In the 19th Century, cartographer Guillaume Lejean discovered with amazement that the Bulgarian stretch of the Danube was less well known than the Nile. In 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor described the Bulgarian bank as terra incognita "the least inviting country in Europe, except Albania." Were they right?
Few rivers have inspired so much history, imagination, culture and politics as the Danube. The second longest river in Europe, after the Volga, it rises at Donaueschingen, in Germany's Schwarzwald. After a journey of 2,860 km, 10 countries and four European capitals, the Danube flows into the Black Sea via the countless meanderings of the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine.
The Danube has shaped history since the dawn of humankind. The first settlements of Mesolithic people were along its course, and Neolithic culture spread into Europe via the Danube. Having control of the river, or parts of its course, was vital for the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, as well as during the Second World War and the 1999 NATO strikes against Serbia.
The Danube is a river of incredible beauty and teeming wildlife. Born at the pristine coming together of the rivers Breg and Brigach in Germany, the farther it flows, the more spectacular its confluences become. At Passau, in Germany, the Ilz and the Inn join the Danube, overlooked by the beautiful houses and churches of the old city quarter. In Belgrade, the mighty Sava joins the Danube in the shadow of the impressive Kalemegdan Fortress.
Upstream, the Danube is a part of the life of numerous cities, its banks adorned with stunning examples of architecture, such as the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. Historic bridges span it, the modern descendants of the one built in 105 AD by Emperor Trajan.
After Belgrade, however, the Danube becomes a river of wilderness and not of cityscapes. It passes through the 134 km of the Iron Gates gorge, a stretch of precipitous rock walls and lush greenery. When it frees itself of the gorge, and the great dams at its mouth, the Danube flows through relatively flat lands, creating the Srebarna Lake nature reserve, in Bulgaria, and then on to its grand Delta. The Danubian Delta is a true marvel; 4,152 sq.km of isles, canals and waterways, teeming with wildlife. Its sheer size is almost non-European: think Mississippi.
The Danube has been on the tourist route since the 19th Century, and nowadays can be explored not only by car, but also by ship, bicycle or kayak.
Bulgaria is included in this infrastructure, and the Danube has a significant mention in its national anthem. Yet, the Bulgarian banks of the river are the least known parts of its course. Discovering what they have to offer will be a trip of a lifetime.
Bulgaria's westernmost corner is where the Timok River joins the Danube. Quiet and unexplored, this area was a heavily guarded border zone until recently and still preserves the atmosphere of a place that the world has forgotten. The confluence of the two rivers is at the end of a dirt track starting from Kudelin village. After a peaceful drive through fields and poplar forests, you end up in a landscape of sand and mud shaped by rising and falling waters; calm rivers and isles overgrown with reeds and trees. It is a good fishing spot, too.
Situated on a particularly picturesque bend of the Danube, Vidin now has the second bridge over the river connecting Bulgaria and Romania. It took decades to construct, but now the bridge is bringing a breath of fresh air to economically depressed Vidin.
The city is the descendant of a Roman fort, a medieval Bulgarian stronghold and an important Ottoman city. Its past and its modern development charmingly mingle in Vidin's centre. There is the small but bold Baba Vida fortress, the ghoulish and glorious abandoned synagogue, several interesting churches and fin de siècle buildings, along with an Ottoman mosque and fortifications, a grandiose Socialist square and probably the best Danube promenade on the Bulgarian bank of the river.
The city is tiny, yet it is one of the most prosperous in Bulgaria. Why? Because it is where the country's only nuclear power plant operates. It was built in 1974, and enlarged on several subsequent occasions, but now only two of its six original pressurised water reactors work. The closure of Chernobyl-type Reactors Nos. 3 and 4, in the early 2000s, was and still is a matter of great debate and political argument.
