Bulgaria’s a country that’s deliciously disorientating, slightly crazy even. For all the guidebook chatter, it has a long way to go before it emerges as another smooth, genuinely European destination, like Slovenia and Croatia have done.
No, instead Bulgaria is more thrilling and rackety, less conventional and definitely odder than its neighbours. Often invaded, it’s a country that truly deserves the term ‘melting pot’, with a population representing a patchwork of ethnic groups. Greek or Roman? Turkish or mysterious Thracian? Seriously, who in the world are you, Bulgaria?
Tourists seeking cheap sun might reply that Bulgaria is a strip of sands on the Black Sea. But venture into the countryside and you’ll be rewarded with a land where the inscrutable remnants of ancient civilisations sit alongside more jarring memories of a communist past, and where the colourful traditions of mountain folklore mingle curiously with a tentatively emerging future.
Climb to the top of Plovdiv’s old town and you’ll come to a high hill overlooking the city with the main road, Tsar Boris III Obedinitel, running, unstoppable as a river, beneath you. This is Nebet Tepe hill, occupied on my visit by a clutch of local teenagers smoking disconsolately behind boulders scarred with Cyrillic graffiti. Below are prehistoric ruins which, in the 12th-century BC, became Eumolpia, one of the oldest Thracian settlements in south-eastern Europe. Behind you, in the old town, you’ll find elegant 18th-century merchants’ houses, a dazzling Roman theatre and, beyond its precariously balanced columns, you can make out the distant former communist housing blocks of the suburbs and the Alesha Monument of the ‘lone Soviet soldier’ on a further hill.
For most new arrivals Plovdiv is a prettier, easier alternative to sprawling, messy Sofia, but to dismiss the capital is a mistake because beyond the churches and museums a beguiling Balkan spirit makes the Sofian heart beat. It’s a place of jaw-dropping opposites, from the Orthodox grandeur of the mosaics and gold domes of Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral to the clashing Kalashnikovs of the communist monument the Mound of Brotherhood, standing among the flowerbeds in Borisova Gradina park, where couples smooch alongside gypsies begging for a few lev.
So here’s Sofia and there’s Plovdiv, but venture outside, to the little visited north-east, where potholed roads make progress slow, and you’ll find dramatically desolate rock formations beside the Roman fortress of Kaleto at Belogradchik. There are monasteries too, at Bachkova and Rozhen, Shipka and Dragalevtsi, all of them glittering with jewel-like icons and colourful frescos. You’ll stumble upon beautifully preserved villages at Arbanasi, Kotel and Melnik, where wooden-framed buildings line cobbled streets, and where the quiet of the afternoon is broken only by the sight of a shepherd herding his toffee-coloured goats home at dusk.
You can lose yourself, too, in the natural majesty of Bulgaria’s mountain ranges — Stara Planina, Rila, Pirin and the Rhodopes. There are thundering rivers and gorges so deep they inspired Greek myths, like at Devil’s Throat, in the Rhodopes, where Orpheus is said to have descended to the underworld in search of Euridyce. I drive through a mountain road so steep and narrow it’s said a wolf can leap over you from one side to the other. I pass a Muslim village spiked with minarets, where old ladies sell honey, and children on bikes carrying fishing rods wobble along behind a gypsy horse and cart and a Lada being used to tow a trailer of cut hay.
It’s worth venturing out into the country because it’s here you might, if you’re lucky, get a little closer to finding out who Bulgaria really is. You might struggle with the language but Bulgarians are open and hospitable enough to indulge in enthusiastic, if a little baffling, sign language — they shake their head for yes and nod for no — and if you stumble upon some local merriment, they’ll share their drinks with you as they gather in circles to dance. The past and present collide in Bulgaria, and it’s up to you to write your own story within that.
Bulgarians believe when God created the world he gave different elements to each country, with some taking the mountains and pastures, others the coasts and seas. When it came to Bulgaria, there was nothing left, so God took a piece of paradise, and gave it to Bulgaria…
While the stamp of communist rule has left a certain industrial handprint on the country, you’ll find pockets of paradise, as this is a landscape rich in wildlife and flowers that have thrived due to the persistence of almost medieval farming techniques. Nature lovers should visit in spring, taking in a round road-trip from Sofia, north-east to the coast and then west into the Rhodopes Mountains. At the Shipka Pass spot honey buzzards, before stopping at Etara village, where pottery, knife-grinding, bread-making and woodcarving are all practised outside houses powered by water wheels.
Heading north-east, visit the dramatic eighth-century Madara Horseman — carved into the rock — before heading to Cape Kaliakra, a Black Sea headland famous for birdlife where you’ll spot dolphins frolicking in crystal seas, and monk seals. The reedy steppe land close to the Romanian border around Lake Srebarna is a bird-spotter’s paradise, with colonies of cormorants, ducks and pelicans, as well as flocks of rose-coloured starlings, fresh from Asia.
