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The Balkan mountain range (Bulgarian and Serbian: Стара планина, romanized: Stara planina, "Old Mountain"; Bulgarian pronunciation: [ˈstarɐ pɫɐniˈna]; Serbian pronunciation: [stâːraː planǐna])[1] is a mountain range in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. The range runs 557 km from the Vrashka Chuka Peak on Bulgarian-Serbian border eastward through central Bulgaria to foothills reaching Cape Emine on the Black Sea. The highest peaks of the Balkan Mountains are in central Bulgaria. The highest peak is Botev at 2,376 m, which makes the mountain range the third highest in the country, after Rila and Pirin. The mountains are the source of the name of the Balkan Peninsula.

All, but its eastern foothills and a western gap, is the watershed between the Black Sea and Aegean Sea drainage basins. The western gap is, spectacularly narrow, Iskar Gorge, a few miles north of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The karst relief determines the large number of caves, including Magura, featuring the most important and extended European post-Palaeolithic cave painting, Ledenika, Saeva dupka, Bacho Kiro, etc. The most notable rock formation are the Belogradchik Rocks in the west.

There are several important protected areas: Central Balkan National Park, Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park, Bulgarka Nature Park and Sinite Kamani Nature Park, as well as a number of nature reserves. The Balkan Mountains are remarkable for their flora and fauna. Edelweiss grows there in the region of Kozyata stena. Some of the most striking landscapes are included in the Central Balkan National Park with steep cliffs, the highest waterfalls in the Balkan Peninsula and lush vegetation. There are a number of important nature reserves such as Chuprene, Kozyata stena and others. Most of Europe's large mammals inhabit the area including the brown bear, wolf, boar, chamois and deer.

The Balkan Mountains played an enormous role in the history of Bulgaria since its foundation in 681 AD, and in the development of the Bulgarian nation and people.

The Nature Park Stara Planina

First group of trees was protected in 1966, followed by the creation of 7 special nature reserves and 3 natural monuments in the 1980s. Nature park Stara Planina was established in 1997 and since 2009 is in its present borders, covering an area of 1,143.22 km2 (441.40 sq mi).[14]

Limestone terrain is known for the short losing streams and tufaceous waterfalls. There are canyons and gorges, like those of the Toplodolska reka and Rosomačka reka rivers. Underground waters on the mountain reach the surface in the forms of common springs, well-springs (vrelo) and diffused springs (pištevina). There are some 500 springs with the flow of over 0.1 L/s (1.3 imp gal/min). The strongest spring is the intermittent Jelovičko vrelo, known for its fluctuations, characterized by the bubbling and foaming.[15]

Montane ecosystems are diverse and include several plant communities: forests, shrubs, meadows, pastures and peatlands. There are six different vegetation zone in the park. Oak, beech, s

During the Ottoman rule, many haiduks found refuge in the Balkan Mountains. Close to the highest summit, Botev Peak, is Kalofer, the birthplace of Hristo Botev, a Bulgarian poet and national hero who died in the western Balkan Mountains near Vratsa in 1876 in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Also close to Botev Peak is Shipka Pass, the scene of the four battles in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, which ended Turkish rule in the Balkans.

First group of trees was protected in 1966, followed by the creation of 7 special nature reserves and 3 natural monuments in the 1980s. Nature park Stara Planina was established in 1997 and since 2009 is in its present borders, covering an area of 1,143.22 km2 (441.40 sq mi).[14]

Limestone terrain is known for the short losing streams and tufaceous waterfalls. There are canyons and gorges, like those of the Toplodolska reka and Rosomačka reka rivers. Underground waters on the mountain reach the surface in the forms of common springs, well-springs (vrelo) and diffused springs (pištevina). There are some 500 springs with the flow of over 0.1 L/s (1.3 imp gal/min). The strongest spring is the intermittent Jelovičko vrelo, known for its fluctuations, characterized by the bubbling and foaming.[15]

Montane ecosystems are diverse and include several plant communities: forests, shrubs, meadows, pastures and peatlands. There are six different vegetation zone in the park. Oak, beech, spruce, subalpine zone of the shrub vegetation of common horsetail, blueberry, subalpine spruce and mugo pine. Other plants include shrub alder, steppe pedunculate oak, but also rare and endangered species like European pasqueflower, yellow pheasant's eye, Kosovo peony, common sundew, Heldreich's maple, martagon lily, pygmy iris and marsh orchid.[15]

