ROADTRIP NORTHERN BULGARIA
For car rental in Sofia, I recommend Savoy Rent a Car near metro station G.M. Dimitrov.
I followed the itinerary Sofia - Zlatna Panega - Cherven Bryag - Bridge of God - Kozloduy - Byala Slatina - Bardarski Geran - Knezha - "Ulpua Escus" near Gigen village - Belene - Roman settlement "Nove" just east of Svishtov - "Ad Putea" settlement near Riben village, "Chernelka" eco path, Gortalovo village - Museum "Kukrinsko Hanche" - "Sostra" settlement, Lomets village - Troyan monastery - Mountain pass to Karnare - Sofia.
It was a fantastic drive. Although the rural roads in Northern Bulgaria can be of a bad quality, the main roads are fine. However, the drive from Knezha through Nikopol to Belene was a really bad part. There's enough to see on the road. I've been to most placesin the area so this trip was really packing the last remaining sights I had to see into one trip. Check out my other posts, such as Vidin, the Svoge Area, Pleven and the Lukovit area and Ruse to see more about the region. This itinerary is easily modified to add as many sights as you want.
Bulgaria is a diverse country and rest assured, the north is completely different from any other part. In fact, there are quite few Bulgarians visiting. The most popular destinations in Bulgaria are, after all, the mountains and the sea side. When I said I spent the night in Belene, even my Bulgarian acquaintances didn't have any idea what I would do there. It was as nice as I expected though. I loved this roadtrip. The only downside is that it's quite hard to find some places - there are parts without signage. For example, the "Ad Putea" settlement near Riben village was hard to locate. I climbed three different hilltops only to find it on a completely other one each time. This area is really yet to be discovered by tourists, but there's plenty to experience if you take your time.
Friday after work, I drove to Zlatna Panega to stay at the Chuchi guesthouse. Very hospitable owners, a pool and a very pretty view over the surrounding area. In the morning, I walked around a bit. The owner said there was a water fountain from Roman times but I didn't manage to find it. Drove into Zlatna Panega to see the karst water source of the Zlatna Panega river. Beautiful, light-blue water. Then I passed through Cherven Bryag on the way to God's Bridge, in Lilyache village. Nothing remarkable about Cherven Bryag, a province town of which there are many. But certainly interesting to see and have a coffee. Of course, like all cities, there's a pleasant central square and it's always worth it to check it out. God's Bridge, a bit farther on, was absolutely stunning. I was the only one there, just to prove how unknown this place is, even to Bulgarians. It was a Saturday afternoon and most known places in Bulgaria certainly attract a crowd, at least a local one. The area around is stunning and certainly worth exploring for a longer time.
ZLATNA PANEGA, CHERVEN BRYAG AND GOD'S BRIDGE
During the Ottoman reign, there were Bulgarians whom fled the country and settled in other areas. For example Moldova or the Banat area in what is currently Western Romania. The so-called Banat Bulgarians returned after Bulgaria was liberated. They are Roman Catholics, as opposed to the Bulgarians whom remained, they are Orthodox. The Banat Bulgarians built their own villages when they returned, with their own style of houses and churches. Bardarski Geran was designed with help of the Italian architect and engineer Leopold Forabosco, he was invited by Tsar Ferdinand. Of course, as for many generations they had been outside Bulgaria, a foreign influence is present. Nonetheless, they kept the Bulgarian identity and certainly view themselves as a part of the country, and proudly so. Bardarski Geran is one of these villages. The town is right near Byala Slatina. I spent the night in Byala Slatina, in the Misho's Street Hotel. Nothing much to do in Byala Slatina but do make sure to see the park and the Perkata monument, overlooking the town and the wide fields surrounding it. Below are two videos. The first is a general one of my trip, the second of a visit to a pensioner in Bardarski Geran. I met her in the street and got chatting, she then invited me in. Both videos have subtitles in English. Below the videos is the album with pictures of this village. The Soviet fighter plane monument on the first picture crashed in the fields near the village around World War II. Then close to it, on the same square, is a monument honoring the locals whom lost their lives during the Balkan Wars and World War I.
