The Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria are said to be home to the highest percentage of centenarians not only in Bulgaria, but worldwide. According to unofficial estimations, the rate is higher than in Japan and all Western countries. Many Rhodopi residents live to a ripe old age - what is the secret to their longevity?
It starts with yogurt. The ties between Bulgaria and yogurt date back to the days of the Thracians, a group of militant tribes that ruled the Balkans during Roman times. Legend says that these ancient warriors carried sheep's milk in lambskin bags around their waist. As they rode into battle, their body heat helped ferment the milk into yogurt.
Bulgaria's modern connection to yogurt starts in the early 1900s when Bulgarian scientist Dr. Stamen Grigorov identified the Lactobacillus bacteria responsible for local yogurt fermentation. Russian Nobel prize-winning scientist Ilya Mechnikov named the primary yogurt microorganism Lactobacillus bulgaricus and linked Bulgarian long life to its people's consumption of yogurt.
Even today, Bulgarian yogurt with its unique taste is said to be the best in the entire world. In the Rhodope Mountains, yogurt is not mass produced but rather a homemade product of the family cow. Bulgaria's organic, full-fat yogurt, which is full of good bacteria, protein, and calcium but low in sugar, has numerous health benefits. The bacteria in yogurt is said to protect the body from toxins, infections, allergies, and some types of cancer.
Rural life has hardly changed in the last century for residents of the villages in the Rhodope Mountains where horse-drawn plows are still common on family plots. Their stress-free, simple lifestyles keep them focused on their cultural and religious traditions, many of them originating with the Thracians. Annual folklore festivals highlight the haunting music of gaida bagpipes. At those times the village streets are filled with the kukeri - men wearing elaborate animal-like costumes with cowbells belted to their waists - as they dance in efforts to ward off evil spirits.
The Rhodopes are the most environmentally clean region of Bulgaria. The crisp, oxygen-rich mountain air, the fresh produce, and the scenic views make visitors jealous of this escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
Modern day scientists discount the connection between Rhodope longevity and yogurt consumption, which has dropped in recent years across Bulgaria. They cite instead the villagers' long-lived ancestors; their young, healthy mothers and large families; their stable marriages; and their hard outdoor labors as explanations for long lives.
One other consideration is the warm hospitality extended to visitors in the Rhodope Mountains, welcoming them into the residents' homes and villages. Leaving one's shoes outside the front door is a sign that visitors feel right at home in the Rhodopes.
No one factor can totally explain why many of the villagers in Bulgaria's Rhodope Mountains live to a ripe old age. Visitors can only hope that a short respite in the picturesque mountains will allow them to share the benefits of a stress-free long life as well.