With archaeological adventure, festive food, colossal caves and fearsome fortresses, Belogradchik, Bulgaria has much to offer. First occupied by the Thracians and later by Roman legions, the area overflows with archaeological sites, museums and cultural centers recounting Thracian, Roman and Bulgarian history.
In ancient times, Bulgaria was occupied by the Thracians, an Indo-European tribe, the first evidence of which comes from the writings of Homer. The Thracians occupied what is today Bulgaria, Northern Greece, Tessalonika, the Ukraine and the southern part of Romania. In fact, Herodotus wrote that the Thracians were the most numerous people in the world, second only to the Indians. This civilization began in the 7th Century BC and flourished in the 3rd Century BC under the reign of Alexander the Great. After his death in 332 BC, his empire was divided into thirds and Bulgaria fell within the Antigonid Empire, which encompassed what had been Greece and Macedonia as well. By the 1st Century AD, the Romans occupied Bulgaria which proved to be a strategic location, especially in terms of keeping the barbarians at arm’s length on the other side of the Danube.
While the Greeks colonized the coast, the Romans settled inland. Due to their powerful military, it was relatively easy for the Romans to occupy Bulgaria, and they built their towns on top of the Thracian ruins. They began building several large cities along the Danube; the most notable in this area included Ratziaria and Dorostorum. Creating these cities provided a sort of “belt” to protect the province from invaders and the cities were eventually connected by roads which allowed for easy movement of troops and goods. The Romans found their way to Belogradchik in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains after settling along the banks of the Danube, only about 50km away. Many of the Roman settlements in northwest Bulgaria, such as Belogradchik, were established as something akin to a modern day retirement community for members of the Roman legion.
The development of Bulgaria’s national identity was steady over the first millennium A.D. and it was affected by a number of external influences, shaping shaped it into the modern nation it is today. The Slavs settled here in the 5th Century and were succeeded by settlers who established the Bulgarian state in the 7th Century. In the 9th Century, Khan Boris of Bulgaria adopted Constantinople’s model of Eastern Orthodox Christianity which remains the country’s most widely-practiced religion. A century later, Bulgaria adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. In fact, when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Cyrillic was elevated to the third official alphabet of the union along with Greek and Latin. The first Bulgarian Kingdom was established by Bulgars of Turkish descent; the first and second Bulgarian kingdoms endured until Bulgaria was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire.
Bulgaria’s 20th Century history is equally interesting. Bulgaria allied with Germany in both world wars. One week before his death, Bulgarian King Boris met with Hitler who asked that the king deport Bulgaria’s Jews to the Nazi camps. Although Boris agreed to this to appease Hitler, he instead sent the Jews from Sofia and Plovdiv east to protect them, thus refusing to destroy the nation’s Jewish population. Legend has it that Boris’ death was the result of poisoning ordered by Hitler who had found out that he had saved the Jews. From the end of World War II until 1989, the nation was ruled by a communist government and known as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Since 1989, the Republic of Bulgaria has enjoyed a free market economy and democratic government, joining the EU in 2007.
Life in the Small White Town
Belogradchik, which means “small, white town,” is accessible from the capital city, Sofia, by train and by bus. Belogradchik’s population is about 6,700 and it is 55 km from Vidin and 70 km from Montana, both of which are also significant cultural sites. Originally called Belgrade (“the white town”) in Turkish, the town was later called Belgradin (“the little white town”) to distinguish it from Belgrade, Serbia. Currently, it is called Belogradchik, the suffix of which is Turkish in origin.
Walking through town, one gets the sense that life in Belogradchik hasn’t changed much. There seems to be an instinctual rhythm to which denizens adhere, beginning early in the morning. Vendors begin their day by preparing their food, cleaning up their shops, and displaying their wares. One small restaurant sets up its rotisseries on the sidewalk and begins roasting chickens around 8am. Through its window, a tiny bakery sells piping hot banitsa (sometimes pronounced “banichka”), flaky, fried pastry filled with cheese. Coffee is sold nearly everywhere and is not for the faint of heart – Bulgarians like their coffee dark. Children walk to the town’s school and adults tend to their modest homes and yards.
The routine continues throughout the day, some shops opening and others closing as the day goes on. Most are quite small and sell traditional Bulgarian clothes, crafts and arts. A small grocery store stocks a wide array of treats from soda and wine to ice cream and cookies. One can also purchase meats, grains and some produce. Internet cafes have sprung up throughout the town and the locals are more than happy to relinquish their perch for travelers wanting to contact friends and family.
