Traveling in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains

Bulgarians as a whole are very hospitable, but residents of the Rhodopes are particularly friendly to visitors, especially to travelers from overseas.

By ELLIS SHUMAN
August 20, 2015 10:35
Shiroka Laka

The picturesque town of Shiroka Laka, near the Greek border. (photo credit: ELLIS SHUMAN)

 
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The first thing one notices when walking into the Bachkovo Monastery – the third largest in Bulgaria – is a plaque in Bulgarian, English and Hebrew.

“In this holy monastery lie Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan, who in a selfless display of courage and humanity played a decisive role in preventing the deportation of Bulgarian Jewry to the Nazi extermination camps in 1943.

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“Were the world blessed with more individuals of such valor and nobility as that shown by Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan, surely more Jews would have been spared their tragic end.”

Here in the entranceway of one of the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe is a sign of how the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – along with brave politicians and ordinary citizens – went out of its way to protect and save Bulgarian Jewry. The country’s Jewish population before World War II was approximately 48,000. Not a single Jewish citizen was sent to the camps.

Unfortunately, this amazing story also has a tragic side. More than 11,000 Jewish residents of Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace – areas under Bulgarian rule during the war years – were deported and died in the camps.

Not much else is Jewish in the Rhodopes – a mountainous range stretching from southern Bulgaria into northern Greece. My wife and I had arrived for a week’s vacation in Bulgaria, and the central Rhodopes were our destination for three days of exploration. We had lived and worked in Sofia – Bulgaria’s capital – in 2009-10 and had traveled extensively around the country, but one thing we had missed was a visit to these picturesque mountains.

Our first stop, just before we arrive at the Bachkovo Monastery, is the medieval mountaintop Asen’s Fortress, named for Czar Ivan Asen II, who ruled the region from 1218 to 1241 during the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Not much is left of the stronghold, built to repel advances of the Crusaders’ Latin Empire.

The fortress was captured twice, first by the Byzantines and then by the Ottoman Turks.

The mountain site is more famous for the Church of the Holy Mother of God, which dates from the 12th-13th century. This remarkably well-preserved two-story structure, with its 14th-century murals and cool interiors, is used today by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The monastery was originally founded in 1083 as a seminary for youth. Although it survived the Turkish invasion, it was later looted and restored in the 15th century. The Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1604. Across from the church is a colorful panorama mural depicting the history of the monastery. The painting is quite modern as it was completed in the mid 19th century.

After our visit to the monastery, we head south, the highway running along mountain streams and curving through thick green forests.

We begin making our way steadily upward into the Rhodope Mountains.

The Rhodopes are known for their unique geological formations. The mountains are set apart by river gorges; there are many deep caves cut into the karst landscape. In the winter months, the snow-covered peaks are perfect for skiing – Pamporovo is one of Bulgaria’s most popular ski resorts. In the summer, the hillsides are painted bright green and covered with wild flowers. With snow seen on the surrounding mountain tops, one has a feeling of visiting a Sound of Music movie set.

There are many small, picturesque villages perched on the hillsides and in the valleys below.

It is said that the region has the highest number of centenarians in the country. This is because the villagers lead simple, stress-free lives; eat homemade yogurt; enjoy healthy vegetables grown in the small plot outside their homes; and, of course, breathe the crisp mountain air.

Bulgarians as a whole are very hospitable, but residents of the Rhodopes are particularly friendly to visitors, especially to travelers from overseas. It’s a bit difficult to communicate with the older generation, but young Bulgarians are fluent in English as well as many other European languages.

Accommodations in the Rhodopes

Besides the off-season lodgings available in the kitschy resort hotels of Pamporovo, most of the places to stay in the region are bed-andbreakfasts in private homes, most of which cater solely to Bulgarian natives. Western visitors will find the hosts very friendly; but without the ability to converse in English, the stay could be less than perfect.

My wife and I head instead to Villa Gela, located some 20 kilometers from the Greek border.

