TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

From natural wonders to ancient sites and street art

wondrous bridges_0.jpg

When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

Tryavna

What: One of the best preserved Revival Period towns in Bulgaria

Visit for: Atmosphere

The 19th century was an important time in Bulgarian history. It was when Bulgarians realised they were a separate nation within the Ottoman Empire and started to fight for religious, cultural and political independence. Bulgaria has changed a lot since then, but a couple of towns and villages have preserved the atmosphere of the 19th century. Tryavna is arguably the best of them.

Nestled deep in the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, it has a neighbourhood of beautiful half-timbered houses, a huddled old church and a winding cobbled lane. An old clock tower dominates the town square, and a humpback stone bridge over a narrow stream still crosses from one part of the town to the other. The local icon painting and woodcarving school is famed for their intricate style, and the slopes of the Stara Planina provide a picturesque background.

Tryavna is also a place of lesser known, but charming idiosyncrasies. The Tryavna Clocktower houses Bulgaria's only Foucault's Pendulum, and the former public baths is now an art gallery exhibiting... African and Asian art, a donation from a well-to-do local emigre.

Dimitrovgrad

What: Communist urban planning

Visit for: Ambiance

For a town this young, Dimitrovgrad has quite a history and an ambiance to match. It was created in the spring of 1947 by the then new Communist government to be a showpiece of the new regime's power to develop large scale industries and to create new cities. The town was modelled on a Soviet project called Komsomolsk, in the Russian far east. It was planned as a major transport and industrial hub and attracted new settlers by the thousands, mainly young Bulgarians lured by its jobs and the promise of a better life. Dimitrovgrad had a layout that matched its ideological importance – grand avenues and buildings after the core principles of Stalinist architecture and urban planning.

When the regime collapsed in 1989, the town reinvented itself from a showpiece of Communist industry to a centre of free market and pop culture. In the 1990s, a large market for cheap goods imported from nearby Turkey sprang up in town, supplying the rest of Bulgaria with affordable clothes, electronics, home utensils and shoes. Simultaneously, a local entrepreneur decided to turn an underground phenomenon, the gaudy music called chalga, into an industry. It soon conquered Bulgarian minds and souls.

Today, Dimitrovgrad's market is a shadow of its former self; its role diminished after malls and cheap Chinese goods took over. The headquarters of the chalga industry also moved to Sofia. The Stalinist buildings and avenues are still here, in different stages of disrepair, making Dimitrovgrad a living museum of Communism and what came after.

Staro Zhelezare

What: Village covered in modern graffiti

Visit for: Gallery of famous faces

Until not that long ago, few people were aware of the existence of the village of Staro Zhelezare. Today many visit it on purpose, to see the faces of Bulgarian and global celebrities and politicians, such as the late Queen Elizabeth II, Donald J Trump, The Beatles, Mahatma Gandhi, Freddie Mercury and many more, gracing the walls of the houses of ordinary villagers. Often, the owners of the houses are depicted along with the celebrities.

Staro Zhelezare's transformation is the result of the work of a Bulgarian-Polish couple, the Piryankovs. They are artists, and in 2015 they organised in the village the first Mural Festival called Village of Personalities – Art for Social Change. They have not stopped since, and each summer they bring their students there, to paint walls and people. This activity is inspired by a manifesto claiming that avantgarde art belongs in the villages.

Tyulenovo

What: Stunning cliffs over Black Sea

Visit for: Austere landscapes

Tyulenovo, a village north of Varna, is a summer destination because it is at the seafront. However, sea bathing is an activity few visitors actually engage in. There are no sandy beaches here, and the sea is treacherous and full of rocks. Tyulenovo is located on arguably the most dramatic part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast: a line of rugged 70 metre high cliffs dropping spectacularly into the sea. This is why you should visit Tyulenovo and if possible, do it in autumn or winter, when the feeling of desolation and abandonment is at its strongest.

Demir Baba tekke

What: Unorthodox Muslim shrine

Visit for: Stunning setting, history, legends

Demir Baba's tekke is one of the 140 cultural heritage sites in the Sboryanovo Archaeological Reserve, near Isperih, which also include the UNESCO-listed Sveshtari Tomb. It is the only site here that is still used for its original purpose, since the time of its construction in the 16th century.

Demir Baba, or "Iron Father," who was buried here, is the most honoured saint of the Alevi, an unorthodox group of Muslims who live in secluded communities across Bulgaria and are known for their curious rites, such as not having mosques. As a young man, the legend says, Demir Baba travelled around the world, killed two dragons, and helped the sultan seize control of Budapest. He then returned to his native village, founded a tekke, or shrine, gathered disciples and started to preach and help people. When he died, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage.

People of all faiths – Alevi, Sunni and Christian, continue to visit Demir Baba tekke to light candles by his huge tomb. The greatest number of visitors gather on 6 May, the holiday celebrated as Hıdırlez by Muslims and St George's Day by Christians.

Demir Baba's compound is full of the signs of a mixture of religious traditions and superstitions. The saint's grave is covered with dozens of towels, shirts and socks left there as gifts for answered prayers. The trees in the surrounding area and the tekke's window bars are decorated with strips of cloth, tied there by people who believed this would bring them health. The stones on the southern wall of the building are decorated with mysterious ornaments: six-pointed stars, hexagrams and rosettes.

