After the shock of a rainy cool day in the Rhodope Mountains the sun had returned again and our wheels were once again set in motion. As we followed a route to the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, the terrain changed to from imposing mountains and gorges to rolling hills with fields full of sunflowers. Our intention to hunt out the strange rock formations we’d read about was initially not very successful. We attempted to find the rocks at Ustra noted in our guide book as the most impressive of the area’s formations, although after several U turns and no signposts we gave up and instead followed the path to the “stone wedding”, the rocks here have eroded to look like a bride and groom and their guests. We did actually find these, and saw it from our vehicle in the distance, but unfortunately there was no suitable parking area, so a little frustrated we continued in the direction of “the stone mushrooms”, by this time it was late in the day and we were all getting a little tired and ready to find somewhere for our overnight stay. After a couple of attempts on foot to check out possibilities we eventually came across a parking area that was suitable for a nights stop over (GPS 41.652088 25.374467), unfortunately it turned out to be the hang out of the local stray dogs and they let us know by barking through the night! The following morning, a little bleary eyed, we continued to the stone mushrooms, this time finding a small lay-by to pull over briefly so that we could take a closer look.
The Stone Mushroom in the Easter Rhodope Mountains
With a few days R&R in mind our next destination was a small campsite in the village of Alexandrovo (GPS 41.987024 25.726777) . Matt the English owner has converted his garden into an intimate home from home camping which comes complete with BBQ, hammocks and a decked area for enjoying the stunning countryside views. As a campsite wasn’t their original intention they recognise that there are still some features that need adding (one is somewhere to empty the loo for vans that use chemicals). If you use chems and visit just go with that in mind as you won’t be disappointed with the rest of the facilities.
From here Paul & I were continuing alone for now beyond Plovdiv where we were visiting my Uncle & Cousin that had made Bulgaria their home for the last 10 years . During those years we hadn’t managed to reconnect much so it was great to share a few days catching up on news and life events whilst getting an understanding of their rural living and being shown the nearby sites.
Larking around with Burt & Anna in the Balkan Mountains and camels gate at Hisarya
Off road mountain BBQ with Amelia & Mick
Our journey continued north towards the Shipka pass and through the Valley of the Thracian Tombs. In the fields of Bulgaria the tombs are everywhere, hundreds of mounds like huge molehills concealing the gold-filled treasures of ancient kings who left no other trace of their rule. Known as tumuli, the burial mounds are the only remnants of the Thracian civilisation that inhabited the Balkan Peninsula from the 2nd millennium BC to the 3rd century AD.
The accidental discovery of a tomb in 1944 revealed that the earthen structures were in fact man-made and that the burial monuments hidden within contained intricately crafted treasures. Experts believe there are more than 15,000 of these tombs in Bulgaria, a tenth of them in the so-called Valley of the Thracian Kings. We tried to stop at the Unesco site at Kanzaluk 1st but couldn’t find anywhere suitable and safe to park, so we continued along the road to Shipka village stopping at the Mogila Shoushmanets tomb along the way. The heavy stone carved doors and pillared tomb with domed ceiling gave us an insight into this mesmerising piece of ancient history.
In the distance we could see the gold domed roof of the Russian Church in Shipka glinting in the sunshine . We were drawn to it like magpies and it really is one of the most beautiful churches we have seen. Also known as the the Shipka Memorial Church it was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Shipka Pass in which thousands of Bulgarian, Russian and Ukranian soldiers died fighting for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire.
Shipka Memorial Church
As we left to village and turned toward the Shipka Pass – a route through the central Balkan mountain range, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for as the sat nav threw up a map that looked more like a downhill slalom in the winter Olympics than a road. As we gingerly held our breaths and took the 1st corner we let out a sigh of relief as we quickly realised that the routing made it look much worse than it was, although the surface does need some attention the route is wide enough for two vehicles to easily pass and more caution was needed to avoid the potholes than to navigate the series of hairpin bends.
The Route through Shipka Pass
The pass delivers stirring monuments that span the breadth of Bulgarian history, the first of which is the offbeat Buzludzha Monument ruin. The concrete UFO looming over Shipka Pass has to be central Bulgaria’s most peculiar sight. This former communist meeting hall slid into disrepair after the fall of the regime, but its space-age silhouette has turned it into an irresistible stop. Standing high on a peak overlooking the pass the monument would look more in place in a sci fi movie than in the middle of this beautiful green mountain landscape. Although the inside of the monument is boarded up it hadn’t stopped daring explorers finding a route in through a disused manhole. The most we did was peer into the pitch black hole and shake our heads at the madness of risking dropping down into the blackness below to get a shaded glimpse of the derelict interior. We were privileged to spend a couple of nights with the eerie monument in our back garden so to speak as we parked on a grassy spot down below (GPS 42.7314 25.3872).
Further along the winding road almost 1000 steps lead to the top of Mt Stoletov (1326m), dominated by the impressive, 32m-high Freedom Monument which commemorates the Battle of Shipka and as history reads that they defeated over 27,000 Turkish soldiers these brave men certainly deserve the recognition.
We hope you’re enjoying Bulgaria as much as we are.
Until next time Andi & Paul x