This pile of rocks was once the seat of kings

The Bulgarians are unearthing their Thracian heritage. Now visitors can enjoy what's been discovered too, says Robert Nurden

It could be the world's first observatory, its network of little pools acting as mirrors to the stars. It could be a calendar, a kind of Bulgarian Stonehenge. Or it might even be where soothsayers once predicted the future by watching the pattern of flames and the flow of wine down channels carved in the rock.

It might even have been where Alexander first heard the prophecy that he would, one day, conquer the world. It has a sphinx; compasses go haywire when laid on its granite rocks; and it is dangerous to be there in a thunderstorm. Sci-fi geeks claim its flat plateau of rocks was a landing strip for aliens. But no one really knows what Belintash – 4,000 years old and 4,000 feet up in Bulgaria's Rhodope Mountains – was actually for.

Not even such serious-minded archaeologists as Milen Kamarev have much of a clue. "We think it was a Thracian sanctuary to a goddess who was the forerunner of Dionysus," he says. "It could be the rival oracle to Delphi, but we're always changing our mind."

Part of the reason for the uncertainty is that the Thracians – the Orientals of Europe – were a mysterious bunch. They had no alphabet, and they thought the after-life was more important than this one.

What is certain is that in the past 10 years Bulgaria has discovered hundreds of ancient sites and unearthed breathtaking hoards of treasure. Museums are stuffed with exquisite gold and silver artefacts such as the mask pictured above. This is archaeology in the making, and now travel firms are marketing Thracian heritage tours.

The name Thrace may not mean much to you. Yet, Homer said the Thracians were the most populous race after the Indians. For centuries they ruled over most of the Balkans and much of the Aegean. Their horsemanship was legendary and their guerrilla tactics the talk of the ancient world.

Yet, in Bulgaria, pagan festivals such as Kukeri, the ritual that ushers in spring with erotic dances, scary masks and sheep bells, have their roots in Thracian customs. So does the Bulgarians' love of traditional medicine – herbalists from miles around gather on Belintash to pick plants thought to have magical properties for just one night in May. And the nation's fire dancers carry on a craft started by these enigmatic people.

Further east lies Perperikon, another megalithic sanctuary, this time with an altar and a throne. A year ago it was to have been the location for a historical epic starring Nicole Kidman but that project seems to have sunk without trace.

Nearby Tatul is said to house the grave of Orpheus, who was Thracian not Greek – and a real person who, it is said, gave rise to the Orphic cult. At the highest point is a strange double sarcophagus, symbolically midway between sky and earth. Either that, or it is an altar where human sacrifice took place.

The day before, we had been in the Valley of the Kings, where 10,000 mounds of earth point to the presence of the Odrissi. These 2,500-year-old grassy knolls were first thought to be the tombs of nobles, but that's an awful lot of aristocrats to bury. Far more intriguing is the current theory that they were underground temples where the Orphic rites were performed.

The Kazanlak complex has a gorgeous domed fresco: you can only see the replica. At Golyamata Kosmatka the heads of Medusa and Helios guard the inner sanctuary where Seuthes III may have been buried around 300BC. The city he ruled is at the bottom of a reservoir a couple of miles away, cynically submerged by the Communist regime in 1948. Now there's an audacious plan to resurrect the complex by parting the waters with a 20-metre wall. If approved, it will be the world centre for Thracian studies and a visitor attraction with hotels and restaurants.

My shameless pleading to the curator to let me see inside more tumuli bore fruit: he reluctantly shuffled off to get the keys to four of them. What I saw took my breath away: any country in the West would treat them as prized possessions; in Bulgaria they are just another shrug of the shoulders. There was Ostrusha, with its gorgeous roof fresco of a fresh-faced, red-headed woman; Shushmanets, with its Ionic and Doric columns deep underground; the inner sanctum of Helvetia had a stone couch and "pillow" where initiations of acolytes into the Orphic rites involved lying on the marriage bed with the goddess Bedida; and Grifonite, with its twin griffins on either side of the entrance.

On the way to Sofia to see the archaeology museum (more intakes of breath), we stopped off for some Thracian red at the traditional winemaker, Villa Vinifera, whose 1999 Mavrud, the indigenous grape Thracians used to drink, was magnificent.

It's high time the door to Europe's most mysterious people was flung wide open for ever.

Compact facts

How to get there

WizzAir (0904 475 9500; wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Sofia from £84 return. Robert Nurden was a guest of Zig Zag Holidays (00 359 2 980 5102; zigzagbg.com), which runs seven-day Thracian heritage tours from £550 per person.

Further information

Sofia Archaeology Museum (naim.bg), open dailly 10am-6pm, entrance £4. Volunteers for Thracian archaeological excavations this summer should contact Milen Kamarev ( milen-vloges@yahoo.com). Villa Vinifera, Brestovitza (00 359 32 62 40 11; villavinifera.com).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention