Anyone who has done any driving on Bulgaria's roads will be familiar with the pitfalls (pun unintended).
These include, but are not limited to, bad or non-existent asphalt, unpredictable and uncared-for potholes, confusing signage, maniacal drivers and traffic cops that contribute to the problems rather than try to solve them. Yet anyone who is even remotely interested in looking at the world from the window of a car will instantly know that driving through Bulgaria's lesser and off-the-beaten track roads is absolutely the best way to take in the natural and cultural beauties of this country and to experience a first-hand interaction with its people. We offer you our Best-Of selection of Bulgaria's scenic drives that will keep you, well, driving for weeks if not months. Please note that all of these drives will be on roads (no off-road experiences involved). All of them are easy to moderate, but will obviously require good driving skills and a bit of common sense. Happy exploring!
Troyan-Karnare Pass (Road 35)
This road starts in Troyan, in northern Bulgaria, crosses the Balkan Mountains, or Stara Planina, and ends at the village of Karnare, in southern Bulgaria. We recommend driving it north to south as in this way your lane will be next to the safety railing and will offer some unparalleled vistas at both the northern and the southern slopes of the mountain.
The road is winding and you may well get stuck behind a lorry pumping out obnoxious exhaust fumes. Instead of overtaking it, pull over and let it get ahead while you enjoy the serenity of Stara Planina.
As you approach the highest point of the road, a peak called Beklemeto, look right and you will see a small side road that may sometimes be marked with a sign. Go up, and in less than a mile it will take you right up to the top. There is a huge Communist-era monument right on top meant to commemorate a 19th century battle between the Russians and the Ottomans that in fact never happened. You can park there and walk around. In good weather the 360-degree panorama at your feet will keep you standing for hours. You may even go there at night. This is one of the best star-gazing locations in all of Bulgaria.
Iskar Gorge (Road 16)
The road along the River Iskar as it carves its way through the Balkan Mountains is a major attraction less than an hour from Sofia. It starts just beyond the northern bow of the Ring Road and initially passes through a couple of drab settlements that are more or less suburbs of the capital. The fun starts a couple of miles beyond Novi Iskar as you drive north. Endless bends will reveal various vistas at the meandering River Iskar, and you will be tempted to stop and take pictures. Be careful: lay-bys are few and far between.
The first village that you may want to break your journey in is called Thompson, which some Bulgarian official has transliterated as Tompsan. It was named after a British Second World War captain, posthumously promoted to major, Frank Thompson. Maj Thompson was parachuted to Bulgaria to liaise with the local Partizani, or guerrilla fighters, against the pro-Nazi government. He was born in Darjeeling and went to Oxford, where he befriended Iris Murdoch. Maj Thompson was captured by the tsarist gendarmerie, tortured and killed. In the middle of the village you can now see a recent monument to him erected by the British Embassy.
The road north of Tompsan passes through the town of Svoge. Beyond Svoge you will notice that the cliffs of the gorge become increasingly precipitous. Just before you enter Lakatnik, pull over by a small waterfall and a cave on your left-hand side. Go down to the river where there is a pedestrian hanging bridge and look both ways. On the western cliffs you will see a tiny, tiny little house that… hangs from the rock about 700 feet above your head. It is not an elf's house, but a shelter for rock climbers installed there in the 1930s.
Iskar Gorge at Lakatnik
Lakatnik is a climbers' paradise, and in good weather you will see dozens of enthusiasts hanging from ropes on both sides of the river.
The best views at the whole gorge are from a side track called Road 162. Turn left and drive up the road until you reach the village of Milanovo. There is a deviation there that will eventually take you to the very tip of the cliff where there is the inevitable Communist monument. The views are not for the faint hearted, but do not be afraid: it is all quite safe unless you decide to overstep the security wall.
Back along the Iskar you may wish to take yet another detour to an Orthodox Monastery called Seven Thrones.
Further up north you may be able to see a small modern sculpture of an old man looking down. This is Dyado Yotso, or Grandfather Yotso, a character invented by Ivan Vazov, the 19th century writer, who was blind but who heard the sound of the railway that was being constructed just then and claimed he could see the oncoming modernisation of Bulgaria.
