Stunning landscapes, traditional architecture, strange museums, hidden stories outside Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders. You can find them all over this country, both in the mountains and on the plains, from Bulgaria's sea coast to its western border. What unites them is the feeling of genuine discovery, the charming details, a boon for anyone tired of the bustle of the larger cities.
This is Bulgaria's best preserved Revival Period town. Located on the northern slopes of the central Stara Planina, in the 19th century Tryavna produced prominent figures such as the poets Petko and Pencho Slaveykov, together with influential schools of wood-carving and icon-painting. Today, its centre has changed little since those glorious times. The streets are cobbled, the mansions of the well-to-do citizens rub walls with the smaller houses of the merchants and craftsmen.
Visiting the Daskalova Kashta, or Daskalov's House, is a must in Tryavna. Its wooden ceilings were carved during a competition between a master woodcarver and his ambitious apprentice. Both men carved suns and it is still hard to decide which one is better.
The iconostasis in the St Archangel Michael church is covered with intricate figures from the best Tryavna masters, and the icons are on a par with it. More icons are on display in the Icon Museum at the so-called Tsarski Paraklis, or King's Chapel, built by the Bulgarian Queen Ioanna.
And then there is the clocktower. The 21-metre edifice in the centre beside the humpback stone bridge is the town's main landmark. It was built in 1814 and a year later had a clockwork mechanism installed to regulate the working hours of the local merchants and craftsmen. The clock is still operational, and the tower houses Bulgaria's only Foucault's Pendulum.
What makes Tryavna even more special is that it is not completely stuck in the Revival Period. In the former city public baths building there is one of the most peculiar museums in Bulgaria, the Museum of Asian and African Art.
When driving from Veliko Tarnovo to Ruse, you pass through a roundabout. As it is hardly the best designed piece of road engineering in Bulgaria, you would be forgiven for overlooking one of this nation's most impressive bridges that is just there on your left.
The Byala Bridge over the Yantra River was built in 1867. It was commissioned by the Ottoman governor of Ruse, the reformist Midhat Pasha, and was constructed by the master builder, Kolyu Ficheto. Its construction was a challenge as the Yantra River here is wide and fast flowing. Ficheto found solutions to the problems, and even completed the bridge within budget. On the opening day, so the story goes, he stood under his creation to prove it was safe to cross.
The bridge at Byala was 276 metres long, nine metres wide and had 14 arches decorated with reliefs of allegorical and mythical creatures. In 1897, the Yantra washed away almost half of it. The bridge was reconstructed, but the surviving half of the original structure is still an arresting sight.
Few people bother to visit nearby Byala, although the town has one of the few old clocktowers left in Bulgaria. It was built in 1872 initially as a church belfry. A Made-in-Switzerland clock mechanism, donated by a former finance minister, was added to it in 1906. The clock remains operational.
Every Bulgarian child knows which is this nation's smallest town: it is Melnik, in the southwest. It is home to 325 people.
Size is not the only thing that makes Melnik remarkable. With its traditional houses scattered between, around and over natural pyramids of pale sandstone the town looks like the manifestation of a surreal dream. Then there is the local wine, a dark and heavy affair made from the local Shiroka Melnishka Loza grape variety. Winston Churchill is said to have been a fan in the rare moments he did not drink whisky. It is available for tasting in a number of local restaurants and cellars dug into the soft rock.
Melnik was probably established in the Middle Ages and for centuries prospered because of its viticulture and its location on a busy trade and military route. Today some of its houses are hotels while others are in different stages of dereliction, adding to nostalgic feel of your visit. To imagine what life in old-time Melnik was like, visit the spacious and richly decorated Kordopulova House, which once belonged to a rich Greek family.
Stretching for about 22 kms along the northern foot of Peak Botev, the highest in the Stara Planina, Apriltsi is one of Bulgaria's longest towns. This peculiarity is the result of its creation. Apriltsi appeared in 1976, when four villages were incorporated. The name was chosen to commemorate the local participants in the April 1876 uprising against the Ottomans.
