Snow and Culture in Bulgaria's Rodopi Mountains
Winter sports in Bulgaria, not your run of the mill skiing vacation
Deep in the unspoiled Rodopi Mountains, where authentic little villages lie cradled in the valleys, even the après-ski cocktail hour is not what you would expect. Close your eyes and listen to the high head voices... you'll hear the echos of Orpheus' songs.
Travelogue & photos: Piet de Geus
Wintersports in Bulgaria? Close to the Greek border? Skiing in the sun, with a view of the Aegaean Sea? Yeah, right! After all, with a little luck you can ski in Central Park in NYC every now and then.
As a matter of fact, as far as snow can be guaranteed, it is in Bulgaria between December and April. To a much higher degree of certainty than in Austria. And also guaranteed: no yodeling, no kettle music, no Alps horns playing and, best of all, no thigh-slapping guys in Lederhosen.
Bulgaria has three important winter sports areas. Bansko, at the foot of the Pirin Mountains, is the most authentic and was until recently only visited by Bulgarians. Borovets, in the Rila Mountains, is the largest and busiest winter sports resort with a capacity of 4500 beds. Pamporovo, in the Rodopi Mountains, holds the middle ground between Banko and Borovets. It is a suitable place for a first introduction to the country.
Bulgaria's most interesting and atmospheric city
In the heart of the Rodopi Mountains lies Bulgaria's most interesting and atmospheric city: Plovdiv.
We start in the modern downtown. Representatives of the many parties that participated in the first free elections early in the 1990's held their speeches on the huge 9 September Square in front of a big crowd. All at the same time...
At the edge of the square are the foundations of a Roman Forum. As the euphemism goes: "Interesting for afficionados."
We leave the square through the Vassíl Kolárovstreet. Shoe shiners and peddlers are trying to make some money here, as do street musician. The street leads to the intimate 19 November Square.
In the middle of the square is an huge hole in which part of a Roman stadium has been uncovered. In ancient times tens of thousands of spectators watched chariot races here, sitting on the stone steps.
But now the square is a meeting place for fashionably dressed young people, students and peddlers with paintings and icons. Stairs lead to the Djumayá mosque with its minaret bathing in sunlight.
We walk through narrow streets toward the Old City. On a hill side are excavations of a Roman Amphitheater, which is definitely not just "interesting for afficionados." From its upper tiers there's a magnificant view of downtown Plovdiv and the Rodopi Mountains in the distance.
Through alleys paved with irregularly shaped rocks, we wander deeper and deeper into the Old City.
Most buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries, a time of renaissance for Bulgaria. After 500 years of Turkish occupation the country was getting back on its feet and developed its own architectural style: heavy beams and plasterwork painted in pastel colors. Often columns were painted on the walls. To be more efficient with space at ground level, the upper floors protrude towards the street.
Some buildings are open to the public, among them one which houses the Ethnographic Museum. In front of the gate is a man with a street organ that is extremely off pitch. As soon as someone enters the street, he starts playing. It takes a tip to make him stop.
Through the gate we enter a spacious garden. In the summer chamber music concerts are performed here. I am curious what they do about the organ player during those concerts.
On the ground floor of the abundantly decorated merchant's house is an exhibition of old tools, among which a destillation kettle for rose oil. A painting shows street life in 19th century Plovdiv, with clearly visible oriental influences.
The rooms on the upper floor are furnished and decorated in the original style. Also on display are traditional Rodopi costumes and jewelry.
A tour of the Cepelarska Valley
After Asenovgrad the flat and boring surroundings are gone and the road snakes through the narrow Cepelarska Valley into the mountains. In Backovo we take a detour: a steep cobble road lined with souvenir stalls leads to the Backovo monastery. We enter the courtyard through a gate and find two little Byzantine churches surrounded by trees, cypresses and grapevines. Chickens and sheep roam freely.
Around the courtyard are galleries with white plastered living quarters. The upper gallery has a beautiful view of the courtyard, where a monk just receives two bottles of wine from a farmer's wife in a blue apron. If you visit the monastery on Sundays, couples stand in line to get married in the church of the monastery.
We drive deeper into the Rodopi mountains region. Just the ride through the overwhelming Cepelarska Valley makes the trip worthwhile. The slopes of the forest-covered mountains rise high above us on both sides. In this unspoiled area live wild boar, wolves and bears. Every now and then we pass by a farmer with cart and horse. Villages lay scattered over the valley.
The mountain river is in sight all the time. Along its shores are trout farms that use its clean water. According to Fred, my traveling companion, in the summer the rivers and streams are a paradise for trout fishing. I can imagine the pleasure of staring over the water in surroundings as beautiful as these.
Five kilometers from Pamporovo we reach the 3600 feet level. At this altitude the snow lasts all winter. All of a sudden the road gets steep and takes sharp turns. The smooth surface is replaced by potholes in between which there is hardly any paving left. The mixed forest has diappeared, there are only fir trees at this altitude. A short while later we arrive in Pamporovo at 4800 feet.
Modern architecture in idyllic surroundings
Pamporovo was built as a holiday resort in the early 1960's. On the slopes of the Snezhanka mountain sits a cluster of five hotels. Scattered in the forests are another four hotels, vacation homes, restaurants and shops.
Even though the modern architecture doesn't do it for me, I have to admit the environment is extremely idyllic. The hotels are named after the surrounding mountain peaks. We stay in Hotel Mourgavets, named after an 5574 feet high peak. From my balcony on the eighth floor I have a view, over the tree tops, of mountain peaks and skipistes.
During an evening walk, browsing the stores of Pamporovo, it's one surprise after another. Cigarettes for $0.50! CD's, even the latest, between three and four dollars! A bottle of Mastika, Bulgarian Ouzo (48% alcohol), for a dollar! Skis are $40, you can't even rent them for so little in Austria.
Fred smiles. "Do you know ski classes are just $100? And that includes skis, skiboots, sticks, a ski pass and 4 hours of class every day, for six days. While I am still calculating how much cheaper this is than the same ski vacation in Austria, Fred suggests that it's time to taste the Mastika.
Birth place of the mythical singer
Time to seek higher ground. In the main season the maximum waiting time for the ski lift is 5 minutes. Before you know, you're on the Snezhanka (Snow-white) Peak at 5778 feet . If that's not high enough, there's a 468 feet television tower dominating the surroundings. You have to get a cup of coffee up there and enjoy the view. When the weather is clear, you can see the Rila and Pirin Mountains in Western direction and 53 miles to the South the Aegean Sea.
From Snezhanka Peak black, red, blue and green ski pistes snake in all directions. Most pistes are wide and relatively easy, which means that beginners have a wide range of choice. The pistes are surrounded by thick fir woods, and every now and then they cross a mountain meadow.
There are only a few tracks for cross country skiing here, though. Cepelare, six kilometers to the North, has more tracks. For cross country skiing without tracks, Rodopen offers a lot.
People from the surrounding villages offer their services as ski instructors as well as mountain guides, both summer and winter. It's not hard at all to find someone who will go hiking with you for a modest fee. These guides will show you the most beautiful spots in the mountains and take you to picturesque little villages.
Zonka, an experienced guide, climbs the Mourgavets with me. At its rocky peak there's a view of the beautiful Smoljan Valley far below. Ascending and descending we hike through the vast forest to Orpheus Rock. Indeed: the mythical singer Orpheus was born here in the period the Thracians lived here.
Orpheus sang so wonderfully that the wild animals became meek as lambs, while the trees and the rocks started walking. According to legend the use of headvoices in Bulgarian folk music is a heritage of Orpheus' singing.
From Orpheus Rock we can see the observatory of Rozen between the mountains. Not far from Rozen is a beautiful little village, high in the mountains, called Momchilovcy. I take a look at the map, but to no avail. Zonka suggests that it is too isolated to be on the map.
It sounds like an ideal place for peace and quiet. Zonka tells me there are Bed & Breakfast hotels and the villagers organize transportation to the ski pistes. You get there by taking the road into the mountains from the observatory or from the village Sokolovski.
As we descend, we reach the lower terminal of a ski lift. Nearby there are places where you can eat or have a drink. In a wooden café we drink coffee and rakija, while we warm ourselves near the heater.
A mini survey among experienced skiers had the following results: Pamporovo is cheap, snow is guaranteed, you don't have to wait for the ski lift and the surroundings are beautiful. Skiing possibilities are comparable to those of Winterberg in Sauerland. A ski instructor makes the longest descent, a blue-green one, 3800 meters, in only 10 minutes. That is an indication of the limits. It's an ideal place to learn to ski. The second year is still okay, but after that you probably will need more than the eight pistes with a total distance of 17.5 kilometer and the 35 kilometers of long distance pistes.
Eating trout in an old water mill
We make a tour of some villages nearby, to get acquainted with Rodopen culture. We also want to check out the options for people who want to spend a ski vacation here, but who would prefer to stay in an authentic mountain village.
I have already met Milena Yurukowa, a charming Bulgarian woman who worked as a guide in this area for 25 years. She lives a little to the North of Smoljan. To be able to take care of herself in her old age, she recently built a second house in her garden, where she rents out rooms. The new building, just like the old one, has been built in typical Rodopen style, with rocks and lots of wood. The interior is also in local style: light wooden furniture and wool carpets.
Something smells good here, what is it? Milena smiles: her neighbors are a bakery and a pastry shop.
Smoljan is with its 40.000 inhabitants de largest city in Rodopen. It is becoming a ski resort and has more than a hundred bars and a real nightlife.
