From untamed nature to charming architecture and mystic rocks
Discovering Bulgaria's landscapes, people and events is rewarding all year round, especially when you leave the beaten track and explore some of the lesser sites. Of course, in high season you can scarcely find anywhere in Bulgaria completely devoid of other visitors, but many places still preserve an atmosphere of novelty for the curious traveller. We have selected some of these on the following pages.
Where: Northwestern Bulgaria
What: Bulgaria's own version of the US southwest, plus a fortress
The reddish weathered Belogradchik Rocks cover an area about 30 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. Solitary or in groups, small or rising up to 200 metres, they all have strange, telltale shapes.
The formation of the Belogradchik Rocks began about 230 million years ago with the deposition of sandstone soils. Later, a sea covered the region, adding to the detritus. The two layers merged into rock, and oxidised iron gave them their reddish colour. When the sea disappeared the sun, wind and rain sculpted the former sea bed into the phantasmagoric rock columns, pinnacles and hoodoos we see today.
The locals have given names to the most outstanding formations of the Belogradchik Rocks. The Madonna indeed looks like a woman with a child, and Momina Skala, or Maiden Rock, reminds us of a girl's head. Some of the most imposing rock groups have legends attached to them, usually involving fear, envy, doomed love or dark passions.
Monahinyata, or The Nun, for example, is a petrified girl who bore a child after a secret affair with a monk. Borov Kamak, or Fir Stone, is a Bulgarian shepherd who used to go there every day and play the kaval, or wooden folk flute, while looking at the nearby Turkish farm where his beloved was kept as a concubine. The Schoolgirl and the Dervish rocks appeared after a Turkish dervish developed an unholy passion for a beautiful Bulgarian girl and lured her into an affair.
In the past, people cherished the Belogradchik Rocks for practical reasons too. The Romans turned the highest and most spectacular rock group into a fortress, which was later strengthened and enlarged by the medieval Bulgarians and by the Ottomans.
Where: Central northern Bulgaria
What: Caves, a waterfall and an open air jazz festival
At the point where the northern slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range meet the hills of the Danubian plain stretches a plateau confined between the Osam and the Rositsa rivers. Driving along the winding roads that crisscross it, you will find a landscape of rolling hills covered with tall grasses and fields of wheat, divided by lines of trees. This idyllic landscape, which is especially picturesque in late spring, hides some of the most fascinating caves in Bulgaria.
The Devetashka cave is the most famous of them, and deservedly so. Its entrance is up to 60 metres high and is pierced by three openings that frame the sky and dwarf the visitor. The splashing of a small stream combined with the cries of swallows by day and of bats by night add to the ethereal atmosphere.
Garvanitsa, or the Raven's Place, and Stalbitsata, or the Staircase, caves also merit a visit, if you can handle their layout. Stalbitsata is named after the rickety metal staircase that leads to a damp, dark underground cavern lit solely by the light filtering through the narrow entrance.
Garvanitsa is even harder on visitors – the descent into the 60 m deep cavern is possible only by a narrow, steep and rickety series of stairs.
Devetashko Plateau also has the beautiful Krushunski waterfalls, Bulgaria's only travertine cascade, which is 20 metres high and surrounded by lush greenery.
In summer, the Devetashko plateau is a place of culture, with the Jazz Under the Stars music festival that attracts crowds from Sofia eager to tag themselves on Instagram in one of Bulgaria’s hottest events.
Autumn in Ahtopol
Where: The southern Black Sea coast
What: A quaint town that reminds us what the coastline was like before overdevelopment
In summer, Ahtopol is like any other place on the Bulgarian southern Black Sea coast: packed with holidaymakers, hotels both old and modern, and mediocre restaurants. Once the season is over, the town returns to its old self: a settlement of fishermen, quiet streets and one of Bulgaria's most photographed bug light.
This town was founded on a rocky peninsula in 430 BC, an ancient Greek colony, and grew in size or significance. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was a relatively humble but lively fishing community, mostly made up of Greeks who had lived there for generations. After the Balkan Wars of 1912- 1913, the majority of them left and were replaced by Bulgarians fleeing the Ottoman Empire. In 1918, disaster struck: a fire ravaged the town, leaving almost nothing of its old houses and archaeological remains.
