Hiking Bulgaria

Vidin, Bulgaria is, by all respects, a sleepy town. If you’ve never heard of Vidin, you’re in good company—before I’d stepped off the boat and onto its soil, I hadn’t either. Vidin sits, pleasantly, on the Danube River in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s a quiet city. Its streets are lined with trees and flowers and grandmothers sitting on benches reading books and newspapers. Kids swing on playgrounds in parks and parents roll strollers along cobblestone streets in the afternoon sunshine. Every once in a while, you’ll come across a decaying synagogue, reminiscent of a much more tumultuous time, or you might walk by a medieval fortress with a few crumbling walls. It feels safe, and comfortable, and delightful, like a place you could spend a weekend doing nothing but wandering around and sampling all of the menus from the outdoor cafés along the river.

Vidin is the namesake of the Vidin Province within which it sits, a province in the northwestern part of Bulgaria, close to the Serbian border. Belogradchik–a place I had never heard of until I noticed it listed on our Viking River Cruises itinerary as a day stop—is located here, although it resembles anything but tree-lined streets on the shores of the Danube. The ride there will stun you: when you start, you’ll be bumping along the cobblestone streets of a pleasant city center shaded by trees and flowering plants. Soon, you’ll find yourself in horizon-filled prairies, trailing across a landscape of rolling hills and trees that might remind you (it did me) of Colorado, or Idaho, or northern Arizona.

In no time, you’ll come to the village whose name literally means “small white town,” and you’ll realize that you’re now high up in foothills of the Balkan Mountains, just east of the Serbian border and just about 25 miles south of the Danube River.

There aren’t many people here—at last count, Belogradchik boasted only about 5,000 residents, some of whom stay only for summers, some of whom have left for better employment opportunities in the bigger Bulgarian cities. It’s the story, sadly, of so many Central European cities in the post-Communist era, and especially in Bulgaria, which is consistently ranked as the poorest nation in the European Union.

But once you get to the mountains (it happens suddenly), the economic status of Bulgaria will have given way to a landscape of giant red rocks jutting out of the rolling green hillside. Houses with Spanish-tile roofs will line the winding streets as they circle up and up into the hills, and you’ll see, in the distance, a huge medieval fortress with a giant stone wall around it that looks no less than part of a set design from Game of Thrones. At least, to this untrained eye who hadn’t yet heard about the layers and layers of history—both Turkish and European—that created this space, that’s what it looked like to me: a giant homage to an imaginary television show.

I had two thoughts as the bus pulled into this town of Belogradchik: one, that I wanted nothing more than to climb that fortress, and two, that the ride to the Balkan Mountains reminded me of something. It reminded me of Ryan’s and my trips to Sedona and its glorious red rocks when we first met in Arizona. The parallels were not lost on me: If Vidin had reminded me of places I’ve traveled outside the Midwest—lots of trees, humid summers, tall green grasses—Belogradchik reminded me of the Southwest, with towering mountains, crisp, fresh air, craggy red rocks, and views that I sometimes miss so much I’d kill for.

The fortress itself is something of a fairytale, if you consider a fairytale to be a story that seems unreal to you. Its origins begin during the Roman Empire, when soldiers built fortified walls around the magnificent rock formations as a way to safely survey the scene beneath and around them. Because of the unique rock formation (and their sheer height—in some places, the rocks extend up to 230 feet high!), the east and west sides of the area were naturally protected; the walls could only be practically built from the northwest and southeast sides. It wasn’t, as far as people know, used for defense until the 14th century, when the Bulgarian tsar of Vidin decided to extend the fortress by adding fortified barracks in front of the existing rock line. From what I learned, it was during this rule that the fortress became one of Bulgaria’s most important fortresses in the entire province, second only to the Baba Vida fortress in Vidin.

As was the reality that befell many Central European nations during the Ottoman conquests, Belogradchik was also seized by Ottoman troops in the late 1300s. Once they’d taken control of the fortress, the soldiers continued to expand it, adding additional fortifications to ward off the increasing insurrectionist activity in the area. By the 19th century, the fortress had been completely redesigned in line with the typical castle architecture of the time, with French and Italian influences finding their ways into the walls.

The fortress was last used during the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885.

We walked up Belogradchik that day—me, slowly, with my camera in hand, and Ryan, jumping up the hillsides on his long legs, his body getting smaller and smaller. I loved the collision of the rugged and the picturesque; he loved the buzz that so often accompanies the feeling of going higher and higher. Once we entered the fortress and started climbing up the few hundred steps (some metal with handrails, some simply stone), we could see the different cultural and historic influences crafted into the walls, so evident in the way certain Turkish ornaments and symbols were carved into the entryways and certain Italian elements reminded us of places we’d been in Rome or Sicily.

When we reached the very top, Bulgaria spread out before us. We could see the tops of thousands upon thousands of Spanish-tile roofed houses. We could see the dips and lulls in the valleys, and we could see the vastness of the Balkan landscape—its mesas, rugged red rocks, and cliffs. The two of us—Americans born in the 1980s—felt accomplished up there, standing on top of the highest point in the city, surveying the city, imagining what it must have been like, two thousand years ago, to build the fortress’ first walls. We stayed up there as long as we could, before our tour guide for the day started calling for all of us who’d made it the whole way to start the trip back down.

I’d like to return to Belogradchik. I’d like, even, to stay awhile next time. To bunk up in what I’ve heard is the town’s only bed & breakfast and to hike the massive trails with my husband. To spend my evenings reading books I’ve been intending to read, write stories I’ve been itching to write, watch locals while perched on a stool in a tiny coffee shop while sipping a robust cappuccino out of a big white mug.

Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. Special thanks to Viking River Cruises for hosting my recent stay in Bulgaria on the Passage to Eastern Europe tour and for featuring my photo of the Belogradchik Fortress on their Instagram account.

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