The Danube

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds.

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DARK TALES IN BELENE

Belene is a backwater of a town on the Bulgarian bank of the River Danube. It is inhabited by less than 8,000 people. Yet, for more than one reason, its name is known to all Bulgarians.

To some, it is the location of a planned nuclear power plant whose failure to materialise illustrates how corruption and incompetence in post-Communist Bulgaria can ruin what was to become a major power engineering project. To others, it is synonymous with the most atrocious crimes of the former Communist regime.

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BANKS OF KOZLODUY

On 28 May 1876, the passengers of the Radetzky, a steamer headed on the Danube to Vienna, were in for a surprise. As the ship was heading upstream, three men in strange military uniforms, swords and guns in their hands, appeared on the deck. Their leader, a handsome bearded man, cried something and suddenly young men, that until then had looked like ordinary gardeners heading for seasonal work in Austria-Hungary, gathered around the band. Dozens of them. They took off their clothes and put on uniforms. More weapons were seen onboard.

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THE DANUBE

Hiding in plain sight is one of the best ways to avoid attention. There is a region in Bulgaria that has achieved that, although not quite intentionally. The Danube region is a treasure trove for visitors, yet few travellers venture along the 470-kilometre stretch from Vidin to Silistra that defines the greater part of Bulgaria's border with Romania. This is in sharp contrast to the popularity of the Danube as a tourist destination in Central Europe.

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WHAT IS 'NPP BELENE'?

Whichever Bulgarian government translator devised the incomprehensible acronym "NPP" could have had little idea that those three letters would live on in many Bulgarians' consciousness for longer than the thing they were supposed to signify. To speakers of English, NPP stands for Nuclear Power Plant, a literal translation of the Bulgarian АЕЦ.

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19TH CENTURY RABBI HALTS MAJOR EPIDEMIC

The coronavirus outbreak has stopped the world in its tracks and made the word quarantine a part of everyday life, and vocabulary. The word describing the practice of isolation as a way to fight epidemics, of course, is much older and there is a Bulgarian town that is an example of how instrumental quarantining could be in saving lives.

In 1828, the decisive action of a single man protected Silistra, on the River Danube, from an outbreak of cholera. Astonishingly, this man was not a general or a prime minister, but a modest Jewish religious scholar.

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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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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 2

Such examples are the fortification structures excavated at a salt-producing town near Provadiya and a fortified settlement now in Ticha Dam, near Shumen, both belonging to the 5th millennium BC. Archaeologists interpret these two sites as early evidence for a stratified society whose wealth and resources attracted incursions and invasions.

Discovering new fortifications sounds great, but most of the fortresses in the Bulgarian lands are in a condition that can excite only an archaeologist. Few have survived in a state fit for Instagrammable photos.

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IVANOVO ROCK CHURCHES

No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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TUTRAKAN MILITARY CEMETERY

If you chance to pass by on your way from Ruse to Silistra you will see a large military cemetery beside the road. Stop and have look at the rows of graves, the chapel, the old machine guns, and the monument in the shape of a war medal. There is an obelisk, too, with inscriptions repeating the same words in Bulgarian, German, Turkish and Romanian: "Honour and glory to those who knew how to die heroically for their fatherland."

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ROMAN DANUBE

A mountain is a better protection than a river, but in 15 AD, when the Romans took over the Thracian lands between the Danube and the Stara Planina mountain, they had no choice: The mighty river, whose upper course they had already mastered, became the frontier of the expanding empire, setting a clear line between the civility of Pax Romana and the unruliness of the independent people on the other side of the river, the Barbarians, as the Romans called them.

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THE BEST BULGARIAN BRIDGES

A legend is told all over the Balkans about a bridge and a stonemason. Once upon a time, a group of builders was commissioned to construct a bridge over a river, but whatever the men had built during the day was mysteriously destroyed during the night. Each morning the builders had to start from scratch.

Finally, the men saw the writing on the bridge, and realised that it wanted a human sacrifice. They reluctantly made a deal among themselves: on the following day, they would inter in the bridge the first person who came near.

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TAKE THE B TRAIN

Wars are of course bad, but their side effects can sometimes be positive. Take, for example, the Crimean War of 1853-1856. This conflict, which engaged the Western powers in battle on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, brought many European innovations to the backwater that was the Sultan's realms at that time. In the following years, the Bulgarian towns along the Danube experienced an influx of novelties, from the first theatre to the first newspaper.

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OTTOMAN BULGARIA

As you travel through Bulgaria you will inevitably be confronted by remnants of its Ottoman past: mosques, water fountains, bridges, forts, baths and public buildings. It would be strange if you were not – Bulgaria spent 500 years under Ottoman domination. It began with the invasion at the end of the 14th Century, which brought chaos to the Balkans and destroyed the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and ended for the different parts of the Balkans inhabited by Bulgarians between the 1878 San Stefano Peace Treaty and the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.

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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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YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOOSE

There are moments when time and place merge, creating an overwhelming sentiment which makes you wish the world would stop spinning.

Sunsets, for example, can be glorious and sites like Santorini have made a business out of them. In Bulgaria, a similar experience could be enjoying a cold menta, or mint liquor, with a dash of Sprite in the shade of a beach bar, while the mid-day sun shines in the bleached sky. Or it could be entering the warmth of a tavern, filled with the smell of burning wood, with the anticipation of a hearty dinner after a day skiing.

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ROMAN BULGARIA

Travellers have for centuries been amazed by the size and magnificence of Roman remains in Bulgaria, and though many ancient ruins have been lost to modernisation, much still remains.

The Romans consolidated their power over today's Bulgaria at the beginning of the 1st Century AD, absorbing the local Thracian tribes into the multicultural and multiethnic empire. Life changed, to an enormous extent. New cities were built and older ones were refashioned, with temples, baths and opulent villas in the latest Roman fashion.

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HORROR ISLAND

If there was a competition for the most surreal road sign in Bulgaria, Belene would be a top contender. The standard signposts in the centre of this 8,300-strong town on the Danube list the following places of interest. First is "Municipality," the building of the City Council. Then comes the Bus Station. And then – hold your breath – you can choose to go to either the Nuclear Power Plant or the Prison.

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