Travelling in Bulgaria's Northwest, particularly in early summer when the greenery is still fresh, tempts you to explore the outdoors: the magnificence of the Belogradchik Rocks, the might of the mountains around Vratsa, the slow flow of the Danube past the walls of Vidin fortress.
However, when travelling in this region, you should not forego the opportunity to peer into the dark, mysterious underground.
Magurata Cave, about 18km northwest of Belogradchik, is a place that takes you not only far from the sun, but also far back into the past.
Formed about 12 million years ago, Magurata is 2,500m long and is one of Bulgaria's largest caves. Its caverns and halls are filled with impressive stalactites, stalagmites and stone columns, including what is said to be the largest stalagmite in Bulgaria. It is called the Fallen Fir, and is 11m long, with a diameter of 6m at the base. A thriving colony of eight species of bat call the cave home, inhabiting a particularly isolated corner of the so-called Concert Hall.
Add to this the curious fact that a winery uses parts of the cave for the storage of sparkling wine, and you have reasons enough to visit Magurata, although this is not the whole story.
Magurata is the only cave in Bulgaria with rock art. A particularly extensive example of rock art.
The drawings in Magurata can be counted in the hundreds: crude black figures made of bat guano, representing hunting men, dancing women, and sex, as well as about a dozen animal species, some of which would be considered exotic for modern Bulgaria, such as the giraffe and an ostrich-like creature. There are many symbols, some resembling suns, but others with strange, indistinguishable shapes.
The Magurata graffiti lack the colours, realism and exquisiteness of better known examples of palaeolithic cave art such as those at Lascaux and Chauvet, which are between 30,000-17,000 years old and date from the time when people were hunter-gatherers traversing the expanses of Ice Age Europe.
Those in Bulgaria, however, still exude a vivacity and a mesmerising energy.
According to archaeological research, the Magurata drawings are younger than those at Lascaux and Chauvet, and belong to the Chalcolithic period about 4,800BC, when the climate was warmer, people were already settled agrarians and farmers, and had discovered how to make copper tools. A community took up residence in Magurata at that time, and they were the first to start covering its walls with drawings. As time passed, the drawings multiplied, and this continued until 3,600BC, the time of the Bronze Age. After this, for some reason, the cave was abandoned.
Magurata's most famous scene includes recognisable human activities like hunting, but its upper part provokes the imagination. Why have these women raised their arms? Do they dance? Do they pray? If yes, to whom? The men with erect penises among them suggest that the scene might represent a fertility rite. Or perhaps not
The drawings at Magurata have been interpreted as depictions of everyday life and religious rituals, probably ones including the Great Goddess, a popular deity in prehistoric and pagan Bulgaria.
A group of enthusiasts, however, dispute the official history of the cave, claiming that the drawings are much older. According to their alternative research, they were made between about 40,000 and 12,000 years ago, and they served as a cosmic calendar and a type of prehistoric alphabet. The drawings tell a narrative, the claim goes, that stretches for millennia.
Whatever the true meaning of the Magurata drawings, seeing them in person will definitely be one of the highlights of your trip in the Northwest. Until not that long ago, access to the drawings was denied, but today you can see them, if you pay for the extra ticket at the entrance to the cave.
The mysteries of Magurata do not end with the drawings. Near the cave is Rabishko Lake, Bulgaria's only tectonic lake, which was formed by the shifting of plates. It is crystal clear, and there are no natural outlets to drain it. This has provided fuel for local legends. According to one, the lake is bottomless, while another says that a network of underground caverns and tunnels connect it with the Timok river. A third story goes that a monster with a bull's head lives in the lake, the offspring of a dragon that used to inhabit Magurata. Just like its more famous counterpart, the Loch Ness monster, the monster of Rabishko Lake has a monicker derived from the name of its home. Of course, it is called Rabi.
The mysteries of the Magurata drawings have inevitably attracted the attention of alternative historians. They claim that the graffiti are somehow connected with ancient Sumer, Noah's Arch, Buddhism, Christianity, Tantrism and so on
The circle in this scene is a prehistoric calendar, according to some
In spite of their primitivity, or because of it, Magurata drawings are strangely beguiling
Magurata's prehistoric drawings are so fascinating that it is easy to forget that the cave has also a significant collection of stalagmites, stalactites and stone columns
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.