Roman heritage

BULGARIA'S BEST ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Bulgaria has the greatest number of archaeological sites in Europe after Greece and Italy. Every tour guide worth their badge has proclaimed this at least once to Bulgarian and foreign tourists. The adage is a compelling image of the country, but it is misleading. The great majority of Bulgaria's archaeological sites are interesting to archaeologists only and/or are in a condition that is hardly inspirational or Instagram-friendly: overgrown, looted by treasure hunters, devoid of tourist infrastructure and even signage.

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(RE)BUILDING BULGARIA'S PAST

When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the expectation was that membership would bring the struggling former Communist country closer to the more developed economies in Europe. Amazingly, one of the first things Bulgarians started spending EU money on was not on much needed infrastructure such as new roads, industries and businesses, or on modernising the education and healthcare systems. Instead, Bulgarian municipalities across the nation rushed to use EU funding to build... ruins.

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EXPLORING ROMAN PLOVDIV

Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history, starting from prehistoric times, but the earliest visible traces of this long past are much younger. They date back to the times when the city was called Philippopolis and was a major centre of government and commerce in the Roman province of Thrace.

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BULGARIA'S TOP 10 FORTS

Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland – and many other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites that combine stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.

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RHODOPE'S CITY OF GODS

Deep in the heart of the Rhodope, Perperikon is an ancient town that over the course of millennia perched, Machu Picchu-like, atop a rocky hill. Commanding stupendous views of the valleys below, it covers over 1,200 acres – supposedly the largest megalithic site in the Balkans.

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THE DANUBE

Hiding in plain sight is one of the best ways to avoid attention. There is a region in Bulgaria that has achieved that, although not quite intentionally. The Danube region is a treasure trove for visitors, yet few travellers venture along the 470-kilometre stretch from Vidin to Silistra that defines the greater part of Bulgaria's border with Romania. This is in sharp contrast to the popularity of the Danube as a tourist destination in Central Europe.

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LESICHERI COLUMN

North-central Bulgaria is not famed for its historical landmarks. It is a region of rolling hills and soft valleys, of small forests and economically depressed villages and towns where, even on the brightest days, grey is the predominant colour. It is as if generations of people concluded that the landscape was good enough for farming, but not inspiring enough for the creation of something remarkable – a city, a temple, a legend.

As with most appearances, this one is deceptive. This region is the home of one of Bulgaria's most curious ancient monuments: an obelisk.

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WHO WAS MAGDALINA STANCHEVA?

Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements. A mixture of buildings in a range of time periods and styles define the Bulgarian capital: Roman fortifications and early-Christian buildings rub walls with medieval churches, former Ottoman mosques and fine fin-de-siècle residential houses. Over these loom monstrous buildings in the Stalinist Baroque style and soulless glass-and-concrete concoctions built after the 1990s.

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RAIDERS OF TREASURE MOUND

Large and small, isolated or in groups, you will see mounds all over Bulgaria: atop rolling hills and amid farming fields, by old village graveyards and motorways, even on the outskirts of Sofia. The ancient Thracians who lived in the Bulgarian lands between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD created most of them. They buried their dead there, interring noblemen and women with expensive personal possessions. In many cases the tombs were very impressive, such as those in Kazanlak, Aleksandrovo and Sboryanovo.

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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 2

Such examples are the fortification structures excavated at a salt-producing town near Provadiya and a fortified settlement now in Ticha Dam, near Shumen, both belonging to the 5th millennium BC. Archaeologists interpret these two sites as early evidence for a stratified society whose wealth and resources attracted incursions and invasions.

Discovering new fortifications sounds great, but most of the fortresses in the Bulgarian lands are in a condition that can excite only an archaeologist. Few have survived in a state fit for Instagrammable photos.

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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 1

Why there are no old forts and fortresses in Bulgaria on the scale of Romania, Greece, Italy or the Western Balkans is a controversial issue. The sort of answers you will be getting will depend on who does the talking. Some will assert the "Turks" destroyed everything when they ruled over these territories in the 14-19th centuries. Others will, more level-headedly, point out that when the Ottomans were in control the Bulgarians lands were no longer a border zone and consequently forts and fortresses were no longer needed for defence purposes.

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BISHOP'S BASILICA OF PHILIPPOPOLIS

After centuries of oblivion, the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis got its first visitors. On 26 September diplomats, officials, journalists and members of the board of the America for Bulgaria Foundation were invited for a sneak preview of the archaeological site that was brought back to life in 2015-2019. The America for Bulgaria Foundation and Plovdiv Municipality support the restoration works.

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SILENCE OF SHARDS

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserved pottery manufacturing site.

It was discovered by pure chance.

In 1971, while searching for gold, a group of local treasure-hunters stumbled on the remains of an ancient villa rustica. Instead of gold, they found thousands of broken pottery shards.

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GHOSTS OF VILLA ARMIRA

Spread on the easternmost slopes of the Rhodope, Ivaylovgrad is still largely defined by its past as a border outpost. In the Middle Ages, Bulgarians and Byzantines disputed control over the nearby Lyutitsa fortress. Under Communism, the town was deep in the border zone. Entering it without a permit was impossible, as NATO members Greece and Turkey were a stone's throw away. In the 2010s, the border here was frequently crossed by refugees.

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NYMPHS OF KASNAKOVO

Worn-out streets and strong fortifications, spacious villas and spectacular mosaics: the remains of Bulgaria's Roman heritage are diverse, a multi-layered glimpse into this country's past. And yet, there is a gaping hole in this rich canvas of long-gone life. While hundreds of sculptures, reliefs and mosaics depicting old deities, gods and goddesses have survived, bearing witness to Roman Bulgaria's religious landscape, only a handful of temples can be visited.

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FORGOTTEN GLORY OF RED CHURCH

They do exist, however: forgotten remnants of the time when the Eastern Roman Empire was trying to hold back the invasions of the Barbarians in the Balkans. Most are nothing more than low crumbling walls, almost invisible in the undergrowth and interesting only to archaeologists. Others, however, are still striking, despite time, neglect and the depredations of those seeking second-hand building materials.

One of them is near Perushtitsa, a town at the northern foot of the Rhodope, more famous as the scene of intense fighting and a massacre during the 1876 April Uprising.

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