BULGARIA'S 4 1/2 ISLES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Island hopping in Black Sea

AASAS

When God created Earth, the Bulgarian legend goes, He gathered all the nations to divide the world among them.

To the British, he gave mastership over the seas, while the Swiss received the mountains, the Russians got the great plains, and the Germans took possession of the thick forests. When God ran out of gifts, he noticed that there was a people who were still empty-handed: the humble Bulgarians, languishing at the end of the queue of nations. Baffled, God soon realised what had happened. The Devil had stolen all the best pieces of the earth. The Almighty took everything back, and gave it to the Bulgarians.

This is why, the legend goes, Bulgaria is small but packed with amazing seas, mountains, plains, and forests.

The legend does not mention any islands and there is a good reason for that.

Even in the most optimistic evaluation, the Bulgarian part of the Black Sea has no more than five pieces of land that can claim to be islands or islets. A dozen or so dot the Danube River. None of them is significant in terms of size, but some of them can or have become tourist attractions.

ST IVAN

Where: Less than a kilometre from Old Sozopol

Area: 0.66 sq.km

St Ivan island

You have probably heard the name of Bulgaria's largest Black Sea island in a very particular context – the 2010 news that the "relics" of St John the Baptist were discovered there. The "holy bones" were unearthed by archaeologists excavating the large monastic compound which was established on the island in the 5-6th centuries, and lasted until 1629, when the Ottomans destroyed it to prevent it becoming the base of Cossack pirates.

The island has been deserted ever since, if you do not count the Russian military hospital which was operational during the 1828-1829 Russo-Turkish war.

As there are no humans around, the island is a sanctuary of vibrant wildlife. It is a protected area and home to several endangered species. The most interesting are Bulgaria's largest European Herring Gull population and the country's only earth rabbit colony, in existence since 1934. The coexistence between the gulls and the rabbits is far from harmonious. Tiny bones of bunnies eaten by the birds can be seen scattered all over the island. If you visit, try to avoid May, when seagulls nest and may become aggressive to humans.

ST PETAR

Where: So close to St Ivan that it was believed to be part of it until recently

Area: about 0.01 sq.km

St Petar Island

Bulgaria's smallest Black Sea island was probably born after a severe earthquake rocked the island of St Ivan. This upheaval may have happened around the middle of the 19th century, when the name of the island appears in historical records for the first time.

The islet is more popularly known as Bird Island, because of its Herring Gull colony. This is also the reason for its white colour, the result of accumulated guano.

ST KIRIK

Where: 250 m off Sozopol

Area: 0.8 sq.km

St Kirik Island

Not an island, really. St Kirik can be walked to through a pier, built in 1927, shortly after a state fishery school was founded on the island. A school for fishermen? At the beginning of the 1920s, many of Sozopol's seafaring population, overwhelmingly ethnic Greeks, left Bulgaria. They were replaced by Bulgarian refugees from the interior, former farmers and shepherds who had no idea how to make a living from the sea. The school was supposed to help their children adapt. In addition, it was a secret training ground for the officially non-existent Bulgarian Navy, which had been abolished after the Great War.

Gradually, the military took over the island. St Kirik was included in the Sozopol Architectural Reserve in 1965, but remained a restricted area well into the 21st century. The Navy moved out in 2007, when the island was given to the Ministry of Regional Development. Since then, plans to turn it into a tourist attraction have been proposed and then abandoned. One of the most extravagant was to install a colossal statue of Apollo, a replica of the 12-metre bronze monument to the god that stood there in Antiquity.

This proposal met its match in late 2020, when the Bulgarian Culture Ministry announced that the French and UAE governments were interested in expanding the Louvre brand to the former fishermen school.

So far, nothing has happened. The Isle of Kirik remains off-limits for visitors to this day.

ST TOMA

Where: Opposite Arkutino, in the Ropotamo Reserve

Area: 0.01 sq.km

St Toma Island

This islet bears the name of the chapel which once stood on it, but it is more popularly known as Snake Island. A flourishing colony of grey water snakes live there. They are completely harmless, but can give you a good scare if you are swimming in the bay.

The other peculiarity of Snake Island are the only wild-growing cacti in Bulgaria, introduced here by King Boris III in 1933. The cacti are of the Opuntia variety, and flower in June. In August and September the yellow blossoms produce edible fruits which look like plums and taste of strawberries.

St Toma was included in the Ropotamo Nature Reserve in 1962.

ST ANASTASIA

Where: 6.5 km off Burgas

Area: 0.22 sq.km

St Anastasia Island

St Anastasia has accumulated more history than its humble size suggests. It was inhabited at least from the 4th-6th centuries AD, and in the Middle Ages on it was built a monastery that survived well into the 20th century.

Then something unexpected happened.

In 1923, the government closed the monastery and turned the island into a political prison for members of the persecuted agrarians and Communists. In 1925, 43 Communist inmates made a daring escape. The fugitives managed to reach the Soviet Union, but soon afterwards most of them fell victim to Stalin's political purges.

Their escape, however, proved inspirational for the Communist government after 1944. St Anastasia was renamed to Bolshevik and was repurposed for recreational activities. In the 1960s-1980s, the island became a favourite haunt for both tourists and the Burgas bohemia, who loved the rugged terrain, the marvellous vistas of Burgas Bay, the cheap restaurant and the feeling of escaping from the over-regulated life on the mainland. The island had become a place to escape to, not to escape from.

With the democratisation after 1989, the island's old name was restored. Due to financial issues, regular transportation was cut off and the restaurant was closed. For years, the only people on St Anastasia were the keepers of the lighthouse, which was first built in 1888, and in 1914 was replaced with the structure still in operation today.

The end of St Anastasia's desolation came in 2014, when the Burgas City Council brought back the island onto the local tourist map complete with infrastructure, a museum, a hotel and a restaurant.

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