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History, architecture, climbing and sweet memories – Pleven

 

 

So, as mentioned here, you can combine a climbing trip to the cave God’s eyes with a day in the town of Pleven. It’s close to Prohodna – ca 60 km, and there’s much to see.

Pleven is where my mom is from, so I spent many of my summers as a kid over there at my grandparents’, so the emotional connection with it is strong for me 🙂 Pleven is quite beautiful with its downtown fountains and a well-kept main pedestrian street.

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There’s many places to get something to eat, or just a coffee or a drink. The town has a great atmosphere and kind of a cosy feeling to it.

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That’s the Mausoleum in the background, it is a shrine keeping bones of the soldiers who passed away during the siege of Pleven during the Russo-Turkish war

It’s full of memorabilia from the Russo-Turkish war, as one of the main battles for victory was fought for the liberation of Pleven. An epic story, totally worth a Hollywood blockbuster, unfortunately no one cares about Bulgarian history in the blockbustering circles..

The town’s largest museum is the Panorama, containing both memorabilia and a 360º reenactment of what the siege looked like.

 

To get to the Panorama, you will have to climb the stairs of the monument Mother Bulgaria – Майка България, who is breaking her chains (being liberated from Ottoman yoke). It’s a very epic place.

panorama3Pleven is also quite famous for the enormous park lying right outside its skirts – Kaylaka – Кайлъка. The park is twice as big as the town, rumour says, but even if not, it’s quite astonishing. Very beautiful, with both a ‘civilized’ part to it, as well as a wild one. Aaand, surprise, surprise, there’s also a great opportunity for climbing at the park rocks.

Admittedly, I have been to Kaylaka for climbing only once, but I can absolutely assure you that this is the best rock quality I have experienced so far. Very abrasive and easy to hold on to 🙂 Be careful, though, as Pleven is one of the hottest places in BG during summer, you should watch out for snakes.

Oh, and the climbing community of Pleven consists of the warmest (and some of the most hard-core) climbers I have ever met. A huge thanks to all of them for being so accommodating to us intruders 🙂

Pleven is a very historical and ancient place. Another thing you can visit is the Storgoziya fortress – крепост Сторгозия, which is inside the Kaylaka park and is cool to see as well.

A great idea for a two-day itinerary is to go to Pleven on Friday evening, spend the night, get to know the town on Saturday (alternatively climb, if that’s what you’re after) and drive to the cave Prohodna the next day for some more climbing or for a walk in it and have lunch at the National Caving Home admiring the view. From there, Sofia is not far, if that’s where you’ll be headed.

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The cave Prohodna: a natural wonder and a climber’s heaven

The cave Prohodna – Проходна, is situated in the northern part of central Bulgaria, in the gorge of the river Iskar – Искър. It’s my favourite climbing spot in Bulgaria and it’s an amazing landmark absolutely worth the visit. Due to the specific holes in the ceiling resembling huge eyes, it’s also known as God’s eyes – Божиите очи (Bozhiite ochi).

If you like, you can pack your gear and spend only one day climbing in the cave, it’s not too far from Sofia, but you can also make a weekend out of it, either camping in the cave itself, or spending a night at the National Caving Home – Национален пещерен дом nearby. It’s quite cool, as it is built right inside the rock and above the gorgeous Iskar canyon, with a railway going next to the river:

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The view from the terrace at the National Caving Home

Another option is to spend the night at one of two nearby towns – Lukovit or Pleven

The routes in the cave vary greatly, read all about it here. What’s very convenient about climbing in the cave, is that you’re independant of the weather – during the heat of summer it’s really nice and cool inside and hiding from the rain also works. 🙂

There’s usually a lot of climbers there and also many tourists, who just pass by and marvel at the formation, it truly is formidable. It’s full of bats and birds during the summer, making it very lively. The amount of people could be overwhelming had the cave not been of such gargantuan size.