Above, you may find pictures of the city Knezha. It has a little center which is nice to have a walk through. Then there's the Zoo Gergana, which I didn't visit but heard it's worth it. There's also a 17-meter tall Christian cross on a hill, overlooking the town. Besides, Knezha has a historical museum. The pictures below are from the next segment of my trip, which continued to Belene through Nikopol. On the road there was quite a lot to see. Belene itself was great, I stayed in Hotel Prestige and really enjoyed my stay. The restaurant 0n-site is good, so is the pool. The view over the Danube river is stunning. In fact, you're not seeing Romania from the hotel. You see Belene Island, which had the Belene labour camp, functioning from 1949 to 1959. Nowadays, the western part of the island functions as a prison. The rest of the island is a home to rare wildlife, such as over 170 species of water birds. Belene Island is part of the Persina National Park. Although the island can't be visited, other parts of the park certainly can. There's a visitor center in Belene and it's recommended to check the website in the previous link.
After my night in Belene, I continued east to Svishtov. It's a pretty city where I'd been before, by bus in 2015. This time, I came for the "Nove" settlement. Right east of the town. At one point, this was a fortress on the border of the Roman Empire. It's one of the few fortresses that has been excavated, who knows what else is to be found in the lime rocks along the Danube banks. As excavations cost tremendous amounts of money and time, it's only done one part at a time. Certainly interesting to see that excavations are ongoing at the "Nove" site. No entry fees, parking is available for free as well. For an in-depth history in the place, please refer to this page.
"ULPEA ESCUS" (GIGEN), BELENE, "NOVE" SETTLEMENT (SVISHTOV)
"AD PUTEA", KUKRINSKO HANCHE MUSEUM, CHERNELKA ECO PATH, SOSTRA
Above, you'll find the album of the Ad Putea site in Riben village. This is northwest of Pleven. Quite hard to find so watch on what hill it is before you climb the wrong one. Best yet, ask someone local to save you the time and get there right away. An interesting place to see. At one point a Roman fortress and road station, on the road between Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), Limes Moesiae and Ulpia Oescus (mentioned earlier in this article. Ad Putea is 14 Roman miles (20,7 kilometres) from Ad Putea. Most interestingly, archaeologists found a clay vessel with what could contain the world's oldest writing. The pre-alphabetic writing is 2000 years older than the writing of Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, claims Mr. Volodya Popov, Director of the Pleven Regional Museum of History. Research continues and this could lead to ground-breaking conclusions on the spread of knowledge in prehistoric times. And the most interesting is that nobody knows. Nobody in the world, and very few of the Bulgarians. No signage, no references, nothing.
Besides, in this album you'll find the Kukrinsko Hanche museum. This is the place where national hero Vasil Levski was shot and arrested by the Ottomans, on 28 December 1872. Fascinating to visit. Then I visited Lovech for lunch and then passed the Sostra settlement, which was an interesting place to have a walk around as well. It's right next to the main road and you'll have to carefully cross the railroad to see the other half of the site as well. 16 kilometres north of Troyan.
TROYAN MONASTERY AND THE BEKLEMETO PASS
For just three days, I had done enough and it was time to get back home. But not without visiting the Troyan monastery, which I had always postponed because it's a bit off the main routes. But this time I wouldn't miss it. And it was stunning. What an incredible sense of history - with a gorgeous backdrop of the green hills. Yes, the Rila monastery is incredibly impressive, but the Troyan monastery is so certainly just as much. From Troyan, I took the Beklemeto Pass to cross the Stara Planina mountains. As if there wasn't enough about history, I followed the Via Trayana, which is nowadays this mountain pass. This place is where the Romans used to cross the mountains as well. The fortress named Ad Radices used to be on the northern side, on the southern side was the Sub Radices forttress. Wikipedia states: "At the pass was the crest station of Montemno (Monte Haemo), the foundation of which is still visible." I haven't managed to find it though. I did get to the Arch of Freedom by car, which is at 1550 metres, the highest point of the pass. In January 1878, under General Kartsov, the Russians took over this pass in harsh weather conditions (Source). After taking in the views, I got to Karnare, had dinner in Pirdop and drove back home. What a trip!