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.
The most interesting caves in Bulgaria are in the Danubian Plain, where limestone accounts for 75 percent of the bedrock; the Stara Planina, where the deepest and most of the longest caves in the country are to be found; and the the western Rhodope, where marble is common.on.
Geologically speaking, caves are young formations: it takes them only a handful of millions of years to be formed. This allows time enough for running and dripping water to create impressive formations like stalagmites, stalactites and stone columns, and for life to adapt to these extreme habitats. Bulgarian caves are home to a range of bats and insects. Some of them also provided early humans with shelter.
Less than 60 caves in Bulgaria can be visited by tourists and are staffed by guides to explain the history of the particular site, and to point out its most interesting formations that, after a Rorschach-type of association game played by speleologists, have received names like the Ostrich, the Rocket, the Mushroom, and so on. The Madonna with the Child is probably the most widely distributed "identification" to cave formations in Bulgaria.
Here is our selection of the underground experiences for non-spelunkers in Bulgaria. Just remember to wear proper shoes: the constantly high humidity makes the paths and stairs slippery.
Where: Near Belogradchik, in the Stara Planina
What: 2,608m long, 56m deep, temperature 12ºC
Visit for: Bulgaria's only prehistoric cave drawings
One of Bulgaria's largest caves, the Magurata started forming about 15 million years ago and now has halls packed with stalagmites, stalactites and stone columns, a small lake, plus a colony of eight bat species.
What makes the visit outstanding is Magurata's gallery of prehistoric drawings. These black, crude figures of people, animals, birds and geometrical shapes are still puzzling: some of the scenes have been interpreted as hunts, others as religious rituals, and possibly as a form of early calendar. How early is hard to say: the Internet attributes some of the drawings to Neolithic people but, according to historians, they are much later, from the 1st millennium BC. The gallery of drawings is opened for visitors who have paid an additional fee.
In the 1970s, because of its clean air, the cave was turned into a sanatorium for patients with respiratory diseases. A local winery uses one of the cave halls to mature its wines.
Where: Near Lovech, on the Danubian Plain
What: 2,442m long, 60m high
Visit for: Stunning cave halls, Sylvester Stallone
Cut deep into the hills near Lovech, the grandeur of the Devetaki Cave cannot be imagined by the traveller until they finally reach its enormous entrance. The entrance hall of the cave is the largest in Bulgaria (St Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral would easily fit into it), and is filled with the echo of a murmuring stream and the screams of the birds who live there, as do 14 rare bat species.
The Devetaki Cave was inhabited in prehistoric times but, in spite of its historical and ecological significance, under Communism it was closed and turned into a secret military fuel depot (the stink of petrol is still discernible). In 2011, the cave became the movie set for The Expendables 2, starring Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham.
Access to the cave between 1 June and 31 July, during the bats' mating season, is forbidden.
DEVIL'S THROAT CAVE
Where: Near Trigrad, the Western Rhodope
What: Abyss cave, 548m long, 89m deep
Visit for: The highest cave waterfall in the Balkans
No stalagmites and other fancies here: the Devil's Throat deserves its name for the stunning, hellish combination of a 42-metre waterfall descending through a narrow hole into one of the largest cave halls in Bulgaria. It is hardly a surprise then that according to a (modern) legend, Orpheus entered Hell from here.
The cave has proved to be ideal for bats and provides a home for one of Bulgaria's largest bat colonies, numbering four species and 35,000 creatures.
The Devil's Throat is a part of the magnificent Trigrad Gorge, and nearby is another spelunking wonder, the Haramiyska Cave. Its two halls, connected by a 36-metre abyss can only be explored by experienced visitors with no (significant) fear of heights or claustrophobia, and who are really excited by the idea of descending through the darkness hanging onto a rope.
Where: Near Vratsa, in the Stara Planina
What: 320m long, 21m deep, temperature from -7 to 15ºC, 92 percent humidity
Visit for: Ice formations, multimedia
One of the most popular sites in the Vrachanksi Balkan Nature Reserve, Ledenika is a rarity for its temperatures that are generally lower than those in other caves and which, in winter, allow surreal ice formations to appear around the entrance. It also has a fine collection of stalagmites, stalactites and stone columns, which are visible all year round. Recently, Ledenika became infamous for an EU-funded theme park of grotesque fairytale characters created around it. The aim of the project was to make the cave more "appealing" to the modern tourist, but has resulted in a multimedia show, performed in the main hall of the cave.