Visitors will never go hungry or thirsty in the town of Belogradchik. Late afternoons and early evenings signal the opening of cafes along the main street. Locals gather together to share a beer and a snack at any one of the tiny cafes. In the warm weather, concerts and shows take place in the town center, usually featuring local musicians or dancers celebrating Bulgaria’s rich cultural heritage.
What to Do Once You’re in Belogradchik
The Belogradchik Rocks are one of the most significant attractions in the town in addition to being a contender for the new Seven Wonders of the World (New7Wonders.com). These amazing natural rock formations consist of sandstone and limestone and each rock is named based on its appearance: Madonna, the Rider, the Monks, the Student, the Lion, and the Bear among them. The legend of the rocks is an integral part of local lore.
It is believed that in ancient times, there was a monastery located at the site. The youngest nun, Valentina, was unable to hide her beauty and word of it spread throughout the Roman empire. On the Day of Peter, a day celebrating Saint Peter, the monastery was open to locals and a wealthy Roman named Antonio saw her and fell in love. He snuck into her cell where he stayed for many days and nights. Eventually, the monastery’s inhabitants heard the cry of a baby and Valentina’s sins were discovered. Her punishment was to wander the world alone with her baby. As she was leaving the monastery, Antonio returned on horseback. At that very moment, legend has it that God sent a thunderstorm and an earthquake, destroying the monastery and turning everything around it to stone. Valentina became the stone Madonna with child and the monks and rider (Antonio) turned to stone as well.
Belogradchik also boasts the impressive Belogradchik Fortress. Originally built by the 1st Century Romans who recognized the value of this geographic feature, the fortress was later expanded by the Byzantines to include towers, gates and walls. The views from the fortress are incomparable; visitors will gain an appreciation for just how ingenious the Romans and their successors were to maximize the potential of this location. Roman legions would have had a distinct advantage using this site for surveillance and the Ottomans who fortified the fortress would clearly have had a defensive advantage over invaders.
The Villa Rustica at Anishte is situated along Salash-Belogradchik road, eastwards from Granichak village. In ancient Roman times, this site was an administrative center in the Moesia Superior province. This first century Roman villa shows evidence of bronze and copper coins, baths and a workshop. There is also extensive evidence of fire damage, possibly the result of Hun invasions at the end of the 4th Century BC. Archaeologists believe that the villa had two distinct periods of use: the 1st through 2nd centuries and then the 3rd through 4th.
Excavations of this villa, overseen by the Bulgarian Archaeological Association, were started in 2001 when remains of an arch were spotted and continue today. Since its discovery, several rooms and a courtyard have been unearthed. The villa was built on top of prehistoric layers using the Romans’ more advanced architectural style and technology. The site has proven to have uncommon masonry and is more akin to Greek construction than Roman. It also reflects the local architect’s requirements and style. For example, local buildings were required to have squared off cornerstones. Also, the construction materials used had to be local or the builders faced harsh punishments; materials brought from abroad were both expensive and heavily taxed. The site was pillaged and burned by the Huns during the 4th Century as the Germanic tribes began their attacks on the Roman Empire; the destruction they caused is still evident in the soil as bits of charred earth and construction materials. To visit this villa is to truly step back into the annals of history.
One cannot help but marvel at the inherent dichotomy presented by ancient Roman architecture. Elegant in their simplicity, their structures were also remarkably durable and innovative. Seeing their ingenious use of a hypocaust system to heat their baths makes visitors appreciate the origins of modern radiant heating. Witnessing their use of the natural geographic features to fortify their territory gives visitors a sense of the resourcefulness of this remarkable ancient civilization.
There are several small museums in Belogradchik which give visitors a sense of both local and national history. The Belogradchik Historical Museum has a collection of traditional Bulgarian artifacts and gives visitors a good understanding of daily life through its displays of clothing, tools, decorative arts and simple household objects. There is also the Museum of Nature and Science which gives visitors a sense of the flora and fauna indigenous to the area.
The Belogradchik (Kaleto) Fortress
Admission: 3 lev
History Museum / Panova’s House
pl 1850 Leto, Belogradchik, +359 936 34 69
Hours: 9am – 12pm, 2pm – 5pm Monday through Saturday
Easy Excursions from Belogradchik
The surrounding region is replete with history and culture, but most interesting are the Baba Vidin Fortress and the Magura Caves.
