Valleys of roses and romantic trails
Mention Bulgaria as a holiday destination and most people respond by scratching their heads. Concealed behind the Iron Curtain for decades, my native country has an image that still suffers from the nation’s past. And that’s a pity. Because while there are plenty of Communist-era apartment blocks (I grew up in one), my husband, Paul, an American, and I think of Bulgaria as our own little secret. We return every year to see my family but also to soak up the beauty of the countryside and the mountains, enjoy the fresh, seasonal food and excellent wine, and spoil ourselves at luxury spas, all at a fraction of the price we would pay in Western Europe.
This summer, for our fifth wedding anniversary, Paul and I drove south of my hometown, Sevlievo, for about an hour to the Balkan Mountains. As our car wended its way up and over the low and gentle peaks, we passed through pine forests that the summer light painted several shades of intense green. On the other side of the range we headed straight into the Rose Valley. It was the peak of harvest time and the fields exploded with colour and fragrance. Red, white, pink and yellow roses carpeted the valley floor and flowering purple lavender added a warm grace note to the heady perfume that filled the air.
We stopped at the Damascena distillery, near the village of Skobelevo, where we learned how the bright pink and powerfully fragrant Damask rose is distilled into rose oil. Bulgaria’s rose oil is prized for its quality and exported worldwide to be used in perfumes and cosmetics. We saw a group of workers unloading a truck, throwing plastic sacks stuffed with freshly picked roses to each other in perfect choreography, opening my eyes to how much muscle it takes to make just an ounce of rose oil.
Tired and hungry, we pulled into tiny Starosel in the early evening and checked into a resort and spa, also named Starosel, set among the vineyards outside the village. Paul wasted no time going to the spa for a pummelling by a burly policeman-turned-masseur, while I swam in the pool, sweated in the steam room and soaked in the hot tub. Over dinner on the terrace that night, the view of the vineyards and the mountains in the distance reminded me of northern California. Bulgaria has a long history of winemaking and in recent years several new vineyards have opened up, with some, like the one where we were staying, offering tastings, tours and accommodations. The $10 bottle of rose we shared that night was delicious, with notes of strawberry and cherry. We’d booked a room for only one night, but the setting (and probably the wine) left Paul greedy for more. “It’s beautiful here,” he said. “Let’s spend another day and enjoy the pool and the spa and just relax.”
I offered no objection. And so we stayed on another night, though we did get slightly more ambitious the following morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we drove to the nearby town of Hisarya for lunch and a walk among Roman ruins we had all to ourselves. At the National, a local restaurant we remembered fondly from our first trip to Bulgaria together almost 10 years ago, the dishes, most of which cost just a few dollars, took me back to my childhood: shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions topped with feta cheese); kyufteta (grilled meatballs) and lyutenitsa (relish made with peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and spices). After lunch we were too stuffed to move. Fortunately, a couple’s aromatherapy massage (a steal at $60), a soak in the hot tub and more wine were all that we’d planned for the rest of the day.
The following morning we continued by car an hour and a half south to the Rhodope Mountains, the tail of which extends into Greece. The Rhodopes are alleged to be the birthplace of Orpheus, the notoriously irresistible musician of Greek legend, and folk music traditions thrive in the pretty villages that dot the region. Driving high into the mountains, we came upon a medieval fortress known as Asenova Krepost. Its impressive, and impressively preserved, 12th-century church looked impervious perched on the edge of a cliff. Farther along, we stopped at the 11th-century Bachkovo Monastery, where we lit candles for good health (just in case the spa treatments fell short).
We ascended further up a winding, narrow road that took us deep into the Rhodopes to the so-called Wonderful Bridges — rock arches that are considered one of Bulgaria’s natural selling points. When we stopped to take it all in, the whole place felt untouched and isolated, the air pure. Bird song and a rushing creek were the only sounds. It reminded me of fairytales and for a moment made me forget that they’re not real.
We finished our drive at Shiroka Laka, a small village set on a river deep in the southern Rhodopes, with beautifully preserved traditional stone houses with slate roofs. The area offers a number of family-run guesthouses, but we’d come to be pampered and so chose the Shiroka Laka Hotel, a luxury inn with a modern spa and beautiful rooms that start at about $50 a night. That evening, we drove to the centre of the village to eat at a local tavern where musicians perform bagpipe music. But the place was closed and we returned to the hotel for a feast of fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers and fried local trout.
We left in the morning, having heard not a single bagpipe. But I wasn’t too bothered. It gave me yet another good reason to return.
My husband and I think of Bulgaria as our own little secret
Clockwise from top: Bachkovo Monastery, Bulgaria; bridge at Shiroka Laka village; festival time in the Rose Valley; the Rhodope Mountains, alleged to be the birthplace of Orpheus