Bulgaria in Europe

Bulgaria in Europe

 Carte Bulgarie GB

Our route, in red

This cultural trip took place from 15 to 26 July 2008 and it enabled me to find some birds between museum or church visits.

 If you want to go directly to the list of birds I observed, please click here.

Bulgaria covers an area of 111, 000 km², that is to say about a fifth of France. It borders Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.  The Danubian Plain, in the north, is separated from theThracian Plain in the south by the Balkan mountain range (Stara Planina).  Huge forests cover the mountain ranges of Rila and Pirin in the south west and the Rhodope mountains farther east.    Bulgaria has a continental climate, rather cold in winter and hot in summer.

Bulgaria, which entered the European Union on 1st January 2007, is still rather poor compared to the west of our continent but things are improving fast.

Bulgaria is certainly not to my taste as far as gastronomy is concerned because, although the food there is healthy, it is not varied. Beef is scarce and you will get cheese at every course.   Raw vegetables are served without any dressing and there are some specialities such as cold yoghurt soup and of course the much famed Bulgarian yoghurt.

Contrary to what I read in various books, Bulgarian roads are not so bad.  The main roads are good and the highways are fine, and there is no toll (even if you have to pay some kind of road tax when you enter the country, if I understood right).  Small country roads on the other hand are poorly maintained and there are a lot of potholes and ruts.  The main problem is the way Bulgarians drive.  They take major risks and give no heed to white lines when they overtake.  Traffic lights and stop signs are there to decorate the streets and as everybody behaves like this, no one gets worked up and everybody puts up with it.   The police are indeed posted on the roadsides but so conspicuously that they cannot change those bad habits.

If you insist on driving there, do as the Bulgarians do and switch on your lights in broad daylight so as to be clearly visible on the roads.  A smattering of  the Cyrillic alphabet will help you read some road signs or indications.


15 July: There were 25 of us, some of whom we already knew as we had travelled together to Mongolia and Namibia.  We took off from Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport soon after 11 a.m. and landed in Sofia 2 hours and 20 minutes later.  Bulgaria is one hour ahead of France. We checked in at the Radisson Hotel from where I observed several Alpine Swifts flying above the city. Our first cultural visit was for the gorgeous Alexander Nevsky cathedral, where, in spite of the lack of light, we admired the iconostasis, the magnificent chandeliers and the thrones.  In the icon crypt, Valentina, our local guide who spoke French very well at once gave us a lesson about the canons of byzantine icons and we were now aware of some details we would not have seen before.

Cathédrale Alexandre Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Photo Danielle Joannès)

As I went out, I saw a few Hooded Crows but above all, I was especially careful not to get run over because the traffic was heavy and there were few traffic lights.  On the other hand, I had never seen so many huge SUVs. 

16 July: After a hearty breakfast we boarded our very comfortable coach and drove eastwards as far as Veliko Tarnovo via Shipka Pass.  There were sunflower fields all around and we soon spotted our first White Storks.  Near the village of Trud, while we were making a short pause, I saw 3 Crested Larks.  We then crossed the Sredna Gora mountains to reach the Valley of Roses.  Bulgaria is the world's first producer of oil-producing roses and everywhere in the Kazanluk area people sell essential rose oil or rose jam.  At Gorna Mahala, I was lucky enough to see a Black Stork.  This bird is much more common here than it is in France, just like House Martins

Hirondelles de Fenêtre

House Martins (Photo Marie-Yvonne Ciaravola)

We drove across the Thracian Plain and already spotted, here and there, a few burial mounds.  We stopped to visit the replica of a Thracian tomb dating from the 4th century BC.  The frescoes there are very beautiful and we admired them all the more as they were the first of a long series.  Going out of the tomb I heard the cries of a woodpecker but they were slightly different from the ones I hear at home.  I walked towards a small cluster of trees and there I saw 2 Syrian Woodpeckers, one of which was a juvenile.  I thought I was going to see many more during my trip but as a matter of fact, these were the only ones I found. After visiting another even more impressive tomb named Goliamata Kosmatka, I made a short pause to observe a few European Bee-Eaters.  We had our lunch in front of a group performing dances in traditional costumes so we didn't mind the food which was far too rich for us.  We also visited a Russian church where a choir sang for us then drove up and down Shipka Pass under the heavy rain and stopped over in Etar, the replica of a traditional village. 

