst and granite. Nobody has set foot yet in some of the unbelievable canyons. Their underground world of caves is a great asset. The best-known caves are: Uhlovitsa, Dyavolskoto Garlo (the Devils Throat) and Yagodinska. Over 60 tourists' centres, dormitories and shelters are available to tourists all year round. Hiking route E-8 passes through here.

The Rhodope Mountains are populated. Many historic, cultural and ethnographic landmarks are situated here: the towns of Batak, Perushtitsa, Bratsigovo, Shiroka Laka, Velingrad (the largest health and spa centre in Bulgaria), the village of Kovachevitsa (a unique historic reserve), the Bachkovski Monastery and the Tsar Asen's Fortress among others. The second most important Bulgarian ski centre after Borovets Pamporovo - is situated in the Rhodope mountains in the Studenetska Saddleback at an average of 1700m (5500 ft) above sea level. It is surrounded by the peaks of Murgavets, Greater Perelik and Snezhanka - its highest point (1926 m or 6260 ft), where there is a television tower. The average annual temperature in Pamporovo is 8.5°C (47°F). The snow cover lasts around 150 days per year. The total length of marked ski routes is 17.5 km (10.5 miles); the longest of them is 3.8 km (2.3 miles). The length of the ski run is 25 km (15 miles). The highest point for starting downhill is 1926 m (6260 ft). Guests can take advantage of modern hotels and private accommodations, snowboards, rental equipment from world-famous manufacturers, ski school, children's ski garden and ski stores. The village of Momchilovtsi, situated 14 km from Pamporovo, has a centuries-old history and is now an ideal site for ecological and village tourism. The comfortable family-run hotels and eating establishments, which offer traditional Rhodope cuisine, welcome guests from the entire world. The tourist services include tour guides, hiking guides, and ski and snowboard instructors. The construction of a new lift, ski and snowboard centre is planned.

The Rhodope Mountains are divided into two main sections -western and eastern. The western section is higher and more attractive with its several peaks over 2000 meters (6500 ft) high: Greater Syutka (2186 or 7105 ft), Batashki Snezhnik (2082 or 6767 ft), Greater Persenk (2091 or 6796 ft) and the largest of all Greater Perelik (2191 m or 7121 ft). Some of the most attractive Bulgarian natural phenomena are situated in the Rhodope Mountains: the stone pyramids of Kardzhali, the Trigrad and Buynovo gorges, the Smolyan Lakes, The Devil's Bridge, and the Wondrous Bridges. The sanctuary of Orpheus, 200 meters from the village of Tatul near Momchilgrad, is one of the most majestic megalithic monuments discovered on Bulgarian territory. The complex consists of an ancient heathen sanctuary and a medieval fortress. Two graves and eight steps leading to them were hewn into the stone peak; ritual platforms, niches, drainage systems and pools were formed in the nearby rocks. The archaeological research continues. One of today's most respected Christian sanctuaries, Krastova Gora (the Mountain of the Cross), is situated in the Western Rhodopes. There was a Christian monastery on the Krastov Vrah (Peak of the Cross), which the Turks burned down during the Ottoman rule. The spot is thought to be holy and on the Day of the Cross (September 14th) thousands of pilgrims flock here on the Day of the Cross hoping that they will be healed of their diseases if they stay overnight on the peak. The Dospat Dam, situated in the basin of the river of the same name, and the Batak Dam, created around 40 years ago on the site of the Batak Marsh, offer great opportunities for recreation, fishing and hiking. A few kilometers from there is the town of Batak with its tragic history - during the crushing of the April Uprising in 1876 five thousand residents out of a population of 6000 were cruelly killed. The alpine holiday home of Yundola is situated on the border between Rila and the Rhodopes, in a region of age-old evergreen forests and expansive meadows 16 km (10 miles) from Velingrad.

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