Nature has preserved the fascinating history of Belogradchik—both above ground and below.

Fringed in the forested foothills of the Balkan Mountains in northwest Bulgaria, the 7,000-person town of Belogradchik would hardly register on the world map were it not for its treasured natural landmarks and storied fortress.

Ethereal Rocks or People Cast in Stone?

The Belogradchik Rocks, named on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List, were formed at the bottom of the sea as a result of geologic compression. Comprised mainly of limestone and sandstone, they are an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Reddish in color with ethereal shapes that protrude from the earth as high as 1,000 feet, the fantastical rock formations are the source of dozens of legends, with each shape corresponding to a character in a captivating story, including Adam and Eve.

There’s the legend of the madonna, in which a woman falls in love with a shepherd boy named Anton and is sent off to live in a nunnery by her father. The affair leaves her pregnant and when she gives birth, she is cast out of the nunnery by monks. Anton, riding a white horse, comes to the rescue of both mother and child. However, as the madonna is leaving the nunnery to be by his side, day turns to night and all those present are turned to stone. Similarly, the legend of the schoolgirl begins with a beautiful girl whose heart is stolen by a blacksmith. An evil schoolmaster chases the girl right into the path of a bear and they are all cast in stone, frozen in time for millions to bear witness to their fate.

A wealth of hidden hiking trails is woven through the rocks, offering breathtaking views. The geologic landmark also offers natural protection that has likely been used for millennia. In fact, the Belogradchik Rocks serve as a stunning backdrop for the Belogradchik Fortress.

A Roman Citadel with Monster Walls

Originally built as a lookout by Romans to control the road from the 1st through 3rd centuries, Belogradchik Fortress was reconstructed and expanded by Ottoman conquerors for military utilization during the 14th century. In 1850, the fortress was the site of a tragedy—the pathway by which the town’s most prominent men were led through a tunnel and beheaded during the Belogradchik Revolt. The fortress was last used for military purposes in 1885 during the Serbo-Bulgarian War.

Today, the fortress serves as a well-preserved open-air museum. Its walls are 6.5 feet thick and 40 feet high, dwarfing people who pass through its archways on their way up the path to the Belogradchik Rocks. The oldest part of the fortress, known as the Citadel, stands at the top of the hill, enveloped within the natural barrier of the rocks.

Prehistoric Paintings and Bulgarian Bubbly

Some 15 miles northwest of the Belogradchik Rocks stands Magura Cave, a veritable museum of prehistory, well-preserved and nestled beneath the ground. Here among the stalactites and stalagmites, the bones of ancient cave bears and hyenas have been discovered. But far more interesting than that are the paintings on the walls of the cave: hundreds of depictions of men and women hunting and dancing, of animals—including something akin to a giraffe—and the earliest solar calendar discovered in Europe. The paintings, derived from bat guano, date from different eras as early as the Paleolithic and offer a glimpse into a society far more advanced than initially imagined.

Because of its historical significance, Magura Cave has been recognized as a Bulgarian natural landmark. The cave’s “Bat Gallery” is also utilized by nearby Magura Winery. Sparkling wine is stored in the gallery, as the natural conditions in which it matures underground are akin to those used in the production of authentic French champagne.