Bulgaria never quite caught on to the 19th Century European passion for the sublime, known to us mainly from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, but the country has its own share of locations which inspire awe and amazement; inviting you to revel in nature and experience a sense of spirituality. Most are the creation of mighty tectonic forces, or rivers and seas scouring solid rock, while others result from more ephemeral natural phenomena, such as mists and rainbows, rain and clouds.
In the early spring of 2015, the road from Asenovgrad to Smolyan, through the Rhodope, was blocked by landslides and rock avalanches, a reminder of the power of nature over the ambition of humans. Despite the ever-present danger, or probably because of it, the road along the Chepelarska River, with its bends and menacing rocks is one of the most awe inspiring places in Bulgaria. There are bonuses, too – the romantic silhouettes of the Asenova Fortress and Bachkovo Monastery, perched high above the river banks.
The Arda River near Madan
The Arda is one of the most interesting rivers in Bulgaria. It springs from the roots of a tree, and much of its 240-kilometre course on Bulgarian territory meanders through the Rhodope mountains, creating splendid landscapes. Three gigantic dams tame the Arda's might. The river is at its wildest and least known around Madan, a small mining community close to the Greek border. There it flows freely between the cold embrace of the rocky Rhodope slopes, a not-to-be-forgotten sight to marvel at.
The sublime seems woven into the very core of alpine mountains, and you will find it in abundance in the Rila and the Pirin, Bulgaria's highest mountain ranges. Malyovitsa, the 2,729-metre high peak in the Rila, is the embodiment of natural drama. Its sharp rocky outline dominates the landscape, and provides one of the most demanding climbing routes in Bulgaria, including a 124-metre high rock wall. Blending beauty and danger, Malyovitsa is considered the epitome of Bulgarian mountaineering and is both loved and feared by climbers. The natural landscape around is equally alluring, with the pristine Malyovishki and Elenski Lakes.
The landscape of the old town of Tarnovo balances on the border between Romantic sublime and an M.C. Escher-esque sense of incredibility. Hugging the bends of the Yantra River, the 19th Century houses of Bulgaria's former capital are a feat of building genius – they cling to the tiniest horizontal surfaces, and hang over the steep banks of the river. Streets here become staircases, and strong arched foundations prevent everything from slipping into the Yantra. Amazingly, even in 20th Century Communist Bulgaria people continued with their strange architectural tradition in Tarnovo – the entrances of the new blocks of flats are at street level and they lead to the last floor of the building. To reach the first floor, you have to climb down the stairs, rather than go up.
The rough sea, with its strong dark waves crowned with white foam hitting the rocks, has a mesmerising power. It lulls the spectator with its hypnotic movement, with the ever present fear, and excitement. In Bulgaria, there are few better places to enjoy the scary maritime beauty than Cape Kaliakra. Rising 70m above the sea, this rocky promontory is 2kms long, and ends abruptly at the chapel with the supposed grave of St Nicholas. The fact that you are among the ruins of one of Bulgaria's finest fortresses enhances the experience: a perfect blend of nature and culture.
Named in 1950 after the famous Bulgarian poet and revolutionary, Hristo Botev, the highest peak in the Stara Planina rises to 2,367m and should be taken seriously. The peak is often covered with snow and mist, or swept by strong winds, and it has claimed the lives of many who have challenged it. Even from a safe distance, Botev is a formidable sight, surrounded by clouds, thick forests and deep mountain ravines, which are so difficult for climbers that locals call them Dzhendemite, or the Hells. In contrast, the name of the beautiful 124-metre waterfall at the foot of the peak is Rayskoto Praskalo, or Paradise Waterfall. As for the peak, its old name is equally revealing of its true nature – the Turkish Yumrukchal means the Fist Peak.
Visit on an ordinary day, and Krastova Gora, or Cross Forest, may disappoint you. One of Bulgaria's most popular Christian pilgrimage sites is about 30 kms from Asenovgrad, in the Rhodope, atop the 1,413-metre Krastov Peak. Since the early 20th Century, people have flocked there to pray, believing that a piece of the Holy Cross, believed to grant wishes and bring health, is buried there. This popularity led to the building of a church and chapels in the 2000s, which look as ugly and soul-less as any Bulgarian pre-fabricated neighbourhood.
But come on a misty day, and you will find the place completely transformed, and most truly mystical.
Buinovsko and Trigrad Gorges, Devil's Throat Cave
The 10-kilometre Buinovsko Gorge, in the Rhodope, is Bulgaria's longest and most astonishing – for a great part of its winding course, you drive along a road so narrow and so overshadowed by high cliffs on both sides that it is always dusk there.
The neighbouring Trigrad Gorge is not as narrow, but is much deeper: the cliffs of the west bank of the Trigradska River rise 150m, and on the east side they reach 350m. Here is also where the Trigradska River sinks into the karst ground, creating the entrance to Bulgaria's most impressive cave, the Dyavolsko Garlo, or Devil's Throat. There, the river forms a 42-metre underground waterfall, echoing in the dark cavern, before disappearing in-between the rocks only to resurface again further along the Trigrad Gorge.
Some say that Orpheus descended into Hell through the Devil's Throat cave, on his doomed search for Euridice. The claim is certainly a modern invention aimed at attracting more tourists but, once in the echoing darkness of the cave, you might just believe it is true.
At first sight, the Belogradchik Rocks, a natural phenomenon covering about 90 sq.km around the city of Belogradchik, and rising up to 200m, are more picturesque than sublime. There, the landscape is a beautiful blend of the red pinnacles of these remains of an ancient sea, and of the green of the lush forests around, and the blue hills of the Danube Valley unfolding into the distance until they blend with the horizon. For the local people, however, the red rocks of Belogradchik possess a menacing beauty, a feeling expressed in the violent legends relating to the phenomenon. The local imagination sees in the rocks petrified mothers with children, nuns and monks, riders and bears, beautiful girls and lustful men, a menagerie of souls tortured between desire and the rules of behaviour imposed by society.
The Iskar River creates what is probably Bulgaria's best known gorge, on the western slopes of the Stara Planina, with a series of caves and rock phenomena, coupled with quiet villages whose locals tell fascinating stories. Cherepish is the most impressive part of the gorge, where the Iskar makes its way between high, white rocks covered with black spots. The small church of the Cherepish monastery brings a sense of scale to the landscape, looking tiny and humble, like a forgotten doll's house. These rocks have long inspired people. The writer Aleko Konstantinov was impressed, and so were the ancient Bulgarians. According to a local legend, the rocks are the skulls of Bulgarian soldiers who died there, fighting the invading Ottomans, hence the toponym: in Bulgarian Cherepish derives from cherep, or skull.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. 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.