A year ago when we were researching places to travel to we came across photos of a massive cave in the Bulgarian countryside named Devetashka Cave. It just so happened that our route from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia would take us relatively close to this natural wonder, so we decided to take a short detour to check it out.
The cave measures over two kilometers in length and is over 60 meters tall in some areas. After entering the cave, the space widens into a 2,400 square meter chamber. The roof of the cave contains several giant windows that illuminate the vast interior and provide sunlight, allowing lush, green plants to grow. A small river also flows through the cave.
Excavations in the cave have provided evidence that Devetashka has been inhabited almost continuously since the late Paleolithic era. The oldest artifacts unearthed date to 70,000 BC during the Early Stone Age. It’s easy to see why the cave would have appealed to prehistoric humans as it would have provided shelter and fresh water. Today, this enormous karst shelter is no longer home to humans, but instead home to more than 30,000 bats.
Our “short detour” proved to be longer than expected, since the information we found on local bus schedules was outdated and incorrect. To get there, a kind bus driver dropped us off near the cave, a stop that was not on his main route. For our return, we just figured that we would flag down another bus. What we didn’t realize was that this was not a popular bus route. With no buses in sight, we attempted to hitchhike, but after two hours and no offer of rides, we considered this plan to be a failure. Finally, a woman showed up and told us we happened to be standing at the “bus stop” (a pull off on the side of a country road) and that one should arrive soon. No plan was not the best plan, but it all worked out in the end 🙂
Four bus rides after leaving Veliko Tarnovo, we found ourselves in Bulgaria’s capital and largest city, Sofia, where we would spend a couple days walking the city and checking out local monuments and museums.
The next day we took the metro to the city center to start our day at Sofia’s iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Nevsky Cathedral is a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral built between 1882-1912. This massive building can hold 10,000 people inside and was constructed to honor Russian and Bulgarian soldiers that died liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish War. We did go inside the cathedral but photographs were forbidden, so there are only exterior photos below.
Like may ancient European cities, many of the modern day buildings in Sofia are built upon literal layers of history. One great example, located behind the government offices of Bulgaria’s President, is the Church of Saint George. Originally built by the Romans in the 4th century as a public building, it was converted shortly afterwards to a church, then during Ottoman rule to a mosque, and finally back to an Orthodox church in the past century. Roman ruins can still be seen, including a section of Roman street and drainage system.
Sofia is also centered on a major mineral springs. Across from the former central bathhouse, locals can be seen filling jugs with fresh mineral water at public fountains that were constructed for this purpose.
We spent our final day in Sofia checking out a few of the city’s unique museums. The first museum on our itinerary was the Museum of Socialist Art, located in the outskirts of the city, surrounded by modern office buildings.
The Museum of Socialist Art showcases art from the Socialist period (1944-1989) of Bulgaria. This is where much of the communist-era state-sponsored art from around the country has ended up. Rather than pretend that this era did not occur by destroying these artworks, the Bulgarian National Art Gallery has amassed and preserved a sizable collection of socialist realist artwork for viewing at this museum. Here you will find all of the now unwanted statues of Lenin and the red star from atop Sofia’s Communist Party Headquarters. The bulky statues and realistic paintings impart an important insight into the country’s communist past. They also provide the truly weird experience of wandering through sculptures of communist heroes like Georgi Dimitrov, Vladimir Lenin, and Che Guevara, while being surrounded by modern-day capitalist office buildings.
The next museum on the list was Sofia’s Icon Museum. The location of this museum is what makes it truly special – it is located in the crypt below Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The arches and walls in the crypt were painted a brilliant white and the catacomb-like atmosphere of the gallery was really cool. In addition to the great atmosphere of the place, the museum houses the largest collection of Orthodox icons in Europe, with over 200 icon paintings dating from the 13th through 19th centuries.
The colors and detailed brush strokes of these religious paintings stood out brilliantly in the well-lit gallery space.
Our final museum stop was the Earth and Man Museum. This museum holds one of the largest mineralogical collections in the world and was a fun stop for two avid rockhounds. The collection contained huge crystals of various types and a wide variety of minerals (40% of the world’s natural occurring minerals can be seen here) collected in Bulgaria and around the world.
After enjoying our city time in Bulgaria, we were ready to get out into the countryside again. The following day we headed south towards the tiny village of Melnik, for some serious hiking and Bulgarian wine sampling…