A brand-new road? In Bulgaria? Well, yeah. Surprising indeed. There are two routes from Sofia to Belogradchik, that sleepy small town in the north. One of them is 216 kilometers long and takes the traveler through Botevgrad and Vratsa, and of course up the Stara Planina mountain range. According to Google Maps, it takes 2 hours and 53 minutes to get there.
The alternative is the rather curvy road which runs straight into the mountains. Via Godech and Berkovitsa, this route is only 179 kilometers long. It supposedly takes the same amount of time, due to the many narrow curves. But its shiny new surface is basically an invitation to racing. So, we cover the whole thing in 2 hours and 24 minutes.
From Belogradchik, it takes another 27 minutes, or, in our case, 19 minutes, to one of the most fascinating places in Bulgaria. Only part of Magura Cave has been discovered so far. The path through those areas is 3.6 kilometers long.
When we get to the entrance, the staff insists on making us wait for an hour because a tourist group is en route to the cave and they refuse to waste a guide on us only. But after a discussion during which we explain to them that we would not understand the guide’s explanations in Bulgarian anyway, they let us go on our own.
So, here we go. The two of us are the only humans in this huge and dark place, but not the only living creatures. A few hundred meters into the cave, the first small bats fly by, in some cases rather close. Their wings, which also seem to serve as coats, look like they are made of satin. They are as fascinating as they are scary. But not quite as scary as in parts of India, where bats can be 1.3 meters tall.
Ancient cave paintings of humans and animals show what was on people’s minds hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately those valuable paintings are being protected the Bulgarian way, meaning not at all. Many are blemished. Attempts to redraw them and make them look original obviously failed.
But the most fascinating part is the cave itself with its huge halls and hallways. Cultural events take place in there now and then, since the atmosphere and the sound are so special. Weird stone formations look as if they had been brought here from a different planet. It is humid in here. There is a constant temperature of 11 to 12 degrees Centigrade, 365 days per year.
The formation of Magura Cave started some 15 million years ago. Tectonic activity and water formed this huge thing. After some 90 minutes of walking partially narrow corridors with an escort of bats, there finally is a light at the end of the tunnel.
On a parking lot behind the exit a young man offers transportation back to the entrance, where our car is waiting for the next leg of the trip. We decide to walk those two kilometers. The race continues.
After a few kilometers on the way to Belogradchik, on a an old rural road, the Bulgarian Border Police do what they like to do most, which is stopping people. They check our Bulgarian Foreigner IDs and do find a problem. As it turns out, there is an outstanding fine I need to pay, for returning an expired ID card with a tiny crack, which was hardly visible, two years earlier.
But the two officers are nice guys. After making us wait for 20 minutes, they let us go, saying I should go to the notorious Immigration Office at Boulevard Maria Luiza in Sofia, the place everyone loves so much, in order to prevent future problems at border crossings.
In town, the Belgradchik Fortress and those rock formations are the main attraction. The top of a hill can be reached via narrow stairs, and the view from up there is excellent. Those famous rocks remind the author of beautiful sights in Turkey’s Capadokia region.
After having a Coke next to the main square, we take off towards the next cave, which is Venetsa. This huge cave was opened for tourists only three years ago, after it was equipped with kilometers of metal gangways and stairs, paid for by the European Union.
At the entrance, the staff gives out plastic helmets to all visitors. Head injuries are supposed to be avoided that way, because there are pretty narrow cavities. Tourists have to squeeze through them. After seeing that first narrow hole, I give up and wait outside, due to my size. Venetsa Cave is fascinating too, I am being told, and lit in several colors. The bats living here are supposedly larger than in Magura Cave.
On the way back to Sofia we stop in Montana. Finding an open restaurant is a small challenge, but consuming the sauce they offer at a so-called Chinese restaurant in the pedestrian zone turns out to be a much bigger one. Who in the hell would put jelly into a sauce? Luckily, the late Frank Zappa’s song ‘Montana’ (“I might be moving to Montana soon …”) was not about this Montana.
A very nice and interesting trip ends in Sofia another 2 hours and 3 minutes later, which we turn into 1 hour and 40 minutes, thanks to the new racing track.