This is the place that I did my very first outside climbing, so I am also emotionally connected to it, but I think the overall objective opinion is that it rocks! (Hehe, get it, it rocks..) 🙂

All in all, I can absolutely recommend Prohodna – even if you’re not a climber, go check it out, you will not be disappointed. A weekend well-spent would be going to Pleven on Friday after work, spend Saturday sightseeing and travelling to Prohodna on early Sunday morning for a day of climbing 🙂

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Two-day itinerary: Garmen – Kovachevitsa – Leshten – Ognyanovo

Duration: Two days

Distance: ca. 670 km round trip

Leaving from Sofia: Try to leave as early as possible, the way is long

Day 1: First Stop: Garmen

Garmen – Гърмен, is a village in southwestern Bulgaria with a population of about 2000 people, many of whom – Roma. Not that there’s anything unusual about that, that’s the case for many smaller Bulgarian municipalities nowadays. Not much to see in it, but it is a pretty good starting point for the journey I am proposing here. It takes about 2hrs and 40 minutes to get there. One thing worth mentioning is the place we stayed, Garmen hills. It’s a nice yard with two little houses built and furnitured in a French Provence style (at least I imagine that’s what it is) and it’s quite exotic for Bulgaria. The owner is a French guy, who left a high-end business carriere in France to come live in Garmen because he was infatuated by the amazing nature and the friendly Bulgarian people.

You can get breakfast, which gets delivered by locals, everything is home -made and extremely delicious. There is also a small pool in the yard, so it’s worth going in the summer.

Second stop: Leshten. Distance from Garmen – ca 7 km

Depending on when you arrive, you’re probably going to want to get some lunch and then head out to the local sights. First thing on your list could be the village of Leshten which is very close to Garmen.

Leshten – Лещен, is a very small village with a population of only 11 people. It has kind of become a tourist place and is usually inhabited by travellers 🙂 It is very beautiful, completely built in the style of the Bulgarian architecture, I am sure you will love it. There’s a small church  which you could visit and just taking a walk around the paved streets would be interesting. There is also a small gallery of a local artist right after the pub, I’m certain he would welcome you to his house to see it, maybe even get a souvenir from the place.

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It probably looks much nicer in the summer, when the trees are green. Still – was very cool to see

There is also supposed to be an eco-path starting from the village, promising to lead you to waterfalls and other natural wonders, but we couldn’t find where it starts, so we just took a path starting somewhere from the road and went on a short walk by the river, it was quite picturesque.

In Leshten you can get some food at the local (probably the only one) pub, called “Pub”, situated right on the road and above the river. In the summer there are tables on the terrace. It’s not as cheap as you would expect, but trust me – everything is worth it! We had some home-made sausages and lyutenitsa.

Third stop: Kovachevitsa. Distance from Leshten – ca 8 km

Kovachevitsa is probably going to be the highlight of your trip. However, on the way from Leshten, you’re going to drive through an incredibly ugly village called Gorno Dryanovo, mostly inhabited by Muslims. Don’t let that scare you off! Keep going, eventually you’ll reach Kovachevitsa 🙂 The village is somewhat bigger than Leshten and inexplicably holds more of the cherished Bulgarian renaissance atmosphere. It simply is very very beautiful:

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Photo credit: bulgariatravel.org
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Typical Bulgarian carpets, usually hand-made, carriers of that Renaissance atmosphere I was talking about

Walking around Kovachevitsa is a very nice experience, you might meet some old people, be sure to nod hello and smile at them, they will appreciate it a lot. There’s also a couple of places to get something to eat, the food is delicious and home-made everywhere.

Day two: Ognyanovo – Огняново. Distance from Garmen 3km

Ognyanovo is where you can spend the second day of your trip. It’s famous for it’s mineral spring waters. On the recommendation of the French owner of Garmen hills, we visited a place called Therma Vitae. On the outside it looks kind of communist, and I suspect it was built during those years, but don’t be fooled – the place is top-notch. We only visited the swimming pool – 50 meters long, a humongous thing full of mineral water, and the huge hot-tub outside, the water was probably 40 degrees in there, I just loved it. They also have a spa and healthcare zone and provide all kinds of services connected to well-being and beauty, you should call and inquire.

