Spring is upon us, the days are getting longer and sunnier and you want to use any opportunity to explore Bulgaria off the beaten path. Perhaps you’re looking for a weekend getaway? It’s still cold and partially snowy high up in the mountains and a beach holiday on the Black Sea is not an option yet.
So why not visit a typical Bulgarian village, enjoy some local hospitality and immerse yourself in the historic atmosphere? Here are 8 of the best villages in Bulgaria for a spring holiday!
1. Timber aesthetics: Zheravna
Zheravna (Жеравна) lies scenically in the lower eastern part of the Balkan Mountains, at a place where they’re gradually descending as they approach the Black Sea. Zheravna rose to affluence and importance in the 17th century due to its key position on a trading route. The residents built imposing houses of wood decorated with elaborate woodcarvings and traditional local carpets.
Today, there are around 200 historic houses in Zheravna, some up to 300 years old. Each August, Zheravna is the site of the International Festival of Folk Costume, which gathers tens of thousands of people. Participants are required to wear an authentic folk costume and refrain from using modern technology for the duration of the event.
- How to get there: The biggest city in the vicinity is Sliven, which has regular bus and rail connections to the rest of the country. There are 2-3 regional buses a day from Sliven to Zheravna and back.
2. Antique melting pot: Arbanasi
Reportedly established in the Middle Ages by settlers from what is today Albania, Arbanasi (Арбанаси) is located just 5 kilometres from the charming former Bulgarian capital Veliko Tarnovo. In the early Ottoman times, it was a Greek-speaking island populated by rich merchants and craftsmen trading throughout Europe. Its wealthy residents built as many as 5 Orthodox churches, famous for their detailed interior murals. Some of the most eminent families of Wallachia (Romania) also had houses in Arbanasi.
Most of Arbanasi’s cultural heritage from the 16th-18th century is well preserved. The cobblestone streets of the ancient village are a great place for a spring walk and a memorable trip into the past. Make sure you visit the enormous Kostantsaliev House and the oldest church, that of the Nativity of Christ with unique frescoes from 1597.
- How to get there: Arbanasi is very close to Veliko Tarnovo — the distance is almost walkable. There are regular share taxis (marshrutka) between the centre of Veliko Tarnovo (opposite the Court building) and Arbanasi every day.
3. Hippie Mecca: Kamen Bryag
Kamen Bryag (Камен бряг) is quite different from other villages on the list. Its name, meaning “rocky coast”, describes it quite well. Nested on the high cliffs above the Black Sea, Kamen Bryag is not one of the many beach resorts on the Bulgarian seaside; in fact, there is no sandy beach at all.
However, the scenic position on the cliffs have made the village a favourite of Bulgarian hippies and counterculture members, who flock to Kamen Bryag to meet the sunrise on 1 July every year. This endearing Bulgarian hippie tradition pays homage to the cult song July Morning by Uriah Heep.
Just south of Kamen Bryag, you can discover the prehistoric cave city of Yaylata, complete with a ruined Byzantine fortress and medieval cave monasteries.
- How to get there: There are buses from Sofia and Varna to Shabla, which is the town closest to Kamen Bryag. From Shabla, you can hop on a regional bus via Tyulenovo.
4. Flag of Thracian freedom: Brashlyan
Remotely located in the sparsely inhabited Strandzha Mountains on the border with Turkey, Brashlyan (Бръшлян) is a beautiful architectural ensemble and an important historic site to boot. The village played an important role in the Transfiguration Uprising against Ottoman rule in 1908, for which it was praised in the folk song The Clear Moon is Already Rising.
Tranquil and sleepy Brashlyan will strike you with its rural wooden architecture from the 17th-19th century, which is very typical for this region where Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks coexisted for centuries. In the local church of Saint Demetrius, check out the Ancient Greek sacrificial altar immured into the pulpit!
- How to get there: Brashlyan is connected to the big coastal city of Burgas via nearby Malko Tarnovo. Buses are twice a day in each direction, but only run three times a week.
5. Only Albanian village in Bulgaria: Mandritsa
Mandritsa (Мандрица), located just west of the Greek border, is unique with its adobe architecture and ethnic history. Established in 1636 by Albanian dairymen, Mandritsa remains the only Albanian village in Bulgaria. Though the locals wore fustanellas and identified as Greek, their characteristic Tosk Albanian dialect has been preserved to this day. The three-storey adobe houses that dominate the village are quite a rarity too!
Formerly a prosperous place which had one of the oldest churches in the Eastern Rhodopes (constructed in 1708), nowadays Mandritsa is almost desolate – though the tourism potential brings hope for the future.
- How to get there: The closest town is Ivaylovgrad, which is linked to Haskovo and Kardzhali. In Ivaylovgrad, it may be possible to arrange transport to and from Mandritsa, though renting a car is recommended.
6. Snugged in the Balkan Mountains: Bozhentsi
Just north of the historic Shipka Pass you’ll find the quiet and peaceful village of Bozhentsi (Боженци). Bozhentsi was once an important centre of craftsmanship which exported leather and wool products as well as honey and wax. In modern times, it has almost no permanent population, but its architectural heritage of gorgeous Ottoman-era houses, painted in white and with slated roofs on top has made it a great tourist destination.
Some of the antique workshops are open for visits and the few but quality traditional restaurants will lure you with classic Bulgarian cuisine.
- How to get there: Bozhentsi has three or four buses a day to and from Gabrovo, which in turn offers bus and rail connections to the rest of the country.
7. High-mountain heaven: Kovachevitsa
Hidden at 1000 metres above sea level in the westernmost part of the mystic Rhodopes, Kovachevitsa (Ковачевица) is traditionally a village of skilful masons and builders who were in demand even outside the Bulgarian lands. As customary for this high-altitude area of the Bulgarian southwest, the local houses are built mainly of stone, with some wooden elements (especially in the higher stories).
The mastery of the local craftsmen is apparent in the quality construction all over the village. Kovachevitsa boasts an elaborate sewerage system that reaches 2.5 metres into the rocky terrain under the houses as well as a carefully designed antique pavement.
- How to get there: The closest town is Gotse Delchev, which has buses to and from Sofia. There are share taxis from Gotse Delchev to Kovachevitsa and back running Mondays and Fridays.
8. Chapel inside a tree: Staro Stefanovo
A small village in a forested area of north central Bulgaria, Stefanovo (Стефаново) is remarkable for the Staro Stefanovo (Old Stefanovo) architectural reserve of over 100 buildings from the early and mid-19th century. Besides the multitude of charming houses, other highlights include the Priest’s Bridge from 1824 and the village church built in a style very typical for the north side of the Balkan Mountains.
One of Staro Stefanovo’s most curious attractions, however, may be the Orthodox chapel fit inside the trunk of a dead 1300-year-old Turkey oak tree. The chapel is even complete with a cross-shaped incision on the back side of the tree trunk serving as a window!
- How to get there: Stefanovo is not far from Lovech, from where there may be a local bus connection. In addition, buses on the main road from Sofia to Varna may be able to drop you off at the Stefanovo exit near Balgarene, around 4 kilometres from the village.