The Stara Planina

ENDANGERED KOPRIVSHTITSA

Is it possible for a place where a rebellion against a powerful empire started to be saved from being raised to the ground by the victorious power? History is full of examples where the answer is a resounding "no." Bulgaria, however, has a town where the opposite happened.

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ZGORIGRAD FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY

Stunning peaks, steep cliffs, lush forests and plenty of trails to explore: Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park is the perfect escape from the big city. In a couple of days here you can visit the Ledenika Cave and its multimedia show, explore hidden treasures such as Borov Kamak Waterfall or have a picnic or a climb at Vratsata Gorge. The air is, of course, crystal clear.

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KALOFER

It keeps mass tourism confined to the highway, away form the town huddled in the foothills of Mount Botev, once known as Ümrükçal, which means Fist Mount – Stara Planina’s tallest summit at 2,376 metres. Kalofer is a pearl you will fall in love with. But to discover it, you need to make an effort.

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ELENA

Elena, in the central Stara Planina near Veliko Tarnovo, is a destination that has all this, and more. There, you will find yourself deep amid green forests, old churches and traditional houses, complete with the feeling of a place still stuck in the early 1990s. As a bonus, the town is the home of one of Bulgaria's renowned delicacies: the Elenski but ham.

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6 MUST-VISIT SMALL TOWNS

With about 1.1 million out of 7 million Bulgarians living in cities with up to 20,000 inhabitants, small-town Bulgaria is not exactly populous, and for a good reason. The small towns in Bulgaria suffered heavily from the economic reshaping during the post-Communist Transition. In the 1990s, factories were shut down and thousands migrated, both internally and abroad.

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BULGARIA'S FORTRESSES

Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland - and most other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th Century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites combining stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.

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FROM WHENCE THE KAMCHIYA SPRINGS

How to define the source of a river is often a tough question to answer. Is it where water springs from the ground for the first time, or is it the place where two or more streams merge into a larger flow? Even the source of the Danube, Europe's largest river, is contentious: at least three springs claim to be the beginnings of the mighty river.

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COMMUNISM'S FLYING SAUCER

Bulgaria has yet to produce an architectural site capable of generating a high-degree wow-factor, with the likely exception of Sofia's NDK, Shumen's Founders of the Bulgarian State monument and the urbanisation solutions seen at Sunny Beach. Yet, the country does have a strong contender for world fame in a new, but growing field of interest: abandoned, ghoulish, straight-out-of-a-dystopian-movie-set constructions visited by folks interested in off-off-off-the-beaten-track tourism and captivated by anything from extraterrestrials to Goths, Communists and urban decay.

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YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOOSE

There are moments when time and place merge, creating an overwhelming sentiment which makes you wish the world would stop spinning.

Sunsets, for example, can be glorious and sites like Santorini have made a business out of them. In Bulgaria, a similar experience could be enjoying a cold menta, or mint liquor, with a dash of Sprite in the shade of a beach bar, while the mid-day sun shines in the bleached sky. Or it could be entering the warmth of a tavern, filled with the smell of burning wood, with the anticipation of a hearty dinner after a day skiing.

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TRYAVNA

Shopping in the centre of Tryavna, a traditional town in the central Stara Planina, is a peculiar experience. Here and there, in the narrow shops infused with the aroma of 200-year-old wood, you can find the usual souvenirs and touristy stuff you are familiar with from other traditional places in Bulgaria. However, in Tryavna the ubiquitous carved wood items, icons and old aprons mingle with more ordinary goods, as the old Revival Period shops in the city centre also sell groceries and washing powder, books, shoes and toys, and plenty of the locally manufactured underwear.

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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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UP IN THE SKY

The best place for paragliding in Bulgaria: that is the unlikely fame of Sopot. The town in the valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains is most famous as the birthplace of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria's venerated 19th Century writer. Sopot is also the hometown of Bulgaria's biggest military ammunition factory.

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DAN KOLOFF

To be a wrestler in modern-day Bulgaria is a somewhat controversial profession. Memories of the early 1990s, when former wrestlers, or bortsi, became the thugs, or mutri of the then fledgling Bulgarian mafia, are still fresh.

Yet, at the centre of the mountain village of Sennik, near Sevlievo, a statue of a man with trunk-like legs and wide chest stands as proof that a wrestler can deservedly be also a national hero.

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BOZHENTSI

The recent craze to escape the crowds has led thousands of tourists and holiday home hunters to the traditional mountain settlements in Bulgaria. Be it the Rhodope, the Stara Planina or the Strandzha, everywhere you can find once deserted houses which have been more or less well renovated and turned into lodgings or private villas. The craze has saved almost dead villages, like Leshten and Kosovo in the Rhodope, but has also killed the erstwhile pastoral atmosphere of places like Arbanasi near Veliko Tarnovo or Delchevo near Gotse Delchev.

In this crowd, Bozhentsi stands out.

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QUIET CHARM OF ELENA

The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.

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