Thracian Tomb Hopping in the Valley of the Thracian Kings is the single most unusual thing you can do in Bulgaria
Move over, hiking to and potentially illegally entering the Communist UFO Buzludzha! Step aside, recently-sadly-overcrowded Rila Lakes! You are no rivals to Thracian Tomb Hopping - the exhilarating experience of roaming the land of some of the most unique burial mounds on the planet and partaking in celebrating a culture that didn’t leave much in the way of written word but gifted us with stories of glorious feasts and gold treasures of exquisite craftsmanship.
Now you may wander who in the world were the Thracians and why on earth should you be hopping around their tombs? The thing is you actually might know more about ancient Thrace than you think.
Let’s start with Spartacus - the most famous gladiator in the whole entire world. That’s right - he was Thracian. He was born in the region around Struma River in what today is Southwestern Bulgaria.
If you've heard the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice - the lyre player who descended to Hades to take his beloved back from the underworld - then you've met two of the most enchanting and beautiful figures that have roamed the Thracian lands in an area that today is known as the Rhodope Mountains in Southeastern Bulgaria.
A fan of wine and its most prominent God Dionysus? Then you are already friends with one of the most influential Thracian deities - only the Thracians called him Zagreus!
Thrace is an ancient geographical and historical territory in Southeastern Europe. It was named by the Greeks to describe the Indo-European tribes that inhabited Eastern and Southern Europe. The first description of the Thracians was in the Illiad. The fierce and skilled Thracian warriors fought on the side of the Trojans. The haughty ancient Greeks considered them barbaric and primitive but the Thracians were gifted poets and musicians and gobsmackingly talented goldsmiths. Plato in his Repuplic called them “extravagant and high-spirited”,
Around 480 BC they formed their first state union - the Kingdom of Odryssa. Historic interpretations often diverge or outright disagree but it is assumed that the kingdom has had several capitals - among them Odryssa, which is supposed to now be Edirne in Turkey and Seuthopolis, near Kazanluk (often also spelled Kazanlak) in Bulgaria.
Only four Thracian inscriptions of any length have been found. One of them was fittingly engraved on a gold ring, dating back to the 5th century BC and was found in Northeastern Bulgaria. A handful of Thracian words remain in use in the Bulgarian language today, their esoteric guttural sound congruent with the century-old descriptions of fearless warriors.
The historians-staffed jury is somewhat out in terms of the Thracians' attitude towards death. Seeing the stunning frescoes on the ceiling of the Tomb of Kazanluk can easily convince you that the Thracians celebrated the departure into the afterlife with impressive pomp and circumstance. Rejoicing or mourning, one thing is certain, the Thracians regarded death with the highest level of respect. The burial mounds they left to the world offer enchanting frescoes and breathtaking gold artifacts. Now, how do you see and experience all this?
Start in Kazanluk, a town almost smack in the middle of Bulgaria and the center of the Valley of the Thracian Kings. The region offers the highest concentration of Thracian tombs since one capital of the ancient Odrysian Kingdom, Seuthopolis, was once located nearby. Regretfully, the actual site of Seuthopolis was flooded and turned into a reservoir during communist times. But the reservoir, called Koprinka, is a beautiful place to visit and watching the sunset from the dam is an unforgettable experience.
The first site to visit is the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk. The site that is open to tourists is a replica but the architecture and frescoes will place you under a powerful spell. The scenes are simultaneously mystical and earthy, intricate and simple.
For your next stop, I suggest the Tomb of Seuthes III. While less decorated, the tomb, also known as Goliama Kosmatka, impresses with its size and structure. If you visit in summer, the drive will take you through some of the prettiest lavender fields east of Provence. (Bulgaria has been one of Europe’s largest lavender producers for years!)
Somewhere in the middle of all that zooming in and out of burial mounts, you would be well served to pay a visit to the Kazanluk History Museum Iskra, where you can marvel at the gold objects that came out of the hands of the fabled Thracian goldsmiths.
To make the experience exponentially more unique, you should know that the Valley of the Thracian Kings in Bulgaria doubles as the world-famous Valley of The Roses - the home of the most valuable and unique flower in the perfume world.
The Valley of the Thracian Kings is not the only place where you can encounter the powerful heritage, left behind by the sons and daughters of ancient Thrace. The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari near the city of Razgrad, is so significant with its architecture and decor that it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The ancient site Perperikon is one of the oldest megalithic structures in these parts of the world and has had significance for many cultures, including the Thracians. It is rumored to have served as the capital of the Thracian tribe Bessie.
If you are wondering how to fit a visit to the Valley of the Thracian Kings into your Bulgaria itinerary, you will find some practical suggestions here.