In our Christian Bulgaria route there are two important areas to explore in this Mountains; one is in the eastern Balkan Mountains, where the remains of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire, Pliska and Preslav, the rock relief of the rider from Madara, the village of Osmar and the Shuman Fortress are found. Geographically, it is the gateway to Bulgaria for nomads coming from the north (Russian Steppe), and such were the ancient Bulgarian warrior tribes who united the Slavs into a nation in the 7th century BC.
The second important area is the center of the Balkan Mountains, where Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, is located, and to the north of it – the Citadel of Chervan and the rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo. Several important monasteries are hidden in the valleys descending from the Mountains such as Troyan, Dryanovo and those in the Iskar gorge. To the south of the Mountains are the towns of Kalofer and Karlovo, which were the focus of the struggle for independence during the Ottoman occupation. We will tell of these wonderful and interesting places in random order from east to west:
Monasteries in the Iskar Gorge
Iskar River is one of the longest Rivers in Bulgaria. The River starts from the area of the Musala Mountain in the Rila Mountains, and unlike the other Rivers of Bulgaria flows north; there is no other River that behaves so strangely. Along the way, it creates a series of valleys and gorges that constitute a geographical landmark. In its beginning ot cuts a beautiful alpine canyon with hiking trails in the heart of the Rila Mountains (called Beli Iskar), then it fills the largest artificial lake in Bulgaria (Lake Iskar), and from there it continues in a beautiful canyon that separates the Vitosha Mountain massif from the Stara Planina Mountains. The River passes unnoticed through the Sofia plain, and enters a beautiful and winding canyon about 70 km long that cuts through the Balkan Mountains which is called: “Iskar gorge”. It exits the Mountains to fertile plains and hills south of the Danube.
The Iskar River is the only River that cuts through the Balkan Mountains, probably because geologically it is older than them, and because of this the gorge it cuts in the Mountains has been since prehistoric times used as a passage between northern Bulgaria and the south. Today there is a road and a railway in it. Along the gorge there are beautiful nature sites, caves, springs, restaurants and bridges, and also some interesting monasteries.
From the middle of the Iskar Gorge, a winding road leads up to the historic Seven Altars Monastery. Here, in the heart of the Balkan Mountains, according to legend, the betrayed Bulgarian king Peter II from the 11th century, the grandson of Tsar Samuel, who rebelled against the Byzantines and was successful until he was betrayed by one of his allies, was buried. Peter’s brother, who was disillusioned with people, decided to become a monk and founded the Monastery in the heart of the woods in an isolated and difficult to access place in the Mountains, he brought the bones of his brother Peter II to the Monastery so that he could find some peace for his soul. Be that as it may, there are seven beautiful altars and Monastery buildings in the place (mainly from the 18-19th centuries) as only Bulgaria can offer. From the Monastery there are hiking trails to the surrounding Mountains.
If you continue down the valley, you reach one of the most beautiful sites in Bulgaria – the Monastery of Cherepish, which is located in a wonderful location between the cliffs and near the River. The place was a center of literature and education, especially in the 16th-18th centuries, and in fact the most important place for the spread of Bulgarian culture in northern Bulgaria. In this place used to stay the revolutionary Vasil Levski who succeeded in awakening the spirit of Bulgaria, passing through the villages, meeting people, and setting up underground revolutionary committees that would wait for the hour of command. He was helped by the network of monasteries and liked to be alone in them, to stay in them, to meet people, thus he kept himself from betrayal (which, despite everything, eventually came). Part of the Monastery’s rooms (including Levski’s room) is right above the flowing water.
Not far from Cherepish Monastery, at the northern foothills of the Balkan Range, is another Monastery where Levski stayed, Etropole Monastery, the Holy Trinity, next to waterfalls and beautiful nature trails.
40 km west of the Iskar Gorge, at the foot of some of the Balkan Mountains peaks, is the fourth largest Monastery in Bulgaria and the largest in the Western Balkans. It is a Monastery called Klisurski Monastery, founded in the 13th century, during the Second Bulgarian Empire. It should be remembered that monasteries in the Balkans in general and in Bulgaria in particular were built in the most beautiful places in nature, from the notion that in such places God can be felt. The landscape around the Monastery convinces even the most ardent atheists that God does exist.
