Bountiful Bulgaria

A surprising retreat in the country known as the capital of the Balkans.

Bulgaria (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
What would you say if I told you that following a short, two-hour flight, you could begin discovering the secrets of the Balkans? And no, I’m not referring to the secrets tucked away inside the many casinos that are springing up in Eastern Europe like wild mushrooms after a spring rain, which is what Israelis are usually attracted to in the region.
Located in southeastern Europe, Bulgaria is widely regarded as the capital of the Balkans and has remained pristine and true to its heritage, which is rich with folklore. Over the years, Bulgaria has been influenced by the Greek Orthodox in the north and the Muslims from the east. It was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly five centuries, and from 1946 to 1989 was part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. These influences can still be felt today. For example, when you drive near some villages, you can see that the roads were built according to regulations implemented due to pressure from the Turkish government on Bulgaria.
This beautiful country has breathtaking landscapes, 50 shades of gorgeous green, and flowing streams that are just as magnificent as any found in Switzerland. In order to see as much as you can, I recommend shortening your visit to urban areas, and instead focusing on the countryside. The best way to do this is to rent a car if you like to travel alone, or join an organized weeklong jeep tour through agencies like Medraft, which is the group I joined a few weeks ago.
Bulgaria is such an authentic destination.
On our tour, we went picnicking on secluded mountaintops, rafting on rivers, ate meals in local taverns and traversed dirt roads to outlying villages. The country’s greatest assets are its beautiful scenery and hospitable people. When was the last time you passed by two old women who were planting tobacco seedlings or traveling on the roads in a horse and buggy? Bulgaria also has another great advantage over Western European countries: it’s much cheaper. The seven-day jeep tour I participated in cost only €1,350, including flights, an Israeli chaperone who meets you at Ben-Gurion Airport, a local guide, hotels, three meals a day, entrance to tourist sites, and fuel costs. And even if you buy lots of tchotchkes and presents to bring back home, you probably won’t end up spending more than another €50 on the road.
As I mentioned above, Russia has had an incredibly strong influence on Bulgarian culture, which is still quite evident today.
For example, our guides Kirill Laberatov and Peter Semionov, served as Scud missile battery operators in the Bulgarian military when it was still under Soviet control. Yet unlike other countries where the Russians left a heavy imprint from the Soviet era, the Bulgarians harbor no feelings of bitterness towards the Russians. Bulgaria is a relaxed place, and its populace is pleasant and welcoming, especially people who live in faraway mountains and villages, where life is very simple and people engage in physically demanding work just to scrape by.
WE BEGAN our journey in the capital Sofia, an incredible blend of the old and new.
We visited historical sites and ancient buildings during the day, and then in the evening were given a taste of the modern, lively nightlife and the city’s great restaurants.
After this short visit in the city, we began our descent towards the mountains of southwestern Bulgaria, through which we would make a big loop and end up back in the capital at the end of our trip.
We hopped in our jeeps and began the drive south towards the Rila Mountain Range, which at 2,900 meters is the tallest point in the entire Balkan region. We passed by the Iskar Dam, towards which water flows from the tall mountains, as we made our way toward our next destination: a museum that at first glance looked like car graveyard. In actuality, it was an antique museum featuring old cars, motorcycles, TVs and typewriters. It was especially cute to see the children who were with us who couldn’t even figure out what some of the items were.
Our next stop was the oldest and most visited monastery in the country. Built in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. The beautiful frescos painted on the exterior and interior walls of the building are absolutely breathtaking, and each section depicts a different story.
Back on the road, we were off to Bansko, a ski resort located between Rila and Pirin Ridges. The hotels and restaurants in the area are reasonably priced, and in the summer the ski site offers fun family activities like ATV rides, sledding and rafting. In the springtime, the river is full and roaring, so this is one of the best seasons for rafting, and it is especially refreshing after spending so many hours traveling in a jeep.
There’s plenty of activity in the area, so if you have enough time, I recommend staying over in Bansko two nights. In the evenings, we went out to a local bar where we were introduced to rakia, a local alcoholic beverage made from distilled fruit.
OF COURSE, no trip would be complete without tasting the local cuisine, and this trip to Bulgaria was no exception. We were taken to a gourmet meal at the home of two matrons who started a business of hosting foreign groups for traditional Bulgarian dinners. They also have baskets of traditional Bulgarian clothing that you can put on and take selfies in. After dinner, we had a few drinks, listened to our hosts sing Bulgarian folksongs and tell stories about life in the area.
After we’d filled our bellies with good food and our hearts with cute stories, we continued on our way. Our next stop was Gotse Delchev, a town whose inhabitants make their livelihood from growing tobacco. As we were driving, our guide pointed out that the mountains in the area were much rockier, and locals used the slate for building. We stopped in a town called Dolen that is commonly known as the Slate Village, since everything is built out of this stone. We even saw a few abandoned communal agricultural huts left over from the Communist era.
Our next stop was Dospat Dam, which we looked down on from above. In the lake we could see huge cages full of trout. Back in the jeeps, we continued on to Dvein, a spa town, situated on a mountain 700 meters above sea level, that is famous for its mineral water springs. We took a couple of hours to walk on a path along the stream that cuts through the delightful town and passes by the Struilich Canyon.
ANOTHER PLACE that our jeep tours visited in the area was Trigrad Gorge, which is somewhat reminiscent of Rosh Hanikra.
Along the road is The Elephant Rock, which has an opening that looks like an elephant’s trunk and mouth. According to legend, the water that comes out of this space has healing powers.
Not far from there is the Dyavolskoto Garlo Cave, also known as Devil’s Throat; our guide told us spooky tales as we sat huddled together inside the dark cave.
Afterwards, we walked up 280 stairs and then came out into a clearing and realized we were standing at the top of a 60-meter waterfall. The view was breathtaking and there were people strapping themselves into ziplines. We didn’t have time do everything, though, and our stomachs were rumbling, so we made our way through the village to a woman who offers Bulgarian cooking classes, where we learned to make (and eat) a type of lasagna dish in which roasted peppers separate the cheese and sauce layers in place of pasta. It was absolutely scrumptious.
Of course, after such a long and exhausting excursion, ending the day at the spa and collapsing into a soft bed at our hotel was more than welcome. When I woke up in the morning, there was a “last day of the trip” feeling in the air. On the way to the airport in Sofia, we stopped for a picnic of shakshuka, salad and local cheeses in a picturesque location overlooking the hills and valleys. I wanted to embed this scene in my memory forever, it was such a bittersweet ending.
We had been welcomed so graciously in this beautiful country, and I hoped that this wouldn’t be my last time here. The people we’d met, the breathtaking views, the incredible food and inspiring stories made me feel like Bulgaria was a taste of heaven on earth.
The writer was a guest of Medraft Tours.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.