Ancient shrines, medieval monasteries, latterday superstitions make up fascinating otherworldly journey
"This place has a special aura." Sooner rather than later you will hear this sentence applied to somewhere in Bulgaria: an old monastery, an ancient shrine – or an ugly post-Communist church. There, locals and visitors claim to have felt the presence of "cosmic energy" or a supernatural "entity." Those who have an ailment seek healing. Pure-blooded Bulgarians "connect" to their true ancestors, the ancient Thracians, the wisest people ever to walk the earth. UFO sightings may also be reported.
Exploring places considered to be energy vortexes in Bulgaria can be a delight, even for the sceptic. As a general rule they are located amid stunning landscapes, and the stories and legends about them will either make you laugh or feel slightly jumpy, because what if they were true? Here is Vagabond's far from exhaustive list of the best spiritual vortexes in Bulgaria. Prepare for strange phenomena, bonkers theories, mysterious gold treasures, a black serpent with a hipster beard and not one, but two blind clairvoyants. The vortex level scale reflects how an unbeliever might feel at each particular site.
Seven Rila Lakes
What: Meeting place for Christian mystics
Vortex level: ****/*****
Located at an altitude of between 2,095 and 2,535 m, the Seven Rila Lakes are among Bulgaria's best known natural beauties, an obligatory feature in tourist promotion videos and brochures. After the controversial construction of a chair rope line to this protected site, the popularity of the area skyrocketed, with all the inevitable impact on the environment: discarded waste, damage to the soil and frequent algae blooms.
In August, the peak season, the tourist hordes clash with a group of people who claimed this spot long before the ropeway appeared. The Universal White Brotherhood is Bulgaria's best known esoteric movement. It was established by Petar Deunov (1864-1944). Originally a devout Christian, he put forward an esoteric mixture of ideas for soul, brain and physical development, and for bodily resuscitation. He believed in reincarnation and considered the white race to be superior, the final "evolutionary" step before the attainment of a hypothetical "sixth," "supreme race."
Deunov followers practise their faith by coming together, usually in open spaces and at sunrise, reading his works and dancing a circular dance they call Paneurhythmy, which bears an uncanny resemblance to how physical exercises would have looked had aerobics been invented in 1920.
Their most important meeting is on 19 August, New Year's Day, according to Deunov, at one of the Seven Rila Lakes, called The Kidney. Deunov considered that at this time of the year the Kidney was filled with divine energy, a true vortex. During the sacred day, White Brotherhood followers from around the world dance the Paneurhythmy in the early hours of the morning to the sound of violin music, some of which was composed by Deunov himself.
The music may be far from mesmerising, but the sublime Rila mountainscape more than compensates.
Tomb of Egyptian Goddess Bastet
What: Dark energy protects hidden wisdom, and golden treasure
Vortex level: **/*****
Deep in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains a treasure trove of gold and supernatural knowledge (probably involving aliens) lies hidden in the "tomb" of the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet (the cat-headed one), protected by a dark vortex that brings death to all intruders. We are aware that this does not make much sense, but here is how it became possible to combine all these notions together.
If you want to see a real ancient tomb rather than an imaginary one (above), visit the Roman-era Mishkova Niva site
Until 1981, the 710-metre Golyamo Gradishte peak, the highest elevation in the Bulgarian Strandzha, was very quiet. Under Communism it was located in the highly restricted border zone with NATO-member Turkey, and was known only to the abundant wildlife, border guards and the odd refugee trying to escape the Eastern bloc. This all changed when Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, learnt that Vanga, a blind clairvoyant located 400 miles away, had identified a site in the Strandzha as the hiding place of "the history of the world 2,000 years before us and 2,000 years after us." There was some gold in there as well. Zhivkova had a soft spot for both esoterism and history, and acted swiftly. A secret expedition was formed, which located the place and started digging, but it never completed its work. In a quick succession both Zhivkova and the minister who had supervised the excavations died. Terrified, the "researchers" used explosives to seal up the site for good.
