Nature

BULGARIA'S WILDEST BEACHES

Anyone who's visited Sunny Beach or the stretch of coast south of Sozopol will be amazed: Bulgaria's Black Sea shore, actually, is not just a concrete jungle dotted with multi-storey hotels, casinos and bars. The fact is that though overwhelming, what many locals refer to as the "unbridled" construction effort of the 2000s and 2010s has left a few usually difficult-to-reach areas untouched by the bulldozers. They still exist to this day.

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INSIDE GOD'S EYES

The Eyes of God: whoever came up with this name for the most impressive feature of Prohodna Cave, near Karlukovo, did a good job. The two openings in the ceiling of the cave really look like the gaze of a supranatural being. Some locals might protest that the actual, traditional name of the openings is the more prosaic Oknata, or The Chimneys, but bringing more visitors to this part of the economically depressed Bulgarian northwest is always a good thing for the local community.

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BULGARIA'S SEA DAFFODILS

Some of the sand dunes along the southern Black Sea coast that have not yet been overbuilt with hotels and resorts are the home of a fine and very delicate wildflower, the sea daffodil. In fact, the southern Black Sea coast is the only location in this country where you can see sea daffodils in their natural environment. Some of the bigger colonies are near the beaches of Silistar, Tsarevo, Kiten and Primorsko.

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FROM START TO FINISH

Bulgaria has plenty of mountains and peaks that challenge even experienced mountaineers, yet one of its greatest outdoor adventures is not just conquering some 2,900-metre-high summit. It is trekking along the ridge of the Stara Planina, the mountain range that divides Bulgaria from west to east, known also by its more poetic name, the Balkans.

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FIREFLIES MAGIC

Much has been said and written about the beauties of Bulgarian nature and the abundance of its wildlife. Birdwatching, for example, has become a mainstream tourism activity that many travel agents organise for Western visitors. Yet little if anything has been promulgated about another remarkable if not so obvious (for obvious reasons, pun unintended) treasure that Bulgarian forests, meadows and riversides have: the abundance of fireflies.

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NATURE MEETS CULTURE AT BELOGRADCHIK ROCKS & MAGURATA CAVE

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.

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WHITE WATER RIDES IN BULGARIA

City fatigue is one of the most acute consequences of the Covid-19 travel restrictions. For the weary Sofianite, there is somewhere in Bulgaria that offers rapid relief. An hour and a half drive out of town, the jagged and winding Struma Gorge is hell for motorists and heaven for nature lovers. At this part of its course, the Struma squeezes through narrow bends, flings itself from rocks and creates whirlpools.

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THE CALL OF THE WILD

Let's go back to nature! This is the motto of the modern urbanite in 2021, when the time for planning the summer vacation arrives. People who feel unconvinced in the safety of hotels and big resorts have now fixed their eyes on an alternative way of holidaying: camping.

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RHODOPE: WONDROUS BRIDGES

Dragons are imaginary creatures and geological processes are real, but the Wondrous Bridges in the Rhodope make believing in imaginary creatures easier.

The nature phenomenon is at the end of a potholed road that twists and turns for 16 kms west of Road 86, the main route that connects Smolyan in the Rhodope with the wider world. The area's peaks are dark green with firs and the deep valleys are white with streams, a picturesque cover of karst core, the result of millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity.

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FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY

In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.

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FLOWER TURNS BULGARIA RED

Travelling around the countryside in Bulgaria is a true joy in late spring and early summer, when the days are long, the sun is bright, and lush greenery brings life to the empty villages and abandoned industrial ruins that still define the local landscape outside the big cities. One particular flower makes travelling even more of a joy, as here, there and everywhere, in the fields and around ruined buildings and beside roads and railway tracks bloom blindingly red, and sometimes orange and white, wild poppies.

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BULGARIA'S MYSTERY ROCKS

When the first Western traveller saw Pobiti Kamani near Varna, he could not believe his eyes. The massive stone pillars emerging from the sandy, shrub-covered wilderness made Viktor Teplyakov, a "special missions officer" in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, rein in his horse. He wanted to explore, but there was no time.

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TRAVELLING TO BULGARIA'S EXTREMES

In the past two centuries, geography, politics and moments of national triumph and tragedy have defined the borders of Bulgaria. The current territory of the Bulgarian nation appeared after the Berlin Congress in 1879, stretched and contracted during and after several wars in 1885-1886, 1912-1913 and 1915-1918, and peacefully set into its current shape in 1940.

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SHOOTING STARS OVER BULGARIA

Bulgaria, sadly, is small enough to provide any true dark sky location like Norway, Scotland or the American Southwest. Wherever you travel in the Bulgarian mountains or along the Black Sea coast you will never be sufficiently removed from a city or town to be able to see all of the stars twinkling in a genuinely "black" sky. However, with a bit of research you will be able to at least observe the seasonal meteorite showers over the northern hemisphere. And with the right approach you will capture fantastic images that will stun friends and families back home.

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BULGARIA'S FIREFLIES

Much has been said and written about the beauties of Bulgarian nature and the abundance of its wildlife. Birdwatching, for example, has become a mainstream tourism activity that many travel agents organise for Western visitors. Yet little if anything has been promulgated about another remarkable if not so obvious (for obvious reasons, pun unintended) treasure that Bulgarian forests, meadows and riversides have: the abundance of fireflies.

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BULGARIA'S STRANGE ROCKS

The human penchant for spotting visual patterns in seemingly chaotic landscapes, preferring false positives to false negatives, has been crucial for survival. For thousands of years, the ones who lived long enough to pass their genes to the next generation were the ones able to spot the lion hidden in the bush. Even when there was no lion at all.

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