Natural phenomenon

PINNACLES OF LEGEND

We often take landscapes for granted: the mountains and the river valleys we love to look at and explore seem immune to the passage of time, eternal and unchanging, even though we know this is not true. The landscapes that we inhabit are in a constant state of reshaping, albeit happening so slowly that our human eyes cannot mark the changes – incomparably long compared to not only our short lives, but also to human civilisation.

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FINDING GOD'S BRIDGЕ

It is easy to say that the Bulgarian Northwest has been forgotten by God. Economically depressed and depopulated, it has for years consistently topped the EU's least developed regions list. Yet, when you visit the Vratsa region you will find yourself surrounded by stunning, and even sublime, landscapes and natural wonders. Here, the mighty peaks of the Stara Planina mountains hang over the town, enfolding delights for visitors of any shade and persuasion. The undulations of the plain that start from there also hide another treasure: two rock bridges carved by nature.

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RHODOPE: WONDROUS BRIDGES

Dragons are imaginary creatures and geological processes are real, but the Wondrous Bridges in the Rhodope make believing in imaginary creatures easier.

The nature phenomenon is at the end of a potholed road that twists and turns for 16 kms west of Road 86, the main route that connects Smolyan in the Rhodope with the wider world. The area's peaks are dark green with firs and the deep valleys are white with streams, a picturesque cover of karst core, the result of millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity.

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BULGARIA'S MYSTERY ROCKS

When the first Western traveller saw Pobiti Kamani near Varna, he could not believe his eyes. The massive stone pillars emerging from the sandy, shrub-covered wilderness made Viktor Teplyakov, a "special missions officer" in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, rein in his horse. He wanted to explore, but there was no time.

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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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BIZARRE BULGARIA

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth. But there is a number of places that defy being so easily pigeon-holed. Some of them were created by nature, others are manmade, their age ranging from the prehistory to the recent past. What unites them is that the first reaction they provoke in the viewer is "That looks weird. How did it come to be?".

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BULGARIA'S STRANGE ROCKS

The human penchant for spotting visual patterns in seemingly chaotic landscapes, preferring false positives to false negatives, has been crucial for survival. For thousands of years, the ones who lived long enough to pass their genes to the next generation were the ones able to spot the lion hidden in the bush. Even when there was no lion at all.

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GOD'S BRIDGE

It is easy to see why people gave such a name to the two stone arches spanning the small brook, and the series of caves near Vratsa. Even when you know in advance that the main stone arch is 20m high, 25m wide and 125m long, you only appreciate the magnitude of the place when you see it with your own eyes.

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MYSTIC BULGARIA

Supposedly haunted villages and sites frequented by UFOs rub shoulders with  "miraculous" springs and rocks, memories of dead clairvoyants and rumours of extraordinary events. To these, add in places venerated for centuries by unorthodox religious denominations or modern spiritual movements, plus locations that have inspired urban myths, and you will end up with a fascinating itinerary of mystic Bulgaria.

Here we offer you some of the most interesting of these places. Take note: the clairvoyant Vanga, and the Strandzha feature heavily on our list.

 

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BULGARIA'S TOP CAVES

So far, more than 4,500 have been discovered and mapped. The number is so high because 22 percent of the country is covered with karst, a topography created when water soaks, dissolves and carves sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone, dolomite, and marble. Over millennia, the water shapes the karst into a variety of forms both on the ground and deep below. Caves are some of the most spectacular results of this activity.

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DEVETAKI CAVE

Stoney-faced and determined, Sylvester Stallone pilots a plane, shooting at a bunch of baddies holed-up in a phantasmagorical cave. There are gunshots and wisecracks, and then the airplane enters the cave with a bang.

The scene from The Expendables 2 is pure fiction, but something in it is completely real: the cave where all the action takes place is one of Bulgaria's most fascinating natural phenomena.

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THE ALLURE OF THE EASTERN RHODOPE

Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.


Perperikon

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STONED RHODOPE

Traditional architecture and music, great food, and mystic landscapes: the Rhodope, the mountain range that covers a significant part of the south of Bulgaria, is cherished by nature lovers for many a reason. Its strange rock formations are one of them.

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BELOGRADCHIK ROCKS

In the 1870s, while travelling to Belogradchik, a tiny town in Bulgaria's northwest, Austro-Hungarian traveller and scientist Felix Kanitz was in two minds. Kanitz had read the boastful 1841 description of the magnificent beauty of the Belogradchik Rocks by Frenchman Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui, and he could scarcely believe it. It sounded too beautiful to be true and the lack of accounts by other Western travellers added to his suspicions.

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PARADISE OR HELL?

The precipitous stone cliffs of the Trigrad Gorge, in the western Rhodope, constrict the tiny Trigrad River, and the sound of rushing water blends with the buzz of tourists. Gathered around the entrance of the Devil's Throat Cave, they are waiting for the guide to come and lead them to the highest cave waterfall in Bulgaria.

"That's the real thing," our guide says and points at the opposite side of the gorge. There is a plain stone wall, high and impenetrable. "Inside, there is a cave, too, the Haramiyska Cave."

"What's interesting about that?," someone asks.

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ISKAR GORGE

There's nothing deeper than the Iskar," goes the local folk song, with characteristic parochialism. Even sceptics, however, admit that the longest river running entirely within Bulgarian territory is indeed remarkable. Springing from the plain near Samokov, it flows through the Sofia Plain and the Stara Planina mountains, crosses the Danubian Plain and, after a journey of 350 kms, joins the Danube.

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SITOVO LETTERS

A Soviet undercover agent tries to decipher an ancient inscription protected by a stone guardian… this could be the beginning of a Dan Brown novel but is, in fact, a true story set not in Rome, Paris or Washington, but near the village of Sitovo, on the northern slopes of the Rhodope.

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FOR CAVERS AND MAD PEOPLE ONLY

When you see Karlukovo, near Lukovit, for the first time, you'd be hard put to believe that you are in the part of Bulgaria richest in karst rocks. The settlement lies among low, monotonous hills and there's nothing – not even a signpost pointing to a tourist sight to indicate that underneath this modest landscape lies a labyrinth of caves. It is the result of thousands of years of action by wind and water, which carved the pliable karst rock and formed caves, magical shapes and whirlpools.

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