Remnants of the Middle Ages, old fortifications sit atop sea cliffs, mountain peaks and river bends
Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland - and most other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th Century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites combining stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.
Many of these survivors are now in danger. For some years, local municipalities have been spending EU money on restoration projects which, on paper, should enhance the sites for modern tourism, but in reality most end up completely over-restored using poor-quality contemporary materials and building techniques. The result? The very definition of historical kitsch. The most blatant examples are the so-called Tsari Mali Grad, near Belchin village, and Krakra Fortress, in Pernik. In spite of the growing protests of professional architects and historians, the building of "new" castles in Bulgaria continues, so some of the places in this article should be visited as soon as possible, before they, too, fall prey to this monstrous trend.
Where: Near Svilengrad, southeast Bulgaria
When: 13-14th centuries
One of the most spectacular Bulgarian fortresses is a mass of stone masonry rising among the hills of this no-man's land on the border with Turkey. The fortress, whose ancient name was probably Boukelon, has seen a lot; the fateful battles of Romans and Goths in 378, and of Bulgarians and the Latin Empire in 1205, near Hadrianopolis (today Edirne), are only the two more famous events in a long list of local clashes.
Under the Ottomans, however, the fortress was abandoned and gradually fell into disrepair. By the 17th Century it was nothing more than a hunting area for the sultans.
Under Communism, Matochina was completely off limits to anyone without a special permit because it sits right on the border with Turkey. It is accessible now and well worth the visit.
Where: Belogradchik, in northwestern Bulgaria
When: 19th Century
For visitors, the red Belogradchik Rocks are one of the most astonishing natural phenomena in Bulgaria. For the Romans, however, the high rocks were the perfect place to build a fortification guarding the route from the Danube to the Aegean. A number of later rulers who controlled the area thought so too. In the 14th Century, the Bulgarian rulers of nearby Vidin rebuilt the fortress; the Ottomans were happy for centuries with this one, until the Serbian uprising of 1804 (which eventually led to Serbia's independence). In 1805-1837, the Belogradchik Fortress was completely reconstructed by French and Italian engineers.
This is the layout you see today, with two bastions and a citadel, picturesquely huddled between the highest pinnacles of the Belogradchik Rocks.
Where: Near Ivaylovgrad, southeast Bulgaria
When: 12-13th centuries
Ivaylovgrad is a stone's throw away from the border with Greece, and so it was during the 9th Century, when a fortress was built on one of the last outcrops of the Rhodope mountains. Bulgarians and Byzantines fought bitterly to control the castle, which also protected a lively city and was the seat of a bishopric. Life here continued even after the Ottoman invasion, when Lyutitsa Fortress lost its military importance. People lingered among the abandoned fortifications until the 17th Century, when they moved to the more fertile plain.
The layout today, with a strong rectangular wall, 13 towers and an inner citadel, is what remains from the 12-13th centuries.
Where: Near Asenovgrad, the Rhodope
When: 13th Century
The course of the Chaya River has been a part of an important route through the Rhodope connecting the Thracian Plain with the Aegean since prehistoric times. The Thracians were the first to fortify the cliffs where the river leaves the mountains, and the Byzantines constructed a mighty castle, in the 9th Century. The citadel soon became an important and much contested military outpost between Bulgaria and Byzantium; it was under the rule of Bulgarian King Ivan Asen II (1218-1241) when it was completely rebuilt, in 1231, and named after the king. The fortress was not able to hold back the Ottoman invasion of the 14th Century, and was abandoned in 1410, as it was too far from the borders of the new empire.
The fortress church of St Petka survived through the ages, and is now the most beautiful part of Asenova Fortress, together with the vista of the northern slopes of the Rhodope and the Thracian Plain.
