With its rolling hills and uninspiring towns, the central part of northern Bulgaria appears unexciting and dull, a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else. However, as so often happens in Bulgaria, appearances are deceiving. Leave the main road and you will discover that the rolling hills hide intriguing natural phenomena.
Travelling in Bulgaria's Northwest, particularly in early summer when the greenery is still fresh, tempts you to explore the outdoors: the magnificence of the Belogradchik Rocks, the might of the mountains around Vratsa, the slow flow of the Danube past the walls of Vidin fortress. However, when travelling in this region, you should not forego the opportunity to peer into the dark, mysterious underground.
Mighty stone arches loom over a tiny river, the moist air hangs over misty greenery, and the flutter of wild birds' wings is amplified in the dark caves; the atmosphere of Bozhi Most, or God's Bridge, is as intriguing as its mysterious name.
There are places in Bulgaria that ancient tradition or modern lore have turned into sites that attract not only people interested in beautiful landscapes and history, but also those who believe that they will discover something otherworldly there. Supposedly haunted villages and sites frequented by UFOs rub shoulders with "miraculous" springs and rocks, memories of dead clairvoyants and rumours of extraordinary events. To these, add in places venerated for centuries by unorthodox religious denominations or modern spiritual movements, plus locations that have inspired urban myths, and you will end up with a fascinating itinerary of mystic Bulgaria.
In Bulgarian, the word Lakatnik means "elbow" and this place is named for a reason: at this point in its course through the Stara Planina mountains, the Iskar makes a sharp turn to the east and northeast, eventually reaching the Danube.
How many caves there are in Bulgaria is a question with no definitive answer. So far, more than 4,500 have been discovered and mapped. The number is so high because 22 percent of the country is covered with karst, a topography created when water soaks, dissolves and carves sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone, dolomite, and marble. Over millennia, the water shapes the karst into a variety of forms both on the ground and deep below. Caves are some of the most spectacular results of this activity.
A good sense of direction in circumstances where maps are of little use, a willingness to ask the way, and an adventurous spirit – if you possess at least two of these qualities, it is time to head to the Eastern Rhodope. Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.