Zemen is a quaint, little town southwest of Sofia. It can be reached easily by train (2 hrs) or by your own transport (1,5 hrs). You pass Vitosha mountain and hills, valleys and interesting villages can be seen along the way. Here, in the country of yoghurt, rakia and the world famous Shopska salad, you can get well-rested in the hilly surroundings of the village. Zemen being just a small town, it still has some surprises awaiting you. One such example is Zemen Monastery, right outside the town. It can be reached from the village center by car or on foot.
The Buzludzha monument can be seen from far away in the Valley of Roses, in Central Bulgaria. This striking monument is Buzludzha, the biggest ideological building in Bulgaria. It represents an enormous Soviet spaceship and was built in 1981. It looks like it has come straight out of sci-fi, and was evidently designed to represent an intended future of greatness that never came. The contrast could not be bigger – the building has been in disuse and decay since the fall of communism. The surreal design, the view of the hills and miles and miles of vast emptiness, make a visit to this relic of past times very impressive.
In the Southeast of Bulgaria, bordering Greece, some remote villages have been left to decay. The villages depopulated when people moved in search of better perspectives. Where people used to live, where they went to school, worked, fell in love and built families, is today an area that is being forgotten. It’s like the people’s presence never mattered. And that everything would return to nature regardless. Decay is merciless. It hauntingly shows that life goes on and time cannot be stopped.
Just like many cities, Sofia has its fair share of large apartment blocks. These kinds of blocks are an integral part of many Bulgarian and foreign cities; all the way from Berlin to Vladivostok in Russia. Many blocks seem virtually identical but country-specific differences can be seen in their design. In Sofia, residential blocks are found in many areas and house a large part of the city’s residents. Each block looks the same to an outsider but if you look closer or go inside, they have a whole life of their own.
As one of Bulgaria’s main symbols, the country’s largest monastery is a must-see. It has eye-catching architecture, rich details and a long history. Together with the mountainous surroundings, it is a beautiful place to pay a visit to. As you approach the monastery, it appears to be like a large fortress, because of its tall walls. As you enter the gates, its beauty is striking. This monastery was founded by Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski), who was a hermit living in a cave in the nearby area. He had close to no possessions but he was known to educate pupils.
At about 90 kilometres east of Sofia is a pleasant and laid-back town surrounded by hills. Well, there are many such towns close to Sofia. However, Panagyurishte deserves a story of its own, especially because of its historical relevance for the country. The city’s name derives from the Greek word ‘Panegyri’, which stands for festival or fair. The town gained national recognition as it was the main center of the April Uprising (1876) against the Ottomans who occupied Bulgaria.
Vidin is a city in northern Bulgaria, situated along the Danube river bordering Romania. Besides, Vidin is quite near the Serbian border as well. Vidin has always been a crossroads of routes heading in all directions. The city has a new bridge crossing the Danube to Romania, which is very convenient for trucks making their way through this part of the Balkans.
My first visit to Sofia was by train from Bucharest, in 2012. I still remember the nature I passed before reaching the capital. Having been in Sofia for just a day, my curiosity was triggered to discover more. I never expected to live in Sofia only two years later. While still in the Netherlands, I wanted to pursue a new challenge and move abroad. Sofia attracted me because it is relatively calm – not too small and not too large.
North of Sofia stretches the Iskar gorge, a canyon formed by thousands of years of erosion and river Iskar’s force. The Iskar gorge makes excellent destination to take a break from city life in the capital and retreat in nature for a while. Svoge, being center of this region, makes a perfect base to explore the surrounding area.
Part of what makes Svoge ideal for an excursion from Sofia, is its proximity. Intercity trains take thirty-five minutes and ‘Personal’ trains, stopping at every station, do the stretch in fifty minutes. Intercity trains offer first class, nonetheless any ticket will cost you only a couple of Euros. No matter your means of travel – surely the route will surprise you with some nice views of mountains, valleys and quaint villages along river Iskar.
Centrally located in the Iskar gorge is Tservovo, an hour north of Sofia by train. Tserovo is a small village eight kilometres north of Svoge and is most famous for its rock formation ‘Djuglata’. For thousands of years, Iskar river’s immense force has created rock formations spread through the canyon. A perfect example is Djuglata, near Tserovo’s train station. It consists of horizontally layered rocks piled up until an impressive 18 metres. The interesting rock formation resembles a human head, as is said by many. The sight was declared a natural landmark in 1964.