Kozloduy, however, is also a place of historical significance. When poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev and his men seized the Austrian-Hungarian steamship Radetzky to cross the Danube and take part in the 1876 April Uprising, he made the captain dock near Kozloduy. From there, the revolutionaries continued their march through Bulgarian territory, before being outnumbered and defeated by Ottoman forces in the Stara Planina.Kozloduy is also the site of Bulgaria's Soviet-built nuclear power plant
The landing site is now a venerated place of pilgrimage, adorned with several monuments and the steamship Radetzky itself, moored at the bank of the Danube.
Tiny and seemingly uninteresting, in 1396 Nikopol became the battlefield for the last confrontation between Bulgarians and Christians on one side, and Ottomans on the other. It was then that Bulgaria lost its independence for the following five centuries. The town's sights include a Roman-era sarcophagus turned into an Ottoman water fountain, the charming 13th Century Ss Peter and Pavel church and the Nikopol Fortress, dating from medieval and Ottoman times. There is also the tekke of Muslim sage Ali KoÇ Baba and a beautifully preserved 19th Century house with an ethnographic exhibition.
The city's pedestrian area, designed in Communist times, is its least appealing feature. Belene is the site of a large Catholic cathedral, with a shrine to Bishop Eugene Bosilkov, who was killed by the Communists and beatified by Pope Paul John II.
Next to it is the entrance to Belene Prison. Situated on Belene Island, Bulgaria's largest on the Danube, the prison had a more sinister twin under Communism: a labour camp for political prisoners. Opened in 1949, it was operational in the 1950s and the 1980s.
East of the city is where Bulgaria's still unbuilt second nuclear power plant should be. The future of the Belene Power Plant is uncertain, and the answer to the question of who will build it and what the costs and profit might becomes increasingly obscure by the day.
This is a pleasant town, enlivened by the students of the University of Economics, Bulgaria's oldest. Svishtov is also the home of the most famous pieces of Revival Period architecture in the country, the 1763 clock tower and the fine Holy Trinity Church, built by the famous 19th Century architect Kolyu Ficheto.
Nearby is the family home of one of Bulgaria's greatest authors, Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897). Its most arresting exhibits are the tail-coat the writer was wearing when he was shot dead, and his embalmed heart, with a distinct bullet-hole.
In Svishtov's outskirts are the remains of its ancient predecessor, the Roman city of Novae. Its ruins, however, have fallen prey to the recent "imaginative restoration" craze in Bulgaria, so don't expect much from it in terms of authenticity.
The origins of Bulgaria's largest city on the Danube are from Roman times. However, it turned into the place to be in the mid-19th Century, when ships bearing soldiers from Europe heading for the Crimean War and the reformist Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha brought about rapid modernisation.
Ruse is Bulgaria's major Danube port
The changes speeded up after Liberation in 1878, when Ruse became one of the powerhouses of Bulgaria. This is still evident in the fine, fin de siècle architecture in central Ruse, the finest in Bulgaria. Aleksandrovska Street is particularly good for façade-spotting, but every street around brings the discovery of yet more stucco, ornate windows and reliefs, in various stages of decay.
The old Ruse houses are complemented by the cavernous Holy Trinity Cathedral, which combines a 17th Century church dug deep into the ground with post-1878 chapels and murals, and the 1970s Town Hall which looks like a giant ship of concrete. Ruse's other sites of interest include, but are not limited to, the 1970s Pantheon of the Rival Period Heroes, and the only railway museum in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria's last town on the Danube is dusty and quiet, but has enough to catch your interest (besides its famed apricot rakiya). The Srebarna Lake Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must for birdwatchers for its diversity of rare and endangered species, including the Dalmatian Pelican, Glossy Ibis, and Great Egret.
Silistra itself has a nice river promenade and garden – a rarity on the Bulgarian Danube – and the relatively well preserved remains of Roman fortifications and a Byzantine Church. The centre is a maze of pre-1944 houses and post-1944 apartment blocks, but the City Gallery is indeed beautiful. Not far from the Danube are Silistra's two other major sights: the Ottoman fortress Mecidi Tabia, and a 4th Century Christian tomb with portraits of the deceased on the walls and an array of birds on the ceiling.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.