The Magura Caves are located alongside the Rabisha Lake which is the largest inland lake in the country (ideal for a quick swim in the warmer months). The Magura Caves are 2.5 kilometers in length and boasts a floor area of over 30,000 square meters making the complex one of the largest in Bulgaria. Archaeologists believe that humans resided in these caves as long ago as the Early Bronze Age. The caves are certainly a natural wonder with unique stalactites and stalagmites, named for their appearance in the same way the Belogradchik rocks are. There are seven main halls including the Triumphal Hall, the Poplar Hall, the Throne Hall, and the Ceremonial Hall. Other galleries and passages lead to unexpected features such as a concert hall and a wine cellar. The paintings on the cave walls are done in bat guano and reveal a great deal about the prehistoric people who once inhabited them. Some scholars surmise that these people were matriarchal as the women are generally depicted larger than the men. The cave floor is extremely slippery and the pathway is narrow so visitors would be wise to wear appropriate footwear.
The Magura Caves (25 km from Belogradchik), +35999329213, website
Hours: 9am – 4pm
Admission: 4 lv
The Baba Vidin Fortress provides a gorgeous view of the Danube and the shores of Romania. The river itself was a significant ancient frontier, responsible for keeping the barbarian tribes at bay. The handiwork of the Ottomans is once again evident in the massive fortress which now serves as a popular site for concerts and weddings. Unfortunately, while touring the fortress, visitors may find the exhibits more comical than educational. The torture chamber includes an anatomically incorrect skeleton and eerie “tools” while the jail cell includes strangely posed, oddly dressed mannequins. Nevertheless, the impressive architecture and the stunning views cannot be disputed.
Baba Vida Fortress, Kraidunavski Park, +094/ 601705
Hours: 8:30am – 5:30pm
Admission fee: 2 lev
Historical Museum of Vidin
13 Tsar Simeon Veliki Str,. 3700 Vidin, +094/ 601710, website
Hours: 9am – 12pm, 2pm – 5pm Monday through Saturday
Admission: 2 lev
How to Get to Vidin
Bus station Zhelezhnicharska
– Bus from Belogradchik (2.5 lev, 1 hour)
– Bus from Sofia (14 daily, 10 lev, 4 hours)
Train station (tel. 623184)
First and second class trains to and from Sofia (about 9 lev, 5 hours)
Getting There: It’s easiest to get to Belogradchik by taking a train to Oreshetz, and then a bus or taxi to Belogradchik which is about 10 km away. Another option is to travel to Belogradchik by bus directly from Sofia. Belogradchik is three hours from Sofia by car (170 km). Once there, the town is small enough that you can see it entirely on foot. It is safe to walk around (even for single women) and visitors will likely encounter several harmless stray dogs in their travels. Keep in mind, the town is quite hilly and many of the side streets are paved with cobblestones. It is not uncommon to see donkeys, chickens and other barnyard animals grazing in people’s yards. However, the town’s inhabitants take a great deal of pride in their homes and yards; especially in the late summer and early fall, flowers, plants and trees are lush and impeccably cared for.
Currency: the Lev
Visas: Americans do not need visas to travel to Bulgaria
The town’s center has a number of small markets and shops, a pharmacy, several restaurants and cafes as well as banks and museums. Several cafes and restaurants have internet access available for a small fee. Tourists can walk from the town to both the fortress and to the famous rock formations.
The Hotel-Tavern Madona
Ul hristo botev 26, Belogradchik , +3599365546, website
The Hotel-Tavern Madona is an exceptional value with rooms from 20 to 35 lev per night (with either shared or private bathrooms). The rooms are clean and comfortable and the ambiance is authentic and beautiful. The hote is centrally located, an easy walk into town, and has unparalleled views. The authentic Bulgarian restaurant downstairs serves excellent soups, fresh vegetables and breaded white cheese.
Café and Nightclub Atlantic (Belogradchik, Knyaz Boris I 5 st., +359 888788862) offers appetizers, sodas, beers and liquors while the nightclub is open from 10pm until 6am.
Guesthouse and Pizza Restaurant Ini, Belogradchik 3900; Tzar Asen 6 st., +359 93653907, website
Ini has delicious pizza and a selection of Bulgarian beers. The café also has inexpensive internet access.
For more hotels and guesthouses, visit Belogradchik Hotels.