In general, when visiting monasteries in the Balkans there is a special feeling: a feeling that the paintings, the design of the buildings, the screen of Icons, and perhaps also the thoughts and prayers that were there, immediately transport the visitor to another reality. The “spiritual” feeling in the monasteries is especially strong in the hidden valleys of the Balkan Mountains, it is as if the Balkan Mountain range is the backbone of Bulgaria, and as such it has a connection with the spirit (which resides in the backbone). Apparently there are hidden energetic connections between the Balkan Mountain range and the events that happened in the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago. Something in the Slavic mentality strongly echoes the Christian motifs of suffering, atonement, repentance, and at the same time brotherhood, and a sense of a hidden reality, the removal of the curtain. All this connects in the wonderful synchronous nature.
It is the third most important and largest Monastery in Bulgaria and the spiritual center of the regions north of the Balkan Mountains. It replaced to some extent the religious centers of Arbanasi and Veliko Tarnovo which are not far away, and declined in importance in the 16th century, with the shift of the center of Christian life from the cities to the towns and villages. The Monastery is part of a network of monasteries that were established during the Ottoman occupation, as part of a religious flourishing that was influenced by the developing center on Mount Athos.
In the 16th century, a monk from Mount Athos arrived in the area of the village of Troyan with a holy Icon of Mary with three hands. He planned to bring it to Romania, but when he tried to continue on his way his horse refused to go, and he realized that the Icon wanted to stay with a holy man he knew nearby. Because of this, a chapel and later also a Monastery were built around the miracle-working Icon. If you doubt the truth of the story, you can see the Icon with your own eyes in the Monastery.
The main importance, development and construction of the Monastery in its current form was in the 19th century, with the beginning of the Bulgarian revival movement. The main Church was built in 1835 and to decorate it painters were invited from all over Bulgaria. The one who took on the project of painting the Frescoes inside and outside the Church is the artist Zaharo Zograph from the Samokov School of Painting, who was also involved in the painting of the Frescoes in the Rila Monastery. In Troyan his work reaches its peak. He expresses Christian didactic moral motifs in paintings such as Judgment Day and the Wheel of Life. He paints the heroes of the nation and Bulgarian history, and also himself on one of the windows. Artistically, he mixes Western realistic styles with the strict Orthodox models.
During the struggle for the liberation of Bulgaria, the Monastery was part of the underground network that worked to expel the Ottomans, and the national leader Vasil Levski found support and a home here. The Troyan Monastery is located near one of the most important Mountain passes of the Balkans – the Troyan Pass, about half an hour’s drive from where the Dryanovo Monastery is located, at the foot of the second important Mountain pass.
Not far from Veliko Tarnovo, at the beginning of the road leading to the Šhipka Pass, which is one of the most important Mountain passes in the Balkans, is the Dryanovo Monastery. This is a beautiful Monastery on the banks of a River in one of the most beautiful places in nature. What characterizes the valley where it is located is a River flowing at the foot of mighty cliffs, which were once used as a home for monastic hermits who practiced the Hesychasm tradition (Christian meditation leading to enlightenment).
The Monastery was founded in the 12th century and was named after the Archangel Michael. According to Balkan mythology, God had two sons: Satanel who rebelled against him, and Michael who fought Satanel and restored order and light to the world. In all of us there are two such brother angels and a war going on between good and evil, and the cliffs above the monasteries were considered a good place for this struggle to take place. However, at the end of the 14th century with the conquest of Bulgaria by the Ottomans, they destroyed the Monastery, and this happened again after it was rebuilt in the 17th century, and only in the middle of the 19th century it was built for the last time in its current location and shape.
The Monastery was used as part of the underground network organized by Levski and took an active part in the rebellion among the Ottomans, which even caused its burning. But it was rebuilt after gaining independence at the end of the 19th century and these are the buildings that exist today. The place serves as an active Monastery and pilgrimage site, and one of the special things about it is that it has a historical Museum that tells about the history of the Monastery, the Bulgarian struggle for independence over the generations, and also about the important archaeological findings found in the area. From the Monastery there are beautiful hiking trails in the nearby nature.
