Walls, moats and turrets in spectacular locations: Bulgaria has them all
Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland – and many 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 that combine stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.
Sadly, many of Bulgaria's surviving forts have been damaged beyond repair by rogue restorations. The trend started as early as the 1930s and increased in the 1980s, two periods when various governments and for various reasons encouraged nationalism. The trend resumed in the 2010s, when some local municipalities spent EU money on projects which, at least on paper, were meant to enhance the sites for modern tourism. In reality most ended up completely over-restored with the use of poor-quality contemporary materials and building techniques. The result? The definition of historical kitsch holds the answer.
Some of the forts in our Top 10 list have been affected too, but are still among the finest examples of fortification construction in Bulgaria.
The course of the Chaya River has been 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. During the reign of the Bulgarian King Ivan Asen II (1218-1241) 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.
For visitors, the reddish Rocks of Belogradchik 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, and 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.
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 churches 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 banks of 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 erection of the so-called Baldwin Tower, in Veliko Tarnovo's Tsarevets fortress.
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 arrived, in the 1st century AD, they 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 to the fortress, together with a memorial to Russian Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who won a major 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.
Curiously, the Ottomans had their own legend about the cape, and it also involves a saint. According to them, Kaliakra is the burial place of the venerated 13th century Muslim sage, Sarı Saltık.
One of the most spectacular Bulgarian forts is a mass of stone masonry rising among the hills of the no-man's land on the border with Turkey. The fortification, whose ancient name was probably Boukelon, has witnessed much: the fateful battles of Romans and Goths in 378, and of Bulgarians and the Latin Empire in 1205, near Hadrianopolis (today Edirne), are two of the more famous events in a long list of local clashes.
Under the Ottomans the fortress was abandoned and gradually fell into disrepair. By the 17th century it was nothing more than a hunting ground of the sultans.
Under Communism, Matochina was completely off limits to anyone without a special permit because it sat right on the border with Turkey. It is accessible now and well worth a visit.
On one of the last hills of the Eastern Rhodope mountains near Svilengrad stands one of the best preserved mediaeval fortresses in Bulgaria. It was built at the turn of the 11th-12th centuries during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and saw much action in the 13th-14th centuries, when the region was hotly contested by Bulgarians, Byzantines, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans. The walls were almost intact until 1900, when many of the stones were taken to Svilengrad and used to build military barracks.
The fortress was declared a site of historical importance as early as 1927, but this did not protect it from becoming an actual military site during the Cold War. A bunker was constructed at the tip of the fortification that overlooks the surrounding plain, because Svilengrad was on the border with NATO-members Turkey and Greece.
Provadiya, in the northeast, is a town that looks drab, but it has one of the most atmospheric forts in Bulgaria. Extending over a narrow plateau, Ovech Fort was built by the Byzantines in the 4th century to protect their realms from the Barbarians. They ultimately failed, as Bulgaria was established nearby in the late 7th century by a people the Byzantines clearly saw as barbarian, the proto-Bulgarians.
The Bulgarians turned the fort into an important stronghold. In the first decades after the Ottoman invasion Ovech was the centre of the anti-Ottoman revolt led by Bulgarian princes Konstantin and Fruzhin. The fort was finally abandoned in the 17th century.
Today it is a picturesque stretch of rock covered with traces of walls, water cisterns and churches, with stunning views of the surrounding plain and plateaus.
When Bulgaria was restored as a state, in 1878, it was obliged to destroy all Ottoman fortresses on its territory: this would reassure its neighbours that it would not use these fortifications against them and would also make sure that the young state could not profit from the infrastructure of its former overlord. The fortresses in question were along the Danube, and were largely built in the 19th century by European military engineers after the latest fashions in defensive warfare (the arrival of aviation in the early 20th century made all of them redundant, but that is another story).
Bulgaria largely complied, with some notable exceptions. Ruse was one of those.