Its position at the foot of the Goljam Perelik, at 6573 feet the highest mountain in Rodopen is terrific, but its downtown is dominated by boring 1970's government buildings.
We leave Pamporova in a different direction. Milena will be our guide. We descend into a valley with a river. The first village we enter is Stoikite, where little houses and farms lay scattered on a slight incline. This is a good place to eat game and there are rooms for rent, Milena tells us.
After a few bends in the road we reach an old water mill in the valley, which is narrow here. In it is a restaurant where we have lunch. A stone bridge leads across a small stream. After a few steps down we reach a low square building with a paddle wheel. Being this close to a stream, the menu of course has trout on it. The food is incredibly cheap, two dollars for a main course. A bottle of Bulgarian wine is only $1.50.
The ultimate mountain village in the heart of the Rodopen
The quiet road meanders endlessly to the West through the heart of the Rodopen region. In the summer, this is a paradise for bicyclists.
Five kilometers past Stoikite we reach the village of Siroko Lâka, hemmed in between the mountains. The whole village, with its 18th and 19th century buildings and stone bridges over the Loedje river is a protected landmark.
Steep, narrow streets ascend from the little river. The narrow, high buildings with their small windows look massive. They are built with the same rocks with which the streets are paved. Only their bays have been plastered white. Chickens roam around the houses, against which firewood is stacked high.
In the daytime the cows graze on mountain meadows that lay scattered between the woods on the mountain slopes. Late in the afternoon they walk back over the road to their stables in the village. If you want to stay in a typical Rodopen village, take a room here.
In the village Nastan women wash clothes in a hot spring in the river. The minaret indicates that Grohotno is a Turkish village.
Milena explains that the mosque was already there, but only a few years ago the government gave permission to build a minaret. Old men sit on benches under the trees, talking.
We take a left turn, in the direction of Greece. Another mosque with a new minaret on the side of the road. The Turkish hamlet Djovren, to which the mosque belongs, sits high on a slope at the other side of the road.
The road is getting worse. It has been cut out in the rocks and is so narrow that oncoming traffic will have to wait. De chasm of Trigrad, through which we are driving now, becomes narrower while the walls get higher.
After a few more hairpin bends the road ends in Trigrad. In this town you'll find guides who'll accompany you on hikes in the mountains and to the many caves where stalactite and stalecmite lovers will find their hearts' desire.
Milena tells us a well-kept secret: Trigrad has many private B&B's nowadays as well as restaurants. The reason that nobody knows about it, is that these people don't have the money to advertise their businesses. And travel agents often will not give this information, because they prefer to sell (much more expensive) package trips and consider the private rooms competition.
After the fall of Communism there has been an explosive increase in private hotels and B&B's. By now there should be over 40.000. Maybe not all that interesting for skiers, but definitely important for tourists who want to explore the country by car or bicycle in the summer.
Alcohol kills germs
Discotheques, nightclubs, karaoke bars and ski instructor shows - name it and Pamporovo has it. If this makes you want to run in the other direction, nearby villages offer alternatives like nice little restaurants and bars that are only visited by locals.
We have dinner in folklore restaurant Chevermetto, which is housed in a fake sheep pen. Outside, in the cold, we are welcomed by two men in traditional garb. The first one offers us a serving tray with pitka bread and two bowls: one with salt and one with cubritsa, a mix of herbs with savory. You're supposed to tear off a piece of pitka and dip it in the salt and cubritsa. The second man is holding a tray with little glasses of Mastika, to wash down the bread. We have to empty our glasses in one swig and put them back on the tray upside down. No faking!
While we're looking for a table, Fred explains the meaning of this ritual. Bread consists of flour and water, which symbolizes the two worlds that meet tonight. Obviously, that calls for a toast. Moreover, the alcohol is supposed to kill all germs in our bodies.
In any case, it warms us, while we're watching an open fire above which whole lambs are roasted on spits. When the meat is done, the chef starts hacking away at the lambs, with more sense of theater than love for his profession. The result is meat with lots of little bone fragments. Luckily the delicious Bulgarian wine makes up for the meat.
In the background an orchestra plays Bulgarian music. By the time dessert is served, there is a show with song and dance. I'm most impressed with the female singers and their beautiful head voices. If this is like Orpheus' singing, I would have loved to hear him. The quality of the singing is much better than what you'd expect in a simple restaurant. Which makes it even sadder that they compromise their art by catering to the audience.
There is already a lot more dancing than - less accessible - singing, but on top of that the show is often alternated with games like musical chairs. As far as I'm concerned, the artists should ask and get more attention than the audience.
After dinner, Fred asks if he has delivered on his promises about Bulgaria. Yes, I've seen beautiful mountains and experienced a unique culture. But where are the Lederhosen? Let's have another Mastika to kill the germs. Nazdrave!