Where: Near Kavarna, on the Black Sea
When: 4th-14th centuries
The first fortress on the high, narrow and easily defended Kaliakra Cape, 13 km southeast of Kavarna, was built in the 4th Century BC. When the Romans came, in the 1st Century AD, they named the fort Acros Castelum, and soon enlarged and strengthened it. By the end of the 4th Century, the fortress already had an inner and an outer city, plus a strong citadel at the tip of the cape. Kaliakra needed this – in the following two centuries it became a vital stronghold that withstood the attacks of the "Barbarians." After the 7th Century, it experienced a long period of decline, before becoming the capital of an influential autonomous Bulgarian principality, in the 14th Century. After it finally fell to the Ottomans, a number of legends appeared related to this event. The most popular tells of the 40 maids of Kaliakra, who braided their hair together and jumped into the sea to avoid capture. A statue to the girls stands at the entrance of the fortress, together with a memorial to Russian Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who won a naval battle against the Ottomans near Cape Kaliakra, in 1791. The statue is mere propaganda meant to reinforce Communist-era history designed to convince Bulgarians that the Russians have been "brothers" for many centuries. At the tip of the cape is the chapel with the supposed grave of St Nicholas who, according to lore, was killed by the invading Ottomans.
Where: Vidin, on the Danube
When: 10-17th Centuries
Bulgaria's only completely preserved citadel has a deep moat which could be filled with water from the Danube, massive walls and strong turrets. It stands on the site of an earlier Roman fortification, and in the 10-14th centuries was a major Bulgarian stronghold, becoming, in the second half of the 14th Century, the capital of the Kingdom of Vidin. Under the Ottomans, between the 15th and the 17th centuries, the fortress was often under attack by the Austrians, the Hungarians and the Walachians, and was reconstructed according to the contemporary rules of fortification. By the 1880s, however, it had long become a shadow of its former self, and was used mainly as a prison. Still, the citadel fared well during the 1885-1886 Serb-Bulgarian war, when it was besieged by Serbian forces.
Where: Near Kavarna, on the Black Sea
When: 5-6th centuries
A strong fortification of white stone was built on this rocky terrace by the sea as the need for better protection from the Barbarians grew in Late Antiquity. After the Barbarians did take the upper hand, the fortress was left largely to itself.
Until recently, the carefully maintained remains of this fortress were one of the best bits of the Yaylata archaeological and nature reserve, together with the plateau's red cliffs, lush steppe greenery, teeming wildlife, Sarmatian rock graves and 5th-6th centuries rock churches.
Recently, however, the Kavarna municipality started a "socialisation" project of the fortress in the only way desirable in today's Bulgaria: through rebuilding. New stone blocks are now being laid over the ancient ones, with the contractors aiming to reach the original height of 8 meters. When the completely reconstructed defensive towers rise again, they will have tin roofs.
Where: Near Ruse
When: 12-14th centuries
Perched on a bend of the Cherni Lom river, the Cherven fortress is the descendant of an earlier Byzantine fortification which, in the Middle Ages, grew into a major city. It had splendid churches, busy traders and craftsmen – and strong walls to protect them. A number of rock monasteries appeared nearby at Ivanovo, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress suffered heavily in the Ottoman invasion, and was destroyed in 1388. Life, however, went on, and Cherven remained the main city in the area until the 18th Century, when people gradually resettled on the Danube, in today's Ruse.
Cherven's most memorable structure is its three-storey defence tower, dating from the 14th Century. In the 1930s, it was used as a model for the reconstruction of the so-called Baldwin Tower, in Veliko Tarnovo's Tsarevets fortress.
Where: Near Burgas
When: 5th-14th centuries
This strategic height near the Black Sea coastal route was fortified in the 5th Century and, as the Middle Ages progressed, it became a major city. In 1332, the Rusokastro fortress witnessed the victory of Bulgarian King Ivan Aleksandar (1331-1371) over the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III (1321-1341), which allowed Bulgaria to expand into the region and secured some temporary peace.
Like most fortresses in Bulgaria, Rusokastro declined after the Ottoman conquest and became the stuff of legend. Rusokastro's story is about a nearby cave, an ancient Great Goddess sanctuary, which was said to be the home of a dragon who kept there his beloved, a beautiful girl.
