Europe, Bulgaria, Central Bulgaria

Hisariya, an ancient Roman spa

No Comments 21 July 2010

Hisariya, an ancient Roman spa

Sore legs, aching muscles—what’s a monkey to do to escapes the rigors of travel? In 2002, the Monkey made haste for the healing waters of Hisariya, one of the great spa towns of antiquity.

Hisariya, Bulgaria
Hisariya (or Hisar) is a town at the foot of the Stara Planina mountains that run like a spine across central Bulgaria. Once a Thracian settlement, it was taken by the Romans, who called it Augusta, and under them the town became one of the great thermal baths and springs of antiquity. Jealously guarding the natural treasure of its waters, the Romans put up massive walls around the prized hot spring. Later, when the Ottomans took control, they renamed the town Hisar (“fort”) due to its formidable walls. Here, the Monkey poses by some of the excavated Roman baths in Hisariya.

Hisariya walls, Bulgaria
The Monkey ponders the ancient Roman walls that defended Hisariya and its valuable water supply on four sides. The interlacing of stone and red bricks, seen in other ancient walls like those of Constantinople, provided flexibility and strength. The fact that the walls were also up to 3 meters thick certainly didn’t hurt their defensive capabilities either. Despite its well-preserved historic relics and the Communist-era development of a spa center drawing from the ancient spring, Hisariya is little known outside Bulgaria.

Camel Arch, Hisariya, Bulgaria
The renowned Camel Arch in Hisariya was one of the portals through the Roman-built walls. It is unclear whether the name was given because camels once passed through the gateway or because the arch’s humps resemble those of a camel. The Monkey was less concerned with this debate and more intrigued by the idea of living in a place where locals have to maneuver their Ladas and Opels through a 4th Century arch in order to enter or exit town.

Mosque, Hisariya, Bulgaria
The Monkey plays fence-sitter by an Ottoman-era mosque in Hisariya. Though he was unable to verify it, it appeared the mosque had been converted to a private residence.

Roman Walls, Hisariya, Bulgaria
Having practically forgotten about the healing waters, the Monkey spent much of his visit to Hisariya clamoring over its ancient walls. Note: Being a preservationist at heart, he only clamored on the rebuilt sections…

Communist remnants, Pod Planina, Bulgaria
On the old “Pod Planina” (“Beneath the Mountains”) road across central Bulgaria, the Monkey encountered this remnant of the Communist era, a red star on a rusting road sign.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1408 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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7,262,675 (2008)

Land area:

110,550 sq. km.


Sofia (pop. 1,113,674; 2005)


In 2006, Bulgaria ranked 55th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 66th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $4,089.22. Public debt accounts for 10.5 percent of total GDP, while 14.1 percent of Bulgarians are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):


Monkey's name:

Maimunka (my-moon-ka)

Fun fact:

Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say “no,” while they shake their heads from side to side to signify “yes.” That is, unless they adjust their head movements to accommodate for visitors accustomed to the more conventional non-verbal cues. Either way, head symbols can be a confusing affair in Bulgaria.

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Recommended reading

A Concise History of Bulgaria
R.J. Crampton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This short book has become the go-to summation of this Balkan country’s long and complex history. A perfect introduction to the country.

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944
E.P. Thompson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
A fascinating exploration of a British mission to rendez-vous with Bulgarian Partisans and raise a force against the Nazi-allied royalist dictatorship during World War II. Reads like a spy novel at times, but also a memorial to the author’s brother, who was killed in the effort.

Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer
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Part personal memoir, part exploration of the all-encompassing nature of Bulgaria’s Communist government, this book poses uncomfortable questions about the banal, everyday forms of repression and victimization that take root under coercive governments. Anguelov’s observations resonate far beyond Bulgaria’s borders…

The Balkans: A Short History
Mark Mazower (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
As the title says, a short history of the Balkan region. A helpful intro to this corner of Europe.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Misha Glenny (New York: Penguin, 2001)
A rather epic undertaking by a former BBC correspondent for Central Europe, this book traces the tumultuous two centuries of the Balkan states’ struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of pan-Slavic tendencies and their tribulations, and the reign of various regimes of the right and left during the 20th Century. A worthwhile read—don’t let its dimensions frighten you…

Description of a Struggle: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing
Editor: Michael March (New York: Vintage Books, 1994: Out of print)
A great anthology of short stories from the former Eastern Bloc, providing an evocative snap shot of the early post-Cold War era. Stories are organized by state, with the Bulgarian Victor Paskov’s tale of “Romanian” exiles in the Paris Metro a particular highlight.

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