The Pirin Mountains are high and dramatic Mountains in the southwest of the country, rising to a height of up to 3,000 meters, in the north of which is the most important ski resort in Bulgaria – Bansko. The Thracians called the Mountain “Orbelus” – the Mountain of snow, the Slavs called the Mountains ‘Phirin’, after Phiron, the God of thunder. The Pirin is a small mass of Mountains that can be circled in three to four hours by car. On top of it are spectacular peaks, alpine lakes and sacred sites in the area of Lake Popovo, which I will expand on in the next chapter.
On both sides of the Pirin Mountains flow two Rivers towards Greece, which formed channels of trade and movement into the Balkans. In the west flows the River Struma and in its valley we find the City of Sandanski, the sites of Melnik, Rupite and Rhozhen Monastery. In the east flows the River Mesta which opens into a beautiful valley where the City of Gotse Delchev is located and near it the sites of Kresna, the Roman City of Nikopolis Ad Nestum and the village of Pirin
Lake Popovo (Popovo)
Dobrinishte is a town with hot springs at the foot of the Mountains. It can be reached by Mountain train from Bansko or Velingrad, or by road, twenty minutes away from Bansko. The road continues and goes up to a small ski resort, and from there by cable car to a Mountain hut called “There is no God” – “Bezbog”. In connection with this there is an interesting story: in this high area of the Mountains lived a Turkish Pasha who used to kidnap Bulgarian women for his harem. On one occasion Bulgarian rebels raided his camp and killed him, to his request for mercy they replied that “there is no God” and hence the name of the place. Near the cabin there is a beautiful alpine lake from which beautiful hiking trails lead to Lake Popovo, located in the center of the high peaks of the Pirin.
This is one of the most beautiful lakes in the heights of the Pirin Mountains and has a relatively easy access to it, an hour and a half walk in each direction from the Bezvog cable car. According to Professor Marco, the entire lake area was sacred and served as a pilgrimage site. The lake is surrounded by seven peaks and has seven passages; these were considered gates and near four of them altars were found. Near the shores of the lake itself on the east side there is a stone altar, and on the island inside it are the remains of a Dolmen. To the southwest of the lake is a pyramid-shaped peak called Polejan. Markov found under the summit on the west side places for a fire, a huge royal stone chair, and altars carved into the rock. He conjectures that this is the place sacred to Dionysus Sabazios, which according to Herodotus his abode in the snowy Mountains of the Thracians.
Gotse Delchev and the surrounding area
The valley of the Mesta River separates the Rhodopes from the Pirin Mountains. The City of Gotse Delchev is located inside the valley and named after the Macedonian or Bulgarian hero (depending on who you ask) Gotse Delchev, who was active in the fight against the Greeks and the Ottomans for the liberation of Macedonia at the beginning of the 20th century.
The southwestern region of Bulgaria is called Bulgarian Macedonia, and it became part of the Bulgarian state only after the First Balkan War (1912). The Bulgarians are still convinced to this day that all of Macedonia is actually a Bulgarian province, which for some reason chose independence and adopted a narrative that does not belong to its history and culture.
Gotse Delchev is the gateway to the western Rhodope Mountains on the one hand, and to the Pirin Mountains on the other. During the Ottoman period, there were important Islamic institutions in Gotse Delchev, it was associated with the Sufis orders and Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt in the 19th century, and was called “Novokop”.
In the valley near Gotse Delchev there are the remains of a Roman City called Nikopolis ad Nastum. The City was founded by the emperor Trajan after his victory over the Dacians at the beginning of the 2nd century AD (he built the Trajan Bridge over the Danube), reached its peak in the Byzantine period, and was destroyed by the Slavs. it was rebuilt in the Middle Ages. A tumulus was discovered nearby it with gold treasures and Thracian Roman cult objects, statue of a rider on a horse and and of the God Hermes. Some of the findings are in the Museum in Gotse Delchev. Within the area of the old City there are remains of two Byzantine basilicas with beautiful mosaics that show the importance of the place in this period.
In the Roman Empire there were many cities called Nikopolis – victory. Three of them were established in the Balkans at about the same time (2nd century AD): the City of Nikopolis in Moesia on the border of the Danube (which I wrote about earlier), the City of Nikopolis on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in northern Greece, and Nikopolis ad Nestov near Gotse Delchev in Bulgaria.
