Journey to Sandanski: Exploring the Treasures of Bulgaria’s Southwest

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Sandanski is situated amphitheatrically on the southwestern slopes of the Pirin Mountains, with its altitude ranging from 220 to 300 meters. It is considered the warmest Bulgarian city. According to calculations, the sun shines here for over 2,450 hours. The winter is mild and humid.

The air here has the lowest humidity in Bulgaria and is suitable for the treatment of asthma, allergies, and other diseases. Many consider Sandanski a natural sanatorium for the treatment of respiratory diseases.

The area is extremely rich in mineral waters, with over 80 springs. Their temperatures range from 42 to 81 degrees Celsius. These waters treat diseases of the musculoskeletal system, the central and peripheral nervous systems, skin conditions, gynecological diseases, allergies, and obesity.

There are several fountains in the city from which anyone can easily access and drink mineral water. The marble fountain with two bodies near the city park is emblematic. The water temperature is 76 degrees Celsius.

Quite close in the park is the most famous spring with healing properties in Sandanski – ‘Miroto’. The fountain is located under a centuries-old plane tree.

It is precisely the climate and the properties of the warm mineral waters that are at the heart of the formation of today’s Sandanski. The settlement emerged around the mineral springs in the Bronze Age at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 12th century BC. It was founded by the Thracians from the Medi tribe, named Medius.

It is believed that in the area of Sandanski was born and lived the leader of the greatest uprising in antiquity – the legendary Thracian Spartacus from the Medi tribe. Historical references suggest that he was born in an ancient settlement located east of present-day Sklave. The village is 10 km from the city. Every year, an annual fair is held there, connected with the legend of Spartacus.

The monument of Spartacus is one of the symbols of Sandanski. It is at the entrance to the city. And underneath it lie the remains of an ancient city.

Present-day Sandanski / named after the famous Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski / besides Medius, it was also called Dezudava, later St. Vrach / in memory of the two brothers, folk healers Kozma and Damyan.

St. Vrach is also the name of the city park. It was built by Gen. Georgi Todorov, commander of the Second Bulgarian Army, from 1916 to 1919. At that time, together with his soldiers, he planted the first seedlings of white and black pine and imported cedar and sophora from Italy. Today, the park boasts around 200 Mediterranean plant species, including centuries-old plane trees, declared natural landmarks, cedars and sequoias, willows, pine trees, ginkgo biloba, magnolia, pomegranate, and more.

There are numerous gazebos, children’s corners, small water basins, a large artificial lake with water wheels, as well as a summer theater and stadium.

In the city, you will find the Early Christian Complex. It represents an architectural and construction monument of culture from antiquity and includes a basilica, stoa, and an ancient street from the 5th to 6th centuries, exhibited in the open air.

The church of “St. George” is also of interest. It was built in 1952 and is a scaled-down replica of the “St. Alexander Nevsky” Cathedral in Sofia.

About 2 km from the central part of the city is the monastery of “Sts. Cosmas and Damian.” It is believed that the holy brothers without silver lived and healed here.

A centuries-old plane tree attracts people to Sandanski. It has a diameter of about 13 meters and has been standing for over 650 years. Beneath it is a marble fountain; locals believe that the roots of the tree charge the water with magic. According to legends, whoever drinks from the perpetually cold water will be healthy, and evil will forget them.

Sandanski is a preferred destination for relaxation for both young people, families with children, and elderly people. In the resort, there is food for every taste. Walking along the streets, you might sometimes feel like you’re in Greece; Greek language is often heard. Greek tourists are the most numerous here.

Everyone who visits Sandanski inevitably immerses themselves in the local folklore and music, characteristic of the Pirin region. The music is beautiful, vocal, descriptive, and with a smooth melody. The folk dances that can be seen and danced here are magical.

It’s no coincidence that Sandanski hosts a number of folklore festivals. The most popular is Pirin Folk. It was created by a group of enthusiasts in 1992, aiming to popularize the new author’s song based on folklore, characteristic of the Pirin region. Today, the festival is for author’s songs based on Macedonian folklore and is held annually in September.

Sandanski is not only mineral springs and healing air. Here, immersed in the magic of the Pirin Mountains, you can indulge in various adventures from cultural and historical to religious journeys. From extreme experiences to wine tastings.

In the Kresna Gorge, where the city is located, flows the Struma River. It is the longest river in Bulgaria and originates from Greece. The Struma River has impressive rapids, which attract enthusiasts of rafting and canyoning. This is the best rafting route in the country.

The area around Sandanski offers opportunities for horse lovers and horse riding enthusiasts. There are numerous equestrian bases offering year-round training.

Sandanski is located at the foot of the Pirin National Park, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Here you can walk along many trails and routes, enjoy crystal clear lakes, and majestic mountain peaks.

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the area is about 30 km from the city. This is Spano Pole Shelter. The views from Spano Pole Shelter are incredible, overlooking the Struma Valley and the surrounding mountains. The place is suitable for walks and outdoor sleeping.

At 54 km from the city is the Ali Botush Reserve in the Slavyanka Mountain. It was created to protect the relic forests of black pine, black fir, and Bulgarian fir. The Ali Botush Reserve has been declared a protected area, and in 1977 it was included in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserves Program. The highest peak here is Gotsev Peak – 2212 m.

