7 natural features you never expected to find in Bulgaria

Geographically, you probably imagine Bulgaria as a country of high snowy mountains and gentle Black Sea beaches, of fertile plains and valleys in Thrace and Moesia, and with a mix between continental European and Mediterranean flora and fauna to cover it all. And you wouldn’t be wrong – that’s exactly what most of Bulgaria looks like!

But hidden in between, there are some natural features that you never would have thought you could see in Bulgaria, and some of them even in Europe! From the tiny sandy desert of Varna through the Pliocene volcano of Kozhuh to the exotic evergreen rhododendrons of Strandzha, kashkaval tourist presents 7 natural features you never expected to find in Bulgaria!

1. The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani

The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani

The Stone Desert: Pobiti Kamani: Photo credit: Infobgv, Wikipedia.

As you approach the coastal city of Varna from the west, you might notice a small, but rather uncanny landscape around you. Stone columns of peculiar shapes tower on each side of the road and the ground is covered by sand and rubble rather than soil: it looks as if you’re in the middle of a small desert!

The Pobiti Kamani (Побити камъни, „Impaled Stones“) natural phenomenon, also known as the Stone Desert, is striking with its desert-like vegetation and landscapes. For a second, you might think you’re in a forgotten corner of the Sahara or Atacama rather than a few kilometres from the Black Sea coast!

2. Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Volcano from the Pliocene: Kozhuh

Although not particularly high, the Kozhuh Hill rises prominently above the Sandanski-Petrich Valley in Bulgaria’s southwest, surrounded by mineral waters and Mediterranean vegetation. Though the hill is attractive with its characteristic shape resembling a fur coat, you would never have guessed that Kozhuh was an active volcano a million years ago!

Kozhuh (Кожух) may have last erupted in the Pliocene, when the ancestors of modern humans were only learning to walk on two legs, but the volcanic geology of the hill is still evident in the tuff and tuffite rocks that dominate its composition. And of course, in the warm mineral waters that abound in the nearby area of Rupite, where the famous Bulgarian clairvoyant Baba Vanga spent most of her life!

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The Bulgarian Black Sea coast in winter

The Bulgarian Black Sea coast in winter

With the freezing temperatures in Bulgaria during the winter, your first thought might not be to swap the ski resorts for a visit to the Black Sea. But in fact, even in the coldest season the Bulgarian Black Sea coast is absolutely stunning with its serene wintry beauty and offers a whole lot of ways to have a good time!

With all the sunbathers far away, you can have the shore all to yourself. The rough waves and iced-over breakwaters lend the seascape an almost Arctic feel. Only the planted palms, although perhaps covered with snow, can break that illusion.

In winter, you can still go for a relaxing walk along the beach, this time undisturbed by the flocks of tourists. On the central beach in Varna, you can observe and feed the swans casually approaching the shore or alternate between resting in an open-air hot-water pool and taking a quick dip in the chilly sea waters.

If you enjoy cultural attractions, then you’d be delighted to explore wonderful sights like the medieval churches of Nesebar, the Balchik Palace or Cape Kaliakra with its castle free from the summer crowds. And remember that Varna and Burgas are quite big, beautiful coastal cities which boast trendy bars, quality restaurants and all kinds of accommodation throughout the year!

And while temperatures may be a few degrees higher than elsewhere in Bulgaria because of the sea’s influence, just be sure to bring a trusty windbreaker for the refreshing summer breeze’s often less than pleasant winter counterpart!

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The insane Easter rocket war of Chios

The Easter rocket war of Chios

The Easter rocket war of Chios. Photo credit: Adam Rifkin, Flickr.

The Greek island of Chios hosts the most explosive Easter celebration ever! Each year on the eve of Easter, the congregations of two rival Orthodox churches in the town of Vrontados engage in a full-scale fireworks war against each other.

From two hilltops about 400 metres from each other, participants aim for a direct hit on the rival church’s bell tower. Whoever scores more direct hits is the winner… though the rivalry always remains unsettles at least until the next year!

The fiery tradition, known in Greek as Rouketopolemos (Рουκετοπόλεμος), has been practiced for hundreds of years. Reportedly, real cannons were used in the beginning, until the ruling Ottomans prevented the locals of Chios from blowing each other to pieces and suggested fireworks instead.

Centenary ice: Europe’s tiny southernmost glaciers are in Bulgaria

The Banski Suhodol Glacieret under Koncheto

The Banski Suhodol Glacieret under Koncheto

Did you have any idea you can see Europe’s most southern glacial formations in the alpine environment of Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains?

True, they may pale in comparison to mighty ice bodies like the Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps or the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia, but they’re still the southernmost glacial masses you can find in Europe, at the latitude of Rome, Corsica and Barcelona!

Lying at altitudes above 2,600 and 2,400 metres respectively, the two small glaciers (scientifically called glacierets) are the Banski Suhodol Glacier and the Snezhnika Glacier. They’re located in Pirin’s highest reaches, in the Big Cauldron (Големия казан, Golemia kazan) cirque under the mountain’s tallest peak Vihren and at the foot of the breath-taking vertical Koncheto ridge.

The Snezhnika Glacieret and its surroundings are a favoured habitat for mountain goats

The Snezhnika Glacieret and its surroundings are a favoured habitat of mountain goats

Now, these two Bulgarian glaciers are not some random patches of snow that have happened to stay intact over a summer or two. Fed by avalanche snow, indications are that they’ve been in existence ever since the Little Ice Age! This means that they’re 500 years old, at least. And the hundred-year firn ice of Snezhnika has been measured to be at least 11 metres thick!

While access to the larger Banski Suhodol Glacieret may be quite hard, with its position under the inaccessible marble slopes of Koncheto, the Snezhnika ice formation can easily be visited via the main hiking trail from Banderitsa Hut up towards Vihren Peak (at 2914 metres). And you can very often see mountain goats scaling the centenary ice of Snezhnika and the nearby rocks, making for an unforgettable sight of Bulgaria’s mountain fauna!

Gorgeous snowy Vitosha in March

Gorgeous snowy Vitosha in March

One of Vitosha’s ‘stone rivers’ up in the Bistrishko Branishte biosphere reserve.

With a combination of pleasant spring weather and fresh snow from Monday’s snow storm, Sofia’s very own mountain Vitosha was absolutely stunning this weekend. The skiing and snowboarding conditions seemed to be perfect on the Aleko ski runs as well!

Enjoy a delightful spring week and check out some other things to do in the Bulgarian capital!