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Sozopol and its islands - a different view

During the high season, most visitors to Sozopol rarely leave the town as it offers a variety of entertainment opportunities. The town appeals with its music clubs (latino, jazz, etc.), discotheques, plenty of restaurants with all the imaginable variety of cuisines, two nice beaches with various water sports facilities and several more in its immediate vicinity. Indeed, within a few minutes’ drive, one can get to the less crowded beaches of neighbouring camping sites, where one can try wind-surfing, kite-surfing, jet skiing, water wheels, beach volleyball and many other sports. Diving in Sozopol’s neighbouring gulfs is another service, offered by several providers, that one can take advantage of. One can hardly get bored in Sozopol, as most of the hotels in the new part of the town offer their own entertainment and animation options for kids and grown-ups. In the evening, if the sea allows it, one can take a boat trip around Sozopol and enjoy the view of the town’s lights and its nearby islands.

But if one visits the town out of season, then most of these entertainment options are not on the menu. One can always find a value alternative for accommodation and boarding, but may face hard times filling his day with enjoyable activities. This was exactly what happened to several friends and me last year when we visited Sozopol in May, drawn by its charm and a warm springtime. After strolling the deserted streets and gazing at the sea for one day, we decided to try a different approach. The second morning we got up determined to leave the town and explore one of the nearby islands: St. John. Finding a boatman who would agree to take us to the island for a small fee proved to be an easy task - most of the boats for trips resting in Sozopol’s port have the mobile phones of their owners written on a visible place, so finding one ready to make a few extra leva during the non-tourist season was a piece of cake. Our guy arrived at the port within a few minutes and within about 20 minutes more, we landed on the improvised port of the island.

St. John is the biggest island in Bulgaria’s territorial waters of the Black Sea. It lies about 1km away from the old town’s port of Sozopol and is relatively flat, with its highest point rising to just 33 m. above sea level. At night, St. John is easily noticeable and heard for its sonar lighthouse that shows the way to the Bourgas gulf.

The island, even if relatively small, has an interesting history. In late 5th-early 6th century, a church named after the Holy Mother was built there. It is believed that this church was just one of the buildings of a larger monastery complex. After several centuries in which the monastery did not operate, it was restored in the second half of the 10th century. Then in 1263, a new church was built and named after St John the Precursor. In 1308, after the marriage of the then-Bulgarian king Todor Svetoslav to Teodora Paleologina at the monastery, the latter received the status of a royal cloister. The monastery was completely destroyed in 1453 but restored once again in 1467-71. Its last destruction, after which the monastery was never re-built, happened in 1629 by Ottoman troops.

In 1985, partial archeological excavations uncovered the remains of the two churches, the monastery library, the royal residence and other buildings. In mid-2010, new excavations ended up with unveiling relics of St. John the Baptiser himself. The relics are currently exhibited at one of the churches in the old town of Sozopol - St. George the Victorious.

Apart from hosting remains of old times, the island is also home to over 70 birds. There, one can see the nests of the biggest colony of silver seagulls and the only population of a type of hare, Oryctolagus cuniculus, within the territory of Bulgaria. In 1993, the island was declared a protected area. When we visited the island, we were equally impressed by the remains of the monastery complex and the nests of the seagulls placed directly on the ground all over the isle. In fact, one can easily smash an egg or even a newly hatched seagull if not watching his/her step. Seagulls, however, make sure that this does not happen, as they start flying just over the intruders’ heads, screaming menacingly. Apart from these, one can see also the small farm of the lighthouse keeper with semi-wild goats running freely all over the island. The island is widely known for its dense population of hares that often reaches such numbers that cannot feed on the scarce ground and starves to dead, if not externally reduced by hunters.

To sum up, the island of St. John is a worthy destination for a visit on a rainy day or out of season. It is a true escape back to the wild nature, where hares and seagulls are the true rulers.

Author: Desislava Nikolova,

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