Beyond the beach: Bulgaria’s hidden treasures

Bulgaria hidden treasures

Mountains, monasteries and markets… there’s much more to Bulgaria than a cheap beach break, says Kate Eshelby.

I’m laden with juicy fat cherries, freshly plucked from the tree. The sun shines and we’re picnicking among spangles of wild flowers and long grasses. A track steers back to the wood-beamed house where we are staying, past mud-and-timber houses tilting back into the earth.

I’m with my husband Mark and two children in a tiny hillside hamlet called Baba Stana, close to the village of Oreshak, in the heart of central Bulgaria’s Balkan mountains. It’s peaceful and bucolic, and far from the cheap-and-cheerful skiing or beach packages Bulgaria is most known for.

Yet people don’t think to come for the mountain scenery with its world-class frescoes and monasteries, even though many are Unesco world heritage sites. Somehow rural Bulgaria doesn’t sound that appealing.

Having flown into the capital, Sofia, with its gold-domed Eastern Orthodox churches, we’d stayed in Casa Ferrari, a small friendly guesthouse. The city brims with layers of history all mixing together into everyday life – Bulgaria had to grapple its independence from the Ottoman Empire after the Turks ruled for half a millennium.

I walked down into the underground metro. It’s easy to use, and sections of preserved Roman streets can still be seen as you step off the escalators. Back at the top people strode among Roman amphitheatres and grand Stalinist architecture. From Sofia we’d corkscrewed up through Bulgaria’s mountainous landscape to Baba Stana. Road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet and few people speak English, which makes navigating interesting. But the roads are easy to drive, with little traffic, although those you pass drive horrifyingly.

The hamlet is half-empty. Derelict houses stand next to lived-in ones, creating a strange sense of abandoned beauty. A local family is having breakfast alfresco, their children playing among barns that lean. Few people still live here, most having moved to urban areas. Occasionally ancient villagers wander past and give a smile in the absence of any shared language. The sound of hay being raked falls from terraced fields. Most of those who remain here work the land.

The view from our terrace stretches far over the hilltops, and a smattering of terracotta pantile roofs peep from the tree canopies. Cowbells and cicadas serenade us from flower-filled meadows; birds and butterflies skitter among plum trees. Our children are free to explore on their own, with no vehicles for me to worry about. The land is still riotously green, wild and untouched.

We buy our provisions from the few tiny shops at Oreshak, which have a cottage industry in ceramics. It also has one unexpected visitor attraction: the charmingly quirky Cherni Ossum museum, created by a local biology teacher with taxidermied animals, many from the region. This delights our boys as they gaze up at bears towering over them.

What we didn’t expect to find was a modern hotel like the recently opened Casa Art. Small and stylish, it has a spa, individually decorated rooms, and a restaurant with an excellent sommelier. There is also a lot of funky colour and lively art.

We eat traditional Bulgarian dishes of dried meats, grilled fish and fresh shopska salad (a typical salad here with salted vegetables and cheese). “We are very proud of this hotel,” the sommelier tells us. “It’s unique.” The food is delicious and costs a fraction of what it would back at home.

But it’s the quiet, pastoral nature of the place that’s the real draw of the Bulgarian countryside. We are told that in the Balkan National Park, which contains Europe’s largest protected beech forest, wolves and bears (and golden eagles) roam among the mountains. We don’t see any of those, but exploring these vast wildernesses and swimming in nearby rivers is enough.

Driving through the mountains we pass villages where gardens burst with roses, and gypsies ride by on horse-drawn carts, beautiful bright pom-poms tied around the horses’ necks flaring out. A little further, at Chiflik, there are natural hot mineral springs with open-air pools. There are beautiful towns, too, reminders of when the country was part of one of Europe’s biggest and most powerful empires. In Lovech, steep cobbled streets lead up to a medieval fortress overlooking the River Osam. In Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s former capital, artists sit in the old town painting gilt icons on to slabs of dark wood. And Arbanasi’s Nativity Church rivals Romania’s best with its floor-to-ceiling frescoes.

Bulgaria has more than 100 monasteries, which hide in remote gorges or perch on hills. Outside the Trojan monastery, a 10-minute drive from Oreshak, home-produced honey and antique icons are laid out on vintage cars in an impromptu market. Monks wander around the wooden balconies under a spectacular portico painted with apocalyptic scenes.

Inside the monastery, amid the soft smell of incense, we come across a revered three-handed icon of the Virgin Mary. Queues of people move forward to touch her and leave banknotes at her feet. This is a land where the mountains are still rich with tradition and nature thrives.

Published by ” The Guardian”

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