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

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