We follow road signs conveniently listing the villages in both Cyrillic and English, and arrive in the amusingly named town of Shiroka Laka. After driving past homes built in the style of 19th-century Bulgarian renaissance architecture, we turn off the highway and follow the route to the village of Gela. A steep ascent on a paved road brings us to an altitude of 1,500 meters, and the instructions we had received make it very easy to reach our destination.

At the villa we are greeted by our hostess, Darina, a professional travel guide who has traveled herself. Darina speaks Bulgarian, Serbian and perfect English. Darina’s family originates in Ruse, on the banks of the Danube; they came to the Rhodopes because Ivan, her uncle, suffered from asthma and needed to move into the mountains.

The family fell in love with the location, immediately bought property and began renovating a collapsed wooden home. Completing our complement of friendly hosts is Dimka, the resident cook who creates tasty, innovative meals for the guests.

Villa Gela is luxurious and ultra-modern – not your typical Rhodope accommodations – but the hospitality is genuine.

There is an array of solar panels on the roof; the mountains get some 240 days of sunlight a year. Extensively renovated, the villa was styled by interior decorator Marja Walters and has six bedrooms, each of them uniquely themed. There is an Oriental Room, a Wood Room, and a Striped Room. Our bedroom has a Chihuly sculpture encased in glass, and in fact the feeling is that we are staying inside a museum, although a very homey, comfortable one.

All of the bedrooms enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, which appear quite differently at different hours of the day. Particularly stunning is the morning fog as it rests lazily in the valley. Some of the rooms overlook the villa’s patio, its small vegetable plot, and the badminton court below.

Inside is a small swimming pool, a spa and a steam room; there is a large hot tub on the balcony of one of the rooms.

There are fireplaces in the rooms but no televisions. Wifi is available throughout the premises. The living room is spacious, with large windows offering views of the surroundings. The long dining table is right behind the sofas; elegant dishes and glassware complete the five-star level of accommodations.

Villa Gela was selected as the Best Ski Chalet in Bulgaria in both 2013 and 2014, in a vote among an international online audience, and it’s easy to see why.

We assumed that lodging at the villa must be very expensive, but as listed on the villa’s website, half board is just under NIS 600 per person. The maximum number of guests is 12; two children with their parents in the family bedroom would be very comfortable.

Rhodope cuisine

It is impossible to talk of Villa Gela without mentioning the food. The family owns the Terra Tangra Winery located on Sakar Mountain, 200 kilometers to the east. We are served Yatrus Syrah and the white Tamyanka. We start our meal with homemade rakia – the national, very strong fruit brandy of Bulgaria.


Shopska salad

In the mornings we drink a mixture of vinegar and honey that cleans one’s digestive system.


At each meal, Dimka outdoes herself; we feel she would easily win a MasterChef competition, as she is capable of turning the simplest dishes into masterpieces of innovative creation. Her cooking is based on family recipes, but she improvises with local ingredients, many of them homegrown or, as in the case of dandelions, picked in the surrounding meadows.

Guests are asked in advance what they like to eat – we specified that we don’t eat pork or seafood – and our hosts catered to this request. Darina never knows what Dimka will include on the daily menu; the menu selections are a surprise for her as well.

In the evenings we eat fresh beet salad and green salads including shopska, which is basically a Greek salad covered with a sprinkling of a white, salty cheese similar to feta. Potatoes are the main starch of the Rhodopes. Patatnik arrives at our table; I describe these tasty fried patties as latkes on steroids. One specialty dish which we couldn’t identify turned out to be lightly fried nettles – delicious.

Bulgarian yogurt is probably the best yogurt in the world, due to the aptly named Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria.

Bulgarian yogurt topped with homemade honey or jam is simply divine.

At breakfasts we also eat banitsa – a traditional filo pastry stuffed with either cheese or pumpkin – and palachinki, which are crepe-like pancakes.

Other dishes typical of Rhodope dining are Smilyan bean salad served with roasted peppers and onions; hominy sindermio, which is made from coarsely ground corn, butter and cheese; and a huge selection of fresh salads.

Those who maintain kosher-style lifestyles will have no problem dining in the Rhodopes, although many restaurant owners don’t speak English and their menus are available only in Bulgarian.