There is a second, and bigger, Orthodox monastery further up north, called Cherepish Monastery. Its setting is serene, and you may wish to combine the visit with an urbex side trip to the now abandoned seminary and church just by the bed of the river.
Madzharovo-Malki Voden (Road 8081)
Starting at the village of Madzharovo, a semi-abandoned settlement that used to thrive on a now defunct mine, this road will take you along some of the most gorgeous bends of the Arda River. Stupendous cliffs will fall into the meandering Arda. Look up and you may see some strange black birds: in fact, this is a bird preserve area, the only one for vultures in Bulgaria. Numerous turns of the road and ever stupendous views will eventually take you to the village of Malki Voden, where you will join a bigger road. From there you can either go to Ivaylovgrad, on the Greek border, or to Lyubimets, near Turkey.
Tsarevo-Malko Tarnovo (Road 99)
Firewalking in Balgari village
This trip takes you from the southern Black Sea coast to the town of Malko Tarnovo, deep in the Strandzha Mountains. The road is potholed and no one seems to care, but drive carefully and you will be rewarded, especially if you go in May when you will see an abundance of blooming Black Sea Rhododendrons, a flower that is not to be found anywhere else in the world.
You will drive by a couple of villages of which Balgari merits a detour. This is the home of Bulgaria's firewalkers. Their rite is performed one day a year, on 3 June. If you go there on that day, expect huge crowds. If you go on any other day, the village will appear hardly inhabited.
Traditional houses in Malko Tarnovo
Malko Tarnovo itself is a hidden gem. The area around it is full of inspiring archaeology. There is now a tiny asphalt road that will take you right to the remains of Mishkova Niva with its Roman tomb, and you can hike up to Propada, an ancient necropolis a mile out of town. If you make the proper arrangements at the local museum you may be able to get a ride to Valchanov Most, an eerie skeleton of a stone bridge spanning the Rezovska River, which marks the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. It is now behind the notorious barbed-wire wall designed to stop intruders, so you will need both a permission and someone with a key to open the gate. The Communists dynamited the Bulgarian side of the bridge in the early 1950s to prevent Bulgarian refugees from crossing into Turkey. In these days Turkey was West.
The road to Valchanov Most Bridge
Pirdop-Karlovo (Road 6)
This drive is on the main road connecting Sofia to Burgas. Many motorists now prefer the Trakiya Highway, which goes by Plovdiv, and on which you can just swish by and be at the Black Sea coast within four hours. But if you want to take a more relaxed approach, make a few detours and… go for some Bungee jumping, Road 6 is for you.
Pirdop, an hour-and-a-half out of Sofia, is uninteresting, but as you pass by the Shell service station on your left you will be heading to some of the most picturesque ranges of the Stara Planina.
Elenska Basilica, near Pirdop
Just outside of Pirdop look for a small road on your left-hand side which may be marked with a billboard. A mile up that road will take you to the very atmospheric remains of a Roman church called Elenska Basilica. Constructed with the characteristic Roman red bricks, its ruins stand testimony to the turbulent history of this part of Europe. Try to be there at sunrise as the ruins will appear surreally through the morning mist.
A few miles south, after you've stopped for a short break in a lay-by near a roadside waterfall, there will be a deviation on your right that leads to the town of Koprivshtitsa. You will never be able to pronounce its name properly, but never mind – the locals are used to it. Koprivshtitsa is Bulgaria's best-preserved 19th century town. It was the birthplace of revolutionaries and poets, some of them known and dear to every Bulgarian. The magnificent and brightly painted mansion-style houses can be visited as many of them are now museums.
Back on Road 6, on the stretch between the deviation to Koprivshtitsa and Klisura, you will drive over several high bridges. Technically, you cannot pull over on bridges, but if you do the drive over a weekend you will see a mini-congestion on the highest of them as bungee enthusiasts use it for jumping over the precipice. Do not stop if you are scared of heights.
Eventually, the road comes down to a lower elevation and that's where the Valley of Roses begins. If you go in May, you will actually sea both the roses and the rose-pickers. And if you go in July, you will see the deep-violet lavender fields.
