For the modern traveller, the Stara Planina is probably Bulgaria's greatest geographical obstacle: a massive mountain range, crossed by narrow passes which are slow, full of bends, and often closed in winter. In the past, however, the Stara Planina was an effective natural protection against enemies. One of its major passes, by the 1,326-metre Shipka Peak, is one of the best examples.
When visitors head to Bulgaria's southwest, their prime place of interest is Melnik, the picturesque traditional town located among surreal sand pyramids and famed for its red wine. Near the town, however, one of Bulgaria's most fascinating monasteries, a delightful example of 16th-18th century religious art and architecture, sits hidden in the hills.
You do not need to be able to read Bulgarian to understand the meaning and to feel the power of a fresco in the Preobrazhenski Monastery, near Veliko Tarnovo. You do not even need to know who the artist, Zahariy Zograf, was.
Christ was an alien. Or if He wasn't, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.
As a city that remembers its glorious past as one of Bulgaria's mediaeval capitals, and its importance in the 19th century as the nascent Bulgarian nation struggled for independence and recognition, Veliko Tarnovo has a collection of churches that have witnessed or played a part in many historic events.
What first attracts your attention in a Bulgarian Revival Period church? The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?
We all love snow in the city on the first day after it falls, while the air is still crisp and pristine white covers the dusty streets, the cars, the leafless trees. However, after its first day in Sofia, snow becomes just another urban annoyance. The compacted ice on the pavements. The impassable streets. The grey, yellow and black hues the snow assumes from the dirty city air. Not. Enjoyable. At. All.
Kalofer is one of those places that all who'd rather avoid Bulgaria's highway pass en route between Sofia and Burgas, yet few bother to stop, and even fewer stay on. From a certain standpoint, this is positive. It keeps mass tourism confined to the highway, away form the town huddled in the foothills of Mount Botev, once known as Ümrükçal, which means Fist Mount – Stara Planina’s tallest summit at 2,376 metres. Kalofer is a pearl you will fall in love with. But to discover it, you need to make an effort.
Travelling is not just about seeing new places. It is also about experiencing their atmosphere and their food, their people and their stories. Elena, in the central Stara Planina near Veliko Tarnovo, is a destination that has all this, and more. There, you will find yourself deep amid green forests, old churches and traditional houses, complete with the feeling of a place still stuck in the early 1990s. As a bonus, the town is the home of one of Bulgaria's renowned delicacies: the Elenski but ham.