Travelers can experience rural Bulgaria’s charming traditions in style, thanks to a new breed of ethical farmstays and a hip lodge, writes Kapka Kassabova.
„Who shot that?“ I point at the wolf skin on the wall while we wash down an organic beef stew with Shumensko beer.
„Mitko,“ says his grandmother.
Mitko is 14 and lives here at Wild Farm, where his scientist parents have swapped their city jobs for a radical farming lifestyle. They inherited the house and bought a few head of cattle. Ten years on, they have 500 cows and 10 woolly dogs of a famed regional breed called, like the nomadic shepherds who lived here, Karakachan. The dogs are big, and they need to be – because there is a large wolf population here in Bulgaria’s eastern Rhodopes, a mountain region with the highest biodiversity in Europe.Wild Farm, which has four simple but comfortable guestrooms upstairs, is part of a small but significant farmstay movement that has developed as a response to the social gloom gripping Europe in general and this country in particular. The coveted Green Lodge badge is given to rural retreats around the country which have outstanding green credentials, by the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism.
BAAT is all about rural authenticity, ethno- and eco-tourism, and adventure and learning holidays. This taps into Bulgaria’s huge and as yet unexploited natural, ethnic and culinary wealth, and it is exactly what the country needs to move beyond cheap-and-cheerful seaside or skiing packages.
„Last winter,“ Mitko tells me, „dad slept out with the cows for two weeks, because we can’t afford to lose any more. Sometimes the wolves attack in daylight and vultures finish them off.“
He elaborates on the dietary preferences of the four kinds of vultures that live here. It’s morning and we’re off to a clifftop to spot birds of prey: 32 of Europe’s 34 species live in this area. We’ve barely stepped outside the vine-covered courtyard when Mitko hands me the binoculars: „Egyptian vulture. And a Eurasian griffon over there. A black stork, too.“
They hang in the hot air. Who needs a lookout point? By the time we’re looking down into the rocky gorge, we’ve seen prints of badger, hind and fox. We’ve held newborn hoopoe chicks (I think), and heard a very close gunshot in the forest.
„Neighbour,“ Mitko says. „Keeping a wolf from his sheep.“ We smile tensely.
In summer, when the grass here is heat-scorched, Mitko’s parents load the cows on to trucks and move them high into the Rila mountains. Mitko and his dad camp with the herd and hang out with climbers and outdoor-bound visitors, while warding off bears.
This is a bold and cleverly managed attempt by Mitko’s parents to return to what was a traditional way of life in the Balkans, before totalitarianism: transhumance, the seasonal movement of cattle. Mitko’s mother, a slender, pretty woman, tells us how she and her husband tried to trace the centuries-old transhumance routes that linked the Rhodopes and Rila ranges, but were saddened to find they’d been erased by disuse. But the couple are pleased that Mitko wants to follow in their foot- and hoof-steps.
„We don’t mind the wolves,“ Mitko says, „and the bears keep to themselves. It’s good to have all this wildlife: it keeps the natural balance.“
You don’t meet many kids like Mitko, and I think of him when we head to the western Rhodopes, where roadside boards tell you what to do if you meet a bear: speak in a low monotone without making sudden movements; if the bear attacks, curl into a ball, cover your neck, and pray.
The mountain village of Gela, alleged birthplace of Orpheus and host to a bagpipe festival on 3 August. It is also home to Villa Gella, a new lodge with positively lyrical views over the mountains from its veranda, a swimming pool loud with birdsong, and rooms exquisitely stuffed with antiques, fine linens and Bulgarian rose-oil products. There is even a library with good books in English and Bulgarian.
This new family-run lodge is a pioneer in eastern Europe, with high-end dining, facilities and service in rustic surroundings. Hostess Dima gives my man Tony and me soft house slippers and serves us tempura nettles, herby meatballs, cured meats, roast vegetable dips, and a limited edition TerraTangra red made from the robust mavrud grapes. Everything is locally sourced and organic.