Bulgarians learnt about the 1981 events after Communism collapsed, in 1989, when two of the participants in the expedition published astonishing, and contradictory, accounts on what had happened. Both witnesses emphasised that Bulgaria was a sacred land of world importance and millennia-old history. This was bound to attract the collective imagination of a nation that had been taught at school about its former historical glory but was now struggling with the effects of the turbulent and traumatic transition from a strictly regulated Communist society and economy to democracy and the open market. In the following decades, whipped up by the tabloid media, the fame of the supposed tomb of Bastet grew, with new stories, hypotheses and legends invented on a regular basis.
No one, bar the participants of the 1981 dig, can be sure what exactly happened at Golyamo Gradishte. The site can now be visited, with the help of the Tourist Centre at Malko Tarnovo. Believers claim they can see the face of a cat in a rocky cliff overlooking the crater left by the dig, and feel a dark, ominous aura about the place.
For the sceptic, the site is nothing more than a vertical rockface, half-covered in creepers, over a stagnant pond that appeared after the dig was dynamited. According to professional archaeologists, the secret expedition "explored" not the tomb of an Egyptian deity, but just one of the many ancient copper mines in the area.
What: UFO landing pad on ancient Thracian shrine
Vortex level: ****/*****
Bulgaria not only has its own rocky plateau carved with strange canals and holes to guide arriving UFOs, it also conceals the "gold chariot of Alexander the Great."
Some claim the face of a man is carved in the plateau. Can you see it?
Bulgarians heard about Belintash, a plateau at an elevation of 1,225 m in the Rhodope mountains, for the first time in the late 1990s when a group of psychics appeared on an esoteric show on national television. The psychics said that during a night visit to the plateau to "soak" up cosmic energy they were approached by a group of rather aggressive extraterrestrial lights.
Most viewers shrugged and forgot about Belintash. Some, however, decided to go and see for themselves what the strange plateau looked like.
By the late 2000s, when alternative tourism in Bulgaria was flourishing, Belintash had become an established destination, complete with a growing number of pseudo-traditional guest houses and a particularly offensive and ugly new church at its doorstep. Stories, legends and rumours about Belintash are so numerous nowadays that it is hard to keep track. Here are some of the juiciest. The canals and holes depict constellations (they do not). Huge faces are carved in the rocks (if your imagination is eager enough). Alexander the Great's gold chariot is buried there (this type of vehicle could hardly have coped on northern Rhodope roads). Vanga, the blind clairvoyant, said that Belintash would reveal its secrets only after it had claimed a certain number of victims (she died before Belintash appeared on TV, but some people have indeed perished there, mostly from falling down from steep rocks).
Some believe that aliens carved the holes, cisterns and canals on Belintash surface. Others read them as a celestial map created by ancient Thracian astronomers. In reality, some of the carvings were used in rituals which included pouring of sacrificial liquids (probably wine and blood). Others were the only remains of the erstwhile temple buildings or provided water supply
Belintash's fame is so strong that during Vagabond's latest visit a couple of visitors had some difficulty believing us that the "strange buzzing sound" they heard was actually a drone.
Legends aside, Belintash is spectacular – a 300-metre tongue of precipitous rock stretches through thick evergreen forests, shielded from the outer world by a ring of peaks. According to archaeologists who have partially explored the site, the first pilgrims arrived at Belintash about 5000 BC. The shrine was abandoned in the 4th century BC, but revived again around the 4th century AD. People used to visit in the Ottoman period as well, a tradition of sacred continuity typical for the Bulgarian lands.
Some historians have tried to popularise Belintash as the seat of the famed oracle, Dionysus, which, according to ancient sources, was somewhere in the Rhodope and was credited with foretelling the glorious futures of Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus. Evidence to support this claim is rather scant.
Demir Baba Tekke
What: Muslim saint buried over Thracian sanctuary heals, fulfils wishes
Vortex level: *****/*****
Demir Baba Tekke, or shrine, has the genuine aura of a place that people of different origins and faiths have venerated for millennia as sacred, accumulating in the process a thick layer of buildings, artefacts, art, beliefs and traditions still alive today.
Demir Baba's shrine is one of 140 cultural heritage sites in the Sboryanovo Archaeological Reserve, near Isperih. It is the only one that has been in continuous use for the same purpose since the time of its construction, in the 16th century.
