Spectacular cave near Karlukovo waits to be explored
The Eyes of God: whoever came up with this name for the most impressive feature of Prohodna Cave, near Karlukovo, did a good job. The two openings in the ceiling of the cave really look like the gaze of a supranatural being. Some locals might protest that the actual, traditional name of the openings is the more prosaic Oknata, or The Chimneys, but bringing more visitors to this part of the economically depressed Bulgarian northwest is always a good thing for the local community.
And tourists do come, particularly at weekends. The attraction of the Eyes of God has proven too strong for the movie world, too. The natural phenomenon provides some magical background to Bulgarian movies, such as the violently patriotic Time of Parting (1988), and some B-list American and French titles, including a recent adaptation of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.
Even without the Eyes of God name, Prohodna Cave is stunning. It is Bulgaria's longest cave passage, although there is some disagreement about its exact dimensions. For this article, we have trusted a specialised Bulgarian caving website and a geological survey. According to them, the cave passage is 262m long. Its ceiling is about 50m high and its eastern and western entrances rise about 20m and 42m, respectively. The western entrance is the highest in Bulgaria.
Rain has carved the famed Eyes of God for millennia
The "eyes of god" are about halfway along. Drop-shaped and strangely anthropomorphic, they might appear benevolent, distant or menacing, depending on the weather outside and the beholder's state of mind. Some claim that light falls through them in a very peculiar and hardly coincidental way on 21 March, the spring equinox, and speculate that in times immemorial prehistoric fertility rituals were performed under their openings. Archaeologists have actually discovered traces of human habitation in the cave, dating back to the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic, but all else is speculation.
The story of how Prohodna came to be is as fascinating to the imagination as its real or imaginary connection to the divine and the mysterious prehistoric rituals. The rocks were formed about 66-68 million years ago, sunset years of dinosaurs on planet Earth. The area back then was the bottom of a shallow sea. Gradually, the bodies of dead sea creatures like bivalves, gastropods, sea urchins and ammonites accumulated on the sea floor, and slowly solidified into karst rocks.
Aeons passed. About 2.5 million years ago the Iskar River appeared and made its way northwards through the soft karst rock. Part of the river's route was underground, and this was how the Iskar created a large tunnel. Later the river carved its way down to its current bed, and abandoned the tunnel. Earthquakes came and went. Parts of the tunnel collapsed. Rain carved out holes in its ceiling. Today, in Prohodna Cave, we see the end of this millennia-long process.
The Prohodna Cave may be extraordinary, but it is one of several around Karlukovo. Prehistoric karst with a thickness ranging between 10 and 50 metres covers a significant area around the village. With time and the never-ending activity of the Iskar and the elements of nature, impressive phenomena were created. About 600 caves and larger holes gape in the region, and there are a number of other rock formations. One of them is the Chervenitsa monolith that rises 72m above Kunino Village. Another is the spectacular Provartenik rock, opposite the western entrance to Prohodna. Some believe that it was carved by humans and served as an astronomical observatory, but this is unlikely.
The gorge that the Iskar has created out of the Prohodna is now a major train route
Today, the Karlukovo region and its karst are a designated geopark and a protected natural area. For the locals, who have lived next to the sites for millennia since the Neolithic, the karst and its strange shapes are just part of the landscape. They are so accustomed to the caves around that they have never bothered to devise exotic legends about how they came into being. They named them after real objects or events, not after imaginary stories.
One of the most common stories is that during Allied raids in the Second World War people sought shelter in Prohodna and other caves. This was a wise move – the caves are invisible from above, and the karst landscape appears dull and uninteresting.
The Dog's Cave got its name from the villagers' habit of throwing dead animals and rabid dogs into its 27-metre abyss. Some of the dogs would survive and feed on the decaying carcasses around them. They would howl, either driven insane by their own affliction or out of fear, and the echo would amplify their cries, projecting them far away from the cave-trap.
The Ovcharkata, or Shepherdess, Cave was named because locals used to gather their sheep in its mouth. When darkness fell, treasure hunters used to explore its galleries in search of a treasure.
The Mandrata, or Dairy Farm, is named so because in the 1950s and 1960s the local collective farm used it to make cheese in.
The Eyes of God look human-like from the air
Bulgaria's cavers understandably are in love with Karlukovo and its karst. About a kilometre away from the village, where the seemingly ordinary hills end abruptly in the Iskar River gorge, they have built an Alpine-style chalet. Its official name is Petar Tranteev National Cave Home, but everyone – spelunkers, villagers and tourists alike – calls it simply Peshternyaka, or the Caveman.
You can book a room in the chalet for a token fee. You will have the added value of a great view of the Iskar River and the stunning rocks on the opposite bank, with the Provartenik rock.
For cavers, the hut is more than just a place to sleep in relatively civilised conditions while on an expedition to the nearby caves. In Karlukovo they received their first lessons in caving.
For unsuspecting day-trippers the abundance of caves near Karlukovo has some perils. Each step off the beaten path runs the risk of falling into the overgrown mouth of a cave.
There is more than caves and rock formations in the Karlukovo region. Two medieval churches have been hewn into the rocks around, and in the narrow Iskar gorge are the remains of Karlukovo Monastery. It also has medieval origins, but today only its church, built in the 1830s, survives. Back in the day, people believed that the monastery was located at a place with healing powers, and monks from all over the Bulgarian lands would come to seek help there. In 1884 all monastic activities stopped and the entire compound was turned into a hospital. The church was the only building that survived this transformation, and after 1944 the facility was converted into a psychiatric hospital, still in use to this day.