The Strandzha

WHAT HAPPENED AT PETROVA NIVA?

Men dressed in early 20th century military uniforms, patriotic songs and speeches, lots of banners and grilled meat stalls: if you crave attending a mass event after the end of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, consider visiting Petrova Niva in the third weekend of August.

Marked with a sombre stone monument at a picturesque bend of the Veleka river, Petrova Niva is connected to a heroic and traumatic event in Bulgarian history, the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising.

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DISCOVERING STRANDZHA'S COAST

The Strandzha mountains coast, roughly everything along the Black Sea south of Burgas, is about 100 km long as the crow flies. Yet it is very varied. You will discover smaller and bigger bays, old towns and purpose-built modern resorts, a campsite or two, a number of picturesque rivers, inlets and... islands. In fact all of Bulgaria's islands are along the Strandzha coast. You will probably be underwhelmed, however. There are just four of them, not counting the St Kirik Isle north of Sozopol which was appended to the mainland, in the 20th century, with a quay.

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FIREFLIES MAGIC

Much has been said and written about the beauties of Bulgarian nature and the abundance of its wildlife. Birdwatching, for example, has become a mainstream tourism activity that many travel agents organise for Western visitors. Yet little if anything has been promulgated about another remarkable if not so obvious (for obvious reasons, pun unintended) treasure that Bulgarian forests, meadows and riversides have: the abundance of fireflies.

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LAND OF FAKE MYSTERIES

"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer. The sun shines through the thick foliage of the oak forest. The only thing negative about this pristine location, in the Strandzha Nature Park, are the midges that swarm around our eyes.

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BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS

Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country fair.

Balgari's fair, however, is unlike any other. When darkness falls over the village square, barefoot men and women will dance on live coals.

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TRAVELLING TO BULGARIA'S EXTREMES

In the past two centuries, geography, politics and moments of national triumph and tragedy have defined the borders of Bulgaria. The current territory of the Bulgarian nation appeared after the Berlin Congress in 1879, stretched and contracted during and after several wars in 1885-1886, 1912-1913 and 1915-1918, and peacefully set into its current shape in 1940.

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BULGARIA'S ROMANTIC VILLAGES

Tranquility combined with landscapes untouched by tourism: if you have a longing to visit, Bulgaria will deliver. Here and there isolated and lesser known villages lay scattered over vales and hills, offering the chance to awaken to bird song, spend the long days exploring quiet lanes and traditional houses, and the evenings contemplating the surrounding vistas, preferably with a glass of cold Rakiya.

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MYSTERY PEAK

A long, long time ago, a group of Egyptian high priests landed on what is now Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast. They headed inland, across the Strandzha mountains, until they reached a pyramid-shaped peak. They buried something there and then they disappeared.

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BORDER: A JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF EUROPE

Kapka Kassabova was born and raised in Bulgaria, spent her late teens and twenties in New Zealand and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. She started writing poetry as a schoolgirl, but turned to fiction and non-fiction many years ago – in English, her adopted language. Her narrative non-fiction books, including Street Without a Name and Twelve Minutes of Love, as well as novels such as Villa Pacifica have earned her an international reputation as being one of the freshest literary voices of her generation.

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THE SECRET OF MISHKOVA NIVA LOCALITY

Until recently, no one was able to visit one of Bulgaria's most interesting sites, the dark grey remains of a tomb near Malko Tarnovo. Under Communism, people needed special permits to enter this small town in the Strandzha mountains, as it was only a few metres from the border with Turkey, a member of a hostile NATO member. Even if tourists had somehow obtained permits, it was impossible for them to cross the border fence and take a look at the tomb in the Mishkova Niva area.

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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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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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WALKING ON FIRE

The unusual, almost Native American-like drum rhythm and the bagpipe tunes echo over the silent crowd, gathered around a large circle of live embers glowing into the night. All eyes are on a tiny group of barefoot men and women in traditional clothes, who dance slowly at the edge of the circle, holding icons.

"They are in trance," says one of the onlookers.

"No, they are afraid," whispers another.

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BORDERLANDS

A land the size of a palm: this was how Bulgaria is described in the still quoted verse by Communist poet Georgi Dzhagarov. What is not mentioned in that poem, however, is that under Communism this "handful of land" was strictly guarded. Socialist Bulgaria was surrounded by enemy NATO-members Turkey and Greece, and the deviant Comrade Tito's Yugoslavia and the maverick Comrade Ceausescu's Romania. Bulgaria needed the highest protection. So went the thinking, and the protection was organised accordingly.



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ALL QUIET IN BRASHLYAN

Trapped in a house in the village of Sarmashik, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire back in April 1903, a small group of Bulgarians were wondering what fate would bring in the next few hours. Rebel leader Pano Angelov and his men had been preparing a revolt against the Ottomans when they were betrayed. Thus they found themselves holed up in the house in Sarmashik – now famous as Balyuvata kashta, or Balyu's House – surrounded by Turkish soldiers.

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FIRE WALKERS

It's nighttime on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, not far from the Turkish border, and the glowing circle of wood coals on the beach is like a miniature sun. An old woman in a red-and-white gown holds aloft a battered Orthodox icon depicting a man and woman. Her face in rapture, her feet bare as she stands inches away from the burning embers, she tells the story of the nestinari.

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