Gela village is quite small; only 37 residents live there year round.

Each family has its own vegetable plot and, in some cases, its own cow.

Bells can be heard on the hillsides as goats graze amid the thick summer grasses. Before 1944, local shepherds would herd their flocks into Greece.

The village is famous as being the birthplace of Orpheus – the mythical Greek musician, poet and prophet. Legends of Orpheus center round his musical attempts to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld. We would soon see where this legend was born.

Rhodope culture

A few words should be said about the music and traditions of the Rhodopes. The mountains are the best place in all of Bulgaria to hear the gaida, a sheep- or goat-hide bagpipe common to the Balkans and southeast Europe. Gaidas look and sound very different from the bagpipes of Scotland. The kaba gaida is much larger and lower pitched than other instruments and is native to the Rhodopes. A gaida festival is held annually near Gela. I find the lyrical call of the gaida mesmerizing, but it is often accompanied by incomprehensible verses describing love and village life.


The village of Gela

Another annual event is held in March in Shiroka Laka. Men dress up as animals with colorful masks on their faces and bells ringing from their waists. These strange mummers are called kukeri; they dance through the streets in efforts to chase away bad thoughts and evil spirits.

At all times of the year, the Rhodopes serve as a popular destination for visitors. One of the most striking natural features is Trigrad Gorge, a canyon of vertical marble rocks. The Trigrad River flows through the gorge until it plunges into one of deepest, most mysterious caves in Bulgaria.

Devil’s Throat Cave

I first learned about Devil’s Throat Cave from the novels of Bulgarian best-selling author Ludmila Filipova. This is the cave through which Orpheus reputedly made his way to rescue Eurydice from Hades, the ancient Greek god of the underworld.

The river disappears in the deep caverns of the cave, never to emerge again into daylight. The cave gets its name from a profile of the devil, which is hard to notice even when pointed out.

The cave is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and entrance is only with a guide, usually one who speaks English.

The entranceway is well lit, cool and dry, but then one reaches the main hall, a cavern so huge that Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral could easily fit inside, with room to spare. With the thunder of the underground river pounding in your ears, you reach a steep set of wet, concrete stairs leading to daylight high above. This is the halfway point – the fainthearted can go back to the cave’s main entrance. I venture upward, holding onto the handrail for dear life, as the steps are very slippery.

Toward the top of the staircase slivers of daylight appear, at first in striking, vertical slits between the rocks. Rays of sunshine light up the sides of the cave until the final set of steps is reached. I emerge into a narrow canyon alongside the river on its way to the underground.

Waiting for cave visitors in the shade are local residents selling homemade jams and honey.

Trigrad village

The final stop of our exploration of the Rhodopes is the village of Trigrad, a few kilometers up the road from the cave. The village’s main attractions are a gold-domed mosque and a church, situated next to each other. After democracy came to Bulgaria, Christian residents helped build the mosque and then their Muslim neighbors helped build the church. A strange attraction in Trigrad is the one-room Bear Museum, the smallest museum in all of Bulgaria.

A brown bear from the Rhodope Mountains – and there are still some in the wild – would barely fit inside.

After visits to the cave and the nearby village, there is time for one last meal featuring typical Rhodope cuisine.

Tarator soup is a favorite summer treat; it’s made from yogurt, cucumbers and cloves of garlic. A companion drink is ayran, which is diluted yogurt mixed with water. Rhodope bean salad is served, along with generous portions of patatnik and a dish of boiled potatoes with eggs, cheese and mushroom.

Our hostess is Izkra, a resident of Trigrad.

Izkra doesn’t speak any English, but with my broken Bulgarian I am able to inform her that we are tourists from Israel. She asks if we are pensioners, and I laugh, writing down the year of my birth. It turns out that Izkra is one year younger than me, and our meal ends with Izkra showing us pictures of her grandchildren and my wife showing her pictures of ours.

Izkra’s warm hospitality while we eat the tasty dishes served in her tavern makes for a fitting end to our visit to the wondrous Rhodope Mountains.

The writer was a guest at Villa Gela, www.villagella.com

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