Around Sandanski, you will also find interesting waterfalls. One of them is located in the local Popina Laka. It is 12 meters high and full-flowing throughout the year. The other waterfall is Skoka Waterfall near the village of Kashana. It is 20 meters high.

Around Sandanski, there are also interesting villages suitable for rural tourism. Zlatolist village is 27 km from the city. It is known for the “St. George” church, where in the early 19th century lived the prophetess Stoina. The nun was considered a predecessor of Vanga and like her, she prophesied and helped people. The “St. George” church was built in the 12th century. The temple is remarkable for its frescoes. In the middle of the church, under the dome, there is a marble plaque with a double-headed eagle. Legends exist that this plaque emits healing energy when stepped upon. In the village stands a plane tree that is 1295 years old, believed to help with various ailments.

Goleshovo village is 46 kilometers from the city of Sandanski and is famous for its rich historical past. According to archaeologists, there has been settled life in its vicinity since the Neolithic era (5000 BC). Previously, the village won a contest for the most beautiful lesser-known place in the country.

We mentioned Vanga, also known as Baba Vanga. She is a woman whom many people around the world have heard of as a prophetess and clairvoyant, possessing the ability to see the fate of every person who visits her and to predict the future. Vanga lived in Petrich, about 25 km from Sandanski. Her house is now a museum.

About 12 kilometers from Sandanski lies the locality of Rupite and the temple “St. Petka,” built thanks to Vanga. This place is mystical and special for Bulgarians and many foreigners who believe in healing and prophecy. In the past, a volcano erupted here, and as a result, medicinal mineral springs with a temperature of 75ºC were formed, helping with various diseases.

Near Rupite are the remains of an ancient city called Heraclea Sintica. This place was the favorite summer hunting residence of Philip II. Later, in the late 2nd century, the city became part of the Roman Empire. The last information about Heraclea Sintica dates back to the beginning of the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I.

The area is the only place in the country where all four types of tortoises in Bulgaria, almost all types of snakes, including the Balkan adder, and the small river kefal can be observed. Nearly 201 species of birds are found here.

The Via Aristotelis migration route of birds, the main migration route of birds from Europe to Africa, is passing through Western Bulgaria. It is the second largest in number of migrating birds after Via Pontica, and passes through Rupite. This route was described in ancient times by Aristotle.

When you’re in Sandanski, you must visit the smallest town in Bulgaria – Melnik. It is 22 km from the city, at the foot of the Pirin Mountain. This is a town-museum of great importance in Bulgarian culture and history. Today, about 250 people live in the town. In the 17th-18th centuries, Melnik was a thriving trading center with over 25,000 inhabitants and 70 churches. People here made their living from tobacco production and the strong Melnik wine.

The houses are picturesque with tiled roofs, the streets mysterious, and the paths are made of stone. Many of them are cultural monuments, and the churches are remarkable not only for their impressive number. Some of them represent national treasures.

In Melnik, visit the Boyar House. It is an architectural monument of the Middle Ages with national significance. One of the oldest buildings in the Balkan Peninsula, albeit partially preserved. The initial construction period dates back to the first half of the 13th century.

The Kordopulov House, on the other hand, is the largest Renaissance building in Bulgaria. It was built in 1754 and belonged to the wealthy Melnik wine producer and merchant – Kordopulos. It is a unique combination of internal and external architecture with winter and summer gardens. The cellar is a labyrinth of tunnels. This is a wine cellar, dug into the ground floor of the house. Its capacity is from 250 to 300 tons. The wine here is stored in many wooden barrels. The largest among them holds 12.5 tons. A special ventilation system ensures their good condition. The house is open to visitors.

Near Melnik lies the picturesque village with ancient houses of authentic architecture – Rozhen. The main livelihood of the villagers is wine production.

However, Rozhen is primarily associated with the Rozhen Monastery. This is the largest religious complex in the Pirin region and one of the oldest spiritual centers in Bulgaria. It is believed to have been founded during the time of Despot Alexius Slav (12-13th century). Murals from 1573 have been discovered.

In the immediate vicinity of the monastery is the church “Sts. Cyril and Methodius,” built on the initiative of Yane Sandanski and in whose yard his grave is located.

In Melnik, around Melnik and Rozhen, you can see unique pyramids. The Melnik Pyramids rise to a height of 100 meters northeast of the town towards the Rozhen Monastery. They were formed about 4-5 million years ago and are rocky formations with sheer walls, covering an area of 50 square kilometers.

To the south of the village of Rozhen are located thousands of rock mushrooms of various sizes, which are an impressive attraction for tourists.

Your adventure in Sandanski must include tasting the unique varieties of local wines. Enjoy them as dessert in this “gourmet” experience called Sandanski. The region is famous not only among Bulgarians but also among many foreigners as a place for wine tourism.

The Struma Valley offers unique conditions for the development of viticulture and winemaking. There are records of the glory of Melnik wine from ancient times.

Several grape varieties are widespread: Wide Melnik Vine, Melnik 55, Early Melnik Vine, Rubin, Ruen, Keratsuda, Tamianka, Merlot, Muscat, Cabernet Sauvignon. There are many wineries here that offer tasting tours.

If we can summarize Sandanski, we can do it with the Latin expression  “In vino veritas, in aqua sanitas!” , translated as “Truth is in wine, health is in water”.

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