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Ognyanovo

So, once you’re done soaking yourself in the fantastic water (said to have all kinds of healing abilities), head back to Sofia on the same way. This trip is not too full of places to see, it’s more of a suggestion for a weekend of relaxing mixed with some wonderful home-made meals and a stay at a good accommodation, all seasoned by some of that unique Bulgarian renaissance atmosphere.

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Devin – Devil’s throat cave – Yagodina cave – Eagle’s eye – Shiroka Laka (Wonderful bridges – Bachkovo monastery – Asen’s fortress – Plovdiv)- Sofia

Duration: three days

Distance: 610 km

Car accessibility: recommended

Leaving from Sofia: no later than 8am 🙂

Day 1: Sofia – Devin – Ecopath Struilitsa (overnight stay)

1.Stop: Devin. Distance from Sofia ca 220 km.

Leaving relatively early from Sofia, you should be able to reach Devin at about lunch time. The road is full of places you will want to stop and photograph, as after it leaves the highway, it passes several very beautiful dams, the views are fantastic. In Devin you will probably be in time for lunch, the local food is delicious. I very much recommend salads in the summer, as everything is home-grown, as well as freshly caught trout from the local Devinska river and Rhodope patatnik.

Spend the night in Devin and take a walk around the eco-path Struilitsa – Струилица and you’ll get to see an awesome waterfall and enjoy the idyllic sceneries of the path. We only got to the waterfall, but according to the article in the link above there is much more to see.

Day 2: Devil’s throat cave – Yagodina cave – Orlovo oko – Shiroka Laka.Leave very early! You have a lot of narrow roads ahead of you and many exciting things to see.

1.Stop: Devil’s throat – Дяволското гърло (Dyavolskoto garlo). Distance from Devin 25 km

The way to the cave through the Trigrad canyon and the cave itself are absolutely astonishing. The walk inside the cave is not long, but you will be thrilled to climb out of the grotto up the steep stairs, holding to the rails for dear life! No, kidding, it’s safe enough, but breath-taking nevertheless. The tour begins every hour. An absolute must see. The nature surrounding the Devil’s throat is also out of a fairy tale, with gargantuan cliffs hanging above your head.

Behind one of these cliffs is the Haramiyska cave – Харамийска пещера – Haramiyska peshtera, which you can book a trip into, it’s right across the street from the Devil’s throat. Just ask at the ticket selling kiosk at the Devil’s throat entrance. We did it, it was very cool, but requires at least half a day to do it – there’s some traversing on the rock face, a scary rappel in complete darkness and crawling. Fun!

2.Stop – Yagodina cave. Distance from Devil’s throat ca 17 km

After having seen the awesome Trigrad gorge, head to the Buinovsko gorge, which is equally beautiful and you can see the famous Yagodina cave. It really is much different from the Devil’s throat, as it is full of natural formations, is much bigger, and, should you feel so inclined, you can even get married in there! You’ll hear all during the tour, which begins every hour except between 12 and 1pm when they are having lunch break. The walk in Yagodina cave is long, as the path is 1.2 km, but it’s worth it.

After it, head for the Eagle’s eye – Орлово око – Orlovo oko, a panoramic platform, which will stun you with its views. There are two options to get to it – either drive your car to the nearby village (just enter Orlovo oko in your GPS) and from there it’s about 50 minutes walk to the platform. Be warned – there is almost no shade and probably snakes. We walked the way, was fine, but we were parched by the time we got back to our car. The other option is to get together with other people and rent one of the jeeps waiting outside the Yagodina cave, which will take you up and down for about 30 euros. From up there you see the entire Rhodopes, an ocean of mountain and forest.

3.Stop – Shiroka laka – Широка лъка. Distance from Yagodina cave ca 32 km. Overnight stay

I imagine you will want some well-deserved rest after all these amazing places. Head to Shiroka laka, where you can get some of those mouth-watering Rhodope dishes – patatnik, klin and all sorts of delicious meats. The village is one of the ethnographic reservations of Bulgaria, meaning that all houses there are built and kept in the manner of the Bulgarian Renaissance building, which is quite picturesque and has a pastoral atmosphere to it.