Four bat species and a rare beetle which has adapted to living in complete darkness inhabit Ledenika.
When visiting in winter, be careful, as ice accumulates on the paths and stairs.
Where: Near Karlukovo, on the Danubian Plain
What: 262 long, 56m high
Visit for: The "Eyes of God"
Bulgaria's longest tunnel cave is one of the easiest caves to visit: the road between Karlukovo village and Lukovit passes right over it. Walking the corridor carved into the rock by a long gone river, accompanied by the wind the tunnel creates, is a memorable experience. It gets even better when you reach the two openings in the ceiling, which resemble a pair of eyes and are therefore called "The Eyes of God." They have frequently appeared in films, including the nationalistic Bulgarian movie A Time of Parting (1987) and a less ambitious American low-budget adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The Karlukovo region is particularly rich in caves and karst formations, some of which can be explored from the Iskar-Panega Geological Park eco path.
SAEVA DUPKA CAVE
Where: Near Brestnitsa village on the Sofia-Varna highway, in the Stara Planina
What: 210m long, 40m denivelation, temperature 7-11ºC, 90-98 percent humidity
Visit for: The largest stone column in Bulgaria
Hands down, this is the most beautiful of all the caves in Bulgaria. The Saeva Dupka stuns from the very entrance, when the visitor passes by the work of a mighty earthquake that crushed large stalagmites and stalactites to the ground, and then has to squeeze past a curtain of tubular formations, to reach a series of halls densely packed with stalactites, stalagmites and stone columns. The circuit of the halls leads around the largest stone column found so far in Bulgaria; its circumference is about 60m.
Eight bat species inhabit Saeva Dupka, and during hibernation season the guide will point out to you their small bundles hanging from the ceiling.
BACHO KIRO CAVE
Where: Near Dryanovo, in the Stara Planina
What: 3,500m long, no denivelation, 13ºC temperature, 95 percent humidity
Visit for: Seeing a place inhabited by Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons
Tucked into a spectacular rocky canyon a short walk from Dryanovo Monastery, the Bacho Kiro cave has its fair share of stalagmites, stalactites, stone columns and flowstone (sheet-like deposits), in which the eager imagination may discern fish, snakes, people and, of course, the Madonna. Visitors are also invited to squeeze though a narrow corridor called Purgatory: successful passage guarantees that you are without sin, or maybe just that you are agile enough.
Bacho Kiro cave stands out because of its role in early human history. Archaeological research has found that the cave was inhabited during the Palaeolithic period by both Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, although not simultaneously. It was the first cave in Bulgaria to be adapted for tourist visits.
Where: Near Yagodina village, in the Western Rhodope
What: 10,000m long, 36m deep, temperature 6ºC, 92 percent humidity
Visit for: An extravaganza of stalactites, stalagmites, stone columns and other cave formations
It is probably Bulgaria's most popular cave, and deservedly so. Yagodinska Cave abounds with fascinating stalactites, stalagmites and stone columns, and formations like flowstone, rocks coloured like leopard skin, and cave "pearls." Access to the cave is easy, and the guided tour includes only about a kilometre of its total length. The Yagodinska Cave is in one of the most picturesque parts of the Rhodope.
All of this explains why some couples have chosen it for their wedding and why speleologists celebrate the arrival of the New Year there. Their festive tree stays in one of the halls year round; the high humidity keeps it green and fresh for years before a replacement is needed.
Eleven species of bats inhabit the cave, and the remains of a house from the 4th millennium BC have been discovered near the entrance.
STALBITSA, OR STAIRCASE, CAVE
Where: Near Karpachevo village, on the Danubian Plain
What: 145m long, 48m deep
Visit for: The spine chilling experience of facing the darkness of the underground
This fascinating, free-entrance cave should only be explored if you have at least proper footwear and a torch, but having a local guide with you is recommended. The Stalbitsa is for those who dare to descend into its unlit cavity via a staircase (which gave the cave its name), and to stare into the utter darkness. It is absolutely unnerving. Our Cro-Magnon ancestors probably felt the same when they had to decide in a matter of seconds if the pitch black cave they were considering for an overnight shelter was safe or was hiding an angry and hungry sabre-toothed cat or cave bear.
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.