Demir Baba, or Iron Father, who is buried here, is the most honoured saint of the Alevi, a splinter Islamic group that reveals its teachings and practices to the initiated only. As a young man, the legend says, Demir Baba was a brave warrior who fought two dragons and helped the sultan conquer Budapest. He then returned to his native village, gathered disciples and started to preach and help people.
Belief in the saint's powers is still strong and attracts not only the Alevi, but also Sunni Muslims and Christians. The greatest number of visitors gather on 6 May, the holiday celebrated as Hıdırellez by Muslims and St George's Day by Christians.
One of the testimonies to Demir Baba's powers is the karst spring by the entrance to the compound. According to the legend, during an unprecedented drought people prayed to the saint for help. He put his hand into the rock and water spurted out. The spring is still not piped because the locals believe it is sacred. Those entering continue to observe the old ritual of taking three sips from it and then washing their faces.
Mysterious eyes: Only the initiated know the meaning of this mural in Demir Baba's shrine
The shrine is full of pointers to a mix of religious traditions and superstitions. Towels, shirts and socks, left as gifts for prayers answered, cover the saint's grave. Colourful shreds of cloth decorate the trees around and the window bars of the tomb, tied there by people who believe this will bring them health.
Mysterious decorations cover the southern wall of the compound: seven-pointed stars, hexagrams, a domed building. One particular stone attracts most attention. With eyes shut and arms outstretched, people try to reach it and poke their fingers into two holes known as the Eyes of the Witch.
Demir Baba Tekke had been a sacred site long before the arrival of Islam. A Thracian sanctuary existed there between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD. Its remains are still visible: the tomb was built right over it and some of its stones have been built into the walls of the Alevi shrine.
Mount of the Cross
What: Christian pilgrimage site that might heal bodies but offend eyes
Vortex factor: */*****
Deep in the Rhodope is one of Bulgaria's most famed religious sites – Krastova Gora, or Mount of the Cross. Since the early 1900s, people have been visiting the 1,413-metre high peak led by the belief that a chunk of the Holy Cross was buried there. It could, subsequently, work miracles.
Sadly, the aggregation of newly-constructed chapels in the area is a drawback for any non-religious and/or aesthetically conscious visitor, hence the low vortex factor.
The compound includes several small chapels lined up along a path, possibly symbolising, in the Roman Catholic fashion, the Via Dolorosa with its Stations of the Cross. Modern pilgrimage started in 1933 when a believer announced that he had a dream that indicated a piece of the Holy Cross was buried in the hill. King Boris III himself donated the metal cross that was erected on the spot in 1936. The first chapel was built in 1956 but the site was later declared off-limits as it became a local hunting ground for senior Communist officials.
Pilgrimage resumed in the 1990s. The largest crowds arrive on 14 September, the Day of the Holy Cross. The belief is that if anyone slept under the open sky on that night they would be cured of any malaise.
According to popular belief all the pebbles on the Mount of the Cross have a small crucifix on them. You are supposed to find one and take it home, as a good luck charm, but you will have trouble doing this as due to popular demand small rocks have virtually disappeared from the area. If you insist on bringing something miraculous from Krastova Gora back home, you can buy a packet of Mursalski herbal tea or a chunk of zeolite mineral from the stalls that line the road to the shrine. Both are said to be curative.
What: Black serpent heals at ancient Thracian shrine
Vortex factor: ****/*****
If you believe the tabloids, close to a mountain village near Gotse Delchev called Kribul, "Granny Hava, the priestess of the Rhodope mountains," will take you on a steep "road of mystical healing" to the "Shrine of the Black Serpent." Then all your health-related problems will be over. At the cost of an ad libitum donation.
Granny Hava is single-handedly responsible for Kribul's recent popularity. The number of pieces of cloth tied to each tree around (below) are evidence for her success
Thousands have believed the hype and have flocked to the 4th century BC Thracian megalithic shrine, creating business opportunities for locals with 4WDs (Granny Hava's local foes claim she takes a cut from each trip).
Several years ago Granny Hava became seriously ill. When conventional medicine proved useless, she turned to a ritual she had learnt from her mother, an established healer. She climbed to a group of sacred rocks above Kribul and performed a secret ritual. She was healed. Then she promised to help others, too, for free.