Eglise en Bulgarie

Shipka Church (photo Danielle Joannès)

The very beautiful Shipka Church stands out in contrast with the drab collective buildings of the communist era we found in Gabrovo.  It is in this city that, every year, the Bulgarians organise a laughter and satire festival.  In the evening, we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo where we were accommodated in the magnificent Grand Hotel Yantra.

Eglise en Bulgarie 4

The Yantra in Veliko Tarnovo (photo Danielle Joannès)

17 July: On my way to the beautiful fortress of Veliko Tarnovo I saw both a White and a Black Stork in the same thermal ascent but I was also struck by the great numbers of all sorts of swallows I saw there, just as everywhere else in the country.   The Church of the Ascension of Christ towers over the town and is decorated with magnificent modern frescoes, more about the history of the country than religion.  In St Peter and St Paul's Church the frescoes are religious and much older.   

Eglise en bulgarie 6

The Church of the Ascension of Christ in Veliko Tarnovo (photo Danielle Joannès)

We then went to Arbanassi where we had lunch in the former residence of Todor Zhivkov, the communist dictator.  He certainly spent money lavishly.   Before visiting the sumptuous Nativity Church where we admired its splendid frescoes, I spotted a beautiful black and yellow bird which I at once determined as a male European Golden Oriole.  I saw the female a few minutes later.  In the evening, after dinner, we were offered a "son et lumière" show given from the citadel.  

18 July:  We were then in the Danube Plain and before reaching Cherven, I saw a few European Bee-Eaters, Lesser Grey-Shrikes and above all a great number of European Golden Orioles, especially around the medieval fortress of Cherven.   I would have liked to watch them for a few more minutes but unfortunately we didn't have the time.   During the visit of the fortress, I also saw several Red-Rumped Swallows swooping along the cliffs.  Well, it was a good day as far as birdwatching was concerned.  I also took advantage of this visit to taste the yellow, red or black mirabelle plums directly from off the trees. You could find them everywhere.  As we left the place, I spotted several European Rollers perched on electric wires.  We then visited the rupestrian Monastery of Ivanovo and on my way down I came across a young Nose-Horned Viper trying to slither away unobtrusively in the weeds.  It didn't liked being filmed and after a few threatening moves went away.

We reached Ruse in the afternoon, just in time to visit the Trinity Church and the History Museum.  We were accommodated at the Dunav Plaza Hotel and were very pleased with it.

19 July: We left Ruse heading for Varna on the coast of the Black Sea.  There were still as many White Storks, European Bee-Eaters and European Golden Orioles.  In Medovena, I saw two Black Storks, flying high in the sky.   We were then in an area where there lived many Bulgarians of Turkish origin and you could make them out because of the way they were dressed.

We made a cultural visit of the Thracian tomb of Sveshtari, listed in the UNESCO world heritage sites.  As very often, photos were forbidden and only our memory will help us remember the beautiful painted murals and caryatids. We also made a quick visit of the Shumen Mosque and attended a concert given by young artists playing the piano in the house of the Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladiguerov.  We then went to see the Madara Rider, also listed as a world heritage site.

Cavalier de Madara

The Madara Rider (photo Danielle Joannès)

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Zlatni Pjasâci (The Golden Sands) not far from Varna, where we were accommodated in the splendid Melia Grand Hermitage Hotel.  In the evening, we took a stroll along the sea front which is nothing but a permanent fun fair.  I didn't like that too much but judging from the number of people walking there, there must be something I missed.

Goéland leucophée

Yellow-legged Gull (Photo Marie-Yvonne Ciaravola)

20 July:
We visited the troglodytic Monastery of Aladja and then drove on as far as Pobiti Kamani to see a natural rock formation looking like some petrified forest.  This is where I spotted a few Northern Wheatears and Crested Larks.  

Forêt pétrifiée

Pobiti Kamani (photo Danielle Joannès)

Back in Varna, we visited the Archaeological Museum where you can see magnificent gold jewels from the Varna necropolis.  The Thracians were very clever goldsmiths and they have left us the most ancient gold jewels in the world. 

21 July: We left Varna to go to Plovdiv, via Nessebar.  During a stop over in a forest in the area of Byala, we to some time to watch a large colony of Barn Swallows nesting against the walls of the restaurant.  They were sometimes perched on trees, something I hadn't seen very often at home.  The old town of Nessebar is listed as a World Heritage Site and although it was packed with tourists, I found it was a lovely town.  It is built on a peninsula and you can still see 7 churches out of the 40 that existed there.  Among them, St-Stephen's is decorated with gorgeous frescoes painted on the wooden walls.

