A journey to the mysteries of Rusenski Lom, Bulgaria- rock churches, caves, and more

A journey to the mysteries of Rusenski Lom, Bulgaria- rock churches, caves, and more

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The Danubian Plain in Bulgaria is large and wide. Flat fields extend to the horizon. But if you cross its eastern part, you can see how the field suddenly ends in an edge, cracked by a deep canyon. The canyon’s slopes are covered by lush forests and vertical rocky cliffs. And if you walk through one of these canyons, you could find mysterious caves or holes, some of them with remnants of ancient human activity. This is the canyon system of Rusenski Lom River. Let’s go explore it!

About Rusenski Lom

First, let’s look at the map. You can see the Danubian Plain that fills the area between Stara Planina (The Balkan Mountains) and the Danube River. Its western part is a bit lower and thinner, crossed by several rivers. But the eastern part consists of a highland, surrounded by a large plateau and smaller satellite sub-plateaus.

This highland is called Ludogorie (Deliorman), and its plateau-shaped eastern-northeastern extension is Dobrudzha (Dobrogea), shared between Bulgaria and Romania.

The valley of Rusenski Lom, like a crack within the plateau
The valley of Rusenski Lom, like a crack within the plateau

And if you look at the northern sides of the Ludogorie, you can see several river valleys flowing to the north-northwest, getting deeper and deeper into the plateau, and finally joining together into a single canyon. This is Rusenski Lom (Русенски Лом). Finally, it flows into the Danube River near the city of Ruse.

Rusenski Lom River system

Rusenski Lom is formed by four rivers that originate from the Ludogorie. These are Baniski Lom (Баниски Лом), Cherni (Black) Lom (Черни Лом), Malki (Small) Lom (Малки Лом), and Beli (White) Lom (Бели Лом). They join at various points, and near the village of Ivanovo, they form a single river- Rusenski Lom.

All these rivers flow on a karst (limestone) area, and this is the reason why they cut beautiful canyons into the plain. And they do it with a lot of meanders. In many places, the walls of the canyons are almost vertical.

The rocky walls of the canyons were noticed by the ancient people and they built a lot of rock-hewn churches and monasteries. But who were they, when and how they did it?

Some history

The area of Ludogorie has been populated for thousands of years- first by unknown people who left some artifacts (currently located in the archaeological museums), then by the Thracians (today, you can see some remnants from them like the so-called “sharaptash”- pools with unclear purpose).

In the 1st century AD, the whole area was included within the Roman Empire. When the empire was divided into Western and Eastern, the Ludogorie remained in the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire.

During the next centuries- from the 4th to the 7th century, the whole area was invaded by various peoples- Goths, Avars, Huns, and Slavs. Then, the Bulgars came and conquered the place, establishing the First Bulgarian Empire.

Orthodox Christian era

The First Bulgarian Empire embraced Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the official religion in the 9th century. In the 10th century, the area of Ludogorie was temporarily conquered by the Byzantine Empire, but at the end of the 12th century, the Second Bulgarian Empire was established.

And this is the period when the people from some branches of Orthodox Christianity started to especially focus on the rock walls of the Rusenski Lom canyons. They hewed a lot of monasteries and churches into the rocks. These places became dwellings for hermits and monks with an ascetic way of life.

Inside a rock-hewn church
Inside a rock-hewn church

At the same time, the Bulgarians built some fortresses, of which the largest one is Cherven, today remained as a magnificent tourist attraction.

At the end of the 14th century, the area was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the rock-hewn monasteries and churches, as well as the fortresses, were abandoned. But today, they were rediscovered by scientists and tourists and became mysterious and amazing places for travel and adventures.

Our journey to Rusenski Lom canyons

So, all of the above attracted us to include this area in our journey around the northeastern part of Bulgaria. We traveled by car and came from Veliko Tarnovo– the third medieval capital of the country.

From there, we headed northward and reached Danube River, the mouth of Rusenski Lom River, and the city of Ruse- the main starting point for exploring the Rusenski Lom area.

Ruse City

Ruse (Русе) is the fifth-largest city in Bulgaria and the largest river port in the country. It is established east of the Rusenski Lom mouth, along the southern Danube Riverbank (so, you can see Romania at the other bank).

The city is famous for its beautiful neo-classical buildings, some of them today turned into museums- the History Museum, the Eco Museum, and more. Among the other interesting museums, I would mention the National Transport Museum, the House-museums of historical figures like Baba Tonka and Zahari Stoyanov. Ruse has also its ancient site- the Museum of Sexaginta Prista, where you can see some ruins from Roman times.

