The natural beauty of Bulgaria is especially striking to first time visitors, and in particular it is the dominance of its magnificent mountains which make the country so visually impressive. Bulgaria's mountains come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including sharp, snow-covered peaks, icy blue lakes, cool forests, bioreserves, and varied flora and fauna. Among the heights are large ski resorts and mineral spas; quaint, traditional villages; monasteries; and many opportunities for hiking, skiing, cave exploration, and ecotourism.
More than half of Bulgaria is hilly or mountainous, with an average elevation of about 1,575ft (480m). The Balkan Mountains in the central region cross the country from west to east, the irregular Rhodope Mountains form the southeastern border with Greece, and the Rila and Pirin Mountains mark the western border. Every mountain range has its own characteristic appearance and tourism prospects.
The Rila Mountains are the most majestic and boast the country's highest peak (Moussala), Bulgaria's most famous monastery (Rila) and the country's oldest ski resort at Borovets. The greenest and prettiest mountain range is the Rhodopes, which is home to Pamporovo, the largest ski resort, as well as plenty of culture and folklore centred on the town of Momchilovtsi, which is the most popular place for ecotourism.
Museum villages in the Balkan Range also offer excellent possibilities for ecotourism and are a showcase for the hospitality and warmth of the Bulgarian people. While, with hundreds of lakes, deep valleys, and rugged peaks, the Pirin Mountains are arguably the most beautiful and are home to a variety of rare plants protected within the Pirin National Park. Lastly, the most frequented mountain is Vitosha, with the capital city, Sofia, at its foot. It is popular for winter holidays and skiing, as well as for hiking and picnicking in the summer.
Situated in the highest reaches of the Pirin Mountains, Pirin National Park encompasses rugged alpine peaks that rise 8,202ft (2,500m) into the atmosphere with more than a hundred glacial lakes spread at their feet. The magnificent landscape is made up of old forests, waterfalls, caves and areas of limestone that are home to near-extinct flowers like the edelweiss and Pirin poppy. Boasting an abundance of rare and endemic species of plants and animals, this unique national park is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural and National Heritage Site.
Alpine mountaineering and skiing are popular activities in Pirin, as is hiking. The park boasts numerous, well-maintained hiking trails which wind through stunning scenery. There are also little wooden huts with bunk beds for hikers to sleep in on the trails. The hiking trails are generally pleasantly uncrowded but if you want to spend the night in one of these rustic huts then it is best to book it in advance. The popularity of the park with outdoor enthusiasts, together with the cultural heritage of the surrounding mountain settlements and stunning scenery, make Pirin National Park an attractive tourist destination which usually rates highly on a Bulgarian travel itinerary.
The biggest and most famous of Bulgaria's monasteries is situated in the northwestern part of the Rila Mountains and is one of the most significant monuments on the Balkan Peninsula. Rila Monastery was founded by a hermit, St John of Rila, in the 10th century, and eventually became a monastic complex that played an important role in the spiritual history of medieval Bulgaria.
Having survived fire, abandonment and plunder, the monastery fascinates visitors with its exquisite architecture, rich murals and icons and valuable museum collection, including old manuscripts, jewellery, textiles, church treasures and a library containing thousands of books. The Rila Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see attraction for anybody visiting Bulgaria.
Photography is not allowed inside the Monastery, and although the monastery does provide shawls to borrow for those who are underdressed, it is best to go prepared in respectful and conservative clothing when you visit this religious site.
In the heart of the Rhodope Mountains lies the picturesque village of Momchilovtsi, a popular cultural and ethnographic centre that has preserved its original folklore, traditions and crafts. The Centre for Traditional Bulgarian Arts and Crafts provides a unique opportunity for visitors to attend courses to learn about, and participate in, traditional crafts like folk dancing, weaving, woodcarving, cooking, music and various artistic handicrafts.
In winter it is a popular base from which to visit the famous ski resort of Pamporovo, which is only four miles (7km) away, and the surrounding mountains and rivers offer superb hiking, spelunking, trout fishing, and hunting. The village is set in beautiful surroundings and many use a holiday here as a retreat from the bustle of city life; like a number of other areas in Bulgaria, Momchilovtsi is known for its clean air and is often promoted as a good spot for health and rehabilitation holidays. There are 24 churches and chapels in the village and its immediate vicinity, including the famous SS. Constantine and Helen Church, built in 1836. The village offers a number of guided walking tours which help visitors make the most of the local scenery and nearby attractions.
Bulgaria has a temperate-continental climate, which is typical for Central Europe, and the climate is generally considered pleasantly mild. The country has four distinct seasons and a climate which varies somewhat between the coastal areas and the mountainous ones.
Winters are naturally more cold in the mountains, with heavy snowfall and average January temperatures of 23°F (-5°C) in the valleys and ski resorts, and up to -4°F (-20°C) on the high peaks. Snow cover usually lasts for five or six months (December to April) on the north slopes of higher mountains, and is over five feet (1.5m) thick.
Summer temperatures vary from 57°F to 66°F (14°C - 19°C) and during this season the mountains are popular with hikers and campers. Spring is particularly beautiful in the mountains because all the flowers are in their first bloom. Spring and autumn are fairly mild seasons which attract off-peak tourists for relaxing mountain breaks.
The mountain ranges of Bulgaria have a lot to offer visitors besides their famous ski resorts. The mountain scenery is glorious and most activities and attractions in the Bulgarian mountains revolve around outdoor activities and experiencing the beautiful landscapes. In winter, skiing and snowboarding are the activities of choice, and in summer hiking, climbing, camping, picnicking, hunting, and fishing are popular.
The pretty Rhodope Mountains are known for ecotourism and ethnographic gems like the picturesque village of Momchilovtsi, which is famous for its well-preserved architecture, folk traditions and crafts.
There are a number of these charming villages in the Rhodope range: two of the most remote and authentic are Leshten and Kavachevitsa, in the southwest, which are tiny old towns built almost entirely out of stone and remarkably untouched by the modern world. The Rhodope mountains also boast a number of ancient Thracian sites, including Perperikon and Tatul, and some wonderful caves.
The Pirin Mountains are perhaps the most rugged and beautiful of Bulgaria's mountains and the greatest tourist attraction of the Pirin range is the awe-inspiring Pirin National Park, which is listed by UNESCO.
A great base from which to explore Pirin's numerous hiking trails and natural attractions is the village of Bansko, which is an important tourism centre as well as a popular ski resort. One of the most visited attractions in Pirin is the Rozhen Monastery, a beautifully preserved medieval monastery with some valuable frescoes and artefacts.
Bulgaria's largest national park, the Rila National Park, is located in the central region of the Rila Mountain range and attracts visitors with its alpine lakes and hot mineral springs, as well as its wealth of natural splendour and outdoor activities. The Rila Mountains boast one of Bulgaria's most famous attractions, the ancient Rila Monastery, and the country's oldest ski resort, the village of Borovets, which is a great place to stay while exploring the mountains.
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