Eglise en Bulgarie 2

A church in Nessebar (photo Danielle Joannès)

We then left the coast to go back west and again there were large sunflower fields all around.  Everybody marvelled at the hundred or so White Storks feeding in a field and, later, while we stopped near Karnobat, I had plenty of time to watch a Pomarine Eagle looking for preys in the plain.  A real pleasure for any birdwatcher.  Temperatures were still around 36°c in the evening when we arrived at the Trimontium Princess Hotel  in Plovdiv.

22 July: Just after breakfast, we visited Plovdiv and admired the splendid houses with their bow eaves above the windows.   

Maisons en bulgarie

Houses with bow eaves above the windows (photo Danielle Joannès)

We also went into the Church of St Constantine and St Helen to see the magnificent iconostasis.  The light blue vaulted ceiling struck me because orthodox churches are usually very dark.  After a quick look at the house where the French poet Lamartine spent a night, we went on to see the remnants of the Roman theatre. The weather went bad but it didn't prevent us from visiting the Monastery of Batchkovo.  There, we marvelled at the bone yard, the dining hall and its ceiling decorated with beautiful frescoes and the magnificent church.  Apart from a few Red-Rumped Swallows, I didn't observe anything particular from an ornithological point of view.  We ended the visit of Plovdiv at the covered bridge over the Maritza but soon hurried back to our hotel because it started raining and the thunder rumbled.

23 July: The weather was still as bad but as we were sheltered in the coach, we didn't mind.  We went through the Valley of Roses once more and near Sopot, I saw yet another Black Stork and a Pomarine Eagle, and this was sufficient to please me. The Zredna Gora mountains stretched on both sides of the road and reminded me of the Vosges mountains. A thunderstorm struck while we were in Koprivtiza but we had time enough to visit the town.  We saw the Insurrection Museum, the Ethnographic Museum and the Church of the Virgin.  On our way back to Plovdiv, I observed a Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, a few European Bee-Eaters and Common Ravens.  In spite of the rain, I decided to go for a walk along the Maritza and was lucky enough to make a very good observation of 2 Olivaceous Warblers, about a hundred Sand Martins and a Little Ringed Plover.  I was pleased with my day.    

La Maritza

The Maritza (photo Danielle Joannès)

24 July: The weather hadn't improved and as we crossed the mountains, the temperature fell to 13°C. . Unlike many other people, our driver drove carefully in the Rhodope mountains especially in Yundola Pass.  Then we crossed the Pirin mountains to reach Bansko where we had lunch before we went on towards Strumyani where I spotted a Lesser Grey Shrike.  We had been driving several hundred km when we arrived near the Pyramids of Melnik and we were glad to make a pause at the Monastery of Rojen.   These pyramids are actually jagged rocks made of limestone and everybody hurried to take pictures.  Melnik is a wine area so we were offered a visit of a wine cellar.  As far as I was concerned, I went out to observe a few Red-Rumped Swallows.  On our way back, our coach stopped not to run over a Hermann's Tortoise which I carried it safely to the other side of the road. After a 400-km drive, we reached the Sandanski Hotel in the town bearing the same name.

25 July: The sky was clearer on that day but it wasn't very warm.  We observed many White Storks' nests on the roofs of the town of Kocherinovo where we had stopped for a short pause.  There were even more nests than in Alsace.

Cigognes blanches

 White Storks (photo Valérie Charrier)

When we arrived in Rila, we thought we would see the monastery at once but we actually saw it at the very last minute because it is hidden in the middle of the mountains.  This monastery, listed as a world heritage site, is really worth a visit.  The painted murals are quite recent and very beautiful, the iconostasis is a jewel, the kitchen is enormous and the museum very interesting.

Monastère de Rila

Rila Monastery (photo Danielle Joannès)

Fresque à Rila

One of the frescoes in the Rila Monastery (photo Danielle Joannès)

We had plenty of time to visit the place and I had even time to notice some Crag Martins flying here and there between the roofs of the buildings.  On our way back, near the restaurant where I didn't stay too long, I looked for a White-Throated Dipper and found it near a torrent.

26 July: We had time enough for a second visit of Sofia and then we had to take the plane to go back home.  We started with the Rotunda of St George which is the oldest church in the city before we watched the changing of the guards in front of the presidential palace.  We ended our stay with the visit of the Museum of History thus revising everything we had learnt about Bulgaria during this journey.  We had logged 2440 km in a country which really deserves to be visited.

