When Europe’s oldest town was discovered in 2012, it wasn’t where the world thought it would be: surely Greece should hold that honour? Instead, the town – Solnitsata (today’s Provadia), founded between 4700 and 4200 BC, some 1500 years before the start of ancient Greek civilisation – was uncovered in northeastern Bulgaria, a country best known for not being known much at all. To archaeologists, however, the news came as no surprise: Bulgaria is home to a plethora of prehistoric sites, which have marked it as arguably the continent’s oldest country. It is literally rich with ancient treasure: the world’s oldest gold jewellery – dating from 4600 to 4200 BC – was unearthed in a necropolis at the seaside resort of Varna, and visitors can gasp at its glory at the town’s Archaeological Museum. In the centre of the country, Stara Zagora’s Neolithic Dwellings Museum features the hermetically sealed remains of two of the oldest surviving buildings in the world, dating back 8000 years. The display includes spellbinding Stone Age artefacts; don’t miss the preserved headless hedgehog. A different kind of domicile draws the crowds to a remote corner of Bulgaria’s northwest: the 15-million-year-old Magura Cave is famous for its symbolic guano paintings – some created as long ago as the Lower Paleolithic era – including Europe’s earliest solar calendar.
The Greeks had Spartan savagery and human sacrifice, and the gory Romans had their gladiators, but for bona fide ye olde bloodlust, you can’t go past the Thracians. The Thraci-who? An Indo-European tribe who settled in modern-day Bulgaria around 5000 BC, the Thracians were infamous for their ferocity; impaling heads on sticks, infanticide and indiscriminate slaughter were among their party tricks. For a people so consumed with killing, it’s no surprise the Thracians placed great importance on death – they believed in an afterlife and constructed luxurious tombs for their leaders, adorned with elaborate murals and hoards of superbly crafted gold jewellery. There are almost 1500 Thracian burial mounds in Bulgaria; the majority are found in the central Valley of the Kings, where the remarkably preserved, brightly embellished 4th-century-BC Tomb of Kazanlak receives thousands of visitors per year. The Thracian city of Perperikon, 100km to the south, has been nicknamed the ‘European Machu Picchu’ for its size and hilltop location. Excavations have uncovered sophisticated buildings, streets, public squares and a fire-dancing altar. Not straying so far? Sofia’s Archaeological Museum has a wealth of Thracian treasures on display, including a gold burial mask from the 4th century BC.
The go-getting Greeks made their way to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast in the 7th century BC, setting up trading posts and cultured colonies along a stunning stretch of shoreline that has become a drawcard for hordes of holidaymakers and hedonists from around the globe. Charming Sozopol (then called Apollonia), Bulgaria’s oldest coastal settlement, was the Greeks’ first port of call and an important trade and naval centre; almost three millennia and countless conquests later, Sozopol is today a lively resort which celebrates its Hellenistic heritage – visible in various ruins crumbling around the Old Town – at the annual Apollonia Arts Festival. Erstwhile rival Nesebar (today a Unesco World Heritage site) boasts the remains of an acropolis, Apollonian temple and ancient fortifications. Further north, Varna (formerly Odessos) sports a wealth of ancient Greek artefacts – including intact marble tombstones and stunning gold jewellery – at its wonderful Archaeological Museum. While the Greeks didn’t stray far from the seaside, their influence was insidious, impacting Bulgarian language, religion and culture; visitors may still be greeted with a cheerful ‘Yasou!’
The Romans began their annexation of Bulgaria in the middle of the 1st century AD, a bloody appropriation that came with requisite looting, pillaging and mayhem. It wasn’t all ransacking and ruins, however: the Romans, as they were wont to do, set up civilised settlements, elaborate fortresses and high-tech highways. The Roman legacy lingers in Bulgaria, with a startling amount of archaeological sites and artefacts. Capital Sofia is home to the largely intact 4th-century Sveti Georgi Rotunda and a wealth of Roman ruins and mosaics, while the central city of Plovdiv is ground zero for Empire enthusiasts – it’s liberally sprinkled with aqueducts, road remnants, a forum, a stadium and a magnificent 2nd-century-AD amphitheatre which is still used for concerts. Less than 100km away, Stara Zagora, built on the grid of an ancient Roman city, is littered with distinguished detritus including a restored 3rd-century-AD theatre and a wealth of unusual mosaics. Coastal Varna houses the 7000-sq-m Roman Thermae, the largest such complex in the Balkans; on the other side of the country, the equally impressive Belogradchik Fortress (constructed between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD) guarantees a jaw-drop as much for its remarkable condition as its location in the shadow of an eerie rock tower.
The Middle Ages were a time of turbulence for Bulgaria: between the 4th and 14th centuries, the country passed through the hands of the Byzantines and Bulgars and finally fell under the yoke of the Turks in 1396. Amid the chaos, artistic and architectural innovation flourished; the painstakingly preserved murals, monuments and monastic complexes of the era are must-sees for modern-day travellers to Bulgaria. Founded by a hermit monk in the 10th century, the huge, forest-framed Rila Monastery served as the bastion of national identity and culture in medieval Bulgaria. Today, its treasures – including exquisite icons, colourful frescoes and the astonishing Rila Cross, with elaborate biblical scenes carved in miniature – draw wayfarers and worshippers by the thousands. In the mountainous centre of the country, Veliko Tarnovo’s Tsarevets Fortress is an ever-looming reminder of the gorgeous city’s illustrious history as the capital of medieval Bulgaria. The impressive bulwark features the remains of more than 400 houses, 18 churches and numerous monasteries, dwellings, shops, gates and towers. Less than 100km to the north, the Ivanovo rock monastery thrills with its precarious positioning – it’s hewn into cliffs almost 40m off the ground – and a collection of 14th-century murals, regarded as some of the finest in Bulgaria. Medieval murals are also big in Boyana, just outside Sofia, where the eponymous church houses rare 13th-century artworks including the oldest portrait of St John of Rila, Bulgaria’s patron saint.