The Stara Planina

WINTER TALES IN TRYAVNA

Wood-beamed houses, cobbled streets, mystic religious art and even some snow... you do not need to travel to France or Germany to immerse in the atmosphere of Christmas in a cosy town that has changed little over the centuries. 

Instead, visit Tryavna, on the northern slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. 

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FAIRYTALE CHURCH

When travelling near Kazanlak in the Valley of Roses (also known as the Valley of Thracian Kings), your attention will be drawn to three monuments on the slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. The first is the silhouette of the crumbling concrete "flying saucer" of the Communist Party Buzludzha House. The second is the bulwark-ish monument to the 1877-1878 defenders of the Shipka Pass. The third is the golden domes of a Russian-style church that gleam amid the forest above the town of Shipka.

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WHAT IS KARLOVO?

Great changes often spread from inconspicuous places, and Karlovo is a case in point. This town at the southern foot of the Stara Planina mountain range looks quiet and quaint now: some old, Revival Period houses huddled between newer construction lining a long street that funnels much of the traffic on the Sofia-Burgas road. You might think that nothing of importance has ever happened in Karlovo, but the first impression, as most first impressions, is wrong.

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FROM START TO FINISH

Bulgaria has plenty of mountains and peaks that challenge even experienced mountaineers, yet one of its greatest outdoor adventures is not just conquering some 2,900-metre-high summit. It is trekking along the ridge of the Stara Planina, the mountain range that divides Bulgaria from west to east, known also by its more poetic name, the Balkans.

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NATURE MEETS CULTURE AT BELOGRADCHIK ROCKS & MAGURATA CAVE

Abandoned villages, depopulated towns, potholed roads: signs that things have gone horribly wrong in the recent past define the Bulgarian northwest, officially the poorest region in the EU. Vegetation engulfs abandoned factories built during Communism when the economy was subsidised – and left to rot during the turbulent transition to democracy and the open market. As industries failed, locals departed for Sofia and the West. What remained was an ageing population, crumbling infrastructure, crime and despair.

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POSTCARD FROM ELENA

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas.

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FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY

In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.

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TRAVELLING TO BULGARIA'S EXTREMES

In the past two centuries, geography, politics and moments of national triumph and tragedy have defined the borders of Bulgaria. The current territory of the Bulgarian nation appeared after the Berlin Congress in 1879, stretched and contracted during and after several wars in 1885-1886, 1912-1913 and 1915-1918, and peacefully set into its current shape in 1940.

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SPRING IN BOZHENTSI VILLAGE

When spring in Bulgaria is in full swing, something marvellous happens. At night, songbirds go crazy. When darkness descends, nightingales, orioles, larks and gold finches sing, chirp and improvise for hours, as if their lives depended on it, creating a symphony celebrating life itself.

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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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CROSSING BALKAN RANGE

Dividing Bulgaria into two almost identical chunks, the Stara Planina mountain range, sometimes referred to as the Balkan, has influenced this nation's life and history for many centuries. The massive land barrier protects Bulgaria's south from northerly winds. In the Middle Ages, it separated Bulgarians from their main enemy to the south, Byzantium, and consequently all the major capitals were located north: Pliska, Preslav, Tarnovo.

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VILLAGE WHOSE CHURCH STAYS OPEN

The villages in Bulgaria that are abuzz with life are generally located around cities in the plains, like those surrounding Plovdiv. Their houses were mostly built after the 1960s, so more often than not they do not offer much for the curious visitor to see, besides the ubiquitous memorial to some local Communist and a few stalls with fresh homegrown produce.

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STARA PLANINA'S FLYING SAUCER

Recently, Bulgaria has become a staple in the Internet lists compiling the oddest abandoned places in the world with a building whose creators hardly imagined, not even in their darkest nightmares, the way it stands now: the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha.

The complex of an assembly hall and an huge tower of exposed concrete was built on Stara Planina's Mount Buzludzha in 1981. It was meant to be a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the predecessor of the BKP, which had been founded at that mount.

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BULGARIA'S ROMANTIC VILLAGES

Tranquility combined with landscapes untouched by tourism: if you have a longing to visit, Bulgaria will deliver. Here and there isolated and lesser known villages lay scattered over vales and hills, offering the chance to awaken to bird song, spend the long days exploring quiet lanes and traditional houses, and the evenings contemplating the surrounding vistas, preferably with a glass of cold Rakiya.

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PASS OF FREEDOM

There are places in the history of each nation that represent a turning point of events. For the Americans, these are Liberty Bell and Gettysburg. For the British there are Stamford Bridge and Waterloo. For the French there is the Bastille, and for the Germans, the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall. The Greeks have the Thermopylae, and the Italians the Rubicon.

The Bulgarians have the Shipka Pass.

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ETARA

When Lazar Donchev, the founder and first manager of the architectural and ethnographic museum complex at Etara died in 1976, his private study became one of the exhibits. His records and personal diary were left on the old desk, contributing to the mythical aura of the man who created from scratch Bulgaria's only open air museum, on the banks of the river Sivek, eight kilometres from Gabrovo.

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TROYAN MONASTERY

Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.

Then, there is the Troyanksi Pass, a precipitous road that reaches an altitude of 1,595m before leading down, south of the Stara Planina.

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UP AT SHIPKA

In the past, however, the Stara Planina was an effective natural protection against enemies. One of its major passes, by the 1,326-metre Shipka Peak, is one of the best examples.

The defence of the Shipka Pass was one of the crucial points in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish war, the conflict which eventually led to Bulgarian independence. Here, between July and December 1877, the outnumbered Russian soldiers and Bulgarian volunteers faced up to the Ottoman forces.

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ALL ALONG BYALA REKA

Even before the day trippers have started their descent to Byala Reka, or White River, their uneven melody precedes them. After a while the singers themselves appear, hikers whose tiredness testifies that they have seen much more than just the Byala Reka Eco-Path.

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