Now, Granny Hava brings people to the ancient megalithic shrine every day, weather permitting. She starts by praying, facing south, at the entrance to an elevated stone arch. She then knocks three times on a sacred rock and calls on the site's supernatural guardian, who will perform the actual healing. Then Granny Hava measures the pilgrim's height with a red thread, places it on the rickety ladder to the arch, and climbs up. The pilgrim must follow in the hope they will feel the rock's healing "squeeze." Granny Hava always lends them a hand at the end of the climb. She then makes a circle of tow around the pilgrim, sets it on fire and utters a spell: "So, be healthy!". Then the pilgrim should take off their overcoat, tie it onto a tree, leave some money on the rock (this contradicts the free-of-charge part), and then squeeze down through another stone arch.
Granny Hava and the pilgrim repeat the ritual twice. At the end, the pilgrim lights a fire by the arch, throws a stone over their shoulder and leaves, without looking back.
Some people have said that the guardian of the shrine always watches the ritual in the shape of a large black hairy serpent, that sometimes sports a spectacular beard. Sometimes it may appear as a man.
To the sceptical outsider Granny Hava's behaviour might appear bizarre. Anthropologists disagree. They think that the ritual performed by this diminutive Muslim old lady, whose Bulgarian name is Yuliya Zemedelska, is a distant echo of millennia-old pagan beliefs and magical practices for communication with the underworld, healing and spiritual rebirth.
What: Bulgaria's most prominent saint attracts pilgrims to magnificent abode
Vortex factor: *****/*****
Even for the unbeliever Rila Monastery may be a spiritual experience (with the exception of John Updike, who found the place "suffocating"). Rila Monastery has all the right ingredients, particularly if you visit on a relatively tourist-free day. Magnificent mountainscape of deep forests, whitewater rivers and forbidding peaks? Check. Marvellous fortress-like monastic compound with stately Revival Period architecture? Check. A mystical, dimly lit church where black-clad monks chant under the gaze of colourful icons? Check. The healing presence of the relics of Bulgaria's most prominent native saint? Also check.
Easter at Rila Monastery
St Ivan of Rila, who set up the monastery and is the holy protector of all Bulgarians, lived in the 9th-10th centuries. He started as a hermit who sought tranquility in the wilderness of the Rila mountains, but his saintly fame soon attracted so many followers that he fled from the crowds and commotion farther up the mountain. There he died, at the age of 70. The community that sprang up in his initial place of adobe turned into Rila Monastery, the largest monastic compound in Bulgaria.
The earliest surviving building in the closely guarded monastic courtyard is Hrelyu's Tower, a defensive structure built in 1335 by a local lord. The rest of the monastery must have been mighty and stunning, but it was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1778. Restoration took about two decades, during which time, in 1833, a section of the new building was lost to another fire. In the 1830s-1850s the strong walls that protect the monastery and the living quarters appeared. They were soon complemented by the monastery's emblematic striped galleries and an exquisite main church covered both inside and on the outside with frescoes shining blue, green, red and yellow, like jewels scattered under the sun. The saint's relics are exhibited there in an ornate wooden reliquary, attracting a steady flow of pilgrims who kiss them and pray.
Monks carry Holy Fire, just arrived from Jerusalem, to the church for a mesmerising Orthodox Easter mass
The cave where St Ivan of Rila spent his final days in quiet contemplation is the complete opposite of the main compound: a humble abode marked by a small chapel. People who visit believe that squeezing through the narrow crevice within absolves of all sins.
What: Blind clairvoyant Vanga predicted future among steaming mineral springs
Vortex factor: ***/*****
The powers of Vanga, the blind clairvoyant, to predict the future, to communicate with the dead and to heal the sick made her famous in Bulgaria and beyond. She also had a thing for energy vortexes and settled in one: Rupite, in the caldera of Bulgaria's only (extinct) volcano.