Bird List:


Little Grebe

Tachybaptus ruficollis

One bird near the airport.


Great Cormorant

Phalacrocorax carbo



Little Egret

Egretta garzetta



Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea



Black Stork

Ciconia nigra

A few.  Far less common than the White Stork.


White Stork

Ciconia ciconia



Black Kite

Milvus migrans

Seen once.


Marsh Harrier

Circus aeruginosus



Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Accipiter nisus

One bird.


Common Buzzard

Buteo buteo

A few red-tailed birds among the ones I saw.


Pomarine Eagle

Aquila pomarina

Two birds.


Short-toed Snake-Eagle

Circaetus gallicus

One bird.


Common Kestrel

Falco tinnunculus

Common indeed.


Common Moorhen

Gallinula chloropus

One near the airport.


Common Coot

Fulica atra

A few near the airport.


Black-winged Stilt

Himantopus himantopus

Only one.


Pied Avocet

Recurvirostra avosetta

A few.


Collared Pratincole

Glareola pratincola

One bird only.


Little Ringed Plover

Charadrius dubius

One bird on the banks of the Maritza.


Northern Lapwing

Vanellus vanellus

A few.


Common Sandpiper

Tringa hypoleucos

One bird on the banks of the Maritza.


Black-headed Gull

Larus ridibundus



Yellow-legged Gull

Larus michahellis



Common Wood Pigeon

 Columba palumbus

Not seen very often.


Rock Dove

Columba livia

Very common in town.


Eurasian Collared Dove

Streptopelia decaocto



European Turtle-Dove

Streptopelia turtur



Alpine Swift

Tachymarptis melba

Some, even in the middle of cities like Sofia.


Common Swift

Apus apus

Common indeed.


European Bee-Eater

Merops apiaster

Pretty common.


European Roller

Coracias garrulus

Some birds in the east of the country.


Syrian Woodpecker

Dendrocpos syriacus

I only saw two birds, near Kazanluk.


Crested Lark

Galerida cristata

A few.


Crag Martin

Hirundo rupestris

Pretty common.


Sand Martin

Riparia riparia

About a hundred flying over the Maritza.


Red-rumped Swallow

Hirundo duarica

Pretty common in some places.  Very often near water.


Barn Swallow

Hirundo rustica



House Martin

Delichon urbicum

Very common.


Tree Pipit

Anthus trivialis

Seen once only.


White Wagtail

Motacilla alba 

A few.


Grey Wagtail

Motacilla cinerea

Seen several times.


White-throated Dipper

Cinclus cinclus

One bird near a torrent.


Winter Wren

Troglodytes troglodytes

Heard only.


Black Redstart

Phoenicurus ochruros



Northern Wheatear

Oenanthe oenanthe



Eurasian Blackbird

Turdus merula

Not very common.  I observed a few in public parks.


Olivaceous Warbler

Hippolais pallida

2 birds seen for a long time on the banks of the Maritza.

Sylvia atricapillaSeen once.



Phylloscopus collybita



Marsh tit

Parus palustris

One bird.


Great Tit

Parus major



Wood Nuthatch

Sitta europea

One bird.


Res-backed Shrike

Lanius collurio

Pretty common.


Lesser Grey Shrike

Lanius minor

Several birds in the east of the country.


Common Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

Common indeed.


European Golden-Oriole

Oriolus oriolus

Seen very often, to my great surprise.


Eurasian Jay

Garrulus glandarius



Common Magpie

Pica pica



Eurasian Jackdaw

Corvus monedula

Pretty common.


Common Raven

Corvus corax

Several in the mountains.


Hooded Crow

Corvus cornix




 Corvus frugilegus

About 50 of them near the airport.


Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Passer montanus



House Sparrow

Passer domesticus




Fringilla coelebs



European Greenfinch

Carduelis chloris



European Goldfinch

Carduelis carduelis



Corn Bunting

Emberiza calandra

Seen once.



Emberiza citrinella


Other animal species observed:

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus): Seen only once.

Nose-Horned Viper  (Vipera ammodytes): One young trying to hide away.

Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni): 3 all together.  This species is sometimes kept in private gardens.

Humming-Bird Hawk (Macroglossum stellatarum) : We saw this insect once.

Humming-Bird Hawk

Humming-Bird Hawk (Photo Valérie Charrier)

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