Long before I even got there, the Rusenski Lom Nature Park had seemed a reluctant destination. A brief note in the guidebook had outlined the basics: the park consisted of a twisting series of gorges in northern Bulgaria, incised into a limestone plateau by one of the rivers that fed the Danube. But that was about all I had to go on. I’d arrived in Ruse, the elegant Bulgarian city close to the Romanian border, with little to steer me beyond a vague impulse to find somewhere most visitors overlooked.
“I don’t know much about it,” confessed the receptionist of my Ruse hotel when I asked for directions. It took three phone-calls until she found a taxi-driver who knew the way.
The enigma persisted as the taxi careered past flat, unremarkable arable farmland towards a ribbon of cloud, which appeared to be drifting up from a great crack in the land. Then the road sloped downhill, and the earth split open. As the fog cleared there were the terracotta roof-tiles of Cherven village, strewn inside a gorge.
My base for exploring Rusenski Lom was House Petrov, a homestead up on a ridge, with clean simple rooms overlooking the village below.
Owner Yordan Petrov had salt-and-pepper hair, bushy eyebrows and finger-tips stained black with iodine from the walnuts he was sorting when I arrived. A former Captain of Danube cruise-ships, and a polyglot, this homespun guesthouse was his retirement. Now he spent his days plying guests with plum brandy and his wife’s wholesome cooking, and finishing stories with the gnomic utterance: “so it is…”
From Yordan’s smallholding, it was a ten-minute walk to the ruined Citadel, the historical centrepiece on which Cherven’s meagre tourist fame rested. The ruins occupied a soaring, fin-like buttress above a bend in the river. In the thirteenth century, the crumbling walls and stone foundations had formed a thriving outpost of the Second Bulgarian Empire, before the incursions of Ottoman Turks sent it into terminal decline. It was so quiet each time I visited that I could hear the skitter of sunbathing lizards evacuating my path as I walked among the stones.
But no less poignant than the demise of the civilisation that left this collection of towers and Byzantine churches was the demise it mirrored down below. Modern Cherven was a place of ghosts.
The village didn’t quite exist in suspended animation. Yordan’s guesthouse had wifi, and the little convenience store sold imported Swiss chocolate. But the streets running through it were eerily quiet. On one bench, each time I passed, the same gnarled old-timer sat outside with a beer, a naval cap marked ‘Captain’ askew on his leonine head. On another, ancient head-scarved women offered tentative waves. And on the walls of empty houses and all over the bus-stop, were plastered cards of remembrance for the recently dead.
What had happened to this place? At times it felt like some terrible unspoken tragedy must have befallen it, so absent were the sounds of work and children.
One morning, Yordan drove me to Orlova Chuka — literally ‘Eagle’s Rock’ — a cave system punched into the canyon wall, a few miles south of Cherven. The cave was discovered in 1941 by a shepherd, and now it was a tourist attraction, but one, in the spirit of Rusenski Lom tourist attractions, that seemed forgotten and deserted. The only man there was the torch-wielding guide, who had the self-contained air of someone who’d spent a lot of time underground.
He led us into a hall of rock. The floor of the cave was flat and featureless, but the ceiling was a geological masterpiece, in places scooped out by vertical turbulence, in others forested with stalactites, which hung in lumpen chandeliers. “Friends of mine,” said the cave-keeper, shining his torch at dark, fist-sized blobs hanging from the wall, which unfurled translucent wings, resolved into bats, and danced a frenzied jitterbug on their perches.
Their lair was the sort of natural marvel you could imagine welcoming coach-loads of tourists in a place better known. But today, the keeper admitted, we’d probably be the only visitors. As we left, he waved goodbye then turned back to continue his vigil, with only his bat friends for company.
“When democracy came, everything changed,” Yordan said, as we sputtered back to Cherven in his ancient mustard-colored Lada 4x4. “Some people would have stayed. But there was no work.”
Cherven’s depopulation was a common story in the old eastern bloc. When Bulgaria’s communist government collapsed in 1990, the inefficient cooperatives that had been imposed on the country’s rural areas rapidly disintegrated. Services and institutions like the old municipal office in Cherven’s town square, now a shell, fell to ruin as criminal gangs and corrupt administrators sold off rusting machinery. The young fled to larger towns en masse.
“Twenty-five years ago, 4,000, maybe 5,000, people in this town,” Yordan said. “Today we have 150 mostly old people.” Now, Yordan hoped that the growing trickle of visitors, together with the growing numbers of west Europeans on the lookout for inexpensive holiday homes, might come to fill the void.
Tourism as a means of resurrecting a dying place: I liked the sound of that. One of the drawbacks of unearthing a forgotten place is the background guilt that it might be better left undisturbed. But here in Rusenski Lom, tourism seemed a potential cure — economic diversification was the one thing that could reverse the region’s atrophy.
Nowhere is Rusenski Lom’s tourism potential more clear than in the gorge itself. On my third morning, I set off to walk along the river that cut it, the Cherni Lom, with a hunk of bread and a pot of Yordan’s delicious honey in my rucksack. On a pasture below the Citadel buttress, a shepherd was asleep on his back, cap canted over his eyes, as his flock grazed beside him. He was the last person I saw for four hours.
The gorge unfurled through tunnels of forest and dog rose, opening onto russet glades of wild-flowers throbbing with bees. In the days before the roads on the plateau were paved, the spongy track that ran alongside the river was the principal thoroughfare between Cherven and the neighboring village of Koshov. But the further I walked along its length the more humanity receded. By the late afternoon, as I lay on my back watching bats pour from the cliff-face orifices on their evening sortie, the canyon had been entirely reclaimed by nature. I was just a privileged interloper, enjoying the scenery.
The sun was weakening as I walked back up the hill to Yordan’s, when I encountered a sound that I hadn’t heard in days. Across the road from House Petrov, children’s’ laughter was drifting up from behind a wall.
Outside his guesthouse, attending the flowers, Yordan was listening. A Scottish couple had bought the farmstead across the road, he told me. They’d come for the summer, and the sound of their playing children — “flowers on the face of the earth” he called them in his lyrical way — was music to Yordan’s ears.
“The sound of renewal,” I said, nodding towards the sound.
Yordan just smiled. In time, it seemed inevitable, others would follow.