The area is a salmonid region, inhabited by the riverine brown trout. Another 25 species of fish live in the rivers and streams, so as the fire salamander and newts. There are 203 species of birds, of which 154 are nesting in the park, 10 are wintering, 30 are passing and 13 are wandering. Important species include golden eagle, Ural owl and hawk. As the park is the most important habitat in Serbia for long-legged buzzard, Eurasian woodcock and an endemic Balkan horned lark, an area of 440 km2 (170 sq mi) was declared a European Important Bird Area. The griffon vulture disappeared from the region in the late 1940s. In 2017 a program for their reintroduction began within the scope of a wider European program. Among other things, the feeders will be placed along the vultures' migratory route. Over 30 mammalian species are found in the park, including lesser mole-rat, losing streams and tufaceous waterfalls. There are canyons and gorges, like those of the Toplodolska reka and Rosomačka reka rivers. Underground waters on the mountain reach the surface in the forms of common springs, well-springs (vrelo) and diffused springs (pištevina). There are some 500 springs with the flow of over 0.1 L/s (1.3 imp gal/min). The strongest spring is the intermittent Jelovičko vrelo, known for its fluctuations, characterized by the bubbling and foaming.[15]

Montane ecosystems are diverse and include several plant communities: forests, shrubs, meadows, pastures and peatlands. There are six different vegetation zone in the park. Oak, beech, spruce, subalpine zone of the shrub vegetation of common horsetail, blueberry, subalpine spruce and mugo pine. Other plants include shrub alder, steppe pedunculate oak, but also rare and endangered species like European pasqueflower, yellow pheasant's eye, Kosovo peony, common sundew, Heldreich's maple, martagon lily, pygmy iris and marsh orchid.[15]

The area is a salmonid region, inhabited by the riverine brown trout. Another 25 species of fish live in the rivers and streams, so as the fire salamander and newts. There are 203 species of birds, of which 154 are nesting in the park, 10 are wintering, 30 are passing and 13 are wandering. Important species include golden eagle, Ural owl and hawk. As the park is the most important habitat in Serbia for long-legged buzzard, Eurasian woodcock and an endemic Balkan horned lark, an area of 440 km2 (170 sq mi) was declared a European Important Bird Area. The griffon vulture disappeared from the region in the late 1940s. In 2017 a program for their reintroduction began within the scope of a wider European program. Among other things, the feeders will be placed along the vultures' migratory route. Over 30 mammalian species are found in the park, including lesser mole-rat, hazel dormouse and the Tertiary relict, European snow vole.[15][16] Brown bear became extinct in Serbian part, but evidence showing the presence of the bears were found in 2014. The bears have been photographed in 2015, before disappearing again until 2019 when a young brown bear was filmed on camera.[17]

Human heritage spans from the prehistoric remains, Classical antiquity including the Roman period and late mediaeval monastic complexes. Some of those older monuments are fragmentary and relocated from their original locations. There are numerous examples of the ethnic edifices characteristic for the architecture of the region in the late 19th and early 20th century (houses, barns, etc.)[15]

Serbian section of the mountain is seen as a location for dozens of micro hydros, mini power plants which caused problem with the environmentalists and local population. Even the Ministry for environmental protection halted some of the projects and litigated with the investors. They also announced the change of the Nature protection law, which will permanently forbid the construction of plants in protected areas. In order to prevent further degradation, the Nature Park Stara Planina was nominated for the UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme and for the world list of geoparks, while over tens of thousands of citizens signed petitions against the micro hydros and numerous protests have been organized by the local population.[18] This prompted similar protests in other parts of Serbia and the association "Defend the rivers of Stara Planina" was founded, which expanded its base of operations outside of the Stara Planina region. The activism resulted in various physical altercation between the local citizens on one, and contractors and their security guards on the other side, amidst the police interventions.[19][20][21]

In October 2018, Minister of Environmental Protection Goran Trivan, said that the current law allows for the micro hydros to be built in the protected areas.[22] The government allowed the construction of 800 micro hydros, which has been described as "megalomaniacal" by the ecologists, as they would produce less than 1% of the total electricity. Environmentalists also accused the government of destroying the plant and animal life using the pretext of renewable energy.[23] In September 2019, Pirot city administration announced it is removing from the spatial plan all 43 existing locations for the micro hydros on the protected area of Stara Planina. There are 15 locations remaining in the unprotected sector of the mountain, but city officials announced abolishing of these locations in the future, too.[24]