A neoclassical building in Ruse
A neoclassical building in Ruse

In Ruse, you can also visit the Pantheon of National Revival Heroes, and the Monument of Liberty. And of course, don’t skip the Danube Riverbank with its beautiful Coastline Park.

South of Ruse

Since the starting point for visiting the Rusenski Lom is such a big city, full of points of interest, we dedicated some time to explore it, and I would recommend you do it too as a pleasant educative introduction for the adventures ahead.

From Ruse, we headed southward on the road to Basarbovo- the first village in the valley of Rusenski Lom. This village is the “gate” of this amazing area, and here we reached our first stop- the Basarbovo Rock-hewn Monastery. But let’s take a closer look at these mysterious sites.

The rock-hewn churches and monasteries

There are many rock-hewn churches, monasteries, or just chapels in the rocks of the canyons. They can be found in the four valleys that finally merge into the Rusenski Lom River, including the main river itself.

Some of them are famous and well-developed tourist destinations, while others are mainly off-the-beaten. Since all of them are arranged in a long chain, you can visit them one by one following the canyons.

Basarbovo Monastery

Basarbovo Monastery (Басарбовски скален манастир) is the first rock-hewn monastery in the valley, and it is the only one of its kind in Bulgaria that is active today (the others are abandoned centuries ago and only some of them are turned into museums).

It is dedicated to St. Dimitar Basarbovski who used to live here in the 17th century, although it existed from the 14th century. There are many stories about St. Dimitar, we don’t know which one is true or just a legend, and this only adds to the mystery of the place.

Basarbovo Rock-hewn Monastery
Basarbovo Rock-hewn Monastery

Today, the monastery consists of an old rock-hewn church and other engraved rooms (chapels and hermit’s dwellings), and a newly-built church in front of the rock wall.

From here, a narrow paved road proceeds southward, following the river, but don’t drive on it- only 3 km further it becomes a dirt road, and unless you travel by 4×4 vehicle or by bicycle, you can’t reach the next destination. Instead, back to the main road from Ruse to Ivanovo that follows the valley on the plateau west of it.

Ivanovo Rock-Hewn Churches

The road from Ruse arrives at Ivanovo Village. But before the first village houses, a good paved road turns eastward and descends to the river at the bottom of the canyon. Here is the most famous rock-hewn church- Holy Virgin, today declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most visited one of the Ivanovo Rock-Hewn Churches (Ивановски скални църкви).

We stopped at the parking lot at the end of the road and on a steep trail climbed to the church. It consists of two rooms with well-preserved medieval murals. One of the murals is called “The Holy Supper”. It looks quite similar to the famous picture by Leonardo da Vinci with the same name, however, this one is painted at least a century earlier!

There is a balcony in front of its outer gate with stunning views of the Rusenski Lom valley and its forests. We enjoyed it, and descent to our car at the parking lot. The entrance fee was 5 BGN for adults and 2 BGN for children.

Orthodoc Christian murals inside the main Ivanovo Rock-hewn Church
Orthodoc Christian murals inside the main Ivanovo Rock-hewn Church

But there are more rock-hewn churches in the area, however, they are off-the-beaten, for “Indiana Jones” type of explorers. Among them, I would mention Belbernitsata (Белберницата), Zatrupanata (Затрупаната църква), Krashtalnyata (Кръщалнята), Gospodev Dol (Господев дол), and Saborenata (Saint Todor- Съборената църква)- wild, mysterious, almost creepy places, hidden in lush forest and oblivion.

Other rock-hewn churches

About a mile (more than a km) further is the merging point of the Cherni (Black) and Beli (White) Lom rivers. If you proceed on Cherni Lom, you can see more rock-hewn churches and monasteries- Gramovets (Грамовец), Small Paradise (Malak Rai- Малък Рай), Big Paradise (Golyam Rai- Голям Рай), Moskov Dol (Москов дол), and the rock churches of Tabachka (Табачка).

Further against the river flow is the merging point of Cherni and Baniski Lom. There are no rock-hewn churches on Baniski Lom Valley, but on Cherni Lom, you can visit the two Krepchan rock-hewn monasteries.

Let’s back to the merging point of Cherni and Beli Lom, and start following the second one. A little further is the other merging point- of Beli and Malki Lom. If you follow Malki Lom, you can see the Big and the Small Nisovski Monastery (Голям и Малък Нисовски манастир), Saint Constantine and Helena (Свети Константин и Елена), and Berbernitsa (Берберница). And on the Beli Lom, you can reach the Torlashki Monastery (Торлашки манастир).

