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Following the Footsteps of Orpheus

A sign declaring the birthplace of Orpheus greets visitors to the village of Gela, high in Bulgaria's southern Rhodopes Mountains.

A sign declaring the birthplace of Orpheus greets visitors to the village of Gela, high in Bulgaria's southern Rhodopes Mountains. According to legend, Orpheus - the mythical Greek musician, poet, and prophet - descended into the underworld in an attempt to save his wife, Eurydice, from the Greek god, Hades. More on that in a minute.

The village of Gela is located some 20 kilometers from the Greek border. It is very small; only 37 residents live there year round. Each family has its own vegetable plot, and in some cases, its own cow. Bells can be heard on the hillsides as goats graze amidst the thick summer grasses. Before 1944, local shepherds would herd their flocks into Greece.

The Rhodopes are known for their unique geological formations. The mountains are set apart by river gorges and deep caves cut into the karst landscape. In the winter months, Pamporovo is one of Bulgaria's most popular ski resorts. In the summer, the hillsides are painted green and covered with wild flowers, a setting reminiscent of the film, "The Sound of Music."

Due to the simple, stress-free lives of the villagers, the region has the highest number of centenarians in the country. The tasty homemade yogurt and crisp mountain air are certainly part of the reason.

The Rhodopes are known for their unique culture. The mountains are the best place to hear the gaida, a sheep- or goat-hide bagpipe common to the Balkans and southeast Europe. In the town of Shiroka Laka, an annual festival sees men dress up as animals with colorful masks on their faces and bells ringing from their waists. These strange mummers, known as kukeri, dance through the streets in efforts to chase away evil spirits.

Most of the places to stay in the Rhodopes are bed and breakfasts in private homes, where the hosts are very friendly, but very often don't speak English.

Western visitors might prefer the comfort offered by Villa Gela, located on a mountain road in Gela village. This family-run lodging has only four bedrooms, but they have been tastefully designed and are very comfortable, complete with modern amenities such as Wi-Fi. There are no televisions next to the fireplaces. The villa, with its indoor swimming pool, steam room, badminton courts, and mountain views, is perfect for relaxation as well as serving as a base for explorations of the region.

While Villa Gela doesn't offer typical Rhodopes accommodations, the hosts (Darina, Ivan, and Dimka) display typical Bulgarian warm hospitality. Darina, who speaks perfect English, has a wealth of knowledge about travel destinations. Dimka cooks amazing adaptations of Rhodopes cuisine. Many of the dishes are based on home-grown vegetables, including the use of dandelions in salads. Villa Gela was selected as Best Ski Chalet in Bulgaria two years in a row by an online international vote.

Back to the legend of Orpheus. Some say that the entrance to the underworld is through Devil's Throat Cave, a cave mentioned in the novels of Bulgarian bestselling author Ludmila Filipova. The Trigrad River, which runs through the stunning Trigrad Gorge, disappears into these deep caverns, never to emerge again into daylight. The cave gets its name from a profile of the devil, which is hard to notice even when pointed out.

The cave is open every day from 10am to 4pm and entrance is only with a guide, usually one who speaks English. The entranceway is cool and dry, but the main hall is a cavern so huge that Sofia's iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral could easily fit inside. The thunder of the underground river pounds in the ears as one reaches a steep set of slippery, concrete stairs leading to daylight high above. Apparently, Orpheus didn't rescue his beloved from here.

Toward the top of the staircase slivers of daylight appear, at first in striking, vertical slits between the rocks. Sun rays light up the ascent until the final set of steps is reached. Above ground is a narrow canyon running alongside the river as it plunges down to its mysterious disappearance. Waiting for cave visitors in the shade are local residents selling homemade jams and honey.

A visit to the Rhodopes can be completed in the village of Trigrad, a few kilometers up the road from the cave. The village's main attractions are a gold-domed mosque and a church, situated right next to each other. After democracy came to Bulgaria, Christian residents helped build the mosque and their Muslim neighbors helped build the church.

The Rhodopes, legendary home of Orpheus, stunning in both summer and winter, should be on the agenda of every visitor to Bulgaria.