Alex Harford Photography & Travel


Highlights of Bulgaria

I travelled around central and western Bulgaria for 2½ weeks. Here are my highlights...

Belogradchik Landscape and Fortress

When I get home after a trip and look through my photos I wonder if some places actually existed.

Tucked away in the north-western corner of the country, I'd never heard of Belogradchik (Белоградчишка) before I decided to visit Bulgaria. Strange rock formations up to 200 metres high pop up through lush green woodland, backed by distant hills and mountains. It's all topped off by a fortress that the Romans probably didn't build here because it would look cool amongst the rocks - the drops on two sides are so high and steep, there's no need for walls. I'm surprised I've never seen it in a fantasy film or TV series - and it doesn't seem to appear as a location for anything on IMDB.

Belogradchik Fortress (Белоградчишка крепост)

An information board in the castle told me that hanging wooden bridges were built between some of the rock formations in the 14th century, and that the fortress was widened and further fortified before being conquered by the Ottomans in 1396, who reconstructed it to help protect the western part of their empire. The fortress was reconstructed again in the early 1800s and last used for military means when Bulgaria defeated Serbian forces here during a war in 1885.

Before I got locked in the castle (the second time in my life that's happened) I spent the day wondering through woods and valleys, around and up rock formations, and only saw two other people all day. I don't think the photos do the place justice, but here they are...


Mount Buzludzha Monument

From fantasy to sci-fi - another location ideal for a film set that doesn't quite look real, but I was well aware of this one - it was the reason I came to Bulgaria. If you don't know the nickname of the building already, you can probably guess after taking one look at it...

9 metres were blown off the top of
Mt. Buzludzha to lay foundations for the building
Mt. Buzludzha communist monument and blue sky

...yep, it's "the UFO".

In the film stakes Buzludzha is doing better than Belogradchik, with a recent animated promo video by quriky French band Ödland and an upcoming short sci-fi film called Last Contact.

The monument, partly funded by "voluntary" donations, was built by the Bulgarian Communist Party to commemorate events in 1891 when Dimitar Blagoev founded the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, which eventually became the Communist Party. The official name of the monument, as translated from Bulgarian, is something like "House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party."

The amphitheatre inside was inspired by (and is larger than) Rome's Pantheon, the red star embedded in the tower larger than the red Kremlin star in Russia. Completed in 1981, Communism fell less than 10 years later and the building was eventually left to rot.

It seemed like a big building, but it only sunk in how big when I took a self-portrait of myself standing by it. So when I heard people talking around the other side of the building I waited...and waited...and then took a photo to illustrate:

It's big...

When I saw the way in, for a few minutes I thought I might not go inside. An easy climb onto a pile of rocks - fair enough. But with one foot on this pile of rocks you had to climb onto a wall, then over what looked like a 12-foot drop into darkness onto a ledge, all while avoiding a metal rod that stuck out above you. Yikes! My heart raced a bit faster. I took a couple of deep breaths, broke it down into parts (foot there, knees there etc.) and I was in. As it turned out it was easier than some hostel bunk beds I've climbed into.

The amphitheatre,
with tiled murals and the infamous hammer and sickle logo of the Communist Party
View from the outer circle Looking through the tower's red star The copper roof was looted, exposing the wood beneath

It was also fun to wander the depths of the monument, where the only light was from my head torch.

The lift up the tower This looked like a kitchen and food-serving area Sunset

Rila Lakes to Ivan Vazov Mountain Hut

Rila (Рила) is the highest mountain range in Bulgaria.

I think the lake in the foreground is called Bliznaka (Близнака)

I checked the weather forecast before I came and it was good for the 2 days walking I had planned - an afternoon of mostly walking upwards via the Seven Rila Lakes to Ivan Vazov hut, and a morning of mostly walking downwards to Rila Monastery. After that sunny 20°C+ weather forecast I was surprised to see snow - but pleased, and slightly scared!

The map I had made this look like quite a straightforward walk - south for a bit, then east for a bit more. It seemed like I was making good progress so I stopped for an extended rest at Lake Babreka to take in the amazing views. This looked like the lake at the end of the world.

Lake Babreka (Бъбрека)

I continued and after a while realised the map was nowhere as detailed as the Ordnance Survey maps I'm used to in the UK. What looked like "south for a bit" was actually a load of zig-zags in all sorts of directions. Add to that the waist deep snow in places and it became a bit of a challenge - I fell in deep snow and bent my thumb back on a protruding rock (my hand is still in a splint 6 weeks later). And then it all started to go a bit Bear Grylls. The waist strap on my 13kg backpack broke and I couldn't fix it because of my thumb, the wind picked up, the map seemed to be telling me something different than the path markers I could see and in some places the snow was between knee and waist deep for every step. I quickly learnt how not to fall over when walking downhill in deep snow, and when the snow cleared I sank in marshy ground.

The views were amazing and It was all good fun apart from the bent thumb, though I was relieved when the hut appeared in the distance.

There's Ivan Vazov Mountain Hut, and the snow has gone...phew Sunset Night

Plovdiv's Painted Houses

I didn't plan to visit Plovdiv - I walked from the Ivan Vazov hut (mentioned above) to Rila Monastery, and the last bus of the day to Sofia left Rila Monastery at 3pm, so I took it and decided to take the bus to Plovdiv if I got back to Sofia early enough. It was a close one - the bus driver in Sofia was kind enough to wait while I went to buy my ticket to Plovdiv - a bit of a panic as I didn't know which of the numerous counters to go to (different counters for different destinations, and only in Cyrillic), while his wild gesticulations were appreciated, but didn't help. Anyway, I got to Plovdiv that night.

Hindlian House courtyard
The steps at the back lead to a covered walkway to the Balabanov House

Plovdiv is most famous for its Roman remains, but I preferred the quaint overhanging painted houses. I only visited two, but with hindsight would have liked to have seen one or two more. The Hindlian House, pictured, has period furniture and walls painted with beautiful landscapes.

Entrance room at the Hindlian House

A ticket, costing the price of entering three houses, gives entrance to them all (around 20). Some of the houses have concerts and readings - I missed out on a piano concert at the Balabanov House (it was postponed until the night I left), though I was pleased that by the time it came to the end of my trip I recognised enough Cyrillic to know that "пиано" was "piano".

Other Places

I also enjoyed the abandoned Jewish synagogue in Vidin. The view to Veliko Tarnovo's fortress from the main street was pretty cool.

"Don't judge Bulgaria based on Sofia" I said to one guy who was travelling around Europe's capital cities to decide which countries he should spend more time in - the top three locations above would rank up there with the best of any country I've been to in Europe (apart from Iceland which would probably take up most of the top 10).

I used the Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria Travel Guide and it didn't seem as bad as some of the Amazon reviews make out, apart from the maps, which have been rubbish for a few years.

Are you going to Bulgaria? If you've been, or live in Bulgaria, what are your highlights?


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