Half an hour from the Monastery is the Museum town of Tryavna, famous for its special architecture and Icon painting School that developed there in the 19th century, the products of which can be seen in the local Museum. Half an hour’s drive in another direction from Dryanovo is the arts and crafts touristic village of Etara, where crafts are presented as they were once done.
Veliko Tarnovo is an ancient City located on a naturally fortified hill in one of the bends of the Yantra River, north of the Balkan Mountains. It rose to prominence in the Middle Ages when it served as the capital of Bulgaria. From here came the Asen brothers who rebelled against the Byzantines, gained independence and founded the Second Bulgarian Empire (in the 12th-14th centuries).
The City is one of the most impressive places to visit in Bulgaria, it is reminiscent of medieval cities in Europe, and at its heart is a towering Fortress with towers and walls, surrounded by gardens, with a king’s Palace. The Fortress looks like it came out of a fairy tale. In one of the towers in the wall, the crusader king of Constantinople, Baldwin I, who was captured by the Bulgarians in the 13th century, was imprisoned and died. At the top of the hill is a beautiful cathedral Church (belonging to the patriarch) to which a bridge and an impressive gate structure lead.
Outside the citadel is the new City with several quarters with ancient streets and revival style houses. The City is known for its many artists, especially in the fields of painting (Icons) and wood carving. It has several Museums and galleries. Around the City and within it there are many monasteries, Churches and holy sites. Near the River is the Church of the Forty Saints, founded by the Asen brothers in the 13th century to commemorate their victory over the Byzantines (which happened on the day of the 40 Saints), it was for many years the most important Church in Bulgaria.
Near Veliko Tarnovo is the village of Arbanasi, a place of monasteries and art. In the 18th-17th centuries, the wealthy Christian families who were removed from the nearby Veliko Tarnovo moved here and developed a rich cultural life. Today it is a tourist site, but in the past the village served as a retreat and meeting place for the White Brotherhood founded by Peter Dunov in the early 20th century, in Arbanasi he received some of his most important visions.
From the sites of the Second Bulgarian Empire we move to the sites of the First Bulgarian Empire, and accordingly from the center of the Balkan Mountains to the northeastern region of the Balkan Mountains, where there is a concentration of sites from this period (8th-11th centuries AD).
In the middle of the plains north of the Mountains is the archaeological site of Pliska, which was the capital of the first Bulgarian empire until the time of Simeon I (late 9th century) who moved the capital to Preslav. Pliska was a huge City in ancient terms (23 square kilometers), some estimate that close to half a million people lived in it.
The visit to the place is impressive; you can see extensive remains of urban planning, a huge and magnificent 100 meter long basilica cathedral structure whose remains are currently being restored, as well as a partially restored walled inner City, including the entrance gate. This is the place of the Palace; the center of power in the empire, the inner City was a kind of “Forbidden City” like ancient Peking (Beijing, today). In the heart of the inner City there is an important Museum with a model of the basilica and the story of the City’s history. Next to it are excavations of Palaces, Churches and various buildings.
Not far from there is a complex with a large courtyard where the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet are displayed, the meaning of each letter and its origins. The yard is called the Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet and is dedicated to the people who developed the Alphabet – St. Cyril and Methodius, followed by St. Nahum and Clement. Next to the courtyard is a building with several halls where the letters are displayed in several other forms. In addition to this, there is a gallery of historical paintings describing the history of the Bulgarian kingdom and the adoption of Christianity, and a wax Museum where the main kings who reigned in Pliska during the two hundred years it was the capital of Bulgarian empire are displayed.
Preslav is in a beautiful location at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. The City was chosen to be the capital of Bulgaria at the end of the 9th century by the greatest Bulgarian tsar – Simeon I instead of the nearby Pliska, where the priests of the old Gods, led by the priests of the Slavic God of thunder “Fhiron”, had too much power. Simeon was a devout Christian, but many of his people were inclined to paganism or apostasy, and he wanted to create a Fortress for Christianity, a “new Jerusalem”, a City that could compete with Constantinople in its exclusivity and its Churches. For this reason he built and decorated Preslav. A large gilded Church was built in its center, with a special concentric structure unparalleled in the Balkans, surrounded by magnificent streets and buildings.
