Bulgaria - I predict this place is going to be a big hit

A museum about the blind visionary Baba Vanga is opening up Bulgaria's south west to tourists. Robert Nurden reports

A pair of bright green carpet slippers lies abandoned in the hearth. In the dimly lit room you can make out a Russian samovar, a Vietnamese mask, a saucer of soil from Jerusalem and an elegant Viennese chandelier.

The artefacts make for a strange collection, but there again you wouldn't expect the owner of this house to show off their plasma-screen telly. Baba Vanga is one of Bulgaria's most treasured possessions, a blind visionary who held communists, kings and capitalists in thrall with her predictions.

Her request – she died aged 85 in 1996 – that her gifts should be left to the state and that her Petrich home, situated in the south-west of the country, be turned into a museum came to fruition this summer. Thousands from all over the world have already made the pilgrimage, not put off by the fact that Bulgaria is now the bad boy of the EU after being rapped over the knuckles for corruption.

The story goes that when Baba Vanga was young, a tornado lifted her out of a field as she was tending sheep. When she returned to earth, the sand had blinded her but she had been given paranormal powers. This latter-day Nostradamus is said to have correctly foretold the date of both her own and Stalin's deaths, the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk, Chernobyl and 9/11.

People queued outside her house for weeks, waiting to talk to her. Among her visitors was Neshka Robeva, trainer of the golden girls of Bulgarian gymnastics through the 1980s. Ironically, given the Communist Party's contempt for all things superstitious, she was one of President Zhivkov's most trusted advisers.

Tzvetia, our guide, couldn't wait to show us Rupite, the main source, she said, of Vanga's mystical powers and now her burial place. Encased in the crater of the defunct Kozhuh volcano, it was where she performed her last readings. Her New Age followers have turned it into a peaceful sanctuary to the memory of Bulgaria's remarkable state-sponsored prophetess.

This multi-ethnic region has long been a pit of intrigue. Petrich itself has an unfortunate reputation for being a hangout for hired killers, illicit traders and traffickers of all sorts. But the curtain is being yanked back to reveal all sorts of other surprises. Thracian treasure is regularly unearthed from burial mounds. It's just a question of whether the archaeologists or the looters get there first. Sometimes, they're one and the same people.

Sneakily, the country for years kept its best red wines for home consumption. They are a revelation, silencing those sniggers about undrinkable plonk. Two of them have a peculiar provenance. From 1948 to 1989 a narrow stretch of land between capitalist Greece and socialist Bulgaria was patrolled by gruesome border guards. Otherwise devoid of human beings, the area became an environmental wilderness for migrating birds where vines were planted in sandy soil under a scorching sun.

Here the indigenous Melnik grape flourished. It produced a rich red that was one of Winston Churchill's favourite tipples. In the Second World War he had crates of it shipped to Whitehall. The main winery in the district, Damianitza, has cleverly marketed the historical link with its "Churchill's Wine". In 1998 it gave its finest wine the name No Man's Land, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend, reflecting its unusual terroir.

Tzvetia parked the car and we looked out over the neat vineyards and beyond them south to the looming Vrondu mountain in Greece and west to Belasitsa and Macedonia. The land lay still and white hot. Beside us stood a rusting watchtower, as if plucked from a Cold War movie. Communist graffiti had been scratched in the metal and a door swung in a rare breath of wind. "As recently as 2001 on this same spot I was challenged by Bulgarian soldiers with Kalashnikovs," said Tzvetia. "Instead of guarding the border they'd been told to protect the grapes. I guess that's some kind of improvement."

Melnik, beloved of oenophiles, was a must. Tucked into a narrow gorge, its picturesque houses restored to their 19th-century glory, it is surrounded by tortured sandstone crags. We entered a cool, dark cave and the temperature plummeted from 40C to 10C. We tasted early Melniks straight from the barrel.

In Sandanski we stopped to look at a forlorn statue of Spartacus, the slave liberator who hails from these parts. "It's sad. We've forgotten all about him," said Tzvetia. "One day we may remember him again."

More recently, Yane Sandanski himself was a freedom fighter who led the struggle for Macedonian independence. Then, in this land of unacknowledged heroes, on the way home we encountered another superstar staring at us from a billboard. Bulgarian footballer Dimitar Berbatov, whose home town is nearby, was advertising some bank or other. I don't suppose even Baba Vanga could have predicted that.

How to get there

EasyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Sofia from £78 return. WizzAir (00 48 22 351 9499; wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Sofia from £46 return.

Further information

The Baba Vanga Museum, 10 Vanga Street, Petrich, is open Wednesday-Monday, 9am-6pm, entrance 2 leva (70p), 50 stotinki (20p) for students, under-sevens and over-60s.

Damianitza Winery, 2813 Damianitza, Sandanski District (00 359 746 30090; damianitza.bg) organises wine tours.

For more on the area, contact Zig Zag Holidays (00 359 2 980 5102; zigzagbg.com).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing