SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians love and are proud of their Black Sea coastline

shabla lighthouse

Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment. History lovers point out that the ancient Thracians, listed among the forefathers of modern Bulgarians, were masters of the choppy waters of the Black Sea long before the Greeks arrived and settled along its coastline, in the 7th-5th centuries BC. Foodies can talk at length about the superior taste of its bonito, turbot and sprat.

The truth, however, is different. Because of overfishing, local seafood rarely makes it onto the menus of ordinary Bulgarians, even those who live along the coastline. With the exception of the Greek-founded cities and fortifications, which until the early 20th century were inhabited by Greeks, most towns and villages along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast do not look out to sea. They turned their backs, literally, on its dangers and unpredictability, as their inhabitants were more interested in tilling the fertile lands around, chopping wood and mining copper and iron in the nearby mountains. They used the small ports along the coastline mainly to sell their goods to visiting merchants or, after violent storms, to harvest the goods strewn around from shipwrecks.

shabla lighthouse

Shabla, on the northern Black Sea coast, is a case in point. The town has ancient origins, dating back to the Thracians, whose port controlled the rugged coastline around. For centuries Shabla has been a centre of farming on the edge of the Dobrudzha, Bulgaria's "granary," where wheat, sunflowers and other industrial crops are now cultivated on large plots of land.

Stroll around Shabla and you might easily believe you were somewhere deep in the Bulgarian countryside: streets lined with acacia and lime trees and the odd flower bed, and low houses cosily settled amid lush gardens. Farming enterprises are scattered around the fringes of town and most of the time, Shabla is a quiet place where people seem to know one another by name and family.

And yet, the sea is just a mile away from this rural idyll, a presence that has turned Shabla into a vibrant spot for holidaying in summer. Its main visitors are Bulgarians seeking refuge from the overdevelopment of the larger seaside resorts, and Romanians who do not want to bother with the long trip to the beaches of Greece. Here, large hotels are virtually nonexistent. Summer visitors stay either in local guesthouses in Shabla town or in the nearby villages, or in the campsites near Shabla and at Ezerets and Durankulak to the north. The local beach is long and sandy, although its waters are murkier and colder than on the southern Black Sea.

shabla beach

In recent years Shabla has become a favourite hangout for the international bikers community

Shabla's main sights of interest are also by the sea.

Drive east of town, and you will soon confront a curious sight: a red-and-white-striped tower rising above what from a distance looks like a shantytown. This is Karia, Shabla's fishing settlement, named after the town's ancient Thracian port, Karon Limes.

The shacks were built by a few locals and some outsiders who decided to take up fishing as a part or full-time job. It looks just like fishing settlements all over the Bulgarian Black Sea coast: improvised huts built of whatever construction materials were to hand, without planning permission or any reference to safety standards or aesthetics, a sheer triumph of function over form. In recent years, as Shabla's popularity among tourists has increased, newer and larger buildings have appeared in Karia. Some are guesthouses, but the omnipresent stench of sulphur from the hot springs that erupt from the ground around here definitely dampens down the holiday spirit.

Against this background, the striped tower seems like a strange addition, but it was here first. Located at Cape Shabla, the easternmost point of Bulgaria, Shabla's lighthouse is the oldest in this country.

shabla lighthouse

A wooden structure warning ships of the treacherous waters around Shabla was built here sometime in the 18th century. The structure you see today came later. The Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I was so impressed by the technological superiority of the West during the Crimean War of 1853-1856 that he decided his empire had to catch up. Among other ventures, he initiated the building of modern lighthouses at the most dangerous points on the Black Sea coast.

The lighthouse at Shabla was the first, and it was built by the French Compagnie des Phares de l'Empire Ottomane. The building was damaged in the 7.2-Richter Scale earthquake that struck the northern Black Sea coast on 31 March 1901, and several months later it was reinforced with the metal frame that is still visible today. The lighthouse underwent a complete renovation in 1934-1935, when that part of the coast belonged to Romania.

Since then, the only changes to the lighthouse have been the updating of its lighting system in 1957 and 1987.

The lighthouse itself cannot be visited, as it is a military site, but even from a distance the remains of its Ottoman past can be seen. One of its walls still bears the red tugra, or personal seal, of Sultan Abdülmecid I. It survived several Balkan and world wars, and the Warsaw Pact.

Near the lighthouse you will notice another strange structure: a rusting, crumbling pier that stretches out to sea, as if waiting forlornly for some ship to anchor. This pier is one of the few remains of Bulgaria's hectic but short-lived "oil boom."

In 1951, oil was discovered near Tyulenovo, a village a couple of miles south of Shabla. Drilling started, and in 1960 a pier to load crude oil onto Soviet tankers was constructed.

The oil boom came to an early end as the crude deposits turned out to be small in quantity and substandard in quality.

The field was abandoned but dozens of drills and tanks were left to rust along the road between Shabla and Tyulenovo. Poking up out of the overgrowth, they formed a surreal landscape, and visitors even took showers with the hot water that pumps still brought up from underground.

shabla pier

Today most of the remains of Tyulenovo's failed oil field are no more. Most were sold for scrap or to make space for that new energy source, wind turbines. The pier caved in. In the 2010s there were plans for its renovation to attract tourists but this has yet to happen.

Sleepy Shabla is also a place to enjoy nature. Between the town and the village of Tyulenovo stretches one of the most picturesque parts of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast: steep cliffs carved by wind and waves that culminate in the wild beauty of the Yaylata plateau, to the south.

North of Shabla, the gentler coast combined with the marshy land have created a different ecosystem, and Durankulak Lake is a haven for rare birds. Some of them stay only for a short while, on their migration from Europe to Africa and back, while others spend the winter here. You can learn more about them at the birdwatching centre.

All of these are reasons to visit and enjoy Shabla all year round, and indicate why many Bulgarians prefer to come here rather than jampack at the busy resorts of the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. 

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