Mount Orpheus, Secret Caves and Surprisingly Good Wine in Chic Bulgaria
By Andrew Pierce
The Daily Mail
The tiny hamlet of Gella perched high in the Rhodope mountain range in Bulgaria might sound an unlikely choice for a holiday.
Gella's once-thriving population of 3,000 is now down to its last 30 inhabitants, and their average age is 70. Young people long ago abandoned working in the fields, which are still cultivated by horse and plough, for cities such as the capital, Sofia, in search of better-paid jobs and careers.
But the newly opened Villa Gella, in the shadow of the imposing Mount Orpheus, might halt the exodus. It is quite rightly the talk of the Bulgarian tourist industry - and a very good reason to visit.
While other countries from behind the old Iron Curtain like Hungary have developed a thriving and varied tourist market, Bulgaria has been stuck in a time warp, dominated by cheap package tours to the Black Sea. My friends laughed when I told them I was going there for a weekend.
It's true that the capital Sofia is dominated by dreary, grey, utilitarian buildings and shabby shops. But the three-hour drive from the capital takes you on ancient Roman roads and bridges, through rolling landscapes, open valleys dotted with tiny villages, green meadows with grazing goats and dense centuries-old coniferous woods, where bears and wolves still roam.
Stop at one of the dozens of tiny chapels that criss-cross the countryside and you will find beautifully preserved medieval frescoes.
The lorries abandoned on the roadside are relics of the Soviet era, but the family-owned Villa Gella, a luxury boutique property that sleeps 12 and three children, is a product of the capitalist era.
It is self-sufficient in butter, cheese and yogurt courtesy of the hamlet's own cow herd led by the delightful Belka. Honey comes from a neighbour's bees and the wine from its Terra Tangra vineyard is so good, it's served in Western European restaurants.
Bulgaria was once home to the Thracians, and the mythical birthplace of Orpheus, one of their most famous sons, is the Rhodope mountains.
Legend has it that when Orpheus's wife Eurydice was killed by a poisonous serpent on their wedding day, he went deep into the Underworld to try to bring her back from the dead by bewitching Hades with the magic of his lyre.
If you have the nerve, you can recreate Orpheus's journey by going down into the Devil's Throat. It is not for the faint-hearted - many tourists turn away, deterred by the clammy cold and the prospect of negotiating 288 steps carved out of the rock into the bowels of the cave.
The aptly named Hall Of Thunder is a vast cavern dominated by a thunderous 140ft underground waterfall - one of the highest in Europe. The floor is a mosaic of underground rapids and lakes from which no explorer has returned alive.
On the way out you can buy sprigs of Mursalian, which the locals say makes a refreshing tea that has the same effects as Viagra, though it wouldn't have done Orpheus much good - his mission failed and his wife perished once more.
Many of Bulgaria's hotels are still struggling to shake off the crushing communist legacy, but Villa Gella, built more than 1,600m above sea level, stands out and is dragging the country's tourist industry into the 21st century.
Every room has a fireplace and panoramic views of the pine-forested valleys below. In the summer, you can go horse riding, cycling, potholing, and cave-exploring. In winter, skiing in Pamporovo is less than ten miles away and Chepelure a few miles further on.
The villa also has an indoor pool and steam room, while badminton courts are just being completed.
But some things don't change. It is proud of its traditional menus and entertainment - so be prepared for a rousing rendition of the bagpipes. I, too, thought they had originated in Scotland, but Bulgaria supposedly got there centuries earlier, as the countless statues of pipe players across the country testifies.
Villa Gella should market its home-made apple vinegar internationally as a hangover cure (I did tell you about the wine) and I never thought I could ever enjoy fermented cabbage juice to restore the body's balance, but I did.
They call a night's sleep here 'the luxury of silence' because you can hear a pin drop. A combination of the fresh mountain air and aching limbs from hiking through the foothills of Mount Orpheus through meadows of wild orchids and astonishingly pretty butterflies guarantees a good night's sleep.
No wonder Hitler sent his athletes to train in these mountains for the 1936 Olympics.
There are some charming places to visit, too, such as Plovdiv