In the heart of Bulgaria, the Balkan Mountains stand in quick succession two parallel mountain ranges, oriented east-west: the Sredna Gora and the central Balkan proper. The long and beautiful Valley of Roses unfolds between these two mountains almost entirely covered with forests.
At their foot, hundreds of hectares of roses bloom in May-June: a real enchantment, punctuated by the return of storks and the scattered mounds of Thracian tombs - one of the richest ancient civilizations. In the north, the great European plain unfolds in all its extent, cut, as it approaches Romania, by the majestic bed of the Danube.
The Valley of Roses
At the end of May, beginning of June, the fields come alive at dawn of the first pickers, many of them Roma, come to tear from the thorny damascena bushes their tender flowering buds still suffused with dew. A arduous job, paid for with peasants, which grazes the hands. Each and every one collects 25 to 30 kilos.
Around 10 a.m., when the heat begins to assert itself, the roses fill whole bags, weighed in the hollow of the roads on scales made in USSR, before taking by cart or truck the direction of the nearby distilleries. It does not take less than 3,5 tonnes to manufacture a single kilo of gasoline (sold € 1)!
It was at the end of the 17th century, marked by the rise of European perfumery, that bushes multiplied in this region with an ideal humid microclimate, bathed by the cool waters of the Toundja river. The country, renamed Roumélie, had been in the hands of the Ottoman Empire for three centuries.
Thanks to the Valley of Roses, Bulgaria is today the world's leading producer of rose essence (around 70% of the market) - recognized by a European “AOC”.
Kazanlak, “Capital of the rose”, has since 2016 a brand new rose museum, embedded in a rose garden, and organizes every first weekend of June its unmissable Rose Festival, during which the “queen” is elected. roses ”… The visitors inevitably leave with a little perfume extract contained in an engraved wooden vial.
The Thracian tombs of Kazanlak
Beneath its not very welcoming surroundings, Kazanlak has more than one string to its bow. Beside the dusty display cases of objects evoking the heroic struggles of the 19th century for independence, the historical museum houses a fantastic section exhibiting Thracian art treasures: the collection notably contains a kylix and a crown of golden oak leaves, found in one of the some 1 burial mounds swelling the landscapes of the region with their grassy nipples. They bear witness to the importance of this little-known civilization which reigned over the heart of the Balkans from the 500nd millennium BC to the 2rd century BC. J.-C.
In Kazanlak itself, workers unearthed a tomb from the end of the 4th century BC. J. - C., classified with the world heritage for the splendor of its funeral frescoes. As in Lascaux, it is a copy that we visit to avoid their degradation.
Beyond, scattered in the smiling countryside, the sites ofOstrusha, Chouchmanets et Goliama Kosmatka reveal, among others, well-preserved princely tombs, often carved in raw granite, with a thousand and one ornamental variations: painted coffered ceiling, funeral chamber with columns, etc.
Further on, towards the great plain of Dobroudja, the whole of Svechtari (Unesco) is even more exceptional, with its splendid caryatids with floral skirts forming a circle around the deceased. Here as elsewhere, the dead have often been found dismembered: a Thracian custom to ensure a better passage to the afterlife - an echo, perhaps, to the myth of Orpheus, which ends up in pieces.
The heart of the central Balkan
From Kazanlak, the road joins the village of Chipka, dominated by the golden bulbs and the large lantern on the Orthodox cross of a commemorative church of disproportionate proportions. The building pays a vibrant tribute to the 20 Russian soldiers who died in the battles for Bulgarian independence. It was in 000-1877 when the Czar Empire liberated Slavic Europe from Ottoman occupation. Here a decisive battle was played out.
Bend after bend, the road climbs towards the heights of the central Balkan. At Chipka pass, other monuments have been erected, facing the bare and windy ridges.
From there, a cross road punctuated on the end of potholes joins the incredible concrete UFO of Bouzloudja. This abandoned congress hall, round like an egg and watched over by a tower enshrined with the red star, was built in the middle of the mountain (1 m) to celebrate the 441th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian Communist Party!
Abandoned, it slowly falls into ruins. On the walls, the angry tags denouncing the dictatorship of the proletariat echo the time-honored phrase: "Workers, workers of all countries, unite" ...
Some, unaware of the risk of falling from the ceiling, find a way to infiltrate inside to admire the half-tagged frescoes by Marx and Engels in the auditorium always guarded by the imprint of the sickle and the hammer.
Best regards from Bulgaria
The national 5 descends in tight bends through a dense deciduous forest, shrouded in golden hues in the fall. In line of sight: the valley of the Yantra River and, on its banks, the Etara museum, where craftsmen bring the trades of the past back to life in the summer in authentic old buildings gathered in the village.
A few kilometers away, the Sokolski monastery (1833-34), in the well-ordered garden, stands its church with blue frescoes in the middle of nature. They cover up to the outer walls of the dome, unrolling a circle of learned-looking holy men. But it is above all peace that reigns supreme here.
