The rich history of Bulgaria

In 2002, Bulgarian historian Giorgi Mitrev was rummaging through Roman writings and found the crucial clue in an ancient letter. An inscription points him precisely the way – past vegetable fields and greenhouses – to a hill under which, undiscovered for centuries, rest the remains of Heraclea Sintica, a city in Thracian eastern Macedonia. Founded in the 4th century B.C. by the Macedonian king Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great, the city still played an important role in the Eastern Roman Empire before it was presumably abandoned in the 7th century A.D. and completely forgotten.

Die Ausgrabungsstätte der antiken Stadt Heraclea Sintica / © Foto: Georg Berg
The excavation site of the ancient city of Heraclea Sintica / © Photo: Georg Berg

Visitors to Heraclea Sintica do not expect a museum-like overall presentation. Rather, they will witness the excavations, which are progressing slowly. Most of the secrets of the hidden treasures have not yet been unlocked. With simple pulleys, the scientists around Professor Lyudmil Vagalinski pull up small stones, but also marble sculptures and columns from the pits day by day. The foundation walls of a temple of Nemesis and an early Christian basilica can already be seen. By means of ground-penetrating radar, scientists have already located a large workshop where ceramic masks were made for a theater that is also still to be excavated.

Ein Steg aus Europaletten führt die Besucher an einfachen Flaschenzügen vorbei zu den Überresten der antiken Thraker-Siedlung Heraclea Sintica / © Foto: Georg Berg
A footbridge made of Euro pallets leads visitors past simple pulleys to the remains of the ancient Thracian settlement of Heraclea Sintica / © Photo: Georg Berg

Many eras have shaped Bulgaria

Rehashing Bulgaria’s history makes sense for the country in its economically challenging present, but it can’t be done in a rush. Too many epochs have left their mark and make an unbiased approach difficult. From the Thracians to the Greeks and Ottomans, during Christianity and in the age of communism. Again and again, the focus on one’s own history has fundamentally changed. It is also worth remembering that Bulgaria sided with Germany during the Second World War.

Eine im Nationalmuseum Sofia ausgestellte diplomatische Protokollnotiz dokumentiert den vom nationalsozialistischen Außenminister Ribbentrop mitunterzeichneten Beitritt Bulgariens zum Bündnis der kriegführenden Länder Deutschland, Italien und Japan im Jahr 1940 / © Foto: Georg Berg
A diplomatic note on display at the National Museum in Sofia documents Bulgaria’s accession to the alliance of the belligerent countries Germany, Italy and Japan in 1940, co-signed by the Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop / © Photo: Georg Berg

The gold of the Thracians

The National Museum in Sofia is proud of its collection of the oldest gold treasure in the world. In ancient times and even before the Macedonians under Alexander the Great briefly expanded their empire to the east, the Thracians immortalized themselves in history through their love of wine and gold. The past comes alive especially with narrated stories. Thus, in the National History Museum, we learn the story of the peasant woman who, in 2003, received from her husband a golden necklace that he had made for her from pieces of gold lying around in his field. Just like the Thracian women, she had always felt particularly safe wearing her gold jewelry. The only bad luck was that archaeologists became aware of it and after further investigation found a 2,400 year old treasure with over 15,000 gold objects.

Erst 2003 wurden die Goldschätze von Slatiniza dort in Gräbern gefunden. Heute sind sie im Nationalhistorischen Museum von Sofia ausgestellt / © Foto: Georg Berg
It was not until 2003 that the gold treasures of Slatiniza were found there in tombs. Today they are exhibited in the National History Museum of Sofia / © Photo: Georg Berg
Der Goldschatz von Panagjurischte besteht aus 9 Gefäßen aus purem Gold. Gemeinsames Trinken gehörte zu den rituellen Handlungen thrakischer Fürsten. Die Amphore hat einen runden Boden, auf dem sie nicht stehen kann. Jedoch hat sie unten zwei gegenüberliegende Löcher, aus denen Wein floss, bis das Gefäß leer war / © Foto: Georg Berg
The gold treasure of Panagjurishte consists of 9 vessels made of pure gold. Drinking together was one of the ritual acts of Thracian princes. The amphora has a round bottom on which it cannot stand. However, it has two opposite holes at the bottom, from which wine flowed until the vessel was empty / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die typischen Helme der Thraker sind aus Eisen und wie eine Zipfelmütze geformt / © Foto: Georg Berg
The typical helmets of the Thracians are made of iron and shaped like a pointed cap / © Photo: Georg Berg

The pyramids and the wine of Melnik

The tri-border area where Bulgaria borders Macedonia and Greece has been known as a wine-growing region since pre-Hellenistic antiquity. Orpheus, whom the Greeks revere as the inventor of music, is said to have lived here. Almost every family in the small town of Melnik cultivates some vines and offers their homemade wine for sale along with all sorts of souvenirs.