Not far from the archaeological park of Nikopolis, near the village of Ognyanovo, there is a valley with hot springs, where Roman baths were once established and today it houses several nice spa resorts.
From Gotse Delchev there is a road leading west to Melnik and Sandanski. On the way one can visit the village of Pirin located in a valley hidden in the Mountains. The village is a kind of architectural reserve of ancient rural houses. It has flour flower mills running on water, chapels, a rural bakery and several guest houses. There are hiking trails that go from it to Lake Popovo in the north (ancient Civilization route), and there is a beautiful jeep road that goes from it to Melnik and passes near a waterfall.
Melnik and Rozhen Monastery
Melnik is the smallest town in Bulgaria, housing only a few hundred people, but one of the most beautiful of them. It turns out that the title of “town” is given in Bulgaria to a place of historical importance, regardless of the number of inhabitants, and thus we find towns with hundreds of people and villages with thousands of people.
Either way, Melnik lies in the heart of Bulgaria’s warm and most sunny valley, an area of Cappadocia-style sand hills at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. Between the hills and there are several streets with houses from the revival period and a relatively large number of wineries. The Melnik region is the best in Bulgaria for growing wine grapes, and Melnik’s wine is known for its quality.
In the 13th century, Melnik was the capital of a small local kingdom led by a Bulgarian nobleman, the despot Alexius Slav. He built an impressive citadel there and donated money for the construction and glorification of the Rozhen Monastery near the town, which is one of the most beautiful and important in Bulgaria.
The Monastery is one of the only ones in Bulgaria whose main parts have been preserved intact since the Middle Ages. However, the central Church was built in the 16th century and painted in the 17th century. The Monastery was burned down and renovated in the 19th century and today houses about twenty monks who are happy to receive guests. There is a beautiful walking route that runs between the picturesque sand hills from the Monastery and the village next to it to the town of Melnik.
Sandanski and Rupite
Melnik is in the valley of the Struma River that is connecting Thessaloniki with Sofia, along the valley runs the main road into the Balkans, and there are several charming towns and cities, one of the most beautiful among them is the City of Sandanski, famous for its hot springs. Remains of a settlement in the place were discovered already from Roman times, and the residents are proud that the legendary Spartacus was born in their City. In the heart of the town there is an impressive botanical garden, spas and a pedestrian street.
North of Sandanski is the town of Kresna, in this area the River forms a beautiful canyon used for rafting. The town has historical importance because it was here that a rebellion broke out against the Ottomans at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was part of Ottoman Macedonia. The rebellion was brutally suppressed (Krsna and Razlog Rebellion). From Krasna there are roads to the Elijah Monastery in the Mountains to the east, as well as to villages in the Pirin Mountains and the beautiful valleys in the west.
Near Sandusky is a crater of an extinct volcano, where there are hot water springs coming out of the ground, close to the Struma River. In this place, the prophetess of the Balkans – Baba Vanga – chose to build her home and a special Church that became a pilgrimage site. She claimed that the ground in the place has special energies. The site has been a pilgrimage site for all her followers and believers. You can see Baba Vanga’s house, the room where she received guests and prophesied, a small Museum built in her honor, as well as the Church built under her direction and intended to be a house of prayer for all nations. On the walls are modern paintings that infuse a psychedelic atmosphere.
The Blind Prophetess of the Balkans was born in 1911 in the nearby town of Strumica, which is in southeastern Macedonia today, but was then Bulgarian territory. Her father was a Bulgarian activist and her mother died in childbirth. The family became poor; Vanga was at the mercy of others. When she was 13, the event that changed her life happened: she was picked up by a tornado and thrown a long distance. When they found her in a faraway field her eyes were covered with dust and sand and since then she gradually lost her sight. When she was 14, she was brought to Zemun near Belgrade to learn how to get by as a blind person (Macedonia was then part of Yugoslavia), where she learned to read Braille and play the piano. She returned after three years to Strumica and functioned as the mother of the new house founded by her father. At the same time, she began to show supersensory and healing abilities.