Is the vortex of Rupite responsible for the healing powers of the local mineral springs? It depends on who you ask
How Vanga (1911-1996) got her powers is a story with so many unknowns that it could have taken place in the 2nd century BC rather than in 20th century Europe. A weird whirlwind blinded her when she was a child. Several years later, she revealed a supernatural ability to locate lost objects, solve serious crimes and predict the future. Bulgarian King Boris III supposedly visited her, in 1943, only to hear an ominous, Delphic-style prophecy about his untimely death.
After 1944, Vanga and the atheist Communist authorities needed some time to adjust to each other. By the 1960s, the clairvoyant, who stood accused of being an "Yugoslav spy," got a paid job as a seer at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The feared State Security took over the management and entrance fees of the crowds of people who flocked to Vanga's house in Petrich. Top officials, Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev supposedly among them, consulted Vanga. Presumably, they jumped the queues.
The church that Vanga built there goes against the Orthodox cannon but is now a pilgrimage site
When Communism collapsed in 1989, Vanga became a superstar. The queues grew longer and the national media eagerly reported her (sometimes accurate, sometimes not so) predictions of the outcome of elections, Bulgaria's progress at the 1994 World Cup and the future of the world. Eventually, Vanga moved to Rupite, a place of lush Mediterranean greenery and steaming sulphur springs she claimed was a vortex, created after a volcanic eruption destroyed an ancient city, Vesuvius and Pompeii style.
There, Vanga started on her life's work: the construction of a church to be dedicated to St Petka of the Bulgarians.An unexpected scandal ensued. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church refused to consecrate the building as its architecture and artwork we overtly uncanonical. The fact that many clerics saw Vanga as a manifestation of a satanic, rather than a saintly power probably also played part. Eventually, St Petka did get consecrated. When Vanga died, she was buried nearby. St Petka is now commonly known as Vanga's Church.
A replica of the controversial portrait of Vanga that artist Svetlin Rusev painted in St Petka church
Today, Rupite is seldom quiet, frequented as it is by visitors from Bulgaria and beyond, particularly Russia, where Vanga is still a big star. Believers claim they can feel the clairvoyant's presence but for sceptics the best thing around are the free roaming guineafowl, descendants of Vanga's beloved birds.
The mineral springs continue to steam outside the compound. Locals soak with relish in the muddy pools, seeking relief for a number of ailments. Nearby are the unremarkable ruins of the recently discovered ancient city of Heraclea Sintica. Yes, Vanga was right: there was an ancient town at Rupite. However, Heraclea Sintica was not destroyed by the volcano's last eruption, as that took place 1,000,000 years ago, long before Homo sapiens emerged from the Homo erectus gene pool in faraway Africa.
The caldera of the ancient volcano that created Rupite is clearly visible from a distance
Was Vanga a true seer? If yes, from where did her power come? People still argue. Believers claim she communicated with divine, otherworldly and/or extraterrestrial entities. Clerics assume that Satan used her to sow superstition and to lure people away from the canonical Truth. Sceptics point out that her incorrect predictions outnumber the correct ones and explain her popularity by the strong tradition of so-called folklore Christianity in Bulgaria. During the atheist Communist regime and the post-Communist hardship it did fulfil the nation's need of spirituality.
PS. Vanga predicted the war in Syria but never said anything about Covid-19.
What: Orpheus's tomb
Vortex score: ***/*****
For historical reasons (Byzantines, Ottomans, Communists and post-Communists) Bulgarians are hard put to point to the graves of most of their kings, patriarchs and revolutionaries. However, many Bulgarians are absolutely sure where a mythical figure, Orpheus, was buried.
If you think of Orpheus solely as the musician from Greek mythology who, in his quest to bring his beloved Eurydice back to life, charmed the cold hearts of the lords of the dead, do not share this opinion with a history-obsessed Bulgarian if you are not ready to hear that a) Orpheus was not a Greek but an ancient Thracian and therefore a Bulgarian ancestor, and that b) he was an actual person.
If the a-part of this statement is self-explanatory (after all, we are in the Balkans), the b needs some explanation. Some Bulgarian scientists believe that Orpheus was a historical personality who became a legend after he revolutionised the ancient Thracian religion. He inspired a group of select few (read: Thracian nobles) to switch from the old, traditional cult of Dionysus, the lord of wine, dark passion, death and revival, to venerating Apollo, the god of light, knowledge, refined civilisation and enlightenment. The benefit? The initiates in the Orphic rites would enjoy eternal bliss in the afterlife, rather than a meagre existence as sad shadows in the underworld, the doom of the hoi polloi.
