With so many places to go, picking one might be a daunting task for the fast approaching summer holiday. Why not simplify it? What about Bulgaria? Where is that, many would wonder. In Eastern Europe, miles away from the usual splashy destinations. It is equally beguiling, minus the hordes of pushy tourists.
By: Dimitria Vitanova
Posted on: April 11, 2016
Resting in the heart of the Balkan peninsula, in south-eastern Europe, with its eastern frontier washed by the Black sea, Bulgaria is a land of tumultuous past, rich culture and gripping nature. From looming mountains to fine sand beaches, from antique monuments to Communist statues, Bulgaria is a vibrant amalgam of landmarks and epochs. With its history itched in ancient churches, state buildings and even natural wonders, it is a tourist destination that has largely remained off-the beaten track. Unknown to many, it inadvertently pulls back those who once fall for its peculiar charm. We explore some of its prime sights – the ones that have grown into its most potent national symbols.
FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE
Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Looming adjacent to the Bulgarian Parliament in the capital, Sofia, Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral honors the 200,000 Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian soldiers who met their death fighting for the country’s liberation from Ottoman yoke in the late 19th century. One of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world – its sprawling 34,100sq ft edifice can accommodate a 10,000-strong congregation – it is the principal cathedral of the Bulgarian patriarch. A jewel of the Neo-Byzantine architectural style, Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was constructed early in the 20th century, with a lavish cavernous interior of Italian marble, Brazilian onyx and Venetian glass mosaics among other luxurious materials. Its exterior is equally striking with a tower that soars 174ft high and houses 12 bells of various sizes and weights – from 22lb to 12 tones. The cathedral’s gold-plated dome glistens some 148ft above the ground – an American football field raised skyward on its length. Cradling a rib of Saint Alexander Nevsky’s relics, the Cathedral is one of the main emblems of Sofia – as well as Bulgaria – attracting thousands of visitors of all faiths every year.
Church of St. George
Tucked away in a courtyard, shaded by the Presidency and the opulent Sheraton hotel, reposes an ancient Roman Rotunda-turned-church. The tawny-brick structure – Saint George Church – is the oldest preserved building in the capital, which – 17 centuries after its construction – still serves its original purpose. It stands a testament to the turbulent history of the region. Built in the 4th century by the Romans, it was razed by the Huns and restored only to be turned into a mosque by the Ottomans. Flaunting a complex plan – a central round chamber, topped by a dome and flanked by semi-circular apses – Saint George Church is part of a large antique complex, which also includes the remains of a spacious basilica and a lavish residence, once owned by the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine I the Great, the one who, in 313, legalized Christianity across his immense realm.
Perched 3,763ft high on the highest Balkan mountain, Rila, the monastery – with its soaring outer walls – resembles a fortress. Since its founding in the 10th century by Saint John of Rila, it has, indeed, been a staunch fort, a timeless capsule for the spirit, genius and literacy of the Bulgarian people. Under Bulgaria’s five-century-long Ottoman rule, the Rila monastery – a 30,000sq ft, 300-chamber monastic complex – preserved the culture and arts of the subjugated nation. Incinerated at the turn of the 19th century, it was rebuilt into a masterpiece of the Bulgarian Renaissance and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its five-domed main church bears the vivid frescoes of many regional masters. Its main gem, nevertheless, remains the intricate wood-carved iconostasis with its valuable icons that date back to the 14th century. The monetary museum holds another precious religious relic – the Rafail’s Cross. A 32-by-17-inches cross, it was whittled by a monk named Rafail, who wielding fine burins and magnifying lenses, itched the single-piece wood with 104 biblical scenes and 650 miniature figures. The exquisite work took 12 years to complete; and when it was finally finished in 1802, Rafail lost his sight. That and myriad other riveting tales of perseverance and dedication greet the monastery visitors.
STONES OF ALL COLOR
Atop a 4,728ft high mountain peak in central Bulgaria, amid cottony clouds, looms a UFO-like construction – the former Bulgarian Communist party’s headquarters. Built by the Bulgarian army and various artisans and citizen volunteers, the Buzludzha monument rests over a famed battlefield of the Bulgarian liberation war, which happened to also be the site where the country’s socialist movement commenced in 1891. Opened in 1981, in the heat of Soviet influence, the building boasted exquisite mosaics of communist mavericks such as Lenin, Stalin and Bulgaria’s Dimitar Blagoev, overlooking a lavish hall, which often buzzed with party receptions. The lively celebrations, however, quieted down only eight years after Buzludzha’s inauguration. With a red star shining high above, it succumbed to a slow but steady decay after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Left to the mercy of the elements and marauding vandals, Buzludzha, today, is a mere husk of its former glory – neither the country nor the Communist party’s descendent, the Bulgarian Socialist party, harbor any will to restore and maintain it. Although its main gate has been sealed for years, hordes of urban explorers and adventurers squeeze into Buzludzha’s cavernous belly through a square hole on the side. With both patriotic and scathing graffiti jostling with the original art work on its walls, Buzludzha is indeed a spaceship, one that hovers from the not-so-distant past.