The pool at Villa Gella, a new luxury lodge in the Rhodope mountains
The nearby Devil’s Throat Cave is supposed to be the entrance to Hades, where Orpheus descended to look for Eurydice. If this sounds fanciful, go inside, listen to the thundering water, where two divers drowned in 1971 and several speleologist teams attempted to explore and gave up, and it won’t. Yagodinska Cave up the road is a more calming experience, but just outside it is a new hair-raising attraction: off-roading in an open-top Jeep through butterfly-studded, bear-rich forest. There are 13 resident bears at present, our young driver tells us, adding: „As long as we don’t disturb a mother with cubs, we’ll be fine.“
We keep nervous watch all the way to Eagle’s Eye point, which is a newly built platform over an abyss – not recommended for height phobics. In the immense panorama, I can see into Greece, over to the Rila mountains, where Mitko’s camping with the herd, and the Pirin range, with its ski resorts.
Next we head north into the Balkan range, where two new farmstays have just opened. They are, like Wild Farm, both certified Green Lodges.
Bozhenski Chiflik guesthouse comprises a few blissfully calm upstairs rooms inside the lovingly restored old school of a once-prosperous mountain village called Subotkovtsi. All fluffy Balkan rugs and mountain views, it is also an organic farm and the project of Eli and Iliya Petrovi, a charismatic couple who live in the house next door and have decided to go peasant.
In fact, when I meet Iliya, over a delectable spread cooked by Eli and featuring slow-cooked spring-lamb in small claypots, warm pulled bread, juicy giant buffalo tomatoes and delicate cheeses made yesterday, he is wearing a T-shirt with the logo of a national movement for self-sufficient farming. It reads: Be yourself. Become a peasant.
This life is an act of positive resistance. Eli and Iliya, along with their equally educated-to-the-hilt neighbours Tanya and Mitko Nenov, who run a guesthouse with pool called Dom Pastrina, are part of a growing and enterprising minority of Bulgarians. These are people who have had enough of two things: city life and a self-serving state. They have decided to return to the kind of living their great-grandparents enjoyed and prospered at, here on what is some of Europe’s most fertile land. This is not hard to believe: cherries and plums fall from trees as I walk up the steep lanes of Subotkovtsi with Iliya the following morning amid clouds of butterflies.
But I have one key place to visit north of here, between the Balkan range and the lush Danubian plains: the romantically named and romantically lived-in Wild Thyme. Two pretty – and pretty large – village houses with flowers in front and connected courtyard gardens at the back are home to ex-pats Claire Coulter, a reiki master originally from Ireland, and Englishman Chris Fenton, an archaeologist.
When they fell for the hilly, half-empty village of Palamartsa three years ago, they decided to go the whole hog and run a mixed farm, including a thriving piggery. On our first evening, Chris serves an organic pork dish, with garden greens and homemade salsa. The origin of the dish was called Ellie, and I have a bit of a vegetarian moment.
„That’s what home farming is all about,“ Chris smiles. „And Ellie had a good life.“
One of the myriad seasonal things visitors can do at Wild Thyme is learn how to slaughter a goat or pig (this is done in June). But those of a less bloodthirsty disposition can settle for feeding and milking the animals, or making sausages with Chris. Here’s how it’s done: mix minced pork with cider, nutmeg and coriander, and squeeze into a pre-bought sausage skins. Refrigerate.
On our last day, we exploit Chris’s archaeological expertise and go on a tour of Sveshtari Thracian tombs and Demir Baba Teke, an eerie complex dedicated to an Islamic mystic. There are several other major cultural sights accessible from here: the ancient town of Veliko Turnovo, known as City of the Tsars, and nearby architectural gem Arbanassi, where visitors can see how Bulgarian merchants lived in Ottoman times. (Very well, since you ask.)
In the village of Palamartsa itself, Claire and Chris have made good friends by learning the language. Two dozen European expats have moved in here the past few years; a young British couple run the local cafe-bar. Once wealthy, Palamartsa is now rich in large, empty houses – the result of forced urbanisation during the communism period – that are crying out for people like Claire and Chris to bring them back to life.
They’re also crying out for tourists to come and share in a good, natural way of life that trumps the social and economic experiments this part of Europe has survived – just.
Claire and Chris look happy, they look like people who have found their place in the world. But idylls are hard work. I can’t help noticing that Chris takes the goats out to graze twice a day.
„This is the hectic time of year,“ Claire says, „but in winter, we lounge by the fire, read and catch up.“
Then she looks at me and says, as if reading my mind: „Why don’t you just move here?“
Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism: baatbg.org