This "revolution" did not go unpunished. According to myths, a group of female devotees to the god he had shunned, Dionysus, killed and dismembered Orpheus.
Greek myths placed Orpheus's burial place on the island of Lesbos. In the 2000s, however, Bulgarians answered back. An ancient Thracian megalithic shrine deep in the Rhodope was identified as Orpheus's tomb.
The sanctuary at Tatul is a major, and spectacular, Thracian megalithic monument. A high rocky hill rises about 300 metres, crowned by a 4.5-metre-high monolithic stone in the shape of a truncated pyramid. Cut into one of its sides a semi-circular niche gapes over a sarcophagus-like stone tomb. A second rectangular basin, resembling a sarcophagus, is carved out at the top of the pyramid.
The sanctuary appeared in the 2nd millennium BC.
Tatul could be the burial place of Orpheus's head, proponents reason, as it is located in Thrace, the musician's presumed birthplace and dates to the times when he supposedly was alive. With its stone pyramid reaching up to the sky, it epitomises both darkness and light, of Dionysus reborn as Apollo – the core concept of Orphism. Moreover, the ancient Thracians had the habit of dismembering their dead, just like the Bacchae dismembered Orpheus.
What: Dead blind healer venerated among hair-rising church murals
Vortex score: ****/*****
Vanga and Reverend Stoyna, Bulgaria's best known seers and healers, have much in common. Both lived in the southwest of the country, a dozen kilometres apart. Both went blind at an early age. Both started to make predictions after a visit from something they took to be a saintly entity, both were very religious and both died childless. Their shrines are in or beside a church.
Dog-headed St Christopher takes central place in St George
Reverend Stoyna (1888-1933) was the first. She lost her eyesight after she caught smallpox. In 1913, she settled inside St George's church in the village of Zlatolist, and lived there until she died. Vanga considered her her chief instructor and would prescribe a night sleeping on Reverend Stoyna's grave for some afflicted people.
While Reverend Stoyna was alive, people would visit the small and insignificant Zlatolist to meet her at her tiny, cramped room on the choir balcony of St George's church, seeking her "help, advice, consolation and absolution." She was particularly fond of children.
Ordinary people consider Reverend Stoyna a saint, but the Orthodox Church is far from happy. Lay people absolving sins is against the canon, and the strange rites that Reverend Stoyna embraced, such as day-long meditation resulting in levitation, are interpreted as demonic.
According to some, a teenage boy painted St George. This might explain the murals
Nevertheless, people continue to seek help from Reverend Stoyna. Her shrine at the church of St George has become a busy place with its own rules, rituals and beliefs: a textbook example of folklore Christianity, in which heathen beliefs and latterday superstition gleefully ignore dogma.
On a busy day, the church buzzes with the hushed voices of pilgrims who queue to remove their shoes and step onto a stone slab with a worn-out relief of a double-headed eagle (a sign that St George's was built when the Constantinople Patriarchy ruled over local Eastern Orthodox Christians). Once on the cherished stone, they pray to Reverend Stoyna and try to feel her presence. Then they tiptoe to the back of the church and climb up the rickety wooden stairs to the choir balcony and the dark, windowless cell where Reverend Stoyna lived.
Mementos from grateful visitors fill St George's. Dolls and baby clothes are piled up in one corner. Images of Reverend Stoyna, reproducing her only known portrait, are everywhere: a pale, dark-haired woman with blind but somehow piercing eyes.
Unless you want to believe in Reverend Stoyna, despite the lack of any written document about her prophecies, and achieve powers of levitation you will be amazed by the murals in the church.The building is pretty standard. It was erected in 1857. It was painted by a local painter in 1876. Look closely at what he devised, and you will be astounded. A devil rides a cart drawn by a man, a mysterious forest, a larger than life depiction of dog-headed Orthodox St Christopher, a half undressed woman with exploding nipples. Not very Orthodox. Had you not known you are in a Bulgarian church you would have thought you've entered a Hieronymus Bosch painting.