NATURE MEETS CULTURE AT BELOGRADCHIK ROCKS & MAGURATA CAVE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Stunning landscapes, morbid legends, prehistoric mysteries and... good wine

strange rocks belogradchik

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.

The quiet human drama still unfolds against the background of spectacular landscapes. Belogradchik is a case in point. The town's crumbling streets and rundown houses are scattered among one of the most astonishing rock formations in Europe. Nearby, mesmerising prehistoric drawings cover the bowels of the Magurata Cave.

belogradchik rocks

The Schoolgirl is one of Belogradchik's most famous rocks. According to legend, the Schoolgirl was a real girl turned to stone to evade a dervish, who chased her from behind, and a bear which sprang up in front

Jagged, red and twisted, the Belogradchik Rocks stretch in a narrow 30-kilometre band along the foot of the Stara Planina. Their formation began about 250 million years ago, when silt and sand accumulated on the floor of a shallow sea, which later disappeared. The deposits solidified into reddish sandstone. Erosion then took over and carved them into the phantasmagorical shapes that we see today.

A larger-than-life Rorschach test, the Belogradchik Rocks have stirred the imagination of generations of locals. The resulting legends involve terror, envy, doomed love and dark passions.

One tells that a rock called Monahinyata, or The Nun, was once a beautiful girl who was forced to take the vows by a jealous monk, but she fell in love with another monk in the neighbouring monastery. When she gave birth to a child, she was forced to leave her convent. In a frenzy of moral indignation, Mother Nature destroyed both religious foundations, and turned the monks, nuns and the young mother into stone. According to another version of the legend the rock known as Konnikat, or the Horseman, also played a part in this tragic tale.

rock mushrooms

Oxidised iron explains why Belogradchik rocks are red

Borov Kamak, or Fir Stone, recalls the sorrow of a Bulgarian shepherd who used to go there every day and play the kaval while looking at the nearby Turkish farm where his beloved was kept as a concubine. One day, the ram of his flock turned against his master and pushed him into the abyss. The sheep followed the shepherd into death – and into legend.

The Schoolgirl and the Dervish rocks are the petrified remains of another such story. A Turkish dervish developed an unholy passion for a beautiful Bulgarian girl and lured her into a meeting. The terrified girl ran away from him, crying for help, until both of them were turned into stone.

Bliznatsite, or The Twins, were two brothers unjustly killed by local noblemen (amazingly, the villains of this story are not Turks).

fortress

When you climb the fortress you realise its strategic importance

The Belogradchik Rocks have inspired people to create more than just morbid stories. The formation stands on an important route between the River Danube and the Aegean, and in times past needed protection. The Romans were the first to turn one of the most outstanding groups of rock into a stronghold. Later, medieval Bulgarians and the Ottomans continued to use the site, adding new layers of towers, moats and walls. The fortification that today encircles the rocks was built in 1805-1837 by French and Italian experts in line with the period thinking on contemporary warfare. The renovated fort was soon put to use in the bloody suppression of not one, but two Bulgarian uprisings in the region.

After that, the fort became redundant and was abandoned. Today, it is a tourist attraction.

belogradchik rocks

Belogradchik's surreal landscape can be explored on foot through several designated trails

While the Belogradchik Rocks blend geology, history and imagination above ground Magurata Cave amalgamates geology, prehistory and imagination underground.

Formed 12 million years ago and about 2,500m long, Magurata is one of Bulgaria's longest caves. Its collection of stalactites and stalagmites is spectacular enough, but the prehistoric drawings in one of the caverns are truly unique. They are Bulgaria's only example of cave art: black suns, weird animals and stick-figure humans who hunt, dance, have sex and perform magic or religious rituals.

The black suns and the dancing women of the Magurata Cave date to the 5th-4th millennium BC, when living in farming communities and the use of copper tools was the norm.

cave art magmata Bulgaria

Unleash your imagination! No one is sure what the drawings in Magurata Cave depict

For years, Bulgarians were aware of the existence of the Belogradchik Rocks and Magurata Cave, but few had visited the area, partly because of the inadequate tourist infrastructure and partly because they were busy exploring foreign destinations.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed that. As restrictions impeded international travel, lockdown-weary Bulgarians were "forced" to rediscover their own country.

Belogradchik was among their first choices. When a Vagabond team visited on a September 2020 weekend, all the B&Bs were booked full and there was an hour's wait to get a table at a restaurant.

cave art magurata bulgaria

The grating on the cave entrance, made sometime in the 1960s or the 1970s, is misleading. We have no data that cavemen have ever inhabited Magurata. The famed drawings were created by a farming community that used elaborate metal tools

The increased interest of Bulgarians in the wonders of the Northwest coincided with initiatives to boost local tourism, some of them funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, such as hot air ballooning. Locals, too, are finally waking up to new opportunities to make some money. Belogradchik's only proper hotel has been closed for some time, but new B&Bs and recreation compounds in and around the town have opened.

And there is the local wine. The Belogradchik region has a special terroir and local wineries make the most of it. One of them even uses the Magurata Cave to make naturally carbonated labels.

If ever there was a silver lining in this pandemic, one is definitely shining over Belogradchik, but you still need to drive carefully: the potholes have not disappeared. 

cave art magurata bulgaria

Some claim that the cave drawings are actually a calendar

 

old mosque

Besides the fortress, an old and abandoned mosque is the only visible trace of the Ottoman heritage of Belogradchik

 

old fortress

The fortress in the 19th century when it was still in use. Engraving from Danubian Bulgaria and the Balkans by Austrian-Hungarian traveller Felix Kanitz

 

belogradchik

"These giant red pillars, scattered on both sides of the deep road, where on the bottom small waterfalls fling the water of a foaming stream; these trees, hanging from a great distance, as if they were ready to fall; this deep solitude, scarcely disturbed by the flight of eagles and vultures, all of this provokes terror even in the most tempered soul," wrote French Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui about the Belogradchik Rocks in 1841. He was in the region to investigate for the French government the Ottoman atrocities during the suppression of a Bulgarian rebellion

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.

WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?
Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES
Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where co

WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?
Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream.

SOFIA'S TOP 10
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country.