Apriltsi still looks more like a contrived gathering of four villages rather than a proper town. The old village churches are the only historical buildings of interest here, but the scores of Bulgarian tourists flocking to Apriltsi are attracted by something else: the natural surroundings.
Apriltsi is an entry point for the Central Balkan Nature Park, providing a good base for treks to and from Peak Botev, Maragidik and the Vidimsko Praskalo waterfall. Even people who are not into hiking find Apriltsi pleasant because of its small hotels and family B & Bs offering a retreat close to nature.
This town in a ravine amid the rising plateaus of Bulgaria's northeast looks particularly drab. Don't let appearances fool you.
On the plateau east of Provadia loom the remains of the mediaeval Ovech fortress.
A clock tower and a 17th century mosque rise in the centre. Two other mosques are also preserved in quiet residential quarters on the western bank of the Provadiyska River. Built between the 16th and the 17th centuries, they are known only to locals and have been neglected for years. One of them still has an intact minaret, while the walls of the other are covered with Communist propaganda slogans in Bulgarian and Turkish, remains of the attempts of the Communist state to impose atheism.
The most fascinating of Provadia's ruins are also the oldest. Archaeologists have discovered that the nearby prehistorical settlement from the 5th-4th millennia BC used to thrive on the production and international trade of the most important commodity of the age: salt.
Among the post-Communist decay that defines the cityscape of Samokov there are still traces from the times when this place was buzzing with life due to its mines and metal workshops. Until Sofia became the capital in 1879, Samokov was the more prosperous of the two; a colourful community, the traces of which are still preserved.
Such was the importance of the town that Samokov used to be the seat of a bishopric. A number of old churches survive from those times. The 16th century Belyova Church is the oldest of them while the Samokov nunnery is the liveliest, with pilgrims, tourists and locals converging there at all times of the day.
Muslims also called Samokov home, as is evident by the beautifully painted 18th century Bairakli Mosque in the centre, near a massive stone Ottoman water fountain.
There were also Jews. The crumbling remains of a once beautiful synagogue lie amid modern blocks of apartments. There is the well preserved house of a wealthy Jewish family, the Aries. This house is now a museum illustrating the historical transformation of society from traditional to Western fashions.
Samokov's most impressive 20th century site is the modernist community hall. Adorned with solemn statues, it was built as a memorial to the fallen in the wars that Bulgaria fought in from 1912-1918. Behind it, in a former school, is the excellent local museum with plenty of information on metal production and Samokov icon painting.
This town in the central Stara Planina gained fame as one of the most emblematic communities of Bulgaria's Revival Period. In the 19th century its school produced so many teachers who spread the concept of secular education that it earned a nickname, The Teachers Factory. The local landlords were exceptionally rich and influential. Many of the poorer folk hated them, and they became a byword for people whose love of money outmatched their scruples.
Today, people visit Elena for the rural mountain valleys around that hide a network of old hamlets and villages, and for the emblematic Elenski but, a type of air-dried pork ham.
Elena's other points of attraction include the early 19th century St Nikola church with its vivid naivist frescoes, dozens of fine traditional houses (one of which houses a palaeontology exhibition) and a monument to an Irish-American journalist, Januarius MacGahan. In 1876, MacGahan reported on the Ottoman atrocities during the suppression of the April Uprising, and this gave rise to a wave of public sentiment in the West for the liberation of Bulgaria.
Near to Elena you will find the small but impressive Hristovski Waterfall.
The descendant of an ancient Greek colony, modern Balchik is an alluring combination of sea, natural phenomena, old architecture and one of the most peculiar palaces in Europe.
The summer retreat of Romanian Queen Marie was built between 1919 and 1940 when Balchik, along with the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast, was a part of Romania. Queen Marie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, envisaged her Balchik palace as a place of quiet contemplation and an epitome of her faith. Queen Marie was a follower of Baha'ism, a syncretic religion that sees all faiths as equal. This is why Balchik palace has a minaret, a "Roman" temple, an Eastern Orthodox chapel and a Garden of Allah. And there is also a nice botanical garden.
