Bulgaria’s Mountain Holidays are possibly Europe’s best kept secret
The growth in adventure tourism, biking, hiking and walking holidays has been a welcomed boost for sustainable tourism in rural communities throughout Europe. ‘Traditional’ destinations such as the Alps are being shunned by a new style of explorer who is eager to avoid the crowds and annoyingly extortionate prices.
The Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria offer some of the most breath taking scenery imaginable, free from the organised masses and possibly the most economic destination anywhere in the EU.
A transfer from Plovdiv Airport takes just over 2 hours to the town of Kardjhali where visitors have a good selection of fairly priced hotels that always have a few rooms free, even during the busy summer months. A calm and peaceful town with numerous coffee shops, cafés and bars together with a pedestrianized park and bustling vegetable market.
An hour by car is all it takes to reach the remote stone villages of the Rhodope Mountains. The winding mountain roads pass by vast majestic lakes and powerful meandering rivers such as the 290km Arda which starts it’s life in the Smolyan region and carries it’s sparkling contents to Greece. For every additional 100 meters above sea level, life slows down and the modernity of Europe fades away.
Traditional slate roofs, rustic stone arched bridges, donkeys, cows and goats adorn forgotten communities whose way of life has seen little change in centuries. The old folk who choose to maintain the traditional mountain lifestyle always acknowledge a wave with a warm smile and Bulgarian ‘head bob’. Stopping at any of the small village shops along the way will often result in a warm welcome, inquisitive questioning and unconditional promotion of their place of choice. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand a word of ‘Bulgarski’, they’ll tell you how beautiful life is anyway.
My destination in the Eastern Rhodopes was a small village high in the mountains called Lyubino. The guesthouse in the village is run by an English couple who have left the kingdom in favour of something entirely different. The perfect base camp for exploring the mountains, the traditional stone built guesthouse is a well-disguised slice of modern western facilities offering some of the most fantastic views in the world. All of the villages in the region are a photographer’s paradise, however Lyubino is truly awe-inspiring. The only thing missing from this rustic film set was the Hobbits.
Melanya Mountain Retreat is surrounded by a good selection of forest walks that offers guests a great variety of challenges. From short afternoon strolls to full-blooded mountain assaults or private sandy beaches on the river for swimming, fishing and sunbathing, there’s something for everyone. Detailed maps are available and all the walks, including the local tourist attraction Devils Bridge, are well marked.
In between days exploring the mountains, guests can sunbathe on the private terrace, fire up the barbeque in the ‘mehana’ (outside kitchen) and even play a little golf! Apparently the elevated golf tee allows even high handicappers to hit a 500-yard+ drive!
During very hot days guests can be driven to the sandy river beach by Land Rover for a cooling dip or to the nearby reservoir for swimming and kayaking. It’s also worth mentioning, for those in their later years or new to mountain hiking, if you ever bite off more than you can chew, Land Rover Assistance is only a phone call away.
The organic menu options are sometimes traditional, always interesting and often pleasantly surprising! Sitting on the sun terrace enjoying a cool glass of Bulgarian beer while tucking into a delicious home cooked chicken jalfrezi curry with poppadum’s and home baked naan bread was utterly surreal. All of the evening meals were accompanied by an appropriate bottle of locally sourced wine, some of which are award winners. The wine was always excellent, especially the Terra Tangra selections of Merlot, Syrah and Bulgaria’s very own Mavrud grape.
Bulgaria is probably not part of your ‘bucket list’, however my days in the Rhodope Mountains and in particular my time at Melanya, felt like spending time with western pioneers on the very edge of civilisation, embracing untouched nature, timeless traditions and a sense of calm and tranquillity that has encapsulated the ‘Rhodopy Secret’ for centuries.
Sally Andrews was a guest of Melanya Mountain Retrat in the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria. The accommodation is a two bedroom apartment sleeping 1-4 people, and costing from €38 per person per night including breakfast.