News: Essence of Bulgaria

Posted: 23 September 2019

Sunday morning, 6am on the dot: I depart from a foggy and sleepy Edinburgh for Sofia, the vibrant capital of Bulgaria. Sofia International Airport is an impressively large and yet basic building and I proceed through to the arrivals hall without delay.

Lyubomir, my guide and driver for the week, greets me warmly and we jump straight into a taxi and head to the heart of the capital, situated between the looming presence of Mount Vitosha to the South and the Balkan range to the West. As soon as I put my bags down, we were off to discover Sofia’s historic centre. The superb monuments are just a few steps away from the hotel and are a testimony to the many cultures which have shaped the city over its long history. Amongst the most striking buildings, is the breathtaking Orthodox cathedral Alexander Nevski crowned with a cluster of gilt domes. The Russian Church is recognisable by its green and gold bulbs. Nearby, the 16th century mosque and the world’s third largest Art Nouveau synagogue bear witness to a rich religious heritage. The Party House built in 1954 to serve as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party faces the Presidency, office of the current president, where we stop a short moment to watch the changing of the guard ceremony outside. Close by, set in a courtyard, is the graceful red-brick rotunda of Sveti Georgi dating back to the 6th century and full of sumptuous medieval frescoes. The past blends surprisingly well with the present – at the entrance of the metro, a giant red American fast food sign sits above the bedrock of Roman ruins, while the multinational chain stores neighbour the shops bearing wobbly Cyrillic inscriptions. Sofia is a centre of a growing consumer culture, with a lovely eclectic feel as you stroll through it’s winding streets. Our first dinner, taken in the vicinity of the Bulevard Vitosha, the city’s vibrant main shopping street, was certainly not disappointing – fusion cuisine is said to be the trend in the capital, and so we followed the movement by ordering a delicious mix of Italo-Bulgarian colourful mezzes.

The following morning, we happily start our journey taking the highway towards Greece. Within a short distance, we leave the agricultural plains and small flat topped hills, forking into Rila National Park. To my great pleasure, against a backdrop of mist-swirled mountains, I see the Rila Monastery, which has been nestled into the mountainside since the 10th century. Right from my first step, I am enchanted by the splendor of the place, struck by its elegant colonnades, archways striped in black, red and white, and the bright yellow domes of its main church, beneath which dance apocalyptic frescoes. No pictures are allowed inside, but the memories will remain engraved in my mind. The inside of the church is unbelievable – the walls coated with shining gold leaves.

A sublime place, which I take as a good omen for the rest of the trip. A nice road tucked in between two mountains leads us through the enchanting Kresna gorge and, gradually, approaching the Greek border, we notice a change in the climate, now becoming more Mediterranean, with vineyards and dry red soil. Wine has been produced in this region of Bulgaria since the Thracian ages. Initially, wine played an important part in religious rituals, but this region is now one of the world’s major wine exporters. We approach Melnik, proudly claiming the title of “the country’s smallest town” and renowned for its 600-year-old viticulture. On arrival, we take a short detour via the Rozhen Monastery which occupies a tranquil spot high in the hills with dramatic views of the natural steep sandstone rock pyramids. As many pilgrims do, I enter the Church and find myself rendered speechless in front the icon of the Virgin and the other beautifully wood-carved iconostases. Back into the town, we visit the oldest and largest izba (traditional house) Kordopulova Kushta, which was built in 1754 specifically for wine production and trade. I cannot believe that the wine cellar, dug into the rock in the basement can shelter 300 tons of wine – how could I leave without trying a few glasses of the dark blue home-made grape produce?  Soaking up the peaceful charms of the one-street town, the day ends sitting at a table at one of the small mehana (Bulgarian tavern) tucking into a meal of delicious barbecued lamb.

Hitting the road again, we quickly cross the Pirin mountain range, mostly covered with lush green and dense forests of deciduous trees and I am lucky to spot a few eagles swirling on the thermals high in the bright azure sky. A few bends from the pass, far from any dwellings, an old man jealously guards two dozen beehives scattered along the verge from the threat of the brown bears. Evidently pleased to meet us -or at least my guide with whom he can speak in his own language - he generously lets us taste the produce of his hard-working bees, acacia and oak tree honeys. Less than an hour later, we enter the Rhodope Mountains, a largely undeveloped wilderness where the sheer diversity of natural beauty spots, archaeological sites and picture-postcard villages ensures a memorable visit. Set on the steep hillside in the remote highlands, we stroll in the charming villages of Kovachevitsa and Dolen, both protected as architectural reserves. On the doorsteps of their massive stone houses with roofs covered in slates, wealthy artists from Sofia enjoy their summer holidays in search of tranquillity and inspiration. Although we hardly see a soul, it is difficult to argue about the friendliness of the few locals we meet – in particular, a pomak  (the name given to a community of Muslim Bulgarians who sought refuge in the Rhodopes during the Ottoman Empire) lady dressed with her headscarf and colourful shalvari (sarwel) invited us to take a look inside her home without asking anything in return.

