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(2014 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Valeri, our guide, is recounting the history of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

From the outside, the Neo-Byzantine church is a wedding cake of green and gold-plated domes; inside, worshippers cross themselves against a backdrop of opulent marble mosaics.

“But are many young Bulgarians actually religious?” I ask, wondering how to square this impressive monument to piety, one of the world’s biggest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, with the designer fashion stores and neon-lit nightclubs that the Balkan country has embraced since it emerged from the yoke of Communism nearly a quarter of a century ago.

“Look,” Valeri begins, forcefully, and I worry that my question has annoyed him, but he goes on to explain genially that as in the rest of Europe, Bulgaria’s young people are less religious than previous generations. By the end of the week I will have learned that Valeri is never annoyed, but just kicks off the answer to every question with a vigorous “Look.”

He’s the ideal guide for a Balkan tour: not slick—things do not always run smoothly here—but brimming with good cheer and hospitality, and a master of a very complicated history.

He also looks the part. The morning before flying home, back in Sofia, the Ethnographic Museum is hosting a special theme day. There are traditional costumes to try on, and we laugh as we pose for photos in folk dresses. But when Valeri dons the traditional kalpak, a high-crowned sheepskin cap, nobody laughs: he’s been wearing a near identical hat all week and looks just the same.

Into the Rhodopes

From Sofia we depart for the Rhodopes, about three hours away. Like most remote areas, the mountain range straddling Bulgaria and Greece is alive with myth. Legend has it that siblings Rhodopa and Hemus annoyed Zeus with their relationship, and in retribution the gods turned them into mountains, the Balkans and the Rhodopes.

Due to the often narrow, tortuous roads, travel here is not easy, but the scenery is more than worth it. Rock faces of vertiginous gorges at times press so close together that the effect is almost like being on the skyscraper-flanked streets of New York City or Hong Kong. Dense banks of pines, spruces, firs, oaks and ashes line the slopes. Rustic villages materialize, where the passerby might spot a cow tethered outside a wooden cabin or chickens clucking around a yard. Many visitors indeed come for avian attractions: the hundreds of species found in the Rhodopes attract birdwatchers.

Against this gorgeous backdrop—“it is gorgeous, because it is a gorge!” jokes Valeri, delighted with his ability to pun in another language—there are also specific sights, which must not be missed. The English translation of Chudni Mostove, natural arches formed by river erosion, is the Wonderful or Marvellous Bridges, and the flattering name is deserved. The biggest arch soars up 45 metres, like a huge railway tunnel, and it is almost unfathomable that such a majestic landmark came about by accident.

Intrepid travellers will also want to go underground. Dyavolsko Garlo, or Devil’s Throat Cave, is said to be the main hall of Hades in the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. The story goes that Orpheus ventured into the underworld to rescue his wife, only to dramatically lose her forever when he disobeyed the gods’ order not to look back and cast an anxious glance behind him at the last moment. You may have some sympathy: the 300-step climb out of the cave is damp, dark and uneven. Yet with the upside-down bats hanging sentinel above and the river thundering below, it is splendidly atmospheric.

A second cave, Yagodina, permits less demanding, horizontal exploration, with a 45-minute tour that takes in about a kilometre of the 10-kilometre labyrinth. The chilly walk—the temperature is a constant 6 C—takes you past stalagmites and stalactites, growing at a rate of one centimetre every 50 or 100 years, plus small bats dangling just above eye level. There’s also a wedding chapel where more than 20 adventurous couples have exchanged their vows in Bulgarian for “I do.”

Secret Ingredients

The Rhodopes’ unique terrain also gives rise to some surprising benefits for the community. In the village of Momchilovtsi, whose townspeoples’ efforts to preserve their cultural heritage have earned it the designation of Unique European Settlement, a quarter of the population is older than 85.

This longevity has been attributed to the health-promoting properties of the local bacteria. Word got out, and Momchilovtsi-branded yogurt, made using bacteria from the village, is now marketed in China by a Shanghai company. Chinese children holding their yogurt beam out from a photo on display in the local museum.

And if our guide Valeri is worried about the decline of religion, he need have no concerns in Momchilovtsi: the village has 28 chapels in and around it, serving a population of fewer than 1,400.

The Eastern Orthodox faith has certainly left its mark here. Religious landmarks of note include Bachkovo Monastery, the country’s second largest, founded nearly a millennium ago, and the reconstructed 12th-century Church of the Holy Mother of God at Asen’sFortress. The lofty location of the fortress—impregnable from three sides thanks to the sheer topography—affords stunning mountain views, though the 14th-century frescoes inside the church, depicting saints and biblical scenes, are similarly captivating.

A Sofian Souvenir

Religious art, in the form of small icons, is a popular souvenir, but I go home with something else. Back at Sofia’s Ethnographic Museum, a potter is effortlessly fashioning bowls on his wheel in a display for local schoolchildren. Noticing my interest, he presents me with one. It suffers the odd chip as it slowly dries on the journey home, but arrives intact. It’s the perfect Balkan memento: somewhat battered, not swanky, but given with kindness and utterly unique.

Travel Planner

Various North American and European airlines serve Sofia via European hubs. Canadians do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for stays of less than three months. For information on the Rhodopes and the rest of the country, visit the Official Tourism Portal of Bulgaria at bulgariatravel.org.

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