In the heels of striking natural clay and sand pyramids rests Bulgaria’s tiniest town of only 208 inhabitants. Situated about 12 miles away from the border with Greece, Melnik is famed for its red wines. Its two streets are lined with little Bulgarian Renaissance houses, many of which sit atop giant wine cellars. In the 18th century, many of those cave-like vaults spilled their savory vinos in Genoa, Venice, Vienna and Budapest, turning Melnik into a trade hub. Although the commerce has since dried out, wines still quench the thirst of locals and tourists. Of particular acclaim is a fruity red, squeezed from the juicy grapes of an indigenous broadleaf vine that does not fare anywhere else in the country. Although Melnik has become synonymous with wine, it offers many hidden – equally tantalizing – gems. The smallest Bulgarian town flaunts, ironically enough, the largest Bulgarian Renaissance home – the Kordopul’s house. In the heart of a land first occupied by the ancient Thracian tribes, the hills around present-day Melnik were once traipsed by the rebellious gladiator, Spartacus, who was born here. From history buffs to architecture enthusiasts to wine lovers, Melnik commands a pull for all.
Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheatre
In the very center of Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, saddled between two knolls, rises one of the best preserved Roman antique theaters in the world. Built at the onset of the 2nd century AD, during Emperor Trayan’s reign, the amphitheater can accommodate up to 7,000 spectators. Only 20 of its original 28 marble rows withstood a calamity in the 4th century – either a fire or an earthquake, which also destroyed the central stage. After thorough reconstruction in the 1980s and 1990s, the Roman theater continues to serve its purpose to this very day, with summer concerts and plays filling the magical horseshoe-shaped venue under Plovdiv’s night sky. Its uniqueness reverberates throughout the surrounding old town of cobble-stoned streets, beaded with Bulgarian Renaissance houses, many of which have been turned into museums, chic cafes and dandy restaurants. With the amphitheater as its greatest marvel, Plovdiv is a truly wondrous place. Sprawling on seven hills, it quietly boasts its numerous vestiges from eras bygone – from prehistory to antiquity to modernity.
Summer Palace of Queen Marie and Botanical gardens of Balchik
With the Black sea lapping nearby, the summer residence of Romania’s Queen Marie was constructed in the 1930s, a period when her husband, King Ferdinand of Romania ruled over today’s northeastern Bulgaria. Named the Quiet Nest Palace, it amounts to a villa, pristine but tiny by royal standards. Its eclectic design by Italian architects, however, rivets. An intricate blend of Bulgarian, Gothic and Islamic styles – all topped with a minaret, the palace was Marie’s much relished retreat, where, rumor has it, she entertained her Turkish lover. Her secrets may have thrived in the lush park around the estate. It is that very same park, which Bulgaria turned into the Balchik Botanical Garden, after it reclaimed the region in 1940. Some 22 miles north of Varna, Bulgaria’s summer capital on the Black sea coast, the botanical garden covers 40sq miles with more than 2,000 plant species, including Metasequoia, Ginkgo, Para rubber trees and an exquisite collection of cacti – Europe’s second biggest after Monaco’s. There must be something in Balchik’ air and soil that nourishes that striking variety – maybe it is as simple as sea salt.
CARVINGS OF NATURE
Piercing more than a mile into the cerulean waters of the Black sea, Cape Kaliakra is a nature and archeological reserve, 37 miles north of Varna. Its 300ft-high rocky slopes plunge straight into the water, which, licking at their heels, has carved numerous caves. The intricate fusion between land and sea has nurtured a unique habitat for more than 400 plant species and 310 kinds of birds, with 106 of the latter protected at European level. Stretching along Via Pontica – the second largest bird migratory route on the continent – each fall, Cape Kaliakra buzzes with the hectic chitters and wing swooshes of more than 29,000 storks, cranes and pelicans as well as 3,000 birds of prey, including the globally endangered Saker Falcon, Pallid Harrier and the Eastern Imperial Eagle. With a busy sky, the cape also boasts a long, strenuous past, casting back to antiquity. The remains of a fortress quietly whisper the tale of the place. One episode of that captivating story, however, stands out. Reality or legend, it has entered the country’s folklore. It is the tragic fate of 40 Bulgarian maidens, who, during Bulgaria’s Ottoman rule – braided their hair together and jumped off the cape to escape their oppressors and bravely meet their death. The solemnity of their deed still echoes through the serenity of Cape Kaliakra’s nature.
