In mountains or at sea sea, strange rocks add mystery to landscape
The ability to spot visual patterns in seemingly chaotic landscapes, preferring false positives to false negatives, has been cruciвal for the survival of the human race. For thousands of years, those who lived long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation were the ones able to spot a lion hidden in a bush. Even when there was no lion at all.
Today, we mostly use this subconscious skill to see Jesus's face on toast and to "read" clouds, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Strange rock formations are high on the list, too. Since time immemorial people have been fascinated by oddly shaped rocks and cliffs, seeing in them human faces and bodies, a menagerie of animals, or gods and devils petrified for eternity.
Bulgaria has its fair share of strangely shaped rock formations that can turn any trip into a Rorschach test challenge. Many also come with legends to match.
The red weathered Belogradchik Rocks cover an area about 30 km long and 3 km wide. Solitary or in groups, small or rising up to 200 m, they all have strange, imagination-provoking shapes.
The formation of the Belogradchik Rocks began about 230 million years ago with the deposition of sandstone soils. Later, a sea appeared, adding to the detritus. The two layers merged into rock, and oxidised iron gave them their reddish colour. When the sea disappeared the sun, wind and rain sculpted the former sea bed into the phantasmagoric rock columns and pinnacles we see today.
The locals have given names to the most outstanding formations of the Belogradchik Rocks. The Madonna indeed looks like a woman with a child, and Momina Skala, or Maiden Rock, reminds us of a girl's head. Some of the most imposing rock groups have legends attached, usually involving terror, envy, doomed love and dark passions.
Monahinyata, or The Nun, for example is a petrified girl who bore a child after a secret affair with a monk. Borov Kamak, or Fir Stone, is a Bulgarian shepherd who used to go there every day and play the kaval, or wooden folk flute, while looking at the nearby Turkish farm where his beloved was kept as a concubine. The Schoolgirl and the Dervish rocks appeared after a Turkish dervish developed an unholy passion for a beautiful Bulgarian girl and lured her into an affair.
In the past, people cherished the Belogradchik Rocks for practical reasons too. The Romans turned the highest and most spectacular rock group into a fortress, which was later strengthened and enlarged by the medieval Bulgarians and by the Ottomans.
Stone 'Mushrooms' of Beli Plast
Beside the road close to the Rhodope village of Beli Plast there stands a group of stone "mushrooms." The most spectacular of them is 2.5 m tall. This phenomenon is the result of underwater volcanic activity, combined with erosion when the sea, which used to cover most of what is now the Rhodope mountains, withdrew.
As with many strangely shaped rocks, the Stone Mushrooms became the stuff of legends. An old tale suggested that they were petrified Bulgarian girls who preferred death to falling into the hands of Ottoman invaders. A more recent one claims that the zeolite rock the natural phenomenon is made of has almost magical healing powers. You only need to put a small chunk of it into your drinking water and you'll be instantly cured, supposedly.
Stone 'Mushrooms' by Sini Rid village
The three stone hoodoos by Sini Rid village, near Ruen in the eastern reaches of the Stara Planina mountain range, are among the lesser known phenomena of this kind in Bulgaria. They are up to 4 m tall and are the result of wind, water and time working on the soft limestone rocks.
They are also the last remaining trace of the village of Dobrovan, which ceased to exist in 1963, and so they are also called the Dobrovanski Mushrooms.
There are two explanations about how the rocky, red Cape Kaliakra, which is the longest cape at the Black Sea, appeared. According to geologists, 11-12 million years ago limestone, corals and sandstone accumulated on the spot and were later carved by erosion into a 2 km long cape that is 66 m high. Earthquakes that shook the area from time to time contributed to the rugged appearance of the cape.
Of course, there is a legend as well. It brings you to historical times, the early 15th century, when the Ottomans were closing in on the Kaliakra Fortress, the last unconquered piece of Bulgarian territory. St Nicholas was there and the Ottomans rushed to capture him. The saint ran towards the sea, praying to God as he went. With each step he took towards the abyss, new rock arose under his feet. The cape formation ended at the spot where St Nicholas collapsed, exhausted, and was killed. Today, a chapel on the tip of the peninsula is dedicated to him as his symbolic tomb.
The more famous story about the Ottoman invasion of Kaliakra is even darker. Forty Bulgarian maidens braided their hair together and jumped from the cliffs, as they preferred death to capture.
Today Cape Kaliakra is a peaceful place, frequented by tourists who want to experience its picture-perfect beauty and restored ancient and medieval fortifications.
Melnik Sand 'Pyramids'
Bulgaria's smallest town combines the natural and the manmade in a surreal landscape of sand columns, pinnacles and buttes, and traditional houses, which may make you think you've been overindulging in the strong local wine.
