Nature

STONED RHODOPE

Traditional architecture and music, great food, and mystic landscapes: the Rhodope, the mountain range that covers a significant part of the south of Bulgaria, is cherished by nature lovers for many a reason. Its strange rock formations are one of them.

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SHIROKA LAKA: PICTURE-PERFECT IDYLL IN THE HEART OF THE RHODOPE

Made with stout beams and massive stone foundations, the houses smell of ageing wood and geraniums planted in old earthenware pots. The streets are made of cobbles.

Sadly, the old Rhodope villages are slowly disappearing. Some have been transformed beyond recognition by their inhabitants, who fancy new plastic window frames over wooden ones, and shiny roof tiles over stone slabs. Others are dying out, with their ageing and diminishing inhabitants leaving their abandoned houses to the mercy of the elements.

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HARBINGERS OF SPRING

They are finally home: after flying thousands of kilometres from Africa, the storks have returned to Bulgaria, back to their old nests. Even more have passed through the country, on their way farther into Europe; according to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, about 75 percent of the storks on the continent arrive through Bulgaria.

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ESCAPE TO LESHTEN

Rural tourism in Bulgaria was barely known 20 years ago, but in the early 2000s it experienced an EU-funded boom.

But in the late 2000s the still ongoing economic crisis hit and now many guesthouses are struggling to survive with the decreased number of visitors. In the western fringes of the Rhodope, however, is a traditional village which is still one of the best places for rural tourism in Bulgaria.

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FROM WHENCE THE KAMCHIYA SPRINGS

How to define the source of a river is often a tough question to answer. Is it where water springs from the ground for the first time, or is it the place where two or more streams merge into a larger flow? Even the source of the Danube, Europe's largest river, is contentious: at least three springs claim to be the beginnings of the mighty river.

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BLUE, BLUEST, SINEMORETS

The name of Sinemorets, Bulgaria's last village on the southern Black Sea coast before Rezovo and the border with Turkey, is relatively new. It means "Blue Sea" and was given in 1934, as a replacement for the older name of the village, which was derived from the Greek galasios, or azure.

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GOING DOWN THE DANUBE

In the 19th Century, cartographer Guillaume Lejean discovered with amazement that the Bulgarian stretch of the Danube was less well known than the Nile. In 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor described the Bulgarian bank as terra incognita "the least inviting country in Europe, except Albania." Were they right?

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PURPLE CRAZE

The oil-bearing rose is considered one of Bulgaria's symbols, but it already has a strong competitor, lavender. Every summer for the past several years the fields between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains have been turning purple with rows of lavender plants. Spreading towards the background of the mountain ridges, the plants make you dizzy with their overpowering scent and vivid colour.

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BULGARIA'S ENDANGERED HERITAGE

Officially, not a single Bulgarian entry in UNESCO's world heritage list is in danger. In actual fact however, in the country of sun and roses, many historical and natural sites are in danger of being changed beyond recognition, or of being completely lost.

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ISKAR GORGE

There's nothing deeper than the Iskar," goes the local folk song, with characteristic parochialism. Even sceptics, however, admit that the longest river running entirely within Bulgarian territory is indeed remarkable. Springing from the plain near Samokov, it flows through the Sofia Plain and the Stara Planina mountains, crosses the Danubian Plain and, after a journey of 350 kms, joins the Danube.

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GOOD CAPE

Wherever you reach some higher ground in Bulgaria there will be a legend about it. And in 90 percent of the cases it will be about some brave Bulgarian maidens who jumped off it to avoid being "enslaved" by Turks.

Kaliakra is no exception.

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CHERNI VRAH

Sofia is perhaps an exception to the unwritten rule that every great city should be located either at sea or near a major river. Bulgaria's capital has a rare advantage, though: within an hour you can leave behind the noise and bustle of downtown and be climbing up a mountain.

With its 2,290-metre-high peak of Cherni Vrah, Vitosha is Bulgaria's fourth highest mountain. It is in the southern part of the Sofia Plain, and a mountain view or a house on its slopes command higher real estate prices in some parts of the capital.

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HIDDEN WATERFALL

Travellers don't expect to find a waterfall in the middle of the rolling hills of the Danube Valley, and yet, surprisingly, it is there – hidden amid karst crevices and known only to a handful of people.

The waterfall in the village of Hotnitsa is one of these unexpected sights. In fact, it is one of the two reasons for the relative fame of this village in the Veliko Tarnovo region. The other is the large colony of British expats, which accounts for some 10 percent of the Hotnitsa population.

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ALL QUIET ON THE TIMOK

Knee-deep in the water, the fisherman casts his line. He pays no attention either to the small sheep outlined on the opposite bank or to their shepherd's distant shouts. The two men can see each other quite clearly but do nothing to acknowledge it. They act as if they were on different planets.

And in a way they are. The fisherman is wading in Serbian waters, the shepherd and his flock are in Romania, and we are observing the scene from Bulgaria. We are all divided by the Danube and its tributary, the Timok.

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IN THE DEVIL'S FOOTSTEPS

Travel agencies often use the word "paradise" to describe Bulgaria’s natural landscape and holiday hideaways. If you consult any Bulgarian about somewhere in the countryside you are thinking of visiting, you will probably hear the phrase "a piece of heaven" at least once. Even in the national anthem Bulgarian land is referred to as "Heaven on Earth". However, as you become more familiar with the country's geography and history, you'll come across fewer signs of heaven and many more of hell. The Devil and his kingdom appear in the names of rivers, caves and natural phenomena.

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FOR CAVERS AND MAD PEOPLE ONLY

When you see Karlukovo, near Lukovit, for the first time, you'd be hard put to believe that you are in the part of Bulgaria richest in karst rocks. The settlement lies among low, monotonous hills and there's nothing – not even a signpost pointing to a tourist sight to indicate that underneath this modest landscape lies a labyrinth of caves. It is the result of thousands of years of action by wind and water, which carved the pliable karst rock and formed caves, magical shapes and whirlpools.

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DEAD BLACK SEA

“There is no bluefish, the bonito is imported from Turkey and was frozen two years ago. We don't serve sprat!” No matter what restaurant you go to on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, this is what you'll hear. Talk to a fisherman and you'll get even more depressed. “There's no fish in the sea this year, apart from some lucky scad,” he'll say. Freshwater trout and North Sea salmon are now the standard in a country that has a sea of its own.

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BIRDSPOTTERS

"We are not all lonely nerds and train-spotters". That is what most birdwatchers feel they need to add in defence of themselves when confessing to their secret passion for finding and following their feathered friends. Birders have often been labelled as compulsive "list tickers" or "twitchers" whose love for avian wildlife comes second to their desire to accumulate an ever increasing number of bird sightings. With over 10,000 species of birds worldwide there is plenty of scope for those with this obsession, but the range of people interested in this pastime is wide and varied.

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