20 June 2012


Nature made a castle in the Bulgarian mountains.  All the Romans did was put up a little wall.
Imagine, looking at these spires of sandstone, that they are the towers and gatehouses of a citadel.  In the evening light, high above the town of Belogradchik, we stood on the balcony of an amazing creation.  Yes, it really is a castle.  Yes, it's been fought over for two millennia.  Yes, it's only a pile of rocks.
In the northeast of Bulgaria, twenty square miles of land bristles with odd, red and yellow rock formations.  They crop up in pine forests and beside rivers, on the outskirts of villages, bordering fields and up against houses.  The village of Belogradchik sits beside the biggest and most astonishing cluster, the reason for the towns existence.  Driving in from the plains beyond, it rises like a huge crown against the sky, its sides fissured and golden.  It's immediately evocative.
Some stones have been named - Adam and Eve, The Bear, The Pine - and given stories.  One legend, recounted on an information board, recounts how a local nun "wasn't able to hide her beauty under her frock."  One thing led to another and she and her shepherd lover and newborn were all turned to stone.  So too were the monks in her monastery, for forbidding her love.  It's a slightly confusing story.  Another tells of the Rebel Velko and his exploits fighting the Turks for independence.  A very convoluted mythology has sprung up around a schoolgirl, a bear and a lecherous dervish.
It seems impossible to believe, but the small wall there between the rocks - not much bigger than a small house wall - was all it took to create a fortress.  Belogradchik Castle (Белоградчишка крепост, also called "Kaleto") rises in a nearly perfect ring, like something created by magic in a fairy tale.  To the west, the land is a little higher, and a few low walls were added with time, but the original fortification was just a little caulking in a crack, basically a door shoved into the only approach point.  To the south and east, the walls rise almost two hundred feet, unbroken.  The view from the top is phenomenal.  To look out from the pinnacle is to see an ancient land, first-hand.
The regions towers were formed over millions of years, as softer rock around them was washed away.  The sandstone itself has been kind of "glued together" by a silicone type substance that preserved some stone but let others erode.
It's interesting to see one or two pop up along the roadsides, but to really appreciate their beauty one has to take in the whole expanse.  The best view is from the fortress, looking out over the eastern slopes.  Pillars and outcroppings march into the distance, filled in below by pines.
The Romans built the first known wall in the first century, some time before they erected the better known fort at Bononia (which forms the foundation of Baba Vida castle).  At the time, the region was a backwater, too far from the Danube to be easily accessible and quite unfriendly to Roman rule - the original castle lasted just a few centuries.  But the place was too magnificent to let lie, and both the First and Second Bulgarian Empires used Belogradchik as a northeastern base and the Ottomans made it the capital of their Kaaz region.
Once one has passed through two low gates, walked up the steep path and entered the fortress door, there's nothing but stone.  It seems more like a hidden canyon than a castle.  A few steps inside, there is only limestone and grass, a few twists of brush, rock rising on all sides.  Further in, the view opens up, the mountains reappear.
We spent about an hour climbing the rocks and poking around as the sun got low.  When we left, the ticket-seller was standing by the lower gate, waiting for us.  She had me help her pull the heavy door shut and get the chain in place before we waved goodnight.  Over dinner at a Mexane garden, we watched the rocks burn redder and redder in the evening light.  It's more spectacular than anyone could have dreamed up, a natural wonder.


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