Stunning landscapes, morbid legends, prehistoric mysteries and... good wine
Abandoned villages, depopulated towns, potholed roads: signs that things have gone horribly wrong in the recent past define the Bulgarian northwest, officially the poorest region in the EU. Vegetation engulfs abandoned factories built during Communism when the economy was subsidised – and left to rot during the turbulent transition to democracy and the open market. As industries failed, locals departed for Sofia and the West. What remained was an ageing population, crumbling infrastructure, crime and despair.
The quiet human drama still unfolds against the background of spectacular landscapes. Belogradchik is a case in point. The town's crumbling streets and rundown houses are scattered among one of the most astonishing rock formations in Europe. Nearby, mesmerising prehistoric drawings cover the bowels of the Magurata Cave.
The Schoolgirl is one of Belogradchik's most famous rocks. According to legend, the Schoolgirl was a real girl turned to stone to evade a dervish, who chased her from behind, and a bear which sprang up in front
Jagged, red and twisted, the Belogradchik Rocks stretch in a narrow 30-kilometre band along the foot of the Stara Planina. Their formation began about 250 million years ago, when silt and sand accumulated on the floor of a shallow sea, which later disappeared. The deposits solidified into reddish sandstone. Erosion then took over and carved them into the phantasmagorical shapes that we see today.
A larger-than-life Rorschach test, the Belogradchik Rocks have stirred the imagination of generations of locals. The resulting legends involve terror, envy, doomed love and dark passions.
One tells that a rock called Monahinyata, or The Nun, was once a beautiful girl who was forced to take the vows by a jealous monk, but she fell in love with another monk in the neighbouring monastery. When she gave birth to a child, she was forced to leave her convent. In a frenzy of moral indignation, Mother Nature destroyed both religious foundations, and turned the monks, nuns and the young mother into stone. According to another version of the legend the rock known as Konnikat, or the Horseman, also played a part in this tragic tale.
Oxidised iron explains why Belogradchik rocks are red
Borov Kamak, or Fir Stone, recalls the sorrow of a Bulgarian shepherd who used to go there every day and play the kaval while looking at the nearby Turkish farm where his beloved was kept as a concubine. One day, the ram of his flock turned against his master and pushed him into the abyss. The sheep followed the shepherd into death – and into legend.
The Schoolgirl and the Dervish rocks are the petrified remains of another such story. A Turkish dervish developed an unholy passion for a beautiful Bulgarian girl and lured her into a meeting. The terrified girl ran away from him, crying for help, until both of them were turned into stone.
Bliznatsite, or The Twins, were two brothers unjustly killed by local noblemen (amazingly, the villains of this story are not Turks).
When you climb the fortress you realise its strategic importance
The Belogradchik Rocks have inspired people to create more than just morbid stories. The formation stands on an important route between the River Danube and the Aegean, and in times past needed protection. The Romans were the first to turn one of the most outstanding groups of rock into a stronghold. Later, medieval Bulgarians and the Ottomans continued to use the site, adding new layers of towers, moats and walls. The fortification that today encircles the rocks was built in 1805-1837 by French and Italian experts in line with the period thinking on contemporary warfare. The renovated fort was soon put to use in the bloody suppression of not one, but two Bulgarian uprisings in the region.
After that, the fort became redundant and was abandoned. Today, it is a tourist attraction.
Belogradchik's surreal landscape can be explored on foot through several designated trails
While the Belogradchik Rocks blend geology, history and imagination above ground Magurata Cave amalgamates geology, prehistory and imagination underground.
Formed 12 million years ago and about 2,500m long, Magurata is one of Bulgaria's longest caves. Its collection of stalactites and stalagmites is spectacular enough, but the prehistoric drawings in one of the caverns are truly unique. They are Bulgaria's only example of cave art: black suns, weird animals and stick-figure humans who hunt, dance, have sex and perform magic or religious rituals.
The black suns and the dancing women of the Magurata Cave date to the 5th-4th millennium BC, when living in farming communities and the use of copper tools was the norm.
Unleash your imagination! No one is sure what the drawings in Magurata Cave depict
For years, Bulgarians were aware of the existence of the Belogradchik Rocks and Magurata Cave, but few had visited the area, partly because of the inadequate tourist infrastructure and partly because they were busy exploring foreign destinations.
The Covid-19 pandemic changed that. As restrictions impeded international travel, lockdown-weary Bulgarians were "forced" to rediscover their own country.
Belogradchik was among their first choices. When a Vagabond team visited on a September 2020 weekend, all the B&Bs were booked full and there was an hour's wait to get a table at a restaurant.
The grating on the cave entrance, made sometime in the 1960s or the 1970s, is misleading. We have no data that cavemen have ever inhabited Magurata. The famed drawings were created by a farming community that used elaborate metal tools
The increased interest of Bulgarians in the wonders of the Northwest coincided with initiatives to boost local tourism, some of them funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, such as hot air ballooning. Locals, too, are finally waking up to new opportunities to make some money. Belogradchik's only proper hotel has been closed for some time, but new B&Bs and recreation compounds in and around the town have opened.
And there is the local wine. The Belogradchik region has a special terroir and local wineries make the most of it. One of them even uses the Magurata Cave to make naturally carbonated labels.
If ever there was a silver lining in this pandemic, one is definitely shining over Belogradchik, but you still need to drive carefully: the potholes have not disappeared.
Some claim that the cave drawings are actually a calendar
Besides the fortress, an old and abandoned mosque is the only visible trace of the Ottoman heritage of Belogradchik
The fortress in the 19th century when it was still in use. Engraving from Danubian Bulgaria and the Balkans by Austrian-Hungarian traveller Felix Kanitz
"These giant red pillars, scattered on both sides of the deep road, where on the bottom small waterfalls fling the water of a foaming stream; these trees, hanging from a great distance, as if they were ready to fall; this deep solitude, scarcely disturbed by the flight of eagles and vultures, all of this provokes terror even in the most tempered soul," wrote French Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui about the Belogradchik Rocks in 1841. He was in the region to investigate for the French government the Ottoman atrocities during the suppression of a Bulgarian rebellion