During the Second World War she was already known as a psychic and helped locate people that disappeared. The Bulgarian Tsar Boris came to consult her in 1942. In May of that year, she married a Bulgarian soldier and moved to a village near Petrich in southwest Bulgaria. Her husband became an alcoholic after returning from the war and died in 1962. In the meantime, Vanga became very famous and people began to make pilgrimages to her. In the 1990s Leonid Brezhnev (the Russian leader) sought her advice, and in the 1980s she connected with Ludmila Zhivkova, the daughter of the Bulgarian communist leader.
Vanga claimed that her abilities stem from the presence of invisible beings who give her information about people she meets and about whom she thinks about (time and place are not important), she would see the lives of those standing before her as in a movie from birth to death, she claimed that the beings convey information to her and that there are parts of it she can’t tell.
Vanga predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl disaster, the fallinf of the twin towers, the tension with North Korea, and more. A deeper prophecy of hers was that in 2004 another realm of existence would be created, entire Civilizations would begin to spread through false worlds, and each person would be able to think in synchronicity with the others and thus a second type of existence would be possible. This prophecy is largely reminiscent of Internet life, and indeed Facebook began its activities at the beginning of this year.
Vanga also predicted her own death to happen in 1996, saying that there was a ten-year-old blind girl in France who would inherit her abilities. She prophesied that there is a secret doctrine of White Brotherhood that will spread in the world, a bible of fire, all religions will disappear and only the White Brotherhood will remain, white will cover the earth, and all this will come from Russia.
Before we get to Sofia, we need to complete the Christianity Bulgaria route by visiting the town of Bansko at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. Today it is the most important ski and tourist center in Bulgaria, where there are dozens of hotels, music festivals, and a variety of attractions. Few of the vacationers know that Bansko was a center of Bulgarian nationalism and Christianity, and in the 18-19th centuries a School of unique Icon painting developed here.
We started the Christianity route in Bulgaria at the Rila Monastery and arriving in Bansko is a kind of closing of a circle, because the people of Bansko took patronage of the Rila Monastery starting in the 18th century. Painters, builders and woodworkers from Bansko built the Church in and the surrounding buildings in the Rila Monastery, and the townspeople regularly provided food for the monks.
There are two prominent figures that were born in Bansko and shaped the path of resurgent Bulgarian nationalism and Christianity. The first is Paisiy Hilendarski who lived and worked in the 18th century and the monument to his memory can be seen in the City center (died in 1773). He was a monk in the monasteries on Mount Athos, and there he came across ancient writings from the periods of the First and Second Bulgarian Empire. When he read the writings, he discovered the honorable heritage of his people, and subsequently wrote one of the first two modern Bulgarian history books, which strengthened the national ethos and pride.
The second and better known is Neofit Rilski who wrote the first modern Bulgarian grammar book and translated the New Testament into modern Bulgarian. He was a great scholar and educator, a monk who became the father of the Rila Monastery for 21 years (died in 1881). In Bansko there is a Museum in his honor.
In the 18th century, a unique School for religious painting (Icons and Frescoes) was operating in Bansko, established by Toma Vishanov – Molera, who studied painting in Vienna and was influenced by European styles. The School operated for several generations and its products in painting, sculpture, Icons and Frescoes, can be seen in the spectacular, large and permanent exhibition called “Bansko Art School”, which is located in a beautiful building in the center of the City.
In the 19th century, the Holy Trinity Church was built in the heart of Bansko, and in the 1960s a bell tower was added to it, which is one of the symbols of the City. Around the Church there are streets where the original houses from the Bulgarian Revival period have been preserved and galleries and art shops are scattered between them.
Bansko is the gateway to the Pirin Mountains, from it there are roads going up to the heights of the Mountains as well as a cable car. Not far from it is the town of Razlog, which today, like Bansko, is a ski town, but in the past people who practiced sun worship lived there since the Thracian period. In it there is a historical Museum with remains of temples and beautiful Churches of the past.
Razlog and Bansko form a triangle with another town in the valley called Banya, the special feature of which is the many hot springs that come out of the ground. The locals use the water for washing and drinking. Banja has several spa hotels, an open pool, and also the only Lenin statue left standing in Bulgaria.