Bulgarian ... Rhapsody
Standing among the wind-scoured ruins of Asen’s Fortress, looking out across the Rhodope mountains, I’m struck by a panorama of fearsome peaks that seem to vanish into infinity in every direction.
Contemplating this magnificent view, it seems incredible that Bulgaria isn’t a prized travel destination. But in Europe’s pecking order of holiday spots, Bulgaria is known for little more than cheap skiing and Black Sea beaches. But the country’s history – from Thracian warriors to Roman rule, to successions of khans, Ottoman oppression and liberation – offers even more compelling reasons to visit.
Bulgaria’s tumultuous past is writ large across the country, especially in the mountainous Plovdiv region. Ancient Plovdiv is now Bulgaria’s second largest city (population 347,000), and currently celebrated as European Capital of Culture 2019.
Asen’s Fortress, 30km south of Plovdiv, almost acts as a potted history of Bulgaria. For centuries, guards have scanned the view from the very spot where I’m standing, searching the deep emerald valleys for any sign of approaching foes. Most of the fortress was constructed in the ninth century as a Byzantine border defence, though it was a strategic lookout for centuries earlier. The fortress briefly fell under Crusader control in the early 13th century before it was wrested back by Tsar Ivan Asen II, the son of one of the founders of the Second Bulgarian Empire, who expanded the fortress and gave it his name.
The glorious Second Bulgarian Empire, remembered as a period of territorial expansion and cultural flowering, ended when the Ottoman Empire seized control of Bulgaria in the late 14th century. Eager to control their new territory, the Ottomans strengthened Asen’s Fortress, bulking out its walls to an impregnable three metres thick. It would be almost five centuries before the country would be free from Ottoman control.
Today, the fortress’ best preserved structure is the Church of the Holy Mother, a 12th-century sanctuary where saints stare soulfully from frescoes. Birds now roost inside the church, the beating of their wings echoing from the stone walls.
Church of the Holy Mother of God, Asen's Fortress
Asen’s Fortress is one of several historic treasures within easy reach of Plovdiv; 8km south is Bachkovo, a monastery more than a millennium old.
The grounds of this Eastern Orthodox monastery are silent, except for birdsong and my own footsteps on the gravelly path. But through a stone archway, an enormous queue of pilgrims waits patiently to pray before the 14th-century icon of the Virgin Mary Eleusa inside. There are also visitors to see Bachkovo monastery’s spectacular art. Its refectory is almost completely covered with mid-17th-century murals, a swirl of midnight-blue skies and saintly visages. Elsewhere in the monastery are hellish tableaux, in which serpents belch flames and demons crouch on the chests of their victims.
Plovdiv is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Built on seven hills, like Rome, the most impressive ruin is a Roman theatre, capable of holding as many as 7,000 spectators (and these days used for opera and rock concerts). Less than ten minutes’ walk west is another remarkable ruin, a Roman stadium dating to the second century AD, when Plovdiv was Philippopolis (after Philip II of Macedon). The stadium was unearthed beneath the city’s main pedestrian shopping arcade, meaning you can shop for local souvenirs (like rose oil and embroidery) at street level and a few steps later descend to the city’s ancient bones.
Plovdiv’s Old Town is easily as charming as better-known eastern European destinations such as Krakow and Bratislava. Its streets are lined with ornate period mansions, like top-heavy Nedkovich House, and the Ethnographic Museum – crowned with a peaked roof that resembles a dapper pirate’s hat. Both are magnificently restored examples of Bulgaria’s National Revival period, an era of flourishing architectural and literary creativity from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Also known as Bulgaria’s Renaissance, these creative years simmered under Ottoman rule, strengthening Bulgarian identity and eventually sparking the April Uprising in 1876. Stepping inside one of the finest Revival structures, Balabanov House, the polished antiques and richly carved wooden ceilings transport you centuries back into Plovdiv’s past.
Kapana district, Plovdiv
Drive north out of Plovdiv and within an hour you’ll find yourself speeding past wheat fields, the Central Balkan mountains forming indigo silhouettes in the distance.
To patriotic Bulgarians, there is no more profound location than this mountain pass. A series of blood-soaked skirmishes in the Russo-Turkish war were waged here: the Battles of Shipka Pass, which reached their fearsome climax in 1878. In perishing cold, Russian troops aided by Bulgarian volunteers fought off an estimated 27,000 Ottoman soldiers, eventually securing the country’s freedom.
Towering 32m high on the summit of Mount Stoletov (1,150m) is a granite monument to the battles. Inside, a museum recounts the ferocity of the fighting. Though it’s the view from the top that will steal your breath: a dramatic panorama of high-mountain meadows and dense forests of spruce. But something on the horizon looks out of place. In the distance, the unmistakable silhouette of a flying saucer looms from the top of a mountain.
And indeed, navigating carefully around a series of hairpin bends east of Mount Stoletov, is the dome-shaped former socialist meeting hall, known to locals as the ‘Buzludzha UFO’. Built in brutalist style, a severe modernist aesthetic that fell out of favour in the mid-1970s, the huge ark of concrete crowns Mount Buzludzha (1,441m). When Bulgaria’s post-war decades as a socialist state ended, the hall fell into disrepair – though its alien appearance continues to startle drivers navigating the mountain pass to this day.
By choosing a site associated with an heroic moment in the country’s history, the Bulgarian Communist Party was hoping to create a monument that would be timeless. But decades after the fall of communism in Bulgaria, the Buzludzha UFO is a dilapidated relic of a reviled regime. Nonetheless, many younger Bulgarians, who never experienced their country as a socialist state, are fascinated by the mountaintop monolith. And to foreign visitors, Plodiv’s combination of remarkable architecture and battlescarred history – both ancient and modern – makes Bulgaria a fresh, fascinating and utterly enjoyable holiday destination.
Recommended C&K tours:
Ancient & Modern Bulgaria 10 Days & 9 Nights from £1,375
This varied tour takes in Roman ruins in Plovdiv, beautiful medieval monasteries and three of the world’s largest communist monuments. Includes wine tasting in Brestovitsa and time at leisure to enjoy the mountain air and the sandy shores of the Black Sea.
Bulgaria: Balkan & Thracian Treasures 9 Days & 8 Nights from £2,195
Delve deep into Bulgaria’s history on this expert-led Arts & Culture tour. Marvel at gold and silver Thracian treasures, visit the citadel of Veliko Tarnovo, and gain special access to a Thracian tomb and at Bachkovo monastery to see the medieval frescoes.
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