3-day trip in the heart of Bulgaria – Central Balkan National Park

There is a place in Bulgaria which unites the grandeur of the nature and the strong spirit of the Bulgarian people. This is the Balkan mountain range. A mountain that gave the name of the whole peninsula and witnessed some of the most important historical and cultural events in Bulgaria. The combination of magnificent nature and rich cultural history was the thing that sparked our interest in the region and made us decide to spend the last few summer days there.

As we had only three days for our vacation, we decided to focus on the history and culture of the region. We wanted to feel the atmosphere that some of the most important historical figures had lived in – the author Ivan Vazov and the national heroes Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev are only a few of the significant people who had called this region their home. We were very interested in finding more about the ethnography of the area and how the people lived during the Bulgarian Revival era. We were eager to visit the monasteries which provided safe haven of the national heroes who fought for the country’s liberation from the Ottoman Turks. We wanted to take long walks on the small cobblestone streets and get to know the craftsmanship of our ancestors.

I decided to split our trip in two blog posts – today I will be sharing what we did and where we went in the Central Balkan area, whereas in the next travel post I will let you know what are the best accommodation and restaurant options in the region. Happy reading!

It is fairly easy to get to the Central Balkan region. If you are staying in Sofia, your best option is definitely the Hemus highway in Varna direction. Bear in mind that the long road repair works are still ongoing, so in some places there is a temporary organization of traffic, which is a prerequisite for traffic jams.

The roads in the mountain itself are predominantly narrow, even dangerous at some places. For example, the road towards the Glozhene Monastery is so narrow that two cars can barely pass one another. This is further complicated by the fact that the guardrail is completely missing. So please be careful!

In terms of accommodation, I suggest that you pick a place that has a somewhat central location in the National Park. In this way, you can organize small one-day trips to all the interesting cities and sites without having to book different accommodations. Personally, we chose to book a hotel room in Apriltsi from where we could travel to Troyan, Gabrovo, Dryanovo, and Bozhentsi.

Maybe one of the most characteristic feature of the Central Balkan area is its numerous monasteries which have served as a safe haven for many of our national heroes during the Liberation war. Reaching them, however, can be a bit problematic – you will have to take the smaller (but more scenic) roads instead of the well-known wide roads. But trust me, it is well worth it!

We decided to include in our itinerary two monasteries – the Glozhene and Drynovo monasteries. The Glozhene monastery was our first stop as it was located in the northern slopes of the mountain and hence was closest to Sofia. According to the legend the monastery was built in the 13th century by the Ukrainian knyaz Georgi Glozh settled in the area with Ivan Asen II’s approval. Our national hero Vasil Levski stayed numerous times in the monastery in an attempt to escape from the Ottomans during the Liberation war so the place had played an important role in the Bulgarian history. The monastery is located on one stone edge in the mountain which creates a stunning scenic view across the whole mountain.

The Dryanovo monastery also offers amazing views – the area around the monastery is a beautiful gorge that was formed by the Dryanovo River. The monastery played an important role in the April uprising (a crucial uprising that set the beginning of the Liberation war) – in the course of 10 days the Bulgarian rebels stood against the pressure of the Ottoman troops. After the rebel had been defeated, the monastery was set to ashes, but later on it was restored. In 1897 an ossuary was raised in memory of the perished insurgents.

While in the area, don’t forget to look around for one of the many cats living in the monastery. They will always be happy to pose for a picture like a true fashion model. 🙂

The Bacho Kiro cave is situated only 300 m to the west of the monastery. It was named in honor of Bulgarian National Revival leader, teacher and revolutionary Bacho Kiro. You can choose between two visiting routes – the short one is without a guide and a booking in advance, whereas the long one (1 hour duration) is with a guide and a booking of at least 15 tourists is needed. We did not know these details so we visited it via the short route. One of the most interesting features of cave is that the site has yielded the oldest human remains ever to be found in Bulgaria.

If you have more time to spend in the area, you can include the following monasteries in your itinerary as well – the Troyan monastery, the Novoselski monastery, the Sokolski monastery, and the Batoshevo monasteries (male and female monasteries).

The Central Balkan region is also rich in real life examples of how the Bulgaria people lived during the Bulgarian Revival times (between 1700 and 1900). Here you can find the Regional Ethnographic Open-Air Museum Etar near Gabrovo, a truly exceptional place which I have visited a few times in the past. I have always found it extremely interesting to see how our ancestors lived thousands of years ago and get to know what tools they used to make their lives a bit easier.

The museum includes architectural samples of houses, artisan workshops, buildings and facilities revealing old techniques, the occupations, way of life and spiritual culture of the population in the central parts of the Balkan Range from the end-18th till the early 20th centuries. Visiting the Craftsman Street, one can try simid bread, banitsa cheese pie and sesame rings, relish damson cheese, white candy in water, halva, homemade bonbons and other dainties, or drink coffee brewed on sand.

The village of Bozhentsi lies just 15 km east of Gabrovo and was our next stop in the Central Balkan itinerary. According to an ancient legend, the village was founded by a noblewoman from Tarnovo, called Bozhana, who settled in the town after her husband died during the conquering of the capital Turnovo by the Ottoman Turks. Thence came the name of the village. The noble’s sons engaged in trade and the village gradually grew to become an important trade junction during the National Revival towards the middle of the 18th century. The main production consisted of leather, wool, beeswax and honey. Take your time for a long walk on the cobblestone streets in the village and immerse yourself into a long-forgotten atmosphere. If you are travelling by car, you will need to park it at the beginning of the village and continue on foot.

Other ethnographic complexes that you can visit in the region are the Damascena Ethnographic Complex, Koprivshtitsa, and the old town of Karlovo.

Have you ever visited the Central Balkan region in Bulgaria? What did you like the most? Let me know in the comments!

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