It's hard not to have a crush on Bojentsi. This postcard hamlet, with traditional corbelled houses nestled in the countryside, seems to contemplate the 21st century with disdain. Everything here is nothing but small gardens and orchards, heavy wooden gates, stone walls, slate roofs and a roughly paved path overgrown with weeds.
Eastward, to Tryavna, several house-museums with illuminated carved wood lounges bring back to the splendor of the era of the national awakening, highlighting the work of schools of sculpture and painting of local icons. Bulgarians are fond of these places which take them back to the golden age of their emancipation, when traders, extending their networks throughout Eastern Europe and to the Mediterranean, built solid fortunes.
North of Veliko Tarnovo, the mountains are finally loosening their grip, giving way to the open sea. Danube valley. The royal river unrolls there between two wooded banks a bed as wide as ten Soviet boulevards. On the water cross barges to its disproportion and the gnats of fishermen dressed in old trellis.
On the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, Rousse was a great diplomatic city, from where the Western consuls watched the moods of the Sultan. They brought with them a taste for Viennese architecture, declined in proud Baroque and Neo-Baroque buildings, now beautifully restored.
The home of Museum of Urban Life takes us back to those aristocratic times, with its floor unchanged since 1880. As for the Transport museum, it still echoes calls from the Orient-Express. We climb aboard the private wagon (1866), a pretty sky blue, that the Sultan loaned to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, during her journey to the Suez Canal at the time of its inauguration ... next to it, the wooden marquetry wagon of Tsar Ferdinand and that of King Boris II, with its mother-of-pearl and mahogany living room, rehash their memories.
22 km inland, white cliffs rise above the Danubian plain. Medieval hermits dug the rock churches of Ivanovo, classified as World Heritage. There were up to 300. Well-restored frescoes still illuminate the rock ceiling and some walls.
On the borders of Serbia
Going up the river for a long time, on the border with Romania, Vidin announces itself. The mighty Baba Vida fortress, built on the ruins of the Roman Bononia, guards the Danube there, at the end of a very pleasant wooded park hugging the banks.
The Turkish governor of Bulgaria did not hesitate, in the 19th century, to emancipate himself from the central power to carve out his own backyard. He left behind a battery of cannons turned towards the city, history of being able to repel the revengeful ardor of the Sultan.
He also gave his name to the Pazvanto mosqueğlu, erected close to the ghostly ruins of an enormous synagogue - proof, if necessary, of the cosmopolitan character of the region.
In the lands, Belogratchik spread out at the foot of another Ottoman fortress: Kaleto, clinging to a small massif of red sandstone chiseled by erosion into a ruiniform citadel of rocky mushrooms.
Its walls, 12 m high in places and 3,5 m thick, form a body with the stone, lean against it, merge into it. We climb there slowly as in a labyrinth, crossing enclosure after enclosure, until you dominate this army of giant leprechauns emerging from the forest.
From there, Serbia is in sight, with a highlight not to be missed: the extraordinary fortress of Golubač, which watches over the Danube at the edge of the strategic parade of iron gates. But that is another story ...
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Consult our Bulgaria online guide
Bulgaria Air and Air France connect Paris to Sofia daily, but the cheapest (direct) flights are provided by Wizz Air, the Hungarian low cost, from Paris-Beauvais, Brussels-Charleroi and Geneva. Find your plane ticket
On the spot, the connections by bus (especially) and train (to a lesser extent) are quite frequent, but, as soon as one leaves the main axes, the car becomes much more practical.
Bulgaria is perhaps the cheapest country in Europe! You can stay there easily for 20-30 € for two, and sometimes less with locals, while 4-star hotels rarely peak above 80 € - and often less. The restaurants are not very expensive either: count 5 to 10 € for a generous meal. Museums are also very affordable, as is the cost of living in general.
The campsites are quite rustic, but numerous and really inexpensive; many have "bungalows" (often very basic), practical if it rains. In summer, homestays flourish even more throughout the country. On the menu: a single room of varying size, often with private bathrooms and traditional decor.
Small budgets will also find youth hostels (hostels) and can stay in monasteries (at the rates of guest rooms or small hotels). Finally, there are many family hotels that often offer excellent value for money.
Hotel Teres: 16, ul. Kabaktchiev in Kazanlak. Spacious and well-equipped rooms, restaurant with hearty dishes.
City Art Hotel: 5, ul. Veliko Tarnovo in Ruse. The right address in the city, chic baroque decor, soft beds, helpful welcome.
Hotel Zora: 3A, ul. Naitcho Tsanov in Virin. Small, modern family hotel offering good value for money.
Find your hotel in Bulgaria
Where to eat ?
Shipkoff House : ul. Otets Paissi in Kazanlak. In a candy pink house, this café serves rose-based specialties… so you can try it in Kazanlak!
Chiflika: ul. Otets Paissi in Ruse. Huge tavern with bucolic decor and a 40-page menu. What to find happiness ...
Fish n'Grill Dunava, on the Danube at Virin. Welcoming boat-restaurant where to eat a carp accompanied by a beer.