Today, a fraction of the fortress has been excavated, including parts of the fortification wall, the citadel, a gate and a newly-built church.
TRAYANOVI VRATA FORTRESS
Where: Ihtiman Pass
When: 3rd Century
The pass between the Sofia and the Thracian plains has been strategic for millennia, and in the 1st Century AD the crucial Roman road, the Via Diagonalis, was built through it. Fortifications here, however, appeared as late as the 3rd Century, when the stepped-up attacks on the empire by the Barbarians resulted in the need for better protection on vital routes. The importance of the pass remained even after the Romans disappeared from the scene. In 986, Bulgarian King Samuil (997-1014) defeated the army of Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025) by the fortress then known as Shtipon.
Under the Ottomans, the old Roman paved road and the fortress became derelict, and people had to cross over tramping through mud.
The picturesque, slowly deteriorating ruins of the ancient fort, however, never failed to impress any European traveller who happened to come upon them. One of them, in the mid-15th Century, was the first to call the fortification Trayanovi Vrata, or Trajan's Gate, and this name stuck.
Sadly, Trayanovi Vrata has become one of the victims of the recent craze for fortress "reconstruction."
Where: Near Petrich, southwest Bulgaria
When: 11th Century
Visiting Samuilova Fortress might seem like a waste of time, especially if you are travelling to Greece and its beaches. The humble remains of what used to be a major fortification can be explored in five minutes, and there is nothing spectacular there.
Samuilova Fortress, however, is worthy to see because of its tragic history. It was built by the Bulgarian King Samuil, the powerful but ill-fated ruler who fought a life-or-death struggle for Bulgaria's independence with Byzantium. In 1014, near this fortress, King Samuil was defeated by Emperor Basil II, a loss followed by what modern historians would term a huge war crime. The emperor ordered the Bulgarian prisoners - all 14,000 of them – to be blinded; one in a hundred was left with one eye, to lead the others. The crippled army was sent back to Samuil. The Bulgarian king could not endure the sight of his blind soldiers, and died, supposedly of a hearth attack. Four years later, Emperor Basil II overcame the last Bulgarian resistance; for the following two centuries there was no Bulgaria at all.
Where: Veliko Tarnovo
When: 12-14th centuries
What you see today on Tsarevets hill, in Veliko Tarnovo, is advertised as the stronghold and the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. This is true. Between the 12th and the 14th centuries, this steep hill on the Yantra River was the beating heart of the Bulgarian state. Here, and on the surrounding hills, massive fortifications guarded splendid churches, royal palaces and aristocratic mansions, merchant's and traders quarters, and monasteries.
In 1393, however, the Ottomans conquered Tarnovo, and Tsarevets became... the Muslim neighbourhood. Much was lost from the medieval city, and when Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, the hill which embodied its century-long state tradition did not offer much in the way of defensive structures.
In the 1930s, when no one needed defensive structures any longer, a part of the fortifications of Tsarevets was rebuilt from scratch, following the guidelines of the Cherven Fortress. The idea was to pump up national pride. The project was revived in the late 1970s and the 1980s, while Bulgaria was in the grip of patriotic enthusiasm and lavish spending following the celebrations of the 1,300th anniversary of its foundation. The walls on Tsarevets rose again, together with the royal palace and the patriarch church, which was decorated with Socialist Surrealism murals depicting the glory of the Bulgarian nation through the centuries, and especially under Communism.
The construction on new ruins in Tarnovo continued, in the 2010s, on the neighbouring Trapezitsa hill. Like elsewhere, these new ruins have nothing to do with historical fact but rather reflect the imagination of architects who designed them.
Where: Near Kokalyane, on the Sofia-Samokov road
When: the 9th-14th centuries
The easiest fortress to visit from Sofia, Urvich is on a bend of the Iskar River, and was one of the strongest defensive points during the Ottoman invasion of the 14th Century. The importance of this place has resulted into a number of legends being attached to it, concerning a mythical Bulgarian king who was said to have fought here with a wide range of enemies from near and far.
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.