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.
Here we offer you some of the most interesting of these places. Take note: the clairvoyant Vanga, and the Strandzha feature heavily on our list.
Where: The Strandzha
What: A supposedly miraculous spring at a pagan and a Christian shrine
It is one of the strangest places in the already mysterious Strandzha mountains. Sunlight is said to be unable to penetrate this deep ravine near Slivarovo village, and stories are told of strange voices whispering from the shadows. A tiny spring in a shallow cave is believed to cure all illnesses, so people drink from it, fill their plastic bottles with its waters, and tie a piece of their clothing (socks, kerchiefs, even bras) onto the liana-like creepers hanging over the edge of the cliff. A makeshift Christian shrine to no particular saint is crammed with icons, candles and sweets still in their boxes. People visit Indipasha throughout the year, but the place is at its busiest on the Sunday after Easter. This feast is also called Indipasha. According to some, the name of the place and the feast derives from anti-Pesah, or "opposite Easter." Ancient Thracians in the Strandzha used to venerate caves with springs, but a shrine from their times in Indipasha is yet to be found.
NESTINARI, OR FIREWALKERS
Where: Balgari village, in the Strandzha
What: People in a trance dance on live embers
They are included in the UNESCO list of non-material heritage and have been the staple of tourist shows along the Black Sea resorts for decades and yet, when they are authentic, the dances of the Nestinari are a mystical experience. It is not only the amazing sight of men and women trampling barefoot on live embers and coming to no harm, but it is also realising that you are witnessing a ritual which is probably millennia old. The predecessors of the Nestinari were probably ancient Thracians venerating their gods; when Christianity arrived, the rite transformed into an extreme feast dedicated to Ss Constantine and Helen. It is celebrated in Balgari on 4 June. Formerly, the Nestinari were viewed as something akin to a sect of their own and they used to vehemently object when the Church condemned them as pagans. Being a Nestinar is still a calling and a tradition shared by a handful of families in the Strandzha and some parts of Greece, where people from the region emigrated in the early 20th century.
Where: Near Petrich
What: Supposed energy vortex and the shrine of Vanga
Clairvoyants are popular in 21st century Bulgaria: some of them give advice on cable TV, while others remain celebrities even after their death, like the blind Prepodobna Stoyna (1883-1933). No clairvoyant, however, can outshine Vanga (1911-1996). She was also blind, and is said to have foretold events such as 9/11, the civil war in Syria and Russia becoming a global leader (this is yet to happen). In the final years of her life, Vanga moved to Rupite. The area, she said, was charged with "cosmic energy." In 1995, she built a very controversial church there and when she died she was buried in its yard. The church has been attracting visitors and pilgrims ever since. Many of them claim to have felt the energy of the place, and even Vanga's presence.
Besides "cosmic energy," Rupite is also remarkable for the remains of a volcano, which has left hot mineral springs that fill the air with steam and the stench of sulphur.
THE TOMB OF BASTET
Where: The Strandzha
What: The supposed grave of an Egyptian goddess, where the knowledge of the world is hidden
The belief that the Egyptian goddess Bastet (the one with the head of a cat) is buried near a peak on the Bulgarian-Turkish border seems farfetched, but a growing number of people adhere to it. This idea spread in the 1990s, spawned by the memoirs of two people who were part of a secret team, acting on the advice of Vanga (who else) and protected by Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, in 1981. According to Vanga, deep in the Strandzha there was a place that hid the "history of humanity 2,000 years before and 2,000 years after our times." The expedition found the place, which was marked by a hologram (!) and started excavating. What they found, and even if they found anything at all, remains unclear. The digs were abruptly stopped when Zhivkova and a high-level patron of the project suddenly died. The excavations were blasted with explosives, and filled with water. Today, the participants of the expedition are either dead, or refuse to say anything more than stories of how Bastet was buried in the Strandzha.
The story has all the elements needed to turn the location into a place of pilgrimage. Today, many come to see "The Grave of Bastet," and claim to see the head of a cat in the rock face overlooking the blasted excavations, and to feel some troubling and mysterious "dark energy."
Where: The Rhodope, near Asenovgrad
What: Ancient Thracian shrine, UFO sightings
Vanga supposedly said about this ancient Thracian shrine that Belintash will take the lives of ten (or seven, or 12) people, before it releases its secrets (or treasures). What secrets? What treasures? Nobody knows, but many believe that Belintash has both secrets and treasures, as the place just looks like it was built of mystery upon mystery. A windswept rocky plateau standing amid the green Rhodope slopes, it is a demanding location of deep crevices and flat rock surfaces, covered with artificial canals, basins and carvings. Historians see in the carvings the remains of ritual basins and canals, and of houses and temples, but those with a more eager imagination see in them celestial maps. Sightings of UFOs have been reported at Belintash on a regular basis and, according to some, if you know where to look, you will see gigantic faces carved into the rock. Some theories claim that the name of the place means "wise rock," or that it was derived from the names of the Semitic (!) god Baal and the Celtic Belenus.
WHITE BROTHERGOOD SACRED DANCE
Where: The Seven Rila Lakes
What: A gathering of Bulgaria's most popular esoteric teaching
© Nikola Belopitov
If you read Bulgarian and have enough Bulgarian friends on the Facebook, you have probably already seen memes with the wise words of someone called Teacher Peter Danov (e.g. "When two people love each other, they bring an impulse towards something great in the whole Cosmos"). Peter Danov (1864-1944) was the creator of an esoteric and occult form of Christianity, and after 1989 his teachings found a growing number of followers. Penetrating the dense prose of The Teacher is a demanding task (he did not write a book but there are 4,000-plus sermons preserved), and the most spectacular way of getting a glimpse into his teachings is the annual meeting of the White Brotherhood at the Rila Lakes. His followers arrive for the sunrise of 19 August, and make a spectacular sight as hundreds of people, all dressed in white, form circles and dance to music that Danov composed.
DEMIR BABA TEKKE
Where: Sboryanovo archaeological reserve
What: Muslim saint's shrine venerated by all religions
Constructing a building with seven sides is not easy, particularly if you were trying to do this in the 16th century, but the people who built the Demir Baba Tekke nevertheless achieved it. The Demir Baba Tekke is the most wellknown sanctuary of the Alevis, an unorthodox Muslim denomination, to whom the number seven is sacred. Its adherents include in their rites the lighting of candles and the veneration of saints. Their women do not cover themselves up and they never reveal their secret rituals to anyone.
Demir Baba, or Iron Father, who is buried at the Tekke, is the most venerated Alevi saint in the Balkans. He performed miracles while he was alive, and continues to do so from his grave. At least, this is what people of all faiths believe, as they gather here to pray for health. The largest gathering occurs on 6th May, Hıdırellez for the Muslims and the Feast of St George for the Christians.
The Tekke is replete with symbols that puzzle the uninitiated: paintings of strange flowers cover the inside of the saint's tomb, and the outer wall of the precinct is decorated with reliefs of the "Witch's Eyes," rosettas and a building that resembles a mosque (Alevis do not have mosques).
To make this even more complicated, the Tekke was built over the remains of an ancient Thracian shrine.
What: Places with supposedly "cosmic powers"
Where: All over Bulgaria
Rupite is not the only "energy vortex" in Bulgaria. Some of this country's most well-known tourist sites have the dubious fame of being "charged with energy." Some are historical sites, such as the Madara Rider near Shumen and Perperikon in the Rhodope, and others are natural phenomena, such as Pobiti Kamani near Varna (pictured). What unites them is their supposed ability to make the visitor energised, or dizzy, or mesmerised, or all of these simultaneously.
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. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.