Day 3 (option one): Another tip I could recommend is, after spending the night in Shiroka laka, head to Gela village, which is only 8 km up the road leading into the mountain and it’s said to be the birth place of the legendary musician and singer Orpheus, which kind of makes sense, as he is said to have gone in the underworld to look for his dead wife right in the… you guessed it, Devil’s throat cave! The population of the village is 98 people, so it’s reeeeally secluded and will give you a genuine feeling of what the Rhodope life is like. You can get something to eat, as there are several guest houses there. There’s also an ancient Thracian fortress – Gradishte, which is kind of accessible by car (we broke ours trying to get there) and an ancient Roman temple. Here a picture of the guest house we slept in:

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After a walk around in Shiroka laka and a visit to Gela, you can head back to Sofia via the Smolyan road, so as to avoid going back the same way. You should be in Sofia in about three hours.

Day 3 (option 2): However, if you like, you can leave very early from Shiroka laka and do this trip visiting the Bachkovo monastery, Asen’s fortress and Plovdiv, which I posted earlier, adding the The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodopes as they are on your way anyway, even before the Bachkovo monastery.

This is a long trip with many sights incorporated in it. I recommend leaving early in all days so that you are able to see everything you would like to. I love this trip, I’ve done it three times already and I suspect I will do it again. The Rhodopes are magical. And as I am afraid I can’t really tell you all about the place, here a useful link.

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Vratsa – THE climbing spot in Bulgaria

Climbing in Bulgaria is rather popular, and the country has some amazing places to offer, I think you’d be surprised.

However, here, I will only talk about the most popular climbing destination – the rocks in the Vratsata – Вратцата – mountain pass. I will not go into technical details as to how difficult the routes are, how equipped they are and so on. All the necessary information for climbers can be found for example here as well as in the Climbing Guide to Vratsa, which can be purchased online.

The place is not far from Sofia, you can easily just go and climb for one day or weekend – there are a couple of good places to camp next to a small creek.

There is as many as 500 routes on the limestone of Vratsa, about half of them are equipped and ready for a sports climb. There’s  many trad and ice climb opportunities as well and when the weather is good, you will almost always see climbers messing around.

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The mood is always good 🙂

The most interesting and challenging area is the Central wall, with its almost 450 meters and vertical climbs, it will make any climbing enthusiast sweat.

You can make a nice weekend out of climbing, while your beer cools down in the creek running between the rocks, spend the night camping and after a short climb the next day, head for a deserved good meal at Vratsa, the nearby town, called after the mountain pass (meaning Gate, Door).

Vratsa’s downtown is dominated by the monument of Hristo Botev, a Bulgarian revolutionary, but please don’t mistake him for the communist kind of revolutionary. He actually fought for liberating Bulgaria from Turkish yoke and found his death doing it. He was a remarkable man and a brilliant poet. His death place is very close to Vratsa, called Okolchitsa, where a huge cross marks the place and a musical festival is held.

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Even if you are not very interested in climbing, I definitely recommend the area of Vratsa and Vratsata gorge. Very close to it is the famous Ledenika cave, on which I already wrote a post.

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The views are amazing

On the way to Sofia, close to Mezdra and not far from the main road, is the archeological complex Kaleto – Калето. If you are a history enthusiast, you could stop and check it out and then head back to Sofia.

All in all, you can make a weekend, even a week of staying in Vratsa and the surroundings. It’s a really nice place which also offers hiking opportunities in the moutain surrounding the town – the Vratsa Balkan. A really nice article on Vratsa’s sights and places to visit, should the above not be enough, here.

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Two-day itinerary: trekking in the tallest mountain on the Balkans, Rila

 

Duration: two days optional. You can also choose to hike only to one of the peaks and make it a one-day trip

Car accessibility: good, but public transport is also an option, especially to Musala

This is an amazing weekend I spent hiking with my boyfriend in one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful mountains, Rila. We used the first day to make one of the more difficult climbs of Bulgarian peaks, Malyovitsa – Мальовица -2729m, and the second day to climb the tallest peak on the Balkan peninsula – Musala – Мусала – 2925m. We spent the night at our place in Sofia, since the paths we took to both peaks were not far at all.