Balchik's charms are not confined to the palace compound. Early 20th century houses define the town centre, while old warehouses share space with modern cranes at the port. The local history museum has a room full of statues and reliefs from an ancient temple of Cybele, an Oriental goddess. Curiously, the temple was preserved almost intact after a tsunami hit Balchik in Antiquity, covering it with a thick layer of debris.
In Balchik you will also find the graves of an old abandoned Muslim cemetery with marvellous views to the sea, the ruins of a mediaeval fortress and the spectacular white chalk cliffs that are the trademark of the town.
The magnificent Belogradchik Rocks, with their strange shapes and red colour, are arguably Bulgaria's most impressive natural phenomenon. A larger-than-life Rorschach test, they have provided fodder for old and new legends about doomed love, lust, bravery and despair, enacted in the human imagination by a plethora of maidens, heroes, villains and beasts.
The pinnacles of the Belogradchik Rocks hide another gem: a fortress. The Romans were the first to recognise this natural phenomenon as a convenient location to defend the route from the Danube to the Sofia Plain. The Bulgarians followed suit, but what you see today is an early 19th century fort commissioned by the Ottomans from Italian and French engineers.
Belogradchik is sleepy and depressed, still unable to drag itself out of post-1989 economic problems and depopulation. Some of its central streets still preserve traces of early 20th century prosperity, and in one of the side streets a beautifully painted mosque is slowly disintegrating.
On the surface, Kalofer may not seem up to much. Due to an ill-conceived modernisation in the 1970s, this town in the Stara Planina lost almost all of its Revival Period architecture to a soulless marble square and the inevitable cube-like apartment blocks, but it is still worth a visit. It is the birthplace of Hristo Botev, probably Bulgaria's greatest revolutionary poet, and its quiet streets preserve the distinct feel of small-town Bulgaria: people greet each other by name, the gardens overflow with flowers, and in the summer old ladies make jams and men distil Rakiya. The scenery around is just divine and ready to be explored – Botev, Stara Planina's highest peak, looms over the town and Rayskoto Praskalo, the tallest waterfall in the Balkans, is within a few hours' trek of Kalofer.
Kalofer also has a remarkable number of religious buildings: four churches, two monasteries and a couple of chapels.
On 6 January the town attracts national (and increasingly international) attention when dozens of men in national costume jump into the icy waters of the Tundzha river and dance the Horo. This is their way to celebrate the Eastern Orthodox Epiphany tradition, when a cross is thrown into open water and men jump in, aiming to recover it.
The only town in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains teemed with life, trade and business in the 18th-19th centuries. The bustle in Malko Tarnovo subsided after the 1940s, when the town found itself in the border zone with NATO-member Turkey. Many of its residents left in search of a better life. The government tried to reverse the trend by opening mines and building housing, but it did not work out. In the 1990s, anything that was still working closed down, and emigration intensified.
Nowadays, the town is a place where you will struggle to find a restaurant, but its silence, paired with the remaining wooden mansions, the slow pace of life, the blossoming gardens and the thick Strandzha forest around, is precisely what makes Malko Tarnovo so interesting.
What to visit? The floor of the Eastern Orthodox church in the centre is made of slabs from a Thracian tomb and the icons are charmingly naïve. The Catholic church has a special chapel exhibiting a skullcap of Pope John Paul II. The local history museum is housed in a couple of beautiful traditional houses. Near Malko Tarnovo are the remains of an ancient Thracian tomb in the Mishkova Niva locality, and the remains of a secret archaeological expedition that in the early 1980s sought esoteric knowledge. More Thracian tombs are to be seen in the Propada necropolis, and in the border zone are the remains of Valchanov Bridge, supposedly built by Bulgaria's most notorious brigand.
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.