Preslav was at its peak between the years 972-893. The School of writing and literature of St. Nahum moved to the City and it became a center of culture and education. In 972 it was destroyed by the Russian prince Vladimir of Kiev, and then by the Byzantines. It was settled again in the days of the Second Bulgarian Empire, but finally lost its greatness following the Tatar invasions and was abandoned.
Remains of impressive walls and gates, parts of the Palaces and Churches, arches and walls from the round golden Church, roads and buildings can be seen in the site, there is also an important archaeological Museum with interesting finds.
In the village of Osmar, near Pliska and Preslav, there are mystical rock-hewn Churches from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, where Hesychasm meditations were practiced. The caves are located 3 km from the village on the heights of cliffs, and apparently they were climbed to with ropes. The most famous Church is called Kostandinov, perhaps after the emperor Constantine, and it has an altar and some Frescoes. It consists of two parts, topped by a rock with an opening in the shape of an eye called the ‘eye’. This is a sacred place since ancient times.
According to Professor Damian Popchristov in his book “The Bogomils”, the caves are from the time of the First Bulgarian Empire and were one of the secret spiritual centers of the kingdom in the days of Tsar Simeon. To this place the magician Boyan, the son of Simeon the First, gathered the first 21 apostles of the Bogomil movement and founded a way of freedom, equality and brotherhood. All this happened at the beginning of the 10th century AD. The event is preserved in the name of the village (Osmar), which is related to the number sacred to Bogomils – eight.
Halfway between Pliska and Preslav, is the City of Shuman where nearly 100,000 residents live. The word “Shuman” means a grove, and indeed the City is in the heart of wooded hills north of the Balkan Mountains.
In the heart of the City there is a citadel whose foundations date back to the Thracian period. It was rebuilt by the Romans, destroyed during the barbarian invasions, and rebuilt by the kings of the first and second Bulgarian empires. Simeon the First turned Shuman into an important religious and cultural center, which remained so even during the Second Bulgarian Empire, when it replaced Preslav in importance.
In the 15th century, the Ottomans destroyed the City and rebuilt it in its current location. In the 19th century it becomes an important Ottoman Fortress and a governmental center. Shuman plays an important role in the Bulgarian revival movement, and after the liberation the City integrates into the new Bulgaria. It is also important to note that it had a large, influential and important Jewish community.
The main site in Shuman is the huge communist monument in honor of 1,300 years of Bulgarian history on the hill overlooking the City (Museum of the Fathers of the Nation). There are also remains of the ancient walled citadel.
Twenty minutes drive from Shuman, on an impressive rock cliff in the heart of a beautiful forest is the rock relief “The Rider from Madara”, one of the most famous sites in Bulgaria. This is a 40 square meter rock relief located on the cliffs and visible from a distance. You see in it a rider riding a horse and subduing a lion, an eagle flying in front of him and a dog running after him. The relief is from the time of the First Bulgarian Empire, and some interpret it as a symbol of the arrival of the Bulgarian mounted warriors led by Khan Asparuh to Bulgaria, Others speculate that the relief dates back to the Thracians times and symbolizes the God Sabazios, and suggest that at the foot of the rocky cliff was an ancient temple.
In the east of the Balkan Mountains is the town of Sliven is located, which was a center of rebels against the Ottomans, the local Hayduk who found refuge in the Mountains and the blue rocks above it. Today there is a long cable car that takes hikers up to these beautiful Mountain heights.
Among the Blue Mountains is the Karandila Mountain with a cliff inside of which is a ring-shaped opening called Halkata, through which the sun’s rays penetrate in mid-July. The rock has healing properties and is sacred to the Karakachani people living in Bulgaria, who celebrate their annual festival in this place at the time of the conjunction of the sun’s rays and the Mountain. It is an ancient Megalithic site whose sanctity has passed between times and cultures.