Of its extensive Ottoman fortifications, only the Levent Tabia structure survives. It was built in the 1820s on an elevation that overlooks this important Danube city and its busy port. It was designed by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, then a young Prussian officer on a mission to modernise the Ottoman army. Later, he would become Prussia's general chief of staff.
Unlike the rest of Ruse's fortifications, Levent Tabia survived 1878 and was used by the Bulgarian army and navy. In the 1970s, the area around it became a park and the fortification was repurposed as a restaurant.
The remains of Ruse's other fort, the ancient Roman Sexaginta Prista, are less spectacular. You need some imagination to recognise in the humble walls on the bank of the Danube the largest Roman naval base in the region (Sexaginta Prista means Sixty Ships Port).
The maze of narrow stone alleys squeezed between the low stone walls of Shumen Fortress are not very appealing to the average fortification fan, but when seen from the air, the fort's honeycomb structure perched on the edge of a vertical cliff impresses with its density. It is the epitome of human stamina against invaders.
Rising on the edge of the Shumen Plateau, the eponymous fortress overlooks the vast plain where the first Bulgarian capitals, Pliska and Preslav, used to be in the 7th-10th centuries.
The fortification predates the arrival of the Bulgarians. The ancient Thracians were the first to settle here, in the 2nd millennium BC, and the Romans turned the settlement into a proper fort, in the 1st century AD. Over the following centuries, the ebb and flow of Barbarian incursions forced its rebuilding by the early Byzantines. When Bulgarians settled in the area, the fort fell silent for some time: it was at the heart of the state and thus far from danger. The Bulgarians rediscovered its potential when the Byzantine push against the country intensified, in the 10th century. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Shumen Fortress was revived as a major urban and economic centre of Bulgaria. The Ottomans, who took it in 1388, did not destroy it. Instead, they just settled in.
The fortress was finally destroyed and abandoned in 1444, when the anti-Ottoman crusade led by Polish-Hungarian king Władysław III captured it after a 3-day siege.
The archaeological survey of Shumen Fortress started in 1957. In the following decades the fort was carefully researched, and restored.
Von Moltke's other creation in Bulgaria, the Mecidi Tabia fortress in Silistra, on the Danube, survives in top condition. It was built
in 1841-1853 to provide more security for Silistra, whose older fortifications had been reduced to rubble during the preceding Russo-Turkish wars. The hexagon-shaped fort was very well built. It withstood a one-month Russian siege during the Crimean War, and when Romania took Silistra, in 1919, it settled an army unit there until 1941, when it returned the city to Bulgaria. The names of scores of Romanian soldiers and officers are still carved into the stone walls.
Today the fortress sits at the foot of a TV tower in the park locals favour for their morning jog. Its tunnels, bastions and other structures are open to visitors, along with an eclectic exhibition of old weapons, military paraphernalia, and Communist-era knick-knacks, busts of Lenin and Stalin included. Reportedly, they never visited Silistra.
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 above 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, along with merchants 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 centuries-long state tradition did not offer much in the way of defensive structures.
In the 1930s, when no one needed defensive structures any longer, parts of the fortifications of Tsarevets were rebuilt from scratch, modelled on 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 for the celebrations for the 1,300th anniversary of its foundation. The walls on Tsarevets rose again, together with the royal palace and the patriarch's church, which was decorated with Socialist Surrealism murals depicting the glory of the Bulgarian nation through the centuries and especially under Communism.
The construction of "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 the architects who designed them.
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 10th-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 Wallachians, and was reconstructed according to contemporary rules of fortification. By the 1880s, however, it had long been 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.
To Bulgarians, the fortress is known by a feminine name, Baba Vida, or Granny Vida, and Babini Vidini Kuli, or Granny Vida's Towers, the result of arguably Bulgaria's most feminist legend. It tells of three aristocratic sisters who built three fortresses in the region. The middle and the younger sisters were married to bad men who squandered their fortunes. The eldest one, Vida, never married, ruling happily in her stronghold and taking good care of her subjects. When she died, the castle was named after her.