Seven Rila Lakes
With quirky names to denote their peculiar shapes and qualities, the seven Rila lakes undoubtedly spell a major attraction and adventure for thousands of tourists. With glacial origin, they reflect the silver skies in icy blue water. In Bulgaria’s highest mountain, Rila, the lakes claim an altitude between 6889ft – where the lowest one, The Lower Lake, laps – and 8202ft – where the highest lake, The Teardrop, soars. They feed tiny writhing streams that connect them together as well as the Dzherman river, which races into the Struma river and, eventually, into the Mediterranean. During frigid winters, the lakes freeze, often blanketed by up to 80 inches of snow – severe conditions that leave them largely void of any marine life. That does not mean, however, that the seven Rila lakes do not teem with verve. Their vitality and vivacity stand in the very core of the Danovites’s New Year celebration that takes place every August 19, around the Kidney lake. For them – as well as the majority of professional hikers, thrill seekers and laymen who annually visit the region – the seven Rila lakes are holy, otherworldly.
If you have a pressing desire to fulfil, venture to the Ledenika cave, climb 2723ft above sea level to enter it and, then, duck and crawl through its narrow passages and walk its cavernous halls to reach the inner Lake of Wishes. Dip your hands in the ice-cold water and whisper your want – legend has it, it will come true. Ledenika (“ice chest” in Bulgarian) derives its name from the intricate ice sheets that embellish its antechamber during winter and springtime. Even if they thaw in the summer, the 0.2 mile-long cave entices with its giant stalactites and stalagmites that date back a 1,000 years. Once submerged in water, today they form intriguing figures, boasting equally exciting names – from Crocodile to Santa Claus to Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. With temperatures that seldom spike above the low teens, the Ledenika cave sustains little flora and fauna apart from its famed light-hater insects, which have so aptly adapted to darkness that they would die in the outside brightness. Despite its austerity of life, its chilliness and its almost unbearable humidity of 92%, the cave morphs into the striking venue of an annual concert staged at the beginning of summer to commemorate one of Bulgaria’s most famed poets and revolutionaries, Hristo Botev. Even if you do not make it to the audial treat, the Ledenika cave is worth the strain. Think about that wish you want granted?
At night a cuckoo peal resounds, but it does not come from the bird. It springs from a tawny rock. Whether it is a mystical power or the eerie game of the wind, no one knows for sure. But there is, indeed, something mistrial, almost sacrosanct about the Belogradchik rocks – bizarre, withered yellow-red formations, studding 31sq miles in northwestern Bulgaria. Towering high at around 700ft, the rocks have for millions of years succumbed to erosion, denudation and lichen to assume their current shapes that have spurred numerous folklore tales. A particular legend recounts the story of two lovers, separated by family mores. When they finally fought their way to each, a lightning struck – turning them and the surroundings into stones of Belogradchik. With a large grouping looming over the town of Belogradchik, the rocks have for centuries protected vibrant communities, going back to the Romans, who built a fortress around some of them. With names to match the figures they resemble – from the Madonna and the Horseman (the two lovers) to the Schoolgirl to the Nunnery, the Belogradchik rocks – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was a sea bottom millennia ago – beckon to tell their story to anyone ready to hear it in the wind.
St. Anastasia Island
The sole inhabited islet off the Bulgarian Black sea coast, St. Anastasia Island has throughout the decades housed both a convent and a penitentiary – a rather peculiar combination for its modest area of a one hectare (0.004sq mile). The nunnery, having thrived since the Middle Ages despite constant pirate sieges, quieted down when the island turned into a political jail in 1923. A couple of years later, 43 detainees – communists and anti-fascists – escaped and swam nearly a mile to the shore. Two decades later, when the Bulgarian Communist party came into power, St. Anastasia island was renamed Bolshevik island to commemorate the prisoners’ brave break, which is also recounted in the 1958 Bulgarian movie, On The Small Island. Today, the islet boasts a tiny monastery with its church, a lighthouse, a museum chronicling its history, a small quay for the constant boast service connecting it to the mainland, two wood-and-stone guesthouses as well as a restaurant offering delicious seafood. However, what often fascinates tourists the most is the “Healing Place,” a tiny bar with a roof garden, from which visitors can pluck herbs for savory tea, frequently complemented with local liquors. A true retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, St. Anastasia Island follows its own rhythm that treats the palate, delights the eyes and sooths the soul.
So, what about Bulgaria? Venture on – it is a jaunt back in time, there and then. And yet, reassuringly, it is here and now, waiting to lure you.