Largest cave in eastern Balkans lies hidden in... plain sight
Stoney-faced and determined, Sylvester Stallone pilots a plane, shooting at a bunch of baddies holed-up in a phantasmagorical cave. There are gunshots and wisecracks, and then the airplane enters the cave with a bang.
The scene from The Expendables 2 is pure fiction, but something in it is completely real: the cave where all the action takes place is one of Bulgaria's most fascinating natural phenomena.
The Devetaki Cave is hidden among the seemingly uninteresting rolling hills and plateaus of the Central Danubian Plane, near the city of Lovech. It is not unique in the area, as this region is composed of karst in which, through the millennia, the local rivers have created caves, canyons and waterfalls. The Devetaki Cave is the most spectacular of these. Its majestic main cavern rises up to 58m and covers an area of almost an acre, making it the largest of its kind in the eastern Balkans, but it is not only its sheer size that awes visitors to the cave. Seven openings, large and small, pierce the rock dome of the main hall, sending eerie shafts of light into the void. A spring murmurs through the cavity, its voice mingling with the squeaks of swallows and shrieks of bats.
When people took notice of the Devetaki Cave for the first time, they were attracted more by its suitability as a place of habitation rather than by its majestic beauty. Both Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens lived in the cave. This trend continued from the Neolithic times well into Antiquity, and even as late as the mid-20th century locals saw the Devetaki Cave as nothing more than a convenient sheep shelter.
In the 1950s, the Bulgarian army went a step further. Archaeologists had already recognised the historical importance of the cave, yet the location was deemed too good a site for a secret fuel storage facility to be left to itself. Concrete tanks were built in the cave and a military base sprang up by the entrance. The site was declared a historical monument in 1967, yet it remained strictly off-limits until the army moved out in the early 1990s. The only remnant of the Communist army now is... the stink of petrol and motor oil that still permeates the soft floor of the cave.
Probably because of this, the legends told about the Devetaki Cave are concerned with modern times. One of these insists that the Germans used the cave as a munitions depot during the Second World War. When the Wehrmacht withdrew from Bulgaria, it was unable to take the munitions, so a decision was made to blow up the whole cave. Luckily, the legend goes, a local shepherd stumbled upon the detonation cord and, as he happened to need a bit of wire at the time, cut a piece of it and inadvertently thwarted the demolition.
Another story tells of a reckless pilot who flew into the mouth of the cave and exited through the largest opening in the roof. This story may have inspired that scene in The Expendables 2, but when the movie hit the screens, many Bulgarians objected to it not on aesthetic, but on ethical grounds. The Devetaki Cave hosts a rich ecosystem and is home to about 35,000 bats from 14 rare and endangered species which use it as a hibernation space. The animals are extremely sensitive to loud noises and, according to activists, many of them died from stress during the shooting of the scene in 2011.
The moviemakers, however, left a more positive reminder of their stay at the Devetaki Cave. When the army moved away from the site in the early 1990s, the easiest way to the cave – a bridge over the Osam River – fell into disrepair. For years, the only access to the site was a steep path that starts from one of the bends on road 3013 near the village of Devetaki. The Expendables 2 production crew restored the bridge, and you will find it in the end of a marked path that starts from the Lovech-Levski road. Be careful though: sometimes a bee keeper from Devetaki removes the signs, as he sells his honey at the beginning of the steeper path on road 3013.
One important thing to note: visiting the Devetaki Cave is prohibited in June and July, which is the bat colony's mating season. No matter how much you admire Sly Stallone, Jason Statham and the rest of the The Expendables 2, it is hardly the time to follow their example.
Remains from the times when the cave was a military area are still visible
Throughout the millennia, the cave was a home for prehistoric people, a sheep shelter, a secret military base, and a Hollywood movie location
Does a plane fit in this hole?
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.
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