Drop down to the eastern Rhodopes to wander through mountain valleys of butterflies flitting among red hellebore and rare orchids. The landscape is dotted with ancient ruins, including standing stones at Kladenets and a megalithic complex at Tatul. For a dramatic finish, head to the ruins of Perperikon city, one of the largest megalith complexes in the Balkans and the site of the recently rediscovered second Oracle, once as famous as that of Delphi. At the top of a steep, stony path you’ll reach the very altar where Alexander the Great received the prophecy he’d rule the world.
■ How to do it: Kudu Travel organise 12-day tours from £1,990 per person including accommodation, meals, transport and guide. www.kudutravel.co.uk
The Rila and Pirin Mountains of the south-west make up the area once known as Macedonia and are ideal for hiking, mountain biking and rafting. Starting in Sofia, head south to the town of Bansko. Jostling with skiers in winter, it’s quieter in summer when storks, nesting on church towers, look down on old ladies sweeping their porches, or the sight of a lone cow being led home from the pastures on a string by a farmer. In the old quarter, many of the 19th-century National Revival houses, built in distinctive stone and timber stripes, are guesthouses/taverns, called mehanas.
Hiking in the Rila National Park is astounding, with falcons and eagles circling overhead and wild goats and deer your only companions through a patchwork of fir and beechwood forests, laced with glittering streams and empty glades. For serious hikers, Mount Musala, near Borovets, is, at 9,596ft, Bulgaria’s highest mountain. You can stop at a hizha (mountain hut) for simple food
A visit to this region must include the liquorice-striped walls and colourful frescoed ceilings of Rila Monastery, founded in the 10th-century, and possibly the most significant historical and architectural monument in the country. www.rilanationalpark.org
■ How to do it: Balkan Holidays offers seven nights at the Kempinski Grand Arena in Bansko from £595 per person on a B&B basis, including flights to Sofia and transfers. www.balkanholidays.co.uk
Better known for budget travel, Bulgaria represents relatively virgin territory for luxury tourism, but the recent past has seen the country’s first forays into this market. Villa Gella, perched 4,921ft above sea level in the wide open embrace of the Rhodope Mountains, hopes to herald this new era, leaving the bad old days of questionable food and perfunctory service far behind. Built five years ago, the house is 90 minutes from Plovdiv, above the architectural gems of the preserved village of Shiroka Laka and overlooking swathes of hills and mountains as clean and green as Switzerland, only a lot emptier.
It’s huge, with six double rooms, all with their own log fire, and there’s a whirlpool bath and terrace on the top floor, as well as an indoor pool and steam room in the basement. The biggest attractions of this ambitious project are unquestionably the outstanding food and stunning location. Expect local trout, wild strawberries and mushrooms, grapes the size of conkers and excellent wine from the Terra Tangra vineyard in the Sakar Mountains. When you’re not relaxing at the villa, you can walk into the mountains with an inspired local guide to meet the farmers who produce the honey that’s dripped onto your pancakes at breakfast, or the cheese accompanying your shopska salad. Trout fishing, riding, mountain biking, hiking and cave visits can be organised too.
■ How to do it: Original Travel offers seven nights at Villa Gella from £9,800 based on 12 adults, including a chef, and car hire but excluding flights. www.originaltravel.co.uk
Bulgarians love their folklore, the wackier the better, so if you have a weakness for wailing Balkan music, archaic pagan rituals, lots of shots of the national spirit, rakia, and some whirling dervish dancing, Bulgaria’s probably a safer bet for fulfilling your folksy fantasies than, say, Tuscany or the south of France.
The Macedonian influences around Bansko make this a good area to start your pilgrimage into the wild world of folklore. For a crash course, head straight to Pirin Sings Folk Festival at the Predel Pass in August, bringing together thousands of musicians and dancers. Further east, in May, there’s the Gathering of the Beautiful Trakiya in Haskovo, and during September, the Thracian Festival in Madzharovo.
In summer you’ll find village gatherings and folk events celebrating Bulgaria’s colourful traditions, including the Macedonian and Vlach festivals in Dorkovo and Zabardo during August. Bulgaria’s gypsy population celebrates at the Festival of Gypsy Music in Stara Zagora during late June, but Bulgarian folk music wouldn’t be complete without its national instrument, the gaida, or bagpipes, which first droned out in South-east Asia 6,000 years ago but were later adopted by the Thracians and Celts.
Pamporovo, east of Plovdiv, has a strong folk tradition, so you’ll hear folk music in lots of the mehanas. Nearby, Rozhen Festival, in late August, is also heaving with pipers. While some of the most colourful festivals are during the summer, in the winter you might stumble upon a Kukeri procession, especially around Razlog, Sandanski, Pernik and Petrich on 31 January and into New Year’s Day, but also later at Shiroka Laka until March. Here, men dressed in skins and slung with bells parade through the streets carrying flaming torches to drive evil spirits from the area.