Just before Sopot, the first town of any size before Karlovo, there is a turn on the left that will take you to another local attraction: a rope lift reaching to a few hundred yards up the mountain. This is paragliding territory. In fair weather you will see dozens of paragliders hovering over the Valley of Roses.
The drive will end in Karlovo, the birthplace of Vasil Levski, Bulgaria's national hero. What remains of his modest house is a place of pilgrimage for any Bulgarian pupil. A walk through downtown Karlovo with its late-19th century houses and churches will complete your experience of one of the best drives in Bulgaria.
Rusenski Lom (Road 202, Road 501)
Few Bulgarians can imagine that the Danubian Plain, which is mainly flat, holds such a cliffy gorge as the one along the River Lom, just a few miles out of the major town of Ruse.
The environs of the Cherven Fortress
Once you've entered the village of Shtraklevo, where there is a disused airport, continue along Road 22 until Nisovo, a non-decrepit village surround by huge cliffs. There isn't much to see inside the village, but you can go for wine tasting at the local winery. What will justify your stopover at Nisovo is the old cemetery. It may be hard to find as few locals will be able to give you proper directions, but its weathered headstones, dating back probably to the 18th century, have spurred the imagination of many. At one point a notorious Bulgarian archaeologist even pronounced the graveyard as belonging to… the Knight Templars. The truth is a lot more mundane.
This is where the victims of a plague epidemic were buried.
Further on along Road 202 you will get to the village of Cherven. A magnificent and well-preserved Medieval fort sits perched on top of a hill over the village. Take in its remaining tower. Distinctly regal, it was used as the prototype of the famous Baldwin Tower at Tsarevets, in Veliko Tarnovo, when it was erected in the 1930s.
Old cemetery near Nisovo village
On Road 501 you will end up in the village of Ivanovo. This is one of the few places in Bulgaria where there is a cluster of rock churches, replete with naivist but sometimes surreal clerical frescoes. Park and walk up the path to enter a couple of them. The artwork is mesmerising, especially as you picture in your head the bearded Medieval monks who spent years carving the rock and painting it.
Mediaeval frescoes at the Ivanovo Rock Churches
Cherven Fortress near Ruse
Balgarevo-Shabla (Road 901)
In the 2000s Kavarna, where this drive starts, used to be known as Bulgaria's Capital of Rock-and-Roll, owing to an enthusiastic mayor who brought over local and Western groups for open-air concerts. A change of local leadership brought this to an end, and now Kavarna is back to its dusty and uninteresting normal. A couple of miles northeast of town, however, the fun begins.
Bolata Bay north of Cape Kaliakra
Your first stop is the village of Balgarevo, which is not very interesting, but which is the home of the Bulgarian Gagauz, an obscure minority of ethnic Turks who've adopted… Orthodox Christianity. Some of the older Gagauz still speak Turkish.
A deviation east of Balgarevo will lead you to Cape Kaliakra, a major attraction as its huge reddish cliffs fall a few hundred feet into the Black Sea. On the tip of the cape you can walk through the gates of an ancient fort, parts of which still remain. Look back to the mainland and you will see some of the most iconic sites of the northern Black Sea coast: a bay entirely formed of precipitous cliffs.
There are just three villages on Road 901, the most interesting of which is Kamen Bryag. Detour, and you will end up at the trailhead of a path going through a plateau called Yaylata. A recently built Medieval fort on it is an eyesore, but if you visit in early May you will see hundreds if not thousands of wild peonies growing by the calm waters of the Black Sea. There are a couple of interesting caves to explore in what is thought of as one of the last continental stretches of the great Eurasian steppe.
Further up north you will pass by the village of Tyulenovo. The name is suggestive – in Bulgarian it means the Village of Seals – but actual seals have not been seen around since at least the 1950s. What happened at approximately the same time is the Communist government discovered what it thought was a significant oil field just by the road. It built the infrastructure and it started extracting oil, but the fields soon ran dry and the oil turned out to be substandard. Bulgaria never became a new Kuwait, but you can see bits and pieces of industrial archaeology as you progress north along the road.