A rock-hewn church near Tabachka Village
A rock-hewn church near Tabachka Village

And there are also many other rock-hewn churches and monasteries in the area, however, most of them are too destroyed by natural forces. Only the locals know their names.

But that’s not all. The valleys of Rusenski Lom and its tributaries have much more to reveal…

The caves

As I mentioned above, this area consists mainly of karst rocks- the best rock material for cave formation. And indeed, there are a lot of natural caves in the rock walls of the canyons. In fact, many of the rock-hewn churches have been built from small natural caves and grottoes. But there are larger caves like Vodnata Cave (The Water Cave- Водната пещера), Tamnata (The Dark Cave- Тъмната пещера), and Obretenka (Обретенка- in the Beli Lom Valley).

But one of the caves is different than the others and deserves special attention. This is Orlova Chuka (Орлова чука)- one of the most beautiful caves in the Balkan Peninsula.

Inside the Orlova Chuka Cave
Inside the Orlova Chuka Cave

Orlova Chuka Cave

We included Orlova Chuka Cave in our itinerary. And we would miss a lot if we wouldn’t!

Orlova Chuka is one of the longest caves in Bulgaria (about 14 km). It has been a former underground river tunnel, but today it is almost dry. However, the ancient river has formed amazing rock shapes everywhere.

Today, only 3 km of the cave is open for tourists. And only scientists can penetrate further inside, where it turns into a labyrinth of tunnels, corridors, holes, and cracks.

It is full of cave wildlife- there are 14 kinds of bats. Also, you can see traces of pre-historic people who used the cave as a shelter.

Orlova Chuka tour

The cave is located not far from Pepelina Village. We reached it by car, and on foot walked to the ticket office and paid the tickets- 6 BGN for adults and 3 BGN for children. Then we descend to the cave entrance, where the local guide waited for the next tourist group to gather.

The cave tours are on every hour and last about 50 min. During the tour, our guide used the excellent acoustic inside and sang songs, making our tour more colorful and exciting.

Orlova Chuka is open only from 1st April to 31st October. The rest of the time it is closed to protect the winter life cycle of the bats.

More sites in Rusenski Lom

Besides the rock-hewn churches, monasteries, and caves, there is more to see in the Rusenski Lom valleys. There are some ancient Thracian remains, called “Sharaptash” (Шарапташ- one of them can be seen near the village of Koshov). And there is another mysterious ancient site, probably serving as a cult sanctuary, called Kirli Kanara (Кирли канара), at the merging point of Cherni and Baniski Lom.

But there is also another must-see spot that is much more significant. This is the Cherven Fortress (Крепост Червен)- ruins of a medieval city, located on a gorgeous terrace above the Cherni Lom River.

Cherven Fortress

Cherven has been a big medieval city. Initially, it was built as a military fortress in the 5th century, later abandoned. However, in the 11th century, the fortress was not only renewed but turned into an important civil trade center.

The city suffered destructions from a big earthquake and wars with Tatars and Ottoman Turks (in the 14th century). Finally, it was gradually abandoned, and its citizens moved northward to today’s Ruse.

The northwestern tower of Cherven Fortress
The northwestern tower of Cherven Fortress

Cherven is featured in the “Game of Thrones” series. You can recognize the main northwestern tower, the best-preserved part of the fortress.

Our Cherven Fortress tour

We reached Cherven by car, passing through the nearby Cherven Village. At the parking lot, we paid the entrance fee- 5 BGN for adults and 2 BGN for children, and ascent on the trail to the flat prolonged plateau over the Cherni Lom Valley, where the fortress was built. The whole route was about an hour, and the medieval history with the stunning views of the area remained an unforgettable impression.

All of these sites, scattered along the canyons of the Rusenski Lom valley system are “hidden” in the cracks of the large plateau of Ludogorie. And there are two ways to reach them- by motorized transportation or by more adventurous ways (by biking or hiking).

Transportation

The main starting point to Rusenskin Lom- the city of Ruse is easy to reach. There are regular buses and trains from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, as well as from Bucharest, the capital of Romania (which is closer to Ruse than Sofia).

Find transport from Sofia to Ruse!  Find transport from Bucharest to Ruse!

Other starting points are the cities of Veliko Tarnovo (from the southwest), Targovishte (from the southeast), and Razgrad (from east-southeast). They are big cities too, however, Ruse remains better connected to Sofia and Bucharest.