■ How to do it: Head to the free Rozhen Festival in August. Travel Republic offers seven nights at The Stream Resort in Pamporovo, close to where the festival is held, from £260 per person, including flights. www.travelrepublic.co.uk
Roses & gold
It’s impossible to escape roses in Bulgaria. On remote mountain roads you’ll pass old ladies in headscarves pedalling jars of rose petal jam and in the tourist shops you can buy vials of rose essence. Even in the supermarkets of Sofia you’ll see mothers shopping for rose-scented shampoo and face cream, while in the antique stalls in Plovdiv old town you’ll find piles of old aprons, densely embroidered with a pattern of pink roses.
The obsession with these flowers originates in the Valley of the Roses, before the forested slopes of Sredna Gora, in the heartland of the country, east of Sofia. June sees the Rose Festival in Kazanlak, which closes with a colourful display as a Rose Queen is elected. The geographical heartland of Bulgaria literally takes you right back to its ancient historical heart, because this is also the Valley of the Thracian Kings, famed for their love of gold. The most famous tomb is in Kazanlak, but there are also 1,500 tombs and burial mounds nearby.
A gallop through Bulgaria’s history should also take you to her medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo, where houses covered in vines and roses are precipitously piled up above the Yantra River. From there, drop down to Koprivshtitsa, looted by the Turks but now a maze of dusty blue, violet and pink houses. It goes without saying you should buy some rose petal jam en route, too.
■ How to do it: Exeter International offers a seven-night tour, from £500, including a visit to the rose oil distillery at Kazanlak. www.exeterinternational.co.uk
Party & spa
As emerging destinations shaking off their communist past, Sofia and Plovdiv are good for an idiosyncratic twin city break, topped off with a couple of days in the sleepy spa town of Devin to wash away your sins. The centre of Sofia isn’t large, so a whistle-stop tour can easily take in the famous Sveta Nedelya Church and glittering Sveti Nikolai Russian Church. Don’t miss the National Art Gallery in the Royal Palace, before wandering to the mineral baths beside Banya Bashi Mosque, where you’ll see the characteristically Bulgarian site of people filling water bottles from fountains. For the best meals, try Beyond the Alley, Behind the Cupboard or Pod Lipite for an erudite crowd of local writers and bohemians. To get under the skin of modern Sofia, head to Studenski Grad, home to 25,000 students, for late-night drinking holes thumping to the electro-folkpop beat of chalga, which blends traditional Balkan melodies with pop music and haunting vocals. Fusing east and west, it encompasses everything odd yet enticing about Bulgaria, and you’ll find it everywhere, from tiny rural bars to the dancefloors of Sofia’s underground nightclubs.
Plovdiv is famous for its Roman ruins and old town, but by night, drop down to the modern centre to party at Cafe Avenue, with its colourful local beauty queens and sharply dressed businessmen, or head to Enjoy Club 69 for more chalga beats. To detox, drive east to Devin, a dusty spa town popular with a high-heeled Sofia elite who lounge in teeny-weeny bikinis beside the huge pool of the Orpheus Spa. Locals use the mineral baths three miles outside town at Struilitsa, where you can swim amid jagged mountain peaks — although you may be disturbed by the non-stop techno beat of the local cafe. For an authentic rural evening after nights in the big cities, head to Veronica Restaurant in Devin, where you’ll find the locals dancing on the tables and downing rakia shots.
■ How to do it:
In Sofia: Hotel Arte, for stylish, centrally located rooms. www.artehotelbg.com
In Plovdiv: Hotel Hebros, for beautiful, traditional rooms and some of the best food in the city www.hebros-hotel.com
In Devin: Hotel Veronica. 19 Han Asparuh Street. T: 00 359 894 407346.
Wizz Air flies from Luton to Sofia. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Manchester to Sofia. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Sofia. www.wizzair.com www.easyjet.com www.britishairways.com
Average flight time: 2h30m.
Bulgaria is relatively small, so car hire is recommended. Having said that, Bulgaria has one of the worst accident rates in Europe, so you can probably expect one hair-raising manoeuvre a day. In remote areas, roads often suffer from potholes, and while a four-wheel-drive vehicle is unnecessary, a good car makes sense. Apart from the major towns and cities, almost all signs are in Cyrillic, so a basic grasp of this alphabet will take you a long way. Communication is not too much of a problem in the big cities, but can be challenging in remote areas, where few people speak English, although you may well come across older people who speak a little French.
When to Go
Winter is very cold in Bulgaria, and the cities in particular can be extremely hot during the summer, so spring and autumn is probably the best time to visit the country. During late evenings in the summer months the mountains can get quite chilly. The ski season is from December to early April.
Need to Know
Currency: Bulgarian lev (BGN). £1 = 2.24 BGN.
International dial code: 00 359.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Bulgaria: Bradt Travel Guides. RRP: £13.99.
The Mountains of Bulgaria: A Walker’s Companion, by Julian Perry. RRP: £13.99.
Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)