An oil drill near Tyulenovo
At one point after Tyulenovo you will see… a lighthouse emerging right in the middle of the road. This is of course an optical illusion as no one would build a lighthouse in the middle of a road. The lighthouse itself is interesting. It was erected by a French company in the 1850s when Bulgaria was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, in an effort by the High Porte to modernise its realm. You can go up right to the lighthouse but you cannot enter as the guard is under orders to tell you this is a top-secret military territory. Look carefully at the wall, and you will see the telltale personal signature of the sultan still preserved on it. So much for military secrecy.
Petrol station by the abandoned oil field near Tyulenovo village
Shipka Pass (Road 5)
For you this may be yet another Bulgarian mountain pass, but for every Bulgarian schoolboy Shipka evokes a famous poem by Ivan Vazov which describes the fierce battles between Russian Imperial forces, joined by Bulgarian volunteers, and the Ottoman Army, in 1877. The Russians won, paving the way to victory in the 1877-1878 war, one of the results of which was Bulgaria's restoration.
Old guns dot the environs of the Shipka Pass, reminder of the fierce battles that took place there in 1877
At the southern trailhead of the pass, in the village of Shipka north of Kazanlak, there sits the magnificent Russian Church erected to commemorate the fallen Russians. It was built in the early 20th century and was run by Russian emigres, but ownership was transferred to the USSR after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In the 1930s Stalin granted the ownership rights to the Kingdom of Bulgaria on condition that… no Russian emigres would be included in its governing board.
What lies ahead of you is a winding road gaining about 5,000 feet in elevation all the way to the ridge of the Stara Planina. From there there is a side daytime-only road that can take you up to the very top. 360-degree panorama views will leave you stunned. On top of the hill there is a huge stone monument to commemorate the Shipka battle, and on the lower slopes you can see numerous Russian monuments and weapons left over from the heady days of 1877.
The Russian Church near Shipka village
East of Shipka Peak you will note a bizarre man-made construction perched on a hill. It resembles… a flying saucer. This is the remains of one of Communism's best-known follies, a Party House that was constructed in the early 1980s and that was supposed to celebrate the triumph of Communism in Bulgaria. It has long been abandoned and is now in danger of caving in. Colloquially, it is known as, well, the Flying Saucer.
Sinchets-Dzhebel (Road 5082)
Sinchets is a tiny hamlet in the heart of the Rhodope and Dzhebel is a small town at the foot of a Rhodope hill, but the road connecting them is a pure pleasure to drive. Go there in spring and everything around you will be in full blossom. This is a territory of Bulgaria populated mainly by ethnic Turks. Consequently, some elderly folk may be unable to speak Bulgarian, so asking for directions will be met with bewilderment. Take in the numerous mosques of various sizes, sometimes perched on incredibly picturesque hills. Stop for a picnic at one of the several lay-bys.
Trigrad-Yagodina (Road 197 to Yagodina, unnamed road to Trigrad)
The Trigrad-Yagodina drive will take you through some of Bulgaria's most dramatic scenery, including the Gorge of Trigrad and the Buynovsko Gorge. Precipitous cliffs, whitewater rivers, waterfalls and pristine nature, several major caves will evoke nothing lesser than Yosemite.
The Trigrad Gorge
One of the most important caves in the region is called the Devil's Throat. It is replete with a river that gushes into a huge black hole resembling a throat, and its enormous underground galleries stupefy. The site is so enchanting that a local legend tells Orpheus descended through it into the underworld to seek his beloved Eurydice.
The Yagodina Cave, next to Yagodina, is thought of as Bulgaria's perhaps most beautiful. It was inhabited by prehistoric men.
Descending in the Devil's Throat Cave
What the wild Rhododendron is to Strandzha, so is the Haberlea to the Rhodope. Because it has no equivalent anywhere else in Europe, it does not even have an English name. The tiny flower, in bloom in May-June, is known for its extreme ability to survive. Dried-up flowers are known to have started growing again after a few years' time the moment they are put in water. Locally it is known as the Tears of Orpheus, but some people name it the Immortal Flower.
Tears of Orpheus flower
When night is about to fall, the whole experience of driving through these gorges on a road that can hardly make space for two vehicles to pass will assume otherworldly, perhaps sinister dimensions.
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.