The sand "pyramids" in the Melnik area appeared recently, geologically speaking, and are in a constant state of flux as unstoppable erosion destroys old formations and creates new ones. Between 4 and 5 million years ago, a shallow lake was here. As the surrounding Pirin, Belasitsa and Ograzhden mountains rose, the lake dried up and left a 600-metre-thick deposit of clay and sandstone for the elements to play with. The result is the landscape of Melnik.
The modern mind can now "see" a variety of shapes in the sand columns: from church spires and ships' prows to stone mushrooms. The erstwhile inhabitants of Melnik had other ideas: they carved wine cellar after wine cellar into the soft rocks.
The inhabitants of the Rhodope village of Pobit Kamak are bemused by tourists who arrive to photograph a lone rock standing in a meadow. For the locals, the rock is just that, a rock, in spite of the fact that their village is named after it: Pobit Kamak means Thumped Stone.
Why are the tourists here? The rock, which probably evolved naturally, has become famous because of the rumour that it is one of Bulgaria's few manmade menhirs, erected by the ancient Thracians as a phallic symbol of their Great God.
One of Bulgaria's most surreal landscapes is just a short drive from Varna. Extending over 600 acres, the Pobiti Kamani, or Thumped Stones, fit the name perfectly: among a windswept, sandy expanse dotted with shrubs stone pillar after stone pillar rise up. Most are relatively small, but some reach up to 7 m in height and three metres in diameter.
These rock columns give the unnerving impression that they are manmade. In reality, they appeared millions of years ago, though how exactly remains unclear. Some say that they are the remains of primeval organisms: prehistoric coral reefs or petrified trees.
A legend (most probably a recent one) claims that the rocks are the petrified bodies of giants. Seen from the air, they spell out the biggest secret in the universe: the true name of God. Do not try to do this, as you risk being petrified, just like the giants.
'Sphinx' at Sinemorets
Located on and around a small cape, Sinemorets overlooks one of the most picturesque natural landscapes in Bulgaria. To the north of the cape, the Veleka River flows into the Black Sea in a spectacular manner: it first creates a shallow lake and then drains into the sea, squeezing between rocks and a sand spit.
At the southern edge of the spit there is a rock formation. Look carefully, and you may discern in it a sphinx-like silhouette.
Many visitors believe that this rock formation is somehow connected to the supposed tomb of the Egyptian goddess Bastet deep into the Strandzha mountains. Others believe that it is a petrified, but still active, oracle. Yet another group of people (one that should think hard about deeply ingrained colonialist cliches) thinks that the rock is a Native American chief who will make your wish come true if you leave some trinket at its foot. And then there are those who believe that the "Sphinx" is an energy vortex powered by the Great Goddess of the ancient Thracians. To soak up more of its supernatural power, they camp for a night at the spot.
Palikari Rocks at Sozopol
Located by the seaside promenade at the northern part of Sozopol's Old Town (the one without a fake ancient fortress wall), the Palikari Rocks are one of the symbols of the city.
Their name means a boy in Greek, the language that from Sozopol's foundation in the 7th century BC until the state-organised population exchanges in the 1920s used to dominate the local soundscape.
The story of a local boy who loved diving from the rocks, exploring an underwater cave beneath, explains their name One day a storm arose. The boy was trapped in the cave, never to resurface again.
A hint: If you know from where and when to look at the Palikari Rocks, you will discover that they quite convincingly resemble the Easter Island stone heads.
The rock and cliffs near the village of Tyulenovo, north of Kavarna, form arguably the most picturesque part of the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Coves and stone pillars, arches and hidden grottos chewed and beaten by the sea waves: the coast here looks as if it was made by a crazy superhuman sculptor on a particularly creative day.
While other strangely shaped rocks have tragic legends explaining how they appeared, the Tyulenovo rocks have witnessed a real-life tragedy. Until the 1970s, the cliffs and hidden coves and caves were the home of a colony of monk seals (hence Tyulenovo, or Seal Village). By the late 1970s, the local fishermen had wiped out the seals because they damaged their nets. Now there are neither nets, nor seals.
One of the most popular rock phenomena in the Rhodope is the Vkamenena Svatba, or the Petrified Wedding. Close to Kardzhali, near the village of Zimzelen, it is just beside the road. The wind and water have carved the soft volcanic rock into a group of white conical columns. Among them, two reddish pillars stand out. According to legend, these are the petrified remains of a bride and a groom. The white stones around them are the rest of the wedding party.
This is the story of how they all froze into eternity and into legend. While the wedding party was descending the slope on its way to the home of the groom, a gust of wind lifted the veil covering the bride's face. The father-in-law saw the beauty of the bride and an unholy passion overtook him. Enraged, God turned everyone to stone. Fit for a Roman Polanski movie.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners