The Land of the Thracians
Three mountain ranges, the Rhodopi, Slavayanka and Pirin once divided the ancient kingdom of Thrace from Greece. Greece and the mountains remain, but Thrace has morphed into modern day Bulgaria and is where this ride takes place. The mountains conceal a wealth of folklore and hidden histories: take Orpheus and Spartacus, both real people and born in the heart of the Rhodopi range. Orpheus could enchant the birds from the trees and creatures of the woods with his magical music; Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator, inspired a generation of slaves to revolt against their Roman masters. He undoubtedly grew up and learnt his hunting skills in the Rhodopi forests and along the remote mountain trails which we will follow. These paths are now little-visited, except by deer, wild boar and those in search of exciting riding.
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This trail ride leads through the heart of the Thrace, which you could argue is the principal cradle of European horsemanship. Thrace’s most renowned son is undoubtedly Spartacus: he inspired a generation of slaves and gladiators to revolt against their Roman masters, but he trained first and foremost as a cavalry warrior. After all, the Romans were primarily foot soldiers and relied on their Auxiliaries such as the Thracians, Scythians and Gauls to provide cavalry. Spartacus grew up and learnt his hunting skills in these Rhodopi forests and along the remote mountain trails which we will follow; paths that are now little-visited except by deer, wild boar and those in search of exciting riding.
The Thracian Valley is an ideal location for a trail ride because there are few roads, the meadows link together without fences and the crops include roses and lavender, making the riding quick and air fragrant. Add in the delicious wines, spa mineral springs and regular swimming opportunities and the ingredients are complete.
The Land of the Thracians
Day 1 Saturday
We’ll meet you upon arrival at Sofia airport and drive you east 125 Km to Belashtitsa (90 mins) which is a few kilometres from Plovdiv. We’ll have a short walking tour to help orientate yourself and see the city that dates back over 8,000 years. This city is a contemporary of Troy and was known as Philoppolis for a time. Visit the ancient open air theatre (which is in great condition) and the ethnographic museum. Dinner and overnight in hotel with pool and spa.
Day 2 Sunday
Drive out to a small village called Tsaratsovo (30 mins) where the horses have been stabled overnight. There’s a huge arena here, but it’s not part of the itinerary today! Mount up and try your horse and as soon as everyone is settled, set off. Our destination is the thermal centre of Hisarya which has a total of 22 healing mineral springs. The village also has Thracian and Roman buildings and as you walk in to the Roman baths you can’t help but be reminded of Bath in Wiltshire.
Today’s ride goes over some lovely meadows which are ideal for brisk canters; we ride for 5 1/2 hrs, with a picnic lunch on a river bank, so you might be ready for a spa at the end of the day!
Who were the Celts?
The pre-Roman Celtic culture of Europe, including the British Isles, is shrouded in mystery. The Celts had an oral tradition, rather than writing their histories down, so little hard evidence remains; their story is made more difficult to discover due to the thorough genocide exercised by the Romans on the Celts. What we do know of the pre-Christian Europeans, including the Thracians, is that they placed emphasis on horsemanship, courage and honour; spiritually they were guided by Dreamers and Singers, overseen by Druids who underwent a twenty-year apprenticeship before re-joining their community. What an intriguing society!
Day 3 Monday
The trail today passes over flat meadows (plenty of canters) interspersed with oak woods and through undulating country which is ideally suited to vineyards. All along the trail is evidence of Thracian communities, much of which is still being excavated. This is the centre of Bulgarian wine production so it’s fitting that tonight’s hotel has an outstanding cellar, which we’ll visit for a spot of wine tasting. The hotel is famous for its excellent cuisine, comfy spa and ‘menu’ of treatments on offer.
3 1/2 hours of riding, lunch is a picnic carried in your saddlebags.
Day 4 Tuesday
Today we ride to the Renaissance town of Koprivshtitsa that sits on the bank of the Topolnitsa River, in the heart of Sashtinska Sredna Gora mountains. Cobblestone streets separate beautifully restored buildings and this town is so special that we’ll take a stroll around town guided by a specialist guide. 5 1/2 hrs riding.
Day 5 Wednesday
This morning we follow a mountain ridge out of Koprivshtitsa with commanding views over the Valley of Roses. The resort town of Strelcha is our destination which has a central church dedicated to Archangel Michael, surrounded by a rose garden of 3,000 acres. Imagine pruning that lot! 5 hrs riding.
Day 6 Thursday
Strelcha also has some fourth and fifth century BC Thracian temples where Celtic rituals were conducted: they may be animist, or shaman or maybe even human sacrifice (unlikely!) sites. Ride on to Lake Belovitsa where we have a picnic and continue to Belovitsa village. 4 hrs riding.
Day 7 Friday
Today’s trail is glorious: it zig-zags through vineyards and beside rose gardens. Ford the river Abd and pass a rose oil factory (smells fantastic!) 4 ½ hrs riding to reach Tsarasovo and the hotel.
Return shuttle to Sofia (90 mins) in time for the London flight.
The Land of the Thracians
The horses are owned by Georgi Syarov and his son Bogdan, both of whom are vets with years of experience and tradition in horse riding and equestrian sports.
In this part of the Rhodopi Mountains a reliable, sure-footed horse is required. The starting point is the Shagya, a breed that was developed from the Arab by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the C18th. Over the years other bloodlines have been introduced including the Trakehner from Prussian (known for its floating trot and competitiveness) and the Eastern Bulgarian which is also a warm blood, with its own stud book, started in the 1950’s. The combination produces a well-schooled, forward-going horse that is comparable with an Irish Sports or Anglo-Arab. Really good fun to ride but not really suitable for a novice. 15hh to 16hh.
Only English saddles are used, with the Wintec brand being the saddle of choice. Snaffle and Pelham bits.
The unexpected surprise of this ride is the accommodation: Bulgaria is less developed than western Europe so missing are the anodyne chain hotels. We will be staying in owner-managed, small hotels that have real style and reflect their local community. Most of them don’t have websites and those that do have websites written in Cyrillic.
All paces are used and for long days. Riders must be confident and have good control in rough terrain (rivers, small gullies, fallen trees etc). No jumping but this is quite a quick ride.
Riders are expected to groom and tack up their horse each day; untack during breaks and at the end of the day. Guides will supervise and assist.
On average we walk (50% of the ride); trot (30% of the ride); canter (20% of the ride).
Rough mountain terrain with some steep ascents and descents. As the ride progresses and we enter the valleys there are more frequent grassy and level sections with smooth trails for a faster pace.
Temperate climate with cool nights at higher regions and warm summer days. There is the possibility of rain in the spring and summer periods.
Distance from urban areas
During the ride the furthest point from “civilization” is 15 km. There are scattered small mountain villages and hamlets and occasionally market towns.
The regions that we pass through have mixed population of Orthodox Christian and Islamic people living peacefully side by side.
Private parties of 2 riders or more can be accommodated on any day; please enquire for itinerary and price. We also have set dates which have a min of 4 riders and a max of 8. Individual riders are welcome to join in.