Mit 160 Einwohnern gilt die Stadt Melnik als die kleinste Stadt Bulgariens. Die Häuser sind von der Architektur des bulgarischen Wiedergeburtsstils geprägt mit auskragenden Wohn-Obergeschossen und einer darunter liegenden Etage, in der der Wein bei gleichbleibend kühler Temperatur reifen kann / © Foto: Georg Berg
With 160 inhabitants, the town of Melnik is considered the smallest town in Bulgaria. The houses are characterized by Bulgarian Revival style architecture with overhanging residential upper floors and a floor below where the wine can ripen at a constant cool temperature / © Photo: Georg Berg

Some demanding winegrowers have been cultivating the autochthonous vine Shiroka Melnishka Losa in this region again since 2012. Presumably, the Thracians already drank wine from the broad-leaved vine, which is native only here, and its survival was severely threatened. Estate owner Nikola Zikatanov emphasizes in conversation that his family business had to make a virtue out of necessity a few years ago. “Since Bulgarian harvesters have been able to earn more in European strawberry fields, we’ve been saying goodbye to the bulk business.” In fact, he was allowed to note that the wine gains in quality by harvesting only the really ripe grapes every day. “And we manage to do that when there are only three of us in the vineyard.”

Die Weinberge des Familienguts Zornitza vor der Kulisse der Pyramiden von Melnik / © Foto: Georg Berg
The vineyards of the Zornitza family estate against the backdrop of the Melnik pyramids / © Photo: Georg Berg.

Aleksander Skorchev also has a lot of plans in the Struma Valley. The sommelier has worked in Gordon Ramsey ‘s restaurant in London and has been developing high-quality wines on the newly planted sites of the Zornitza family estate since 2017. So far, the scale of production volumes can be called experimental at best. In 2021, he expects to bottle his three cuvées at a total of 10,000 bottles. Grapes from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, as well as Bulgarian Ruby vines are pressed here without pressing, fermented, and then aged in oak barrels for a maximum of eight months.

Aleksander Skorchev gehört zu den Court of Master Sommeliers der WSET und perfektioniert jetzt die Produktlinie der bulgarischen Zorniza Rotweine / © Foto: Georg Berg
Aleksander Skorchev is one of the Court of Master Sommeliers of the WSET and is now perfecting the line of Bulgarian Zornitsa red wines / © Photo: Georg Berg

But the geology of southern Bulgaria has more to offer besides the striking pyramids, whose limestone sandstone you can almost watch weathering.

Bei einer Wanderung über die Pyramiden von Melnik wird schnell deutlich, dass die bizarren Formen der Kalksteinfelsen durch Erosion entstanden sind / © Foto: Georg Berg
During a hike over the pyramids of Melnik, it quickly becomes clear that the bizarre shapes of the limestone rocks were created by erosion / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bulgaria is richly blessed with hot springs

Not far from the extinct volcano Kozhuh lie not only the excavation site of Heraclea Sintica and the memorial to Baba Vanga, who worked here until 1996 and was known far beyond the borders of Bulgaria as a miracle healer. She was even a state employee at the Institute of Suggestology, at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences since 1967.

Heiße Quellen auf dem Gelände der Wirkungsstätte von Ewangelia Pandewa Guschterowa, die als Seherin Wanga verehrt wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
Hot springs on the site of the work of Evangelia Pandeva Guschterova, who is revered as the seeress Wanga / © Photo: Georg Berg

An insider tip for outdoor enthusiasts can be found on the backside of the extinct volcano Kozhuh. Few mobile homes are parked in an open field and nearby, water of varying temperatures steams in clay pools under the open sky.

Frei zugängliche Bade-Becken bei Rupite werden von heißen Mineralquellen gespeist. Die angrenzenden Stellplätze für Wohnmobile sind ebenfalls kostenlos / © Foto: Georg Berg
Freely accessible bathing pools at Rupite are fed by hot mineral springs. The adjacent sites for mobile homes are also free / © Photo: Georg Berg
Auf dem Gelände zwischen den sechs Villen, die zum Zornitza Family Estate  gehört, wird ein Pool aus der natürlichen Thermalquelle gespeist / © Foto: Georg Berg
In the area between the six villas, which belongs to the Zornitza Family Estate, a pool is fed by the natural hot spring / © Photo: Georg Berg

Different perspectives on Bulgaria’s history

The historical development on the territory of today’s Bulgaria can only be understood against the background of the influence of various great powers. After the epochs of the Thracians and the Greeks, Bulgaria belonged for 500 years to the Ottoman Empire, which was ruled from today’s Istanbul. Few of us associate formative cultural media, such as the Cyrillic script, with its Bulgarian origins.

