A wonderful new adventure...
A troubled past
I have recently returned from a research trip to the city of Plodiv and the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria. Prior to the trip, my knowledge was slim to say the least, so off I set with no expectations and an open mind. Bulgaria's past has been tough: ruled by the Romans and the Byzantines for the most part of the first 10 centuries AD, subjugated to the Ottoman Turks from the mid 1300'sto the late 19th century, and then engulfed by the Soviet Union from the end of the Second World War until independence in 1989. Tourism has therefore been slow to develop, although things are definitely picking up - and for good reason, as Bulgaria has so much to offer.
The Rhodope Mountains are located close to the Greek border and are absolutely stunning. This is one of the wildest parts of Bulgaria with miles of undulating hills and mountains coated with pine forest, interspersed with the occasional rustic, agricultural settlement.
Pure silence dominates the region, broken up every now and again with the dong of a cowbell or the crow of a rooster. Within sits the village of Gela (I say village, it is more of a collection of houses scattered over the hills), and the soon to be opened Villa Gela. The Villa is a converted farmhouse and has been restored in the traditional 19th century Bulgarian style. The open plan sitting/dining room is spacious, light, stylish and cosy, every bedroom has its own unique style and each is kitted out with its own fireplace. The hotel also boasts a steam room, swimming pool, large outdoor terrace/balcony and a tennis court.
Authenticity and luxury
The place is owned by a delightfully cheery Bulgarian couple who also live on the premises. Villa Gella combines the authenticity of staying in a Bulgarian home with a luxury top class hotel. Moreover, the cuisine at the Villa is traditional Bulgarian and delicious. Must tries include Banitsa for breakfast, a sort of pastry infused with egg and the local cheese Branza which is similar to feta; Sarmi, pork and beef mince meat dumplings wrapped in cabbage, and Rakia, every evening meal begins with a salad and a glass of Rakia, the local Grappa!
Mountain activities are endless
The activities in the surrounding area are endless. There are scenic mountain paths for trekking, mountain biking, motorbiking and horse riding (barbeque picnics can be arranged for lunch). There is also abundant trout fishing and the area is blessed with incredible cave systems full of stalagmites and stalactites, a great way to spend half a day (a few require a harness and some rappelling). If this isn't enough to get your heart pumping, the Rhodope Mountains are home to Bulgaria's largest mammal, the brown bear, and you can go out at dusk to a mountain lodge to watch them in action. In the winter, the nearby resort of Pamporovo offers some good, although limited, skiing.
From music, to wine to bees
Closer to the villa there are opportunities to go wine tasting, cheese making and beekeeping. Folk music is also huge here and a bagpipe and folk song recital at the villa can easily be arranged on request. At the beginning of August Gela hosts a huge folk festival at which musicians from all over Bulgaria come and perform so this would be a great time to visit.
Head to Plodiv for a culture fix
If culture is more your thing, Plovdiv old town and the nearby Bachkovo monastery are fascinating. Plovdiv dates back to 5000 BC and is home to a magnificent Roman amphitheatre, built in 2 AD. The amphitheatre is still in use today and hosts regular events and concerts. The ethnographical museum is also worth visiting with some 40,000 exhibits of artefacts used in the Rhodope region during the 18th and 19th centuries. Bachkovo monastery dates back to 10 AD and is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is a wonderful destination for the intrepid traveller looking for a new adventure. I was blown away by the potential of the country and it wasn't even sunny! Come May/June and the Rhodope region will really come into its own. contact Original Travel