Day One – the ascent took us about 3 hours at a good pace. We left for Malyovitsa relatively late – ca. 10am, but we were in no rush at all. We made it back by 9pm. We drove to a hut in the mountain called CMS – Central Mountain School – ЦПШ, from there the ascent started.

The walk to hut Malyovitsa is not long and goes through a nice forest. At the hut we took a break and had some tea. As it stands at 1960m above sea level, we still had a serious ascent in front of us. It was difficult, but worth it.

We saw an amazing lake on the way over, as well as fantastic views and the Alpinist’ monument.

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Elena’s lake

I was super tired at the lake from the constant climb up, there was nowhere to catch your breath, literally! Thank God, the peak is not long after the lake and the views are worth the effort.

Coming down was an easier task. We stopped for some beans and fries at the hut on the way back, very delicious!

Day 2 – climbing peak Musala, the climb took us 2 hours and 20 minutes from the top of the lift at a very good pace. As we were in a hurry to be in Sofia before 6pm, we left early at 8.30am. The drive to Borovets, from where we started, took about 1 hour.

There is a lift you can take, called Yastrebets, and I am glad there is one, because it saves you a staggering 1054m ascent which is an about 4-hour hike at a steady pace. With it, it takes about 30 minutes to get to a starting point, which leads you to an about 3-hour hike to the peak.

 

However, be warned – Musala, especially since the lift has been built, is a very popular tourist destination among Bulgarians and foreigners. If you are looking for seclusion and trying to escape from the city fuss, this is not the place to go.

There’s several lakes on the way to the peak, and the climb is nowhere near as difficult as the one to Malyovitsa.

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No wonder so many people attempt it, I read somewhere that 45-50000 visit the peak yearly.

The weather changed a lot. There’s often mist at the top of the mountain, but it quickly comes and goes to unveil breath-taking views.

The descent was then super quick, we made it down to the lift in 1 hour and 40 minutes. We were hurrying to escape the crowds.

All in all, an awesome weekend! I really recommend visiting both these amazing peaks, but if you find it too much for a weekend, then do it on two separate occasions. If you decide to do both, though, you can decide whether to spend the night in Borovets – probably the more expensive option, or in the town of Samokov, which is close to both starting points. You can certainly also do what we did – sleep in Sofia and just drive early morning to the starting points.

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Klisura monastery – Belogradchik rocks- Magurata cave – Vidin – Venetsa cave – Ledenika cave

Duration: 4 days

Distance: ca 530 km

Car accessibility: very good. Recommended

Accessibility by public transpot: bus from Sofia to Belogradchik, taxi from Belogradchik to Magurata cave and to Venetsa cave, bus from Belogradchik to Vidin. You would have to skip Ledenika cave and the Klisura monastery

Leaving from Sofia: relatively early. We left at about 8.30 in the morning

  1. Stop: Klisura monastery  – Клисурски манастир – arrival about 11am. Approximately 86km away from Sofia. Day 1
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The yard

One of the most beautiful and less known monasteries of Bulgaria, I was surprised to find such a hidden gem, given that we saw a roadsign for it at the last possible moment and almost drove past it. We impulsively decided to visit it. I highly recommend it! The yard is beautiful and so is the view. There is also not quite as many people as in the more famous monasteries such as the one in Bachkovo for example.There is a restaurant at the entrance of the monastery and a cute little shop from which we bought custom-made raspberry wine. There were other delights too! 🙂

  1. Stop – Belogradchik. Arrival early afternoon. Approximately 100km away from the Klisura monastery. Day 1

At Belogradchik, we stayed at the Castle Cottage  family hotel. The house is really nice and somewhat of an architectural wonder and it’s very close to the fortress and the rocks. The host family is also friendly and well-mannered. As soon as you get settled in, there’s the option of going to see the remains of the Roman fortress, it’s close to the house, but don’t mistake it for the fortress, which embeds the famous rocks in it. Right next to it is the Observatory, which you can also visit – either see the stars at night, or the telescopes during daytime.