Under Communism, organised tourism finally reached Ahtopol. As the town lacked any remarkable architecture and large beaches, and was too close to the strictly guarded border zone with Turkey, most of the organised tourism consisted of holiday facilities for workers and civil servants.
Travelling along this part of the Black Sea coast is easy now, but Ahtopol remains provincial, the resort of blue collar and middle class Bulgarians. Some of the old holiday facilities have been abandoned, and new hotels have appeared, but the oldest part of Ahtopol, on the rocky peninsula, has been almost unchanged for the past 40 years. It is a labyrinth of narrow streets, low, post-1918 houses, fig trees, cats, old ladies preparing fresh fish and men gathered in their tiny gardens remembering times past.
Ahtopol's promenade is one of the most rewarding on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast: a bay filled with colourful fishing boats plus the lonely silhouette of the notorious bug light on an isolated rock at sea.
And there is the fish. Ahtopol is the unofficial Bulgarian capital of palamud, or Black Sea bonito. A migratory species, schools of palamud only visit the waters of Bulgaria at the beginning of autumn. Ahtopol usually has greatest concentration of the fish but, due to increasing pollution, the catch is always unpredictable.
Where: The Sredna Gora mountains
What: Beautifully preserved Revival Period town with special place in Bulgarian history
Oslekova House stands out with its murals depicting faraway places. Since the 1950s it has housed the local ethnography museum
Nobody is certain when Koprivshtitsa was founded. Legend attributes this to refugees from this or that part of Bulgaria who, after the Ottoman invasion, sought a place where security mattered more than easy access to roads or fertile lands. The people of Koprivshtitsa still say, part-mockingly and part-proudly, that summer here lasts three days and if you drink too much in the local tavern you might miss it altogether. Yet, people have put down roots here and prospered.
At the turn of the 18th-19th centuries, Koprivshtitsa became wealthy from local manufacture and trade in wool and textiles. The bridges and water fountains, and the beautiful mansions, are proof of Koprivshtitsa's prosperity. The houses are large, with rooms for both leisure and work, and feature a special projecting bay window, where the owner could sit and keep an eye on the employees. Arches, curved eaves, and walls painted with bright colours and lively frescoes are also typical of the local architecture.
As a centre of a newly-emergent Bulgarian middle-class, Koprivshtitsa also saw a surge in modern nationalism, which manifested itself in the opening of the local school and community hall (both have been preserved), the birth of a number of prominent men of trade, politics and letters, and the town's participation in the April Uprising.
Koprivshtitsa was plundered during the suppression of the rebellion, but it was not torched. Ironically, it suffered greatly when Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878. The Bulgarians were now free, but with freedom came the loss of the large imperial market for quality wool. Modernisation meant cheap imports from the West that helped to kill local manufacturing. By the 1880s, people were already abandoning Koprivshtitsa, leaving their empty houses behind.
The Old School is now a museum of local education. In 1837, Bulgaria's second monitorial system school was opened in Koprivshtitsa. The system was created in Britain and was used in communities with shortages of teachers. It mandated older students to tutor younger ones
In 1952, the town was declared a national monument of architecture. In the 1970s a large-scale restoration started, turning Koprivshtitsa into what you see today – the narrow cobblestone streets winding between high walls, above which peer colourful bay windows under heavy, beam-supported eaves.
Where: Near Varna
What: A surreal landscape of stone columns whose origins are unclear
One of Bulgaria's most surreal landscapes is just a short drive from Varna. Extending over 600 acres, the Pobiti Kamani, or Hammered Rocks, fit the name perfectly: among a windswept, sandy expanse dotted with shrubs stone pillar after stone pillar rise up. Most are relatively small, but some reach up to 7 m in height and three metres in diameter.
These rock columns give the unnerving impression that they are manmade. In reality, they appeared millions of years ago, though how exactly remains unclear. Some say that they are the remains of primeval organisms: prehistoric coral reefs or petrified trees.
A legend (most probably a recent one) claims that the rocks are the petrified bodies of giants. Seen from the air, they spell out the biggest secret in the universe: the true name of God. Do not try to decipher this, as you risk getting petrified, just like the giants.
