Been there, done that? Then try a Roman site in Bulgaria

Roman Ruins and a Rural Paradise in Bulgaria’s Western Rodopi Mountains

Text by | Photographs by Garmen Municipality (Archive) and Bozhidar Nikolov

In the spot where the majestic Pirin and Rodopi Mountains come
together, around 50 kilometres south of the major ski-resort of Bansko,
lays perhaps the best destination for rural tourism in Bulgaria. The
mineral water springs of the village of Ognyanovo and the spectacular
architecture of the villages of Leshten and Kovachevitsa, situated on
the rolling western-most hills of the Rodopi Mountains, were known only
to Bulgarian village life afficionados until a few years ago. Recently,
however, they have started to open up and attract tourists. Besides
staying in the sleepy and somewhat melancholic houses whose windows
overlook the stern blue-to-black peaks of Pirin, there is now another
reason to head in that direction: the nearby remains of the epic Roman
town of Nikopolis ad Nestum. They lay covered in the grass for decades
but a recent archaeological face-lift has made them shine again,
telling ancient stories and stirring imagination.

The Ruins: Nikopolis ad Nestum

Nikopolis ad Nestum is one of the significant Roman sites in Bulgaria.
It came into existence in 106AD, on the occasion of Emperor Trajan’s
victory over the Dacians near the Mesta River. It was inhabited, with
some interruptions, until the late Middle Ages, and its ruins during
the nineteenth century reached as much as eight metres in height.

Nikopolis ad Nestum was one of the most important cities during the
Roman and the early Byzantine Age, a settlement on the road that
connected the Aegean coast and the central road Via Egnatia through the
Rodopi with the Thracian lowlands, as well as the only strategic link
of the Mesta River valley with the Maritsa River and the peninsula’s

In his book Travels along the Lowlands of Struma, Mesta and Bregalnitsa. Bitola, Prespa and Ohrid,
dating back to more than 100 years ago, the Bulgarian ethnographer
Vassil Kanchov wrote of its decline: “When the Turks came, the most
powerful place in the whole valley was the city of Nikopol… After a
long-lasting siege and bloodshed, the Turks conquered Nikopol and, in
their wrath, brought it to the ground, and the population partly
escaped and was partly killed off.”

And although many Bulgarians are probably familiar with the site’s
name, there are only a few who can point out its exact location.

And it isn’t any wonder – until several years ago, even many of the
residents of the neighbouring village of Garmen had only a vague idea
about it. When asked for directions to the site, they would open their
eyes widely, shrug their shoulders or start waving around in indefinite
directions (the ruins are immediately beyond the four rows of houses
and can be seen from the windows of at least half of the homes in
Garmen). Some would say there are some remains in the back, but could
not tell for sure if they were it.

is said that stones from the ancient structures – because of their high
quality, were used in the building of some of the village’s
contemporary houses. Ancient blocks are also placed in some restaurants
in Garmen and have even been laid out on display around the gigantic
trunk of the century-old tree in the centre.

But things are changing significantly now. In the last year
archaeologists cleaned up and began to examine the site, supported by a
trans-border project between Bulgaria and Greece, financed by the PHARE
programme. The stone slabs from underneath the village trees will be
taken back to their original location. Another piece of good news is
that the project has supplied the site with guards to protect the
excavations from treasure-seekers or entrepreneurial construction firms
looking for solid building materials.

As a result of the archaeologists’ efforts, now the surviving parts of
the fortress walls are clearly visible, with their gates and towers, as
are the remains of the thermal baths, consisting of various structures
and pools, and the walls and columns of the ancient city’s internal
buildings. Archaeologists studied the Roman and early Byzantine
existence of the city, discovering dozens of traces of daily life –
mainly in the shape of ceramic pieces and coins.

If you can’t figure out what’s what, the new information centre at the
site is staffed by people who can take you around on a tour of the
ruins, tell you more about their history and the discoveries.

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