Leave Sofia and navigate your way north on to the E79, a surprisingly good stretch of road, then settle back and enjoy the drive for you’ve got a 3 hour journey ahead of you to get a sense of what Bulgaria is all about. Vast farmland stretching out before your eyes, but on every horizon sits a mountainous view, you’ll drive through small rustic villages with crumbling terracotta roofs, road signs warning of horse and carts give you a sense that Bulgaria may just be a little behind the times. Road signs showing ice and snow indicating a different speed in such hazardous conditions highlight just how cold it will become in Bulgaria, but right now its hard to imagine ice on the road, the air-con is on full blast for its an easy 34 degrees outside in early September. The fields all around are a dull shade of orange baked after a long hot summer and the few remaining sunflowers in the fields stand wilting and look beaten.
The E79 is a popular lorry route that stretches from Hungary through Romania, Bulgaria and down into Thessaloniki, Greece, meaning that the utmost attention is required whilst behind the wheel as you’ll want to overtake these slow moving beasts, but be careful to pick your time unlike the precarious locals who overtake at the most risky of moments. The number of lorries on the E79 may also explain why very tanned, dark haired women choose to stand in the lay-bys provocatively dressed, sitting on tyres touting for business; yes that’s right, prostitution is legal in Bulgaria.
After a few hours you’ll be in the Vidin Province and you’ll exit on to the 114 and then the narrower 102, then before long the scenery changes and you start to wind a little on infant mountain roads, tall pine trees wrap the edge of the road obscuring your view of what might be out there, but then you catch a glimpse, a glimpse of those iconic, strange shaped rock formations staring out at you in various shades of red; And just like that you are reminded why you have driven north to the little, seemingly quiet town of Belogradchik, which lies just east of the Serbia border in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains; for the Belogradchik Rocks are screaming out to be visited.
As you follow the next bend the town lays out before you, the large out of place Hotel Skalite sits to your right; I turn left. The local men sit outside the café on the corner by the zebra crossing, all heads turn to see who has entered into their domain. Dark tanned skin, aged by the sun, jet-black hair, cigarettes in hand, a beer in the other, relaxing at the end of a long week, though I feel that what ever day it was these men would be taking up residence in the exact same chairs. Their stares stay fixed on me as they no doubt speculate how this foreigner is going to navigate their way around the eight plus stray dogs that are sleeping in the middle of the road soaking up the last of the day’s rays. One or two dogs amble away, while the rest merely lift an ear or an eyelid to see who could be possibly entering their Belogradchik and disturbing their precious slumber. Weaving in and out of these beguiling creatures, I follow Google Maps for the final few minutes to my Guest House, up narrow, twisty cobbled streets, which rival only those found in Rome.
I am staying at the far end of Belogradchik at the Castle Cottage Guest House, named just so as it sits beside the fortress wall of the medieval Fortress Kaleto. I’ll bring you back to Kaleto later. Castle Cottage is a well-presented guesthouse with English speaking hosts offering their guests a simple, yet comfortable stay in their very traditionally adorned abode. I’m swiftly taken up to the terrace to be shown the incredible panoramic views that the guesthouse has to offer; Belogradchik sweeps down below me, an attractive array of red and orange rooftops all muddled together, I look to my right and the domineering, famed Belogradchik rocks stand proudly behind the fortress wall cast brightly in the late afternoon sun. My host points to red neon lights that are just about visible on a rooftop on the other side of town, this is Pri Ivan and I am told I should go here for my dinner.
Walking to Pri Ivan takes approximately thirty minutes, but probably a while longer for me as I am armed with my camera. The small town is alive with character; walking down the cobbled streets your senses will come alive, large red chillies are hung in the windows to dry, every garden seems to grow their own sizeable grapes and displays an impressive collection of brightly coloured flowers, curious cats are lazing on the paint flaked window sills, the odd home looks like it’s recently had a makeover, while the rest boast a certain appealing charm with their crumbling rendered walls and broken terracotta roof tiles, the gardens are a host of activity with apple trees and enormous tomatoes growing, hens clucking away and nosey goats vying for food from rare passers-by. On the road you pass broken down cars defining the true meaning of a rust bucket, tyres flat and so old the rubber is the most perished I have ever seen, stray dogs are every where, but very harmless, one may follow you hopefully for a few hundred meters before disappearing off as quietly as it appeared. The town is quiet in every sense of the word.
Walking back a few hours later from a very tasty dinner in a surprisingly modern and plush Pri Ivan the town doesn’t seem quite so quiet anymore. Belogradchik comes alive at night with the sound of crickets! The familiar and lovely sound of crickets chirping rings out all around me. Ambling back along the cobbled street the crickets’ song becomes louder as I pass by the busy gardens from earlier.
Back at the guesthouse I take a seat on the terrace to enjoy a peaceful moment and absorb my new surroundings. It’s dark; only the odd streetlight glows below me in the town, but the dull bulbs aren’t enough to distract me from the darkness. The sky is perfectly clear and every star constellation is flawlessly visible shining brightly. The outline of the Belogradchik rocks can just be made out jutting high into the night sky. The crickets’ song is still at loud; ringing all around and every now and then a dog bark breaks the still of the night. Sometime later, not so far away the stray dogs of Belograchik start their night time song; some may find it fearful, some may find it sad, but I just like to think that the wandering canines of Belograchik were calling to one another across the town, a chorus of the night, wishing the world good night.
Waking up in Belogradchik I am excited to explore the Fortress Kaleto and get a proper view of the famous rocks, for this is the only reason I am in this town. The ancient Kaleto was originally built by the Romans and later extended on by the Byzantines, Bulgarians and then the Turks. The fortress walls reach up to twelve meters in height and some two meters in thickness at the foundations. The medieval walls wrap around the front of the rock formations, there was no need to build on the other side as no one would ever of been able to penetrate these rocks, and they are the Fortresses’ very own natural defence. For the total of six Bulgarian Lev (the equivalent of about £3.00) you may enter the grounds to the Fortress. Walking through the initial entrance arch you are able to explore the front courtyards, over on the right steal a peak through the arched windows cut into the wall for a taste of the mesmerising view to come. Keep on walking and before long the fortress walls on either side of you channels you slightly down hill towards the main impressive archway, which guards the Belogradchik rocks. Enter through the arch and take the steps winding up in front of you.
Unbeknown from below there is a whole new world up here to explore, so forget all your worries and throw on your adventure hat… but please just be a little cautious of where you decide to climb! Clamber down a few steps and look up and do a full 360, you are right in the centre of the red rock formations, each of which have their own unique names, named after ancient legends. I allowed myself a safe scramble around to appreciate the views before moving on through the centre and taking on the rather hazardous steep steps that took me to the next level. Here I was quite simply blown away (but not literally). With the town behind you the vista from here is entirely natural, rolling mountains spread as far as the eye can see, lush forestland below sweeps up the mountainsides, and the various red shades of rock formations are jutting up scattered all around you.
I moved as close to edge as my vertigo would allow and took a seat on the flat rock beneath me. As I looked out in awe at the landscape around me, time appeared to stand still and quite frankly nothing else seemed to matter. Here I was, on top of my new-found little World staring out at Mother Nature at her very best.