The Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia – Photo: Wikipedia

Travel after the pandemic #9: By road in Bulgaria

Marvels come both natural and man-made

One of the Balkans' larger countries, Bulgaria makes an excellent place for road tripping. Enough of its wildness (literal and figurative) remains to guarantee a glimpse into the traditional way of life. A journey across the country includes a town famous for its mineral water, monasteries, a gold-domed Russian-style church and the medieval seat of national power.

Many drivers will be departing from the capital, Sofia. Once past the slightly hair-raising city traffic, roads everywhere in the country are more or less open and peaceful. To visit some of Bulgaria’s loveliest woodland stretches, head east on the main A1 motorway and veer south at Pazardzhik, a city along the banks of the Maritsa river, 114 kilometres from Sofia.

Head 35 kilometres down the B-road 37 passing the small town of Batak, the site of a famous 19th-century uprising against the Ottomans. There was a massacre of Bulgarians here by Ottoman irregular troops in 1876 at the beginning of the April Uprising. The number of victims ranges from 1200 to 7000, depending on the source, with most estimates at around 5000.

The role of Batak was to take possession of the storehouses in the surrounding villages and to ensure that the insurgents would have provisions, also to block the main ways and keep the Turkish soldiers from receiving supplies.

The History Museum in Batak was established in 1956, and the museum complex covers the historical ossuary church St. Nedelya. This was built in 1813; completely of stone, and in the uprising a large part of the population in Batak hid inside, trying to escape the Turks Bashibozouks (hired army of the Ottoman Empire).

For three days and three nights, more than 2000 people stayed in the church. Tourists can see the well that the mothers dug with bare hands to find water for their children. Batak was burned to the ground during the April Uprising, only the Sveta Nedelya remaining.

Continue driving deeper into the Rhodope Mountains along road 37 towards Dospot. The Rhodope  is Bulgaria’s most expansive mountain range and reaches into Greece.  Turning east the forested 197 road (about 60 kilometres from Batak) leads to Devin, a small spa town famous for its mineral water and therapeutic hot springs.

By now we are 220 kilometres from Sofia and, incidentally, 70 kilometres from Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. The popular ski resort of Pamporovo is 35 kilometres east of Devin, along the 866 road. The latter makes a good place to relax, enjoy a therapeutic massage or two and hike on woodland paths just waiting to be explored.

The rooftops of old Plovdiv – Photo: Wikipedia

Follow the curving road south past Smolyan, a nondescript town near the Greece border with exciting caving opportunities, and back north on the 86 to the laid-back ski resort of Chepelare. Emerging from the winding mountain road, full of cliffs and stunning vistas, one reaches Asenovgrad, noted for its wineries, before arriving at Plovdiv, arguably Bulgaria’s best city.

Plovdiv has all the services and attractions of a major population centre but it especially takes pride in its old town. Set on curving, stone streets, this area retains a bohemian air, and the numerous museums and galleries here are bursting with the work of modern masters and artists of old.

Plovdiv was one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2019. The Roman-era Ancient Theatre is the city’s most famous cultural landmark, and the earliest archaeological remains date from 4000BC, allowing Plovdiv to claim to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. The old town has some atmospheric places to stay, some decorated in the vibrant 19th-century “national renaissance” style.

Plovdiv also boasts the longest pedestrian street in Europe at 1.75 kilometres, and passing the Imaret Mosque, built of unplastered red bricks by Shahbeddin Pasha, the son of the conqueror of Thrace, in 1444-45.

About 30 kilometres south of Plovdiv, the magnificent Bachkovo Monastery, the second-largest in the country, was founded in 1083. Pilgrims are welcome to stay overnight in austere rooms with a few beds and a shared toilet/bathroom on the same floor, or newer rooms with their own bathrooms, for modest rates.
From Plovdiv, take the 56 back road 108 kilometres straight north-east to Kazanlak, an eccentric, agricultural destination where an interesting mix of Bulgarians, Roma and ethnic Turks congregate in the town’s gregarious open market. Agriculture remains a bigger part of the mix here than in most provincial Bulgarian towns because Kazanlak, and its surrounding plain of the same name, is the centre of a major industry in rose oil extract, feeding the needs of perfumiers from around the world. A good time to visit is the first week of June each year, when the annual rose festival takes place.


The Bachkovo Monastery – Photo: Wikipedia

Continuing north across the Valley of Roses leads to the base of the Stara Planina Mountain, which cuts Bulgaria into its northern and southern halves. A 4th-century BC Thracian tomb was discovered in the nearby village of Shipka (the contents of which are now displayed in Kazanlak’s museums), though the most dramatic sight here is surely the gold-domed Russian-style Shipka Memorial Church standing guard over the 1300-metre-high Shipka Pass.

The Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ, built between 1885 and 1902, is a cultural monument of national importance. It is dedicated to the fighters of the Russo-Turkish war (1877-1878). In its dungeons, there is an ossuary containing the bones of nearly 9000 Russian and Bulgarian warriors who died in Bulgaria during the war of liberation.

The Shipka Memorial Church – Photo: Flickr

The church has gold-plated domes and rich decoration with beautiful wall-paintings and ancient icons. Its belfry is 53.4 metres high and has 17 bells, the biggest of which is 12 tonnes.

Some 57 kilometres over the mountains from Shipka lies yet another historic settlement, this one famous as the medieval seat of Bulgarian power – Veliko Tarnovo, city of the tsars. Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s most visited destinations, and with its classic architecture, churches and castle it’s not difficult to see why. Along the way, don’t miss Dryanovo Monastery, Bulgarian Orthodox, founded in the 12th century and 5 kilometres out of the village of the same name, alone in the woods by the base of a cliff.

It was founded in the 12th century, during the Second Bulgarian Empire, and is dedicated to Archangel Michael. Twice burnt down and pillaged during the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, the monastery was restored at its present place in 1845. It was the site of several battles during the April Uprising of 1876.

Thus ends this road trip in Bulgaria, hopefully without a puncture. Along the way, consider that the word “Balkan” is Turkish and means “mountain”.

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