Als Schöpfer der glagolytischen und die kyrillischen Schriftzeichen werden im Nationalhistorischen Museum von Sofia (Bulgarien) die Brüder Kyrill und Method verehrt / © Foto: Georg Berg
The brothers Cyril and Methodius are venerated as the creators of the glagolytic and Cyrillic scripts in the National History Museum of Sofia (Bulgaria) / © Photo: Georg Berg

During the Ottoman rule, there has been neither a Renaissance nor an Enlightenment in Bulgaria as in the rest of Europe. Instead, one usually hears the term National Revival in Bulgaria, referring mainly to the separation from outside influences, such as Greek culture and the Ottoman state system.

The Bulgarian Enlightenment and the Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century and named after the first Bulgarian hermit, Ican Rilski, who inhabited a cave nearby until his death in 946. During the Bulgarian Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, the monastery was a center of spiritual and cultural life. Since 1983 it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Seit seiner Gründung im 10. Jahrhundert und sicher auch wegen seiner Lage im schwer zugänglichen Rila-Gebirge ist das Rila-Kloster als bulgarische Institution bedeutsam. Der Wehrturm aus dem 13. Jahrhundert hat Kriege und Brände überdauert / © Foto: Georg Berg
Since its foundation in the 10th century, and certainly because of its location in the difficult-to-access Rila Mountains, the Rila Monastery has been significant as a Bulgarian institution. The 13th century fortified tower has survived wars and fires / © Photo: Georg Berg

Wall calendar with photos by Georg Berg available in bookstores (also online) in various sizes: Rila Monastery – World Heritage Site in Bulgaria (*)

The project “The Red Flat” in Sofia is living contemporary history

The reappraisal of the time when Bulgaria was politically part of the Eastern Bloc has not yet been reflected in the country’s major museums. All the more remarkable is the private initiative of a few young people who rented a city apartment in Sofia in April 2019 and furnished it with objects collected and donated by acquaintances. Not only foreign Torurists, but also young Bulgarians are enthusiastic about taking themselves back to the time of Reagan and Gorbakhov.

Touristengeschäft in Sofia, in dem man Führungen durch die im Stil der kommunistischen Zeit originalgetreu eingerichteten Wohnung "The Red Flag" buchen kann / © Foto: Georg Berg
Tourist store in Sofia, where you can book guided tours of “The Red Flag” apartment, which has been furnished in the style of the communist era / © Photo: Georg Berg

Guided tours can be booked right next door in a store that also offers other unconventional tourist projects for Bulgaria.

Stoisch hört sich der gehäkelte Lenin in der Küche der "Red Flat" die Dauerschleife an, mit der das bulgarische Fernsehen die Eröffnung der ersten Coca Cola Abfüllanlage des Ostblocks rühmt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Stoically, the crocheted Lenin in the kitchen of “The Red Flat” listens to the continuous loop with which Bulgarian television boasts the opening of the first Coca Cola bottling plant in the Eastern Bloc / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the apartment The Red Flat nothing reminds of a museum. All the furniture may and even should be used. Books and records are available as original documents. Even a classic Bulgarian soft drink is in the fridge. Neon colors glow in the water glass and the sweet taste awakens many memories for Bulgarians who still experienced the cold war, which can be exchanged in the living room.

Eine Schankwand gehörte auf beiden Seiten des eisernen Vorhangs in die gute Stube / © Foto: Georg Berg
A taproom was part of the living room on both sides of the Iron Curtain / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bulgaria is an insider tip

Bulgaria is an exciting country with a lot to discover. The cost of living is based on the Bulgarian income and is comparatively cheap. Who would like to go on discovery journey, may avoid therefore confidently the well-known centers of the mass tourism at the black sea.

The research trip was supported by the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism.

(*) This post contains advertising links (also called affiliate or commission links) that lead to

Travel Topics on Tellerrand-Stories

Our mode of operation is characterized by self-experienced, well-researched text work and professional, vivid photography. For all stories, travel impressions and photos are created in the same place. Thus, the photos complement and support what is read and carry it further.

Never miss new Tellerrand-Stories again! Mithilfe eines Feed-Readers lassen sich die Information über neue Blogartikel in Echtzeit abonnieren With the help of a feed reader, all stories about the Tellerrand (edge of the plate) can be subscribed to in real time.

This post contains advertising links (also called affiliate or commission links) that lead to intermediaries of goods or services.

Permalink of the original version in German:
Optimized by Optimole