How to travel around Rusenski Lom

Once you reach Ruse or some of the other starting points, the best ways to explore the canyons are by car or by bicycle. Yes, there is public transport, as well as trains connecting Veliko Tarnovo and Ruse, stopping at Ivanovo and other important points, but by car is much more convenient.

Map of Rusenski Lom area
Map of Rusenski Lom area

Most of the roads don’t follow the canyons and their endless meanders. Instead, they take shortcuts between them on the flat plateau above. So, traveling by car is faster and more convenient. But since some of the points (caves and rock-hewn churches) are far from roads, you have to combine self-driving with hiking.

Find a rental car in Ruse!

However, there are dirt roads on the bottoms of the canyons, following every meander of the rivers. And biking is a great and exciting way to travel on them, visiting point after point on the way.

Find a rental bike in Ruse!

Accommodation

The valley system of Rusenski Lom is a well-known place, visited by many tourists (mainly from Bulgaria and Romania). And there are a lot of hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and Airbnb options in the main starting points- the cities of Ruse, Veliko Tarnovo, Targovishte, and Razgrad.

Find a place to stay in Ruse!

In fact, if you travel by car, you can easily visit all the important points of the area within one day- Basarbovo Monastery, Ivanovo Rock-hewn Church, Orlova Chuka Cave, and Cherven Fortress, then back to your starting point and sleep there, or just proceed to other parts of Bulgaria.

But if you want to explore the canyons in detail, you need a longer time- at least two-three days, especially if you want to dive into more adventures. In this case, you need to spend the night somewhere “in the middle”.

Spending the night beside the spots of the canyons

For this purpose, there are some guesthouses in some (not all) of the villages in the area, and most of them are very comfortable. We personally spent the night in Kladenetsa Guesthouse in Ivanovo- a cozy place with a restaurant and a swimming pool.

Find a place to stay in Rusenski Lom area!

There is a tourist chalet, located exactly beside the ticket office of Orlova Chuka Cave, and is another convenient place if you want to explore the cave the next morning. Another attractive place for accommodation is Kukeri Campsite in Koshov Village.

Rusenski Lom River with the lush forests around it
Rusenski Lom River with lush forests around it

Finally, if you are more adventurous, you can camp beside the rivers. But have in mind that there are no other campsites in the area. You have to find an unprotected place (better find a place far from villages), so better don’t do it if you are a solo traveler. To make it even more adventurous, you can spend the night in one of the caves or abandoned rock-hewn churches.

But remember, most of the area is included in the Rusenski Lom Natural Park. Making fire is strictly forbidden, as well as leaving trash! So, if you spend the night like “Indiana Jones”, don’t leave traces after your stay!

Seasons

As in most of Europe, this area has four seasons, and each of them has its beauty.

Summer is the best season to explore Rusenski Lom. Although most of the time it is too hot, the forest in the canyons is cooler and fresh. Just be aware of thunderstorms, they can be dangerous. So, if a thunderstorm comes, find a shelter.

Autumn is beautiful too. The forests are colored by yellow, red, brown, and all other nuances in between. Also, it is relatively dry, rains are rarer. But just have in mind that Orlova Chuka Cave is closed from 1st November.

Winter can be cold, snowy, and windy (although not all the time). But at least the canyons protect from strong winds. However, the roads can be closed due to snowstorms.

Spring is incredibly beautiful when everything blooms with flowers. Orlova Chuka Cave also opens from 1st April. But it is rainy, and in May rains are often accompanied by thunderstorms.

Anyway, every season has its own beauty in the valleys of Rusenski Lom, and you can find specific impressions during every different time of the year.

Rusenski Lom

We explored this amazing area, and during our trip, we visited Basarbovo Monastery, Ivanovo Rock-hewn Churches, Orlova Chuka Cave, and Cherven Fortress (the four main sites), and we added to this some off the beaten spots- one of the rock-hewn churches near the village of Tabachka and another one near Krepcha.

Then, we left Rusenski Lom in the southeast direction to Targovishte and Kotel. But the mysteries of this fantastic place left a lot of impressions, so it remained as one of our favorite destinations in Bulgaria.

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A guide about the canyon system of Rusenski Lom River in Bulgaria- a place full of adventures, presenting rock-hewn churches, caves, and more. A guide about the canyon system of Rusenski Lom River in Bulgaria- a place full of adventures, presenting rock-hewn churches, caves, and more.

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