Situated in Bulgaria’s southeast corner, adjacent to the seaside and extending beyond the border into Turkey, the lush Strandzha Mountains have preserved a unique local culture and timber architecture. What’s more, Strandzha’s endless humid old-growth forests resemble those of the Caucasus more than anywhere in Europe!
Sparsely populated and away from the big cities, Strandzha is the perfect getaway for those seeking tranquillity and enriching cultural and natural experiences. From mind-boggling sand spit beaches to quaint villages with antique wooden houses, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the verdant Strandzha Mountains by the Black Sea!
1. Tour an authentic Strandzha village: Brashlyan
A historic Bulgarian village in the western part of the region, Brashlyan boasts possibly the best-preserved collection of traditional Strandzha houses. Constructed out of timber with stone foundations and unmistakable thick chimneys, Brashlyan’s houses are an absolute wonder of vernacular architecture!
Rent one of the traditional houses for a weekend to fully immerse yourself in the authentic surroundings and use Brashlyan (Бръшлян) as a base to explore the rest of Strandzha. Or visit the village on a day tour and take a look inside the 17th-century wooden church with a bell tower to learn more about Brashlyan’s turbulent history as a rebel hub.
2. Explore the lush old-growth forests: the Rhododendron eco-trail
In the eastern part of Strandzha near the Black Sea, the mild and humid local climate has preserved a belt of vegetation more typical of northern Turkey and the coast of Georgia than of Europe. Strandzha’s thick forests of oriental beech trees hide an understory of Caucasian evergreen shrubs, including Pontic rhododendrons.
And with all this natural beauty, it’s no coincidence that Strandzha Nature Park is by far the largest in Bulgaria! Walk the “In the Realm of the Rhododendron” eco-trail starting in the village of Kondolovo (Кондолово) in May and June, when the rhododendrons bloom in violet-purple, and you’ll feel like you’ve uncovered a humid Asian tropical forest hidden inside the Balkans!
3. Discover an ancient fire-dancing ritual: nestinarstvo
Nestinarstvo, the art of dancing barefoot on live embers to the tune of drums and bagpipes, has been practiced in Strandzha since time immemorial. Though the ritual likely has pagan roots, it has been integrated into the Eastern Orthodox culture of Strandzha’s Bulgarian and formerly Greek villages a part of the celebration of Saints Constantine and Helena.
Nowadays, the village of Balgari (Българи) has earned its fame as the capital of nestinarstvo. And with the fire-dancing ring in the village square in front of the church, it’s hard not to notice the village’s strong relationship with this tradition. Visit Balgari on 3 June to witness the peak of fire-dancing celebrations on Saints Constantine and Helena’s Day!
4. Sunbathe between the river and the sea: Sinemorets
Sinemorets (Синеморец) is a lively seaside resort on the coast of Strandzha, just south of the Veleka River’s mouth into the Black Sea. A great location for a relaxing seaside holiday, Sinemorets (literally “place by the blue sea”) features incredible sandy beaches. And the sand spit beach at Veleka’s mouth easily beats all of them!
The spit divides the Veleka from the sea for hundreds of meters, every step of it is covered by gentle golden sand. While the sheer natural setting is amazing in itself… the best part of it? You can choose whether you want to take a dip in the sea or the river – or both, if you stand just at the edge of the emptying river!
5. Visit the capital of inland Strandzha: Malko Tarnovo
Malko Tarnovo (Малко Търново) is a small town in the western part of Strandzha, near the border with Turkey. Though inhabited by less than 2,500 people, it’s by far the largest inland settlement in this region of thick forests and sparse population.
Like many of the surrounding villages, Malko Tarnovo also enchants with its characteristic wooden architecture. However, Malko Tarnovo’s timber homes have a somewhat more urban style, as they feature more sophisticated craftsmanship and multiple floors. Don’t miss Malko Tarnovo’s three museum houses, which tell of the area’s history, ethnography and nature – the interactive natural history museum is guaranteed fun for all ages!
6. Hear the roar of a forest waterfall: Dokuzak
While it may not be impressive in height, the Dokuzak Waterfall near Stoilovo is definitely the biggest and most famous waterfall among Strandzha’s rolling hills. Dokuzak (Докузак) is fed by nine karst springs that form the eponymous river. The waterfall is conveniently located in the woods just by the side of the road linking Stoilovo with Malko Tarnovo.
For some memorable panoramic vistas of Strandzha’s verdant ridges and green meadows, continue up the road from the Dokuzak Waterfall to Stoilovo (Стоилово). Beyond the typical timber village houses and the local Orthodox church, you’ll find a clearing with incredible views of the surrounding area!
7. Take a look inside a mystical Thracian sanctuary: Mishkova Niva
Concealed deep within the Bulgarian-Turkish borderland, the Mishkova Niva Thracian sanctuary is perhaps the region’s most mystical archaeological site. Tipped off by the famous clairvoyant Baba Vanga, in the 1980s high-ranking Bulgarian archaeologists were looking for the purported Temple of Egyptian cat deity Bastet at the site. The excavations were led by Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Bulgaria’s long-time communist leader Todor Zhivkov… until her sudden death just a few months after they started.
Whether Egyptian goddesses have anything to do with the site is debatable, but in any case Mishkova Niva (Мишкова нива) appears to have been a major religious sanctuary, as evidenced by the monumental architecture and the neighbouring tombs, fortress, Roman villa and ancient iron ore mines. Archaeologists estimate that the sanctuary dates to the 2nd millennium BC, when the location was first used as a megalithic tomb (dolmen).