From one slope to the next, the road snakes through the mountains, offering unrivalled views over the alpine-style villages and giving me food for thought. Without notice (or perhaps was I asleep?), I realise that the vegetation has changed again, now offering a mixture of forest with massive pine trees and vast meadows where cows keep an eye on the many storks which temporarily share their ground before resuming their migration to Africa. Our next destination on the map, Yagodina, is another tiny village curled up amongst mountain pastures. From here starts an exciting 4WD Jeep off-road adventure to the Eagle Eye, a panoramic viewing platform which reminds me of a very similar attraction in Chamonix (French Alps), « Le Pas dans le Vide ».  Built on the edge of the cliff, the platform is suspended at 1,560 meters above sea level, with a 680-metre vertical drop underneath and well worth the bumpy ride to the top. Without actually having to step on to the platform itself, I can admire with awe the eagles gliding majestically above this jaw-dropping 360-degree panorama across the Rhodope Mountains and the Buynovsko Gorge. Refreshed from the spectacular surroundings and with smiles on our faces, we depart for the last stretch of the day, along the Trigrad Gorge and the Trigradska River which effortlessly carves its way through the gorge. As if in a 7km long funnel, the abrupt 300m high rock walls on each side edge dramatically closer while we ascend towards the Devil’s Throat. I cannot contain my awe any longer when a series of waterfalls appears as if from nowhere, just adding to the magic. Blown away by the show that mother nature has just impressed on me, we emerge, just like Alice (in Wonderland), into another enchanting land where our hotel is situated, only some 10km’s from the Greek border.

Awake at dawn, my eyes widen in the face of the beauty of the landscape. Just like the opening credits of a Paramount Pictures movie, my day begins with a superb view of a mountain crowned with haze while the sun appears on stage slowly but surely adding its soft and subtle golden warmth. The time then comes for us to return to more populated areas and get a glimpse into the local folk culture. The quaint village of Shiroka Laka is thought to be the home to Bulgaria’s oldest folk music tradition. Kalin, the best local bagpipe teacher opens the doors of his tiny workshop to show and explain how he makes from scratch his gaida, or Bulgarian bagpipe. The exchange ends with a few rhythmic tunes which are enthusiastically applauded. After a quick stop for lunch accompanied by even more stunning views in the nearby village of Gela, we continue to Bachkovo Monastery - the second-largest of its kind in Bulgaria, after Rila Monastery and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As expected, the monastery originally founded in 1083 by two Georgian brothers is another gem. In particular, the vivid frescoes and the intricate iconostasis inside the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa are brilliantly executed. Sat on the front steps facing the altar candles, a blissful monk with his dark long dress catches my attention - at this exact moment, one verse from a poem by Charles Beaudelaire comes to mind to illustrate the genuine harmony of the moment : « There, there is nothing but order and beauty, Luxury, peace and exquisite pleasure ».

A short distance away, on top of a high rocky ridge, sits the charming medieval Asen’s fortress. I soak up some more stunning views before we depart the Rhodope Mountains. Plovdid, the second largest city in the country welcomes us as guests for the night. The three hills on which Plovdiv’s Old Town stands were settled by Thracians in the 5th millennium BC, which makes it one of the oldest in the world. Designated European Capital of Tourism 2019, Plovdid never ceases to amaze and renew itself. The paved streets, framed by elegant corbelled houses give the Old Town its charm but of course, the many mosques, churches, the impressive marble Roman amphitheatre next to the Roman ruins and National Revival mansions all add to the cultural wealth of the city. To tell the truth, it did not take long to be won over by Plovdiv – a superb sunset enjoyed on arrival from a lofty perch at the highest part of the old town, secured its place in my heart. The great atmosphere, the welcoming locals and the excellent fine food only added bonus points for Plovdiv.