Demir Baba tekke had been a sacred site long before the arrival of Islam. Archaeologists have discovered that an ancient Thracian sanctuary existed there between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD. The türbe was built right over its remains.

Wondrous Bridges

What: Stone arches deep in the Rhodope

Visit for: Feel of awe

The Wondrous Bridges are at the end of a potholed road that twists and turns for 16 kms west of the road to Smolyan. The surrounding peaks are dark green with firs and the deep valleys are white with streams and exposed karst rocks, the result of millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity.

Chudnite Mostove, or the Wondrous Bridges, are the most spectacular creation of geological forces in the area: two huge arches of grey marble amid the thick greenery of the Rhodope forest.

The larger bridge is almost 100 metres long, 15 metres wide and the highest of its three arches rises 45 metres above the ground. The second bridge is a 30-metre high tunnel that runs for 60 metres before ending in a narrow opening. There, the rivulet that runs under both bridges disappears into the karst rock. It reappears 1.5 km downhill.

Amazingly, this small rivulet is the reason for the existence of Wondrous Bridges. For millions of years it carved its way into the 600-million-year old marble. First, it created huge underground caves. Then an earthquake struck. The caverns collapsed, but the stream continued to flow, carving, dissolving and carrying away boulders, while rain, sun and wind worked their magic on the ever expanding openings in the former cave, and fir trees took root on its surface.

Hisarya

What: Ancient Roman town turned modern spa resort

Visit for: Hot mineral springs among ancient ruins

Ancient Romans loved the hot springs in Diocletianopolis, modern Hisarya, so much that they created a whole city around them. In the following centuries many people were attracted to the local springs, too – from the Ottomans to the high society of liberated Bulgaria to the Communist regime that created sanatoriums for the masses and the party elite. Today, Hisarya is a major spa resort. 

What makes it outstanding is the fact that the resort is contained within one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Bulgarian lands, with an entire fortification wall and many buildings within and without its perimeter. These are complemented by attractive parks, early 20th century villas and dozens of new hotels that make use of the local hot mineral springs. 

Hisarya has 22 mineral springs with temperatures varying from the pleasant 31ºC to the scalding 51ºC. Their mineral content makes them good for the treatment of a number of diseases, or just for enjoying spa relaxation.

Mishkova Niva

What: Ancient tomb with cryptic undertones

Visit for: Sense of mystery

Located right by the border with Turkey, deep into the Strandzha, until recently Mishkova Niva was a site that few people could visit. It was behind a Communist-era border fence, a place where guards would shoot on sight anyone considered to be an escapee from the East bloc. With Communism gone, the tomb at Mishkova Niva is now on the tourist map. 

Situated at the foot of the 710-metre Golyamo Gradishte peak, the tomb stands in the midst of a clearing in the lush oak forest. It looks enigmatic – a round burial chamber with a corridor, surrounded by a wall of grey stones up to 1.8m high. Once, there was a pediment over the entrance decorated with a relief of a shield and a spear, and two human palms. The pediment is now the star exhibit of Malko Tarnovo's History Museum. 

There are two theories about the origin of the tomb. Tourist signs link the place to pre-Roman Thrace, but there is evidence that it is actually from the Roman era.

Troyan Monastery

What: Third largest monastic compound in Bulgaria

Visit for: Revival Period philosophical art

The Assumption of the Holy Mother, the third largest monastery in Bulgaria,was founded around 1600, on the banks of the Cherni Osam River, by a monk or a pair of monks (legends disagree) who came from the monastic community of Mount Athos.

The monastery compound that you see today was built in the late 18th-early 19th centuries. The small, stone church in the inner yard is newer. It was built in 1835, on the site of an earlier structure. In 1848-1849, Bulgaria's finest painter of the period, Zahari Zograf, decorated it, and his frescoes are now one of the main reasons why Troyan Monastery is recognised as a gem of clerical art. Standing out among them is the so-called Wheel of Life: an allegory of the course of human life, with the hopes of youth, the ambition and confidence of maturity, and the sorrows of old age, all played out against the never-ending circle of the changing seasons.

In the nearby village of Oreshak you could buy traditional Troyan pottery and of course sample the world-famous plum rakiya.

Vratsa

What: A town in the Northwest

Visit for: Stunning settings, gold treasures, curious museums

When talking about the hidden gems of Bulgaria, Vratsa is among the best candidates. Located in northwestern Bulgaria, officially the EU's poorest region, it has eschewed the attention of many people planning a trip, but when you visit this place you will be utterly amazed.

Vratsa is located at the foot of some of the Stara Planina's most spectacular slopes. Its city centre is full of reminders of a more prosperous past: beautiful early 20th century houses and grand Communist squares, pedestrianised streets and representative housing estates. 

The local History Museum is located in a Brutalist building, and houses some curious and some stunning objects. There is the ancient Thracian Rogozen Treasure, and a whole room full of gold objects made or found in Vratsa from Antiquity to the 19th century. A special room is dedicated to the nearby Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant.

Walking the pedestrianised part of Vratsa is a pleasure, especially if you find your way to the beautiful 19th century houses where the Ethnographic Museum is. 

Nature lovers should head for the mountains, where there is plenty to see: from the seasonal waterfall, the 141-metre Skaklya, which is the highest in the Balkans, to the vertiginous Vratsa pass and the Ledenika cave with its stalagmites and stalactites.

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