TRAVEL

SHABLA: HIDDEN GEM TUCKED BETWEEN SEA AND LAND

Some cannot get enough of its beaches, beauty spots and tourist amenities, while others lament that much of its calm and pristine nature has been lost to overdevelopment. History lovers point out that the ancient Thracians, listed among the forefathers of modern Bulgarians, were masters of the choppy waters of the Black Sea long before the Greeks arrived and settled along its coastline, in the 7th-5th centuries BC. Foodies can talk at length about the superior taste of its bonito, turbot and sprat.

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BULGARIA'S REDWOODS

Bulgaria may be famous for many things but sequoias is apparently not one of them. Think again. If you know where to look you will discover a number of wonderful redwoods that will make your head swirl: Am I in the Sierra Nevadas, the natural habitat of the world's largest and tallest trees, or am I in the eastern Balkans?

The curious case of Bulgaria's sequoias started in the late 19th century when a few enthusiasts imported redwood seeds and planted them in various locations, mainly for aesthetic purposes.

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BULGARIA'S CLOCKTOWERS

Today, knowing what time it is becomes a problem only if the battery of your smart phone is dead and there is no one around to ask. For previous generations, it was different. For millennia, people measured their days and nights by the movement of the sun and stars, or waited for a rooster to crow.

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WINTER IN RILA MONASTERY

As the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rila Monastery can appear a little overwhelming if you visit in high season or during major Christian festivals. The crowds that gather in the picturesque yard, with its toy-like painted church and the striped arches of the galleries, can obliterate any feeling of holiness, or the tranquility that is usually associated with a monastic institution of such fame.

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SEARCHING FOR ORPHEUS

Huddled deep among the hills of the Eastern Rhodope, Tatul could be any one of the many hamlets that you pass through while travelling in this area. Yet, it is not an ordinary Rhodope village. A high rocky hill rises about 300m south of it, crowned by one of the most peculiar megalithic structures the Thracians ever made.

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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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QUIRKY ROCKS OF BULGARIA

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

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BULGARIA'S FIRST CAPITALS

If power and the economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, economy and culture are located. If we go back to the Middle Ages, when Bulgaria was still young, the country's centre of gravity would be elsewhere – in the northeast, close to the city of Shumen. There, the remains of Bulgaria's first capitals, Pliska and Preslav, still survive – next to an astonishing piece of medieval art, the Madara Horseman.

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VAGABOND'S INTERNATIONAL WALK OF FAME

You went to LA, okay. You think you've seen it all – and walked over it: the pinkish stars on the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard with names of actors, musicians and celebrities, many of whom long forgotten, but immortalised in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You vied with the Chinese and the Koreans for a better selfie spot, and yes – you've stumped on Donald Trump's star from the days he was only a reality show performer.

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