The following morning starts with a tasty home cooked breakfast in the company of the very friendly and seasoned manager of the hotel Roots, and off we go. Approaching the Valley of the Roses, we pass endless fields of sunflowers. Though famed as the capital of Bulgaria’s rose-oil industry, Kazanlak is also the centre of an area of Thracian settlement now known as the Valley of the Thracian Kings. On arrival, we visit the exact replica of the Kazanlak Tomb, protected by UNESCO as yet another World Heritage Site, with its exceptionally detailed frescoes on the cupola inside. Again, the richness of Bulgarian cultural heritage has nothing left to prove and to my great contentment, this also holds true for the national cuisine. With a few variations depending on the region, all the restaurants offer a similar range of dishes, with a very long list of mixed salads and just as many soups. Cheese enthusiasts won’t be disappointed – the national signature on all main dishes without exception really is a generous handful of grated cheese, and sometimes, a dark olive to top it all off. This is what we could call « the art of detail in Bulgarian style ». And while we are in Kazanlak, as a dessert we indulge in a spoonful of locally produced rose jam and a shot of rose liqueur, both leaving a very subtle aftertaste. A short visit to the small Museum of the Rose-Oil Industry on the outskirts of the town allows me to gather some knowledge about the most important driver for the local economy.

In a few words, the red scented roses Damascena, from which precious rose oil is extracted, are grown in plantations that stretch for over 30km along the valley between the cities of Kalanlak and Karlovo, and bloom from late May until-mid-June. The delicate flowers are harvested before dawn so as to preserve their oil content and, rose oil is then exported worldwide and mainly used for perfumes and cosmetics. To complete our rose tour, there is no better idea than paying a visit to Damascena, one of the most important distilleries in this ethnographically complex area. Inside this small museum it is all about the greatness of the place, the huge garden and a hundred varieties of roses perfectly pruned cover the lawn. To make the visit a little more fancy (or kitsch, depending on one’s taste), an amphitheater with more than 300 scented roses has just been opened.  

Not far from there, in a moment of serendipity, a sign for a mini ostrich ranch arouses our curiosity and we decide to give it a go.  The farm proves to be an enchanting oasis of calm, where all of the delicatessen produce served is made by the family who owns the place. In the shade of a beech tree, we succumb to a snack with the home’s specialties: a trio of flavoured lemonades and a crème caramel prepared with the ostrich eggs – what a treat! Decidedly, this day still has surprises in store … while we travel onward to our accommodation for the night, the gleaming golden domes of the Russian Shipka Church cannot go unnoticed. Sheltered by dense forest, this magnificent structure is a pure architectural gem.

That night, cosily seated at a table under the asma (typical Bulgarian pergola at the entrance of a house, of which grapes are used as shelter) of a charming lantern-lit local tavern, we share a traditional sach –served in a thick and heavy clay pot, this dish is filled with seasonal veggies, pork and chicken pieces and, naturally, topped off with cheese.  In the course of the conversation, we come to mention Hristo Botev, the famous poet and revolutionary born and raised in Kolofer where we are now spending the night. Sipping a glass of rakiya, the local brandy, we start reading a few lines from his poems – all taking on their full meaning when read here. The following morning, while Lyobomir prepares a strong Turkish coffee, Lucie, the jovial owner of the family run guesthouse brings us an enormous home-made banitsa (a savoury filo pastry pie filled with white cheese and egg) to share for our breakfast. Refreshed, we depart for the edge of the Central Balkan National Park where we start a delightful immersion in nature, following an eco-trail along the Byalata Reka (literally meaning: White River). Sheltered by the trees in this enclosed valley, a series of 8 wooden bridges lead us from one bank to another in search of the local flora and fauna, all enlivened by lively dragonflies flitting around the stream. At the end of our round tour in the lush forest, we continue our journey under a blazing sun, stopping on the way in Karlovo, birthplace of the national most celebrated revolutionary, Vasil Levski. I discover behind a wooden door, in the enclosure of a sumptuous 1840’s coach inn, an ethnographic museum with a display of local arts and crafts, from embroidery to pottery.

Kilometre after kilometre, glancing at the side mirror, I watch the highest mountains in the Central Balkans disappear as we approach Sofia for the last supper of our tour. To the sound of some live rhythmic acoustic guitar in the welcoming Bar Roderic, I wonder how many more treasures Bulgaria can still possibly hide from the rest of the world. Once populated by the Thracians and galvanized by Spartacus, the land was consequently Hellenized by the Minoans, conquered by the Romans, dominated by the Byzantines and Turk Ottomans, ruled by the Bulgar Khans and more recently controlled by the totalitarian Soviet Union...  Now part of the European Union, it is no wonder that Bulgarians appear so passionate about preserving their cultural heritage and I’m convinced that this unsung destination has not yet had its last word.

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Estelle Hisler visited Bulgaria in August 2019, travelling on Bulgarian Airlines to Sofia from Edinburgh, with a connection in Amsterdam.

Bulgaria boasts unseen gems that will undeniably seduce those passionate about art and archaeology as well as lovers of nature and adventure sports.

If you would like to discuss the possibility of visiting Bulgaria in more detail, please contact us for a quote. We will soon be offering a new cultural and historical tour for small groups to Bulgaria with spring and autumn departures from May 2020 and we can also assist with tailormade plans. 

 

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