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The remains of the Roman fortess and the globe of the Observatory in the far left among the trees

For dinner I strongly recommend restaurant Мислен камък (Mislen kamak) meaning “Contemplated stone” (doesn’t make sense in Bulgarian either :D). There is an amazing view over the rocks and since they are not lit up at night, also try to go there at least once during the day. The menu is nice and it’s not expensive.

On the next day (Day 2) spend the morning walking around the Belogradchik fortress called Kaleto – Калето. It has an interesting story, so try and get a tourguide. The cliffs are stunning, so take your time walking around and don’t shy away from climbing to the higher parts. The views are unique.

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My boyfriend said he was more impressed with these rocks than with Cambodia’s ancient temple Angkor Wat

3.Stop (still Day 2) – Magurata cave. Arrival about 3pm. Distance from Belogradchik ca.23km.

Working hours:

April 1st to Oct 30th: Every day from 10am to 5pm. Entrance at every hour with a tourguide.

Magurata cave – Магурата, is unique because it contains the oldest  and most well-preserved cave paintings in Bulgaria, but it is also full of intriguing formations. Furthermore, it is used for the production of champagne wine, you can get a bottle at the exit, not bad quality at all 🙂

At the entrance you can also see the Rabisha lake – Рабишкото езеро, the largest inland lake in Bulgaria. After that return to Belogradchik to spend your second night.

4.Stop (Day 3) – Vidin. Arrival: depends on when you get up :). Distance from Belogradchik is about 60km.

The road to Vidin – Видин, is interesting because to an extent it meanders alongside the Danube river, so if you like, you can stop at one of the many road restaurants and have some freshly caught fish. There is another curious sight alongside the road, that I called Bird City – a large sand formation, about 15-20 meters tall, full of holes inhabited by birds. They keep flying in and out of the holes, it’s very exciting, very much like watching the National Geographic channel live 🙂

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Bird City

A major sight in Vidin is the Baba Vida Fortress – Баба Вида.It is very well preserved and interesting to enter.

Working hours:

Oct 1st to March 30th: Mon to Fri 9:00 – 17:00, on weekends: 10:00 – 17:00

April 1st to Sept 30th: Mon to Fri 8:30 – 17:30, on weekends: 9:00 – 17:30

Vidin also has a couple of interesting churches dowtown, like St. Petka so a short walk around the center is going to be worth your while.

5.Stop: Venetsa Cave – Венеца. Arrival at about 3pm. Distance from Vidin: 55km. (Day 3)

Many people call this newly opened to public cave the most beautiful one in Bulgaria, I can imagine why. It truly is amazing with its fantastic formations, many of which are moutain crystal, and its artsy lights. The ride back to Belogradchik is also pretty picturesque with many cliffs peaking among the thick forests around.

6.Stop: Ledenika cave. Arrival about noon. Distance from Belogradchik – ca 120km. Day 4

Travel the road to Montana and right before the Vratsata pass (before the huge rocks start) you have to take the exit to the left. From there it’s about half an hour drive to the Ledenika cave – Леденика, with a serious ascent to the top of the hill, the views are gorgeous.The cave is compelling with its enormous stalagtits and at the end of a not too long tour, you can stay and enjoy a very creative light and sound show inside. It is definitely worth the wait!

Working hours:

April 1st to Sept 30th: 9am to 4pm. Last group enters at 4pm with a guide.

After leaving the cave, head back to the main road. You will go through the magnificent pass called Vratsata – Вратцата. I am certain that you won’t be able to help it and you will stop to take some pictures of the breath-taking scenery and/or the climbers that are usually out there making their way on the gigantic rock faces.

From there the distance to Sofia is about 125km on road E79 and A2. Without hurrying you should be in Sofia in the early evening.

A bonus tip: On the way to Sofia, close to Mezdra and not far from the main road, is the archeologial complex Kaleto – Калето. If you are a history enthusiast, you could stop and check it out and then head back to Sofia.

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