Where: The southern Black Sea coast
What: Watching the first rays of the day rising over one of Bulgaria's best beaches
Located on and around a small cape, Sinemorets overlooks one of the most lovely natural landscapes in Bulgaria. To the north the Veleka River, which springs from the Strandzha in Turkey but soon afterwards enters Bulgarian territory, flows into the Black Sea forming a spectacular spit. Passing through thick forests, it makes a wide curve spanned by an old military bridge, which serves the only coastal road, and then it spreads out along the sands, before emptying into the sea through a narrow mouth.
The combination of river flow and sea currents has formed a long, narrow strip of sand between the two bodies of water. Today, the mouth of the Veleka is at the northern end of the sand bar but it was not always so. The small, freshwater lake to the south is a remnant from the time when the course of the river used to be different. The conjunction of a river, a lake, and the sea in such a small space is picturesque and alluring. The greenery of the surrounding forests, the strangely shaped rocks, and the white flocks of sheep grazing on a nearby hill add to the photogenic qualities of the location.
People flock to this area, be it to take an early morning photo of the rising sun from the sand bar, or to camp there, and the spot already has its own lore. One of the strangely shaped rocks at the southern end of the beach is called the Sphinx. Some even believe it to be an ancient man - made sculpture and not simply the result of the never - ending work of sun, wind and water on exposed rock.
The mouth of the Veleka, however, can be dangerously beautiful and by this we do not mean only the bloodthirsty mosquitoes inhabiting the lake and the forest. The mixture of fresh and salt waters here create treacherous underwater currents.
Sinemorets' second beach, Butamyata, south of the cape, is a better swimming option for families with children and inexperienced swimmers and, although its waters can still be rough, its sands are packed with umbrellas and there are a number of bars and taverns.
Deaf Stones rock shrine
Where: The Rhodope
What: Largest collection of mysterious niches that ancient Thracians carved into rocks
One of the most enigmatic archaeological remains in Bulgaria is the clusters of relatively small, trapezoid niches that ancient Thracians carved on every precipitous rock face in the Eastern Rhodope. No one knows for sure why they did this, and there are numerous theories. Tombs, traces of initiation rites, maps of stars and gold mines have all been proposed as possible explanations.
Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, shrine in the Eastern Rhodope is where you can see Bulgaria's largest group of rock niches up close without climbing vertiginous cliffs. Dozens of cavities and niches pepper the surface of the Deaf Rocks, covering each square metre. Some are close to the ground, but the majority are carved high, some at up to 20 m. So far, over 450 niches have been identified here.
However, Gluhite Kamani, which is at least 3,000 years old, is more than just a collection of rock niches.
A room is carved into the huge rock that adorns the hill on which the shrine is located. Intriguingly, it belonged to a church built here by early Christians when they took over the former pagan shrine.
A line of 33 low, narrow steps, hewn into the rock, climbs to the top. There are the remains of an ancient altar and of a three-by-three-metre cistern.
The Deaf Rocks was not only a sanctuary. A city used to stretch out around it. Life here did not cease even in the turbulent 5th and 6th centuries AD, when pagan Antiquity slowly and painfully gave way to the Christian Middle Ages. The last traces of habitation are from the 11th-13th centuries.
Where: The Rhodope
What: Bulgaria's second largest monastery
The Assumption Monastery near Asenovgrad was founded in the 11th century by two Georgian brothers in what was then the Byzantine Empire. This was a common practice at the time, and soon the monastery became a popular place of pilgrimage.
It was probably the proximity of Stanimaka (today's Asenovgrad), a major town at the time, or perhaps it was the scenery, with the Chepelarska river tumbling down the steep slopes of the Rhodope. Whatever the reason, Byzantine nobles, Bulgarian kings and Revival Period townsfolk flocked to Bachkovo Monastery and adorned it with chapels, frescoes and gifts. Soon after its founding, the monastery received its own miracle-working icon. Today, people still queue to pray at the silver-clad image of the Holy Mother of God.
The crowd is largest on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, the official feast day of the monastery. The narrow yard of the main church is packed with pilgrims and the families who have come to baptise their daughters on this particular day.
Outside the monastery gates, things take a turn. The Assumption at Bachkovo Monastery is also the date and the location of a large Gypsy gathering, and traders fill every square metre of the road with their stalls, selling everything from souvenirs to icons to cheap swimwear.
Where: River Danube
What: Bulgaria's last town down the great European river
Remains of a medieval church on the Danube bank
Unlike so many other Bulgarian towns on the Danube, Silistra has a pleasant riverside garden. Among the greenery and the modern sculptures lurk the remains of ancient and medieval Silistra – a basilica and some elaborate fortification walls. Sadly, much more was lost in the 2000s, when new developments sprang up in this part of the city. The most impressive ancient monument in Silistra is away from the centre: a late-Antiquity tomb covered with lively frescoes of the deceased, his wife, his servants and... his trousers.
A well preserved 19th century defence facility is a short drive from here. It was constructed by a German engineer and soon after found itself besieged by Russian forces during the Crimean War. Today it houses an exhibition of historical weapons and uniforms, plus busts of some Communist leaders for additional spice.
Silistra Fortress was designed in the 19th century by a German military architect
Silistra also preserves one of the finest mosques in Bulgaria. It was built in the 17th century.
The most curious site in town is the memorial to Rabbi Eliezer Papo. Papo was born in Sarajevo, in 1785, but settled in Silistra, where he became rabbi to the Sephardic community. He was a remarkable Judaic scholar and not only preached asceticism but also practised it, to the extent that he came to be referred to as HaKadosh, or the Saint.
Communist-era apartment blocks seen from the shrine of Rabbi Eliezer Papo
When Silistra found itself on the frontline in the 1828-1829 war between Imperial Russia and the Ottomans, a cholera epidemic broke out. Papo, who had also been trained in medicine, set up field hospitals to isolate the sick and prevent the disease from spreading. Unfortunately, he himself did not survive, but the grateful residents of Silistra erected a monument in his memory.
The old Jewish cemetery of Silistra, where he was buried, has long since been destroyed. Papo's original tombstone is also gone, but in the 2000s a new memorial to him was installed and has become a place of Jewish pilgrimage, especially at Rosh Hashanah, teh Jewish New Year, which is usually in September.
Where: Near Ruse
What: Bulgaria's best preserved medieval fort
Perched atop one of the precipitous bends of the Cherni Lom river, a few kilometres from Ruse, the Cherven fortress sprawls among the grey stones of the canyon. Its most spectacular element is a three-storey defence tower that, in the 1930s, was used as the model after which the so-called Baldwin Tower on Tsarevets Hill, in Veliko Tarnovo, was built.
The fortress at Cherni Lom grew on the 80 metre high hill from the humble remains of an earlier Thracian settlement, from the 6th century. It was one of the fortifications built by the Byzantines in their futile efforts to stop the invasions of Barbarian peoples from across the Danube. Eventually, the empire lost control over the Danube Plain and the emerging Bulgarian state took over the territory, along with the Cherven fort.
The fortress evolved into an important administrative, religious and economic stronghold much later, in the 12th-14th centuries. It was a true medieval city, with fortification walls and massive towers. Merchants and craftsmen crowded the steep, narrow streets of the residential quarters and the feudal lord lived in a citadel with his soldiers, administrators and family. Hidden behind high walls, his palace included a beautiful church and was surpassed in size only by the palace of the Bulgarian kings at Tarnovo, the capital. About a dozen other churches catered for the spiritual life of the inhabitants of Cherven. In 1235 the city became an episcopal centre. This tradition continues and even today the title of the bishop residing in Silistra includes Cherven as well.
Unfortunately, not a single well existed inside the fortress. The inhabitants of Cherven built and meticulously cared for several cisterns, and carved a very narrow and very steep stairway leading down to a place where, hidden within a tunnel, there was a secure spring. This is the only construction of this type preserved in Bulgaria and you can still climb up and down the stairs just as the medieval citizens did.
In spite of all the walls and turrets, the Ottomans conquered it in 1388.
The city remained an administrative centre of the empire for several centuries until the trade on the Danube proved more important and the newly emerged Rustchuk (now Ruse) attracted the crowds. Those who decided to stay around old Cherven moved out to the more easily accessible hills around, forming the core of Cherven village.