Stara Planina, also called Balkan Mountains, gives the name to the whole peninsula. The range is 560 km long and separates Bulgaria in two parts – Northern and Southern. In Bulgaria, the mountain starts from Vrashka Chuka peak (on the border with Serbia) and ends with Emine Cape on the Black Sea. The highest peak is Botev, 2376 m. The Thracian name of the mountain is Haemus. The Turks called it Balkan, which means “a chain of wooded mountains”. In Bulgarian the name “Stara Planina” means Old Mountain, but in fact it is one of the youngest mountains in Bulgaria, part of the Alp-Himalayan chain. As a long mountain, Balkan can be divided first into two parts – the main Balkan chain and the Pre-Balkans to the north, which intrude slightly into the Danubian Plain. The main chain is divided into three parts – Eastern, which is the lowest and not very visited; Central, the highest and most popular part; Western, with some peaks above 2000 m. The climate of Balkan Mountains is moderate-continental, in the Eastern parts it’s transitional-continental. The windiest places in Bulgaria are Botev and Murgash peaks, the speed can reach 10 m/s. There are chances of avalanches during the winter. But if we should say only one word about the climate of Stara Planina – it is unpredictable, so be aware of everything. Fogs appear very often too.
Some of the biggest Bulgarian rivers take their beginnings from Stara planina, all of them flow into Danube River. There are almost no lakes on the territory of the mountain. North and South of the main ridge, in the foothills, there are dams. On the territory of Balkan Mountains are situated: 1 National park – Central Balkan National Park, 1 Natural park – “Balgarka” and many nature reserves – “Peeshti Skali” (“Singing Rocks”), “Boatin”, “Dzhendem”, “Northern Dzhendem”, “Kozya Stena”, “Tsaritchina”, “Steneto”, “Stara Reka”, “Sokolna”. These places are some of the few remaining large realms of wild nature where no human intrusion is visible.
There are more than 80 huts and shelters in the mountain, connected with a wide network of walking trails. Have in mind that it is difficult to make a reservation by phone in most of them. Unfortunately some of the huts are not working, especially in the Eastern and Western part of the mountain.
Another option for an overnight is in the foothills of the mountain. There are plenty of towns and villages on both foothills of Stara Planina (Northern and Southern), where you can stay in a hotel or a guesthouse. Many people do two-day walking treks, hiking up to the ridge, spending a night in a hut there, and then going down along a different route.
Climbing Mount Botev is among the most popular walking tours, held in the mountains. The Balkan Mountains are particularly good for combining walking holiday in Bulgaria with a first-hand experience in the rich history of the country. Along with the Rhodope Mountains, the Balkans are the best place to experience authentic "rural Bulgaria" - the charm of the Bulgarian villages, crafts and traditions.
Some of the most popular hiking routes are:
• “Kom – Emine” hiking trail – the final part of the international long-distance hiking route E3. The most famous and longest trail in Bulgaria too. It starts from Kom Peak, one of the most Western peaks in Stara planina and ends on Emine Cape on Black Sea. The trail is 650-700 km long and usually it could be done for 20-25 days in the summer. The hiking trails are on the main ridge of the mountain and hikers can choose whether to climb more than 100 peaks along the way or go around them.
• The most popular and interesting rambles are parts from E3. Usually people are climbing the mountain from North or South and take a hiking trail along the main ridge. The duration of the daily walks can be between 3 and 7-8 hours, for as many days as you wish.
• Central Balkan – the highest part of the mountain and the most beautiful. The most visited huts in this area are Benkovsky, Vezhen, Eho, Pleven, Ray, Dermenka, Dobrila, Tazha, Mazalat, all of them near the main ridge. Taking a walking tour along the ridge is a must-do activity in this particular area.
Stara Planina has played an important role in the history of Bulgaria. Some significant battles took place through the years in the mountain. Like the one between khan Krum and the Byzantium empire in IX century and on Shipka Peak during the Russian-Turkish war in XIX century. During the Turkish domination, many Bulgarians, especially the more rebellious ones, took refuge in the Balkan.
Natural and cultural sights:
• Botev – the highest peak of the mountain, 2376 m.
• Golyam Kupen – the most alpine peak in the mountain, 2169 m.
• During your hikes you can see lots of waterfalls. Some of the most visited are: Babsko Praskalo, Borov Kamak, Karlovsko Praskalo and the highest one on the Balkan Peninsula – Raysko Praskalo (124 m).
• Some of the famous caves you can visit – “Temnata Dupka”, "Saeva Dupka", “Ledenika”, “Magurata”. The last one is in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, because of its cave paintings, made with guano, dating between 3000 and 1200 B.C.
• Some of the most picturesque Eco trails in the country – “Borov Kamak”, “Byala Reka”, “Roman Route”.
• Lots of monasteries are situated in the mountain and its foothills, such as Kilifarevo, Dryanovo, Klusura, Sokolsky monastery and of course Troyan Monastery – the third biggest in the country.
• The towns of Tryavna, Kotel and the village of Zheravna – with preserved old houses and a special spirit.
• “Etar”– an open-air architectural ethnographic complex presenting Revival-style architecture and typical crafts related to this period in Bulgaria’s history, near the town of Gabrovo
• Bozhentsi – a village near Gabrovo, which is an architectural historical reserve.
• Shipka Pass – close to the pass is a peak with the same name and an interesting Russian church situated in the village with the same name. On the peak there is a famous monument to which 890 stairs lead. The monument is dedicated to one of the most decisive battles in the Russian-Turkish war that led to the re-establishment of the independent Bulgarian state.
Up to 800 m, the majority of the forest is formed by deciduous trees, such as hornbeam, oak, beech. Above this level there are small formations of white fir and black pine, most of the coniferous trees are fir trees and spruces. The highest part of the mountain is occupied with meadows, wild briar, hawthorn, blackthorn, juniper and others. If you are lucky, you can find Stara Planina’s cowslip, which is an endemic species, or even an edelweiss in the Central part of the mountain.
Representatives of the fauna of Stara Planina are brown bears, wild goats, wild boars, deer, wolves, foxes, etc.
A lot of festivals and events take place in or around the mountains:
• Festival of the Karakachani – takes place every year near the town of Sliven in August. The Karakachans are a vivid Greek ethnos of shepherds, who lives in Pindus Mountains in Greece and in the Eastern Balkans in Bulgaria.
• International folklore festival of the Bulgarian national costume - takes place in the village of Zheravna in August.
• Artmospheric Festival – a festival for electronic music, which takes place near Trastenaya hut in July.
• Vazduharia Festival – a new and very interesting festival for paragliding. It takes place in September near the town of Sopot.
• “Tipchenitsa sings” – a national folklore festival in the foothills of Balkan mountain in Tipchenitsa village in September.
• The festival of plump – takes place every year in the town of Troyan in September. It’s a fest of famous Troyan plump rakiya (national Bulgarian alcoholic drink).
Listen to one of the most mountainous songs, performed by Stefka Sabotinova (video).
TOURS IN THE BALKAN MOUNTAINS
GUIDED HIKING TREKS:
> The great triad – Botev, Musala and Vihren
ONE-DAY HIKES FROM SOFIA:
> Vratsa Karst & Ledenika Cave
COMBINED WALKING HOLIDAYS:
> Rural Bulgaria – Balkan, Rhodopes, Pirin and Rila
> Along Bulgaria’s mountain and heritage trails