A small village, called Dolen, is nestled in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains, near the town of Gotse Delchev. The houses here have been preserved over the past 100-200 years, but time has not stopped in its tracks – modern ideas and building techniques breathe new life into the village, with respect to its old customs. In Dolen I felt at home – it’s a rare thing to meet such exceptionally kind people, especially in Eastern Europe (that’s a joke…kind of). So I wanted to share my experience with you.
A while ago I really wanted to visit two very popular villages/archeological parks in Bulgaria – Leshten and Kovachevitsa (they slipped away again – you’ll find out why at the end). But because I was looking for a place to book last minute, the closest and nicest guesthouse was The Gates in Dolen. On their Facebook page, there are photographs of old dwellers and their homes. I felt a strong connection to these images and wrote down “The Gates, Dolen” in bold letters on the list of places I wanted to visit. Last week it finally happened and turned out to be an experience full of unexpected turns – from heartwarming to blood-chilling. At the end though, this trip restored our faith in humanity. Here’s the whole story and, once you get to its end, I would love to hear what you think.
Dolen is 230 km. away from the heart of Sofia, but getting there takes about 4 hours since the road after the closest town – Gotse Delchev (about 30 km. from Dolen) is steep and narrow.
First, you’ll reach the new Dolen village. On the left side of the square there is a drinking fountain with delicious water, and on the right are two roads. Take the one that starts at the sign “Architectural-Historical Reserve Dolen.” Just a few moments after, you’ll find yourself in the midst of a fairytale.
The Village of Dolen
We arrived after dark but the magic of Dolen speaks to the senses, even in the gentle light of the streetlamps. The cobblestone way led us to a crossroads, where we found our home for the next few days – The Gates. As we entered, the vibe didn’t seem like your typical hotel or guesthouse. It felt more like visiting an old friend. Someone from the neighborhood, with whom you used to play as a child but haven’t seen in years, and are now visiting their new rural life.
We moved into one of the comfortable, yet simple and minimalistic room of The Gates, and tired from the road went quickly to sleep, in the soothing embrace of the Rhodope Mountains. The crickets and night birds scrubbed the city from our minds.
The next morning I woke up with the kind of freshness and ease that only the mountains and faraway places can give you. My gaze soaked up the break of day – gentle rays caressing white facades, wooden window shutters, and stone-covered rooftops, all carefully arranged in the valley’s green lap. As if I’d opened a storybook from the Bulgarian Revival and a portal to the past spread between its covers. I dove in, and here I am, sitting on these old handmade Rhodope carpets, lulled by the song of brass bells carried on the wings of the wind.
Thanks to its status as an Architectural-Historical Reserve, Dolen has kept its authenticity. Not just the locals but also the many foreign newcomers who’ve moved in are determined to preserve the village’s magical spirit. For instance, they are building new houses or restoring the old, using crudely carved stone, clay, and straw, as was once done, but with new, more efficient techniques. Dolen has birthed a hybrid of tradition, innovation, and creativity, with respect to nature.
Because of the festivals that were organized in Dolen, there is an amphitheater in the village (it even has a backstage!) and a smaller stage. They are constructed fully out of natural materials and resemble the psychedelic structures typical of psytrance festivals. It’s all been built with plenty of imagination and reverence to nature’s will. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of architectural heritage, I bet you’ll fall in love with the houses in Dolen!
Today, about 300 people live here, but until about 30 years ago Dolen had around 2,500 dwellers and was the area’s cinema hub. Grandpa Iliya, who visited at The Gates one night and treated us to his delicious homemade grape rakiya, told us how once upon a time the movie strips would arrive in Dolen. Then, with horse and carriage, they were carried off to the villages around. Back then, the main income in Dolen came from farming and tobacco.
Nowadays, just like in many other Bulgarian rural areas, mostly old people live here. Many of the houses are chained, waiting for someone to warm their walls and fill their yards with laughter. Maybe because of the amazing architecture, the beautiful scenery, or perhaps because of Dolen’s strange energy, which makes you feel at home, younger people are starting to move in. They are usually from Sofia or outside the country (there are Americans, Spanish, French, Israeli). Their education and worldliness allow them to breathe new life into Dolen.
The house was built in 1911 and was repurposed several times until a family from Sofia rented it – an enthusiast and his painter wife. So The Gates is nothing like those bland hotels that could be anywhere. Here, you are welcomed by an exhibit of upcycled statues, sprinkled throughout the yard and the rooms. Here are some of my personal favorites:
It’s also full of all kinds of other treasures, such as old movie cameras, well-preserved science magazines from the Communist era, record player and records. But still, it doesn’t feel cluttered – the artifacts are an engaging touch in the roomy adobe.
The outside area is large, there is a gorgeous view, and well-behaved dogs are welcome. Mega, who doesn’t always get along with other dogs right away, found two buddies in the yard, Pavel lounged on the hammock in the company of Steinbeck (even under the rain), and I set up my work station in the sitting area on the porch. So everyone was happy. I really liked the big, comfortable kitchen because I appreciate having the option to cook when I travel.
Mira, the woman who runs the place and calls herself “the innkeeper”, smiles generously and is very accommodating, so our only regret is that we couldn’t stay longer.
Grandma Dushka – Dolen’s Master Chef
There is no cook at The Gates, as well as the other guesthouses around, but that is compensated for by Dolen’s own Master Chef. Except for celebrity culinary artists have nothing on grandma Dushka! I don’t know a single Bulgarian, even among the biggest fitness and health geeks, who doesn’t love mekitsi – a type of traditional fried dough. But in Dolen I found out that you haven’t tried mekitsi until you get a taste of grandma Dushka’s mekitsi. She has a special recipe, passed down to her from her grandmother, and serves them with homemade cheese, jam, and pine honey. We also had her amazing potato pie made with local products – the potatoes are grandma Dushka’s, the eggs and other ingredients she gets from the neighbors. Hipster brunch spots in the city don’t have a chance, compared to this.
Dushka’s grandson Martin studies medicine in Sofia, but he’s here all summer, helping his grandmother, and knows a lot about the village’s history (he even showed us the old sword they found buried under the house – it used to belong to a freedom fighter, when Bulgaria was enslaved by the Ottoman Empire). So if you are there, make sure you talk to him. And grandma Dushka is the warmest, most exuberant old lady you can imagine!
Calamity in Gradishte or How an Ancient Thracian Sanctuary Restored Our Faith in Human Kind
On our last day in Dolen we decided that it was finally time to visit the other places the area is famous for – the prehistorical and Thracian sanctuary Gradishte, as well as the villages of Kovachevitsa and Leshten.
In Gradishte you can hike along a well-marked path, with lots of small wooden stairs connecting the large stones. You need an hour or two to see the park, with tremendous rock formations, resembling human heads, mushrooms or animals.
About 15 minutes in, as I was descending down the first steep staircase from the rocks down into the forest, I thought I heard howling and whining. But that’s a whole other story. To read what happened, why we were scared nearly to death and how the event restored our faith in humankind, click here.
Despite the frightening experience, we are both eager to go back – walk the cobblestone alleys of Dolen once again, play in the high swing at The Gates, visit Nursen and Hassan, maybe even finally make it to Leshten and Kovachevitsa.
Did I get you aching for Dolen? Have you been to Gradishte, Leshten, Kovachevitsa or another place in the Rhodope Mountains? Tell me about it in the comments below 🙂 And if you enjoyed this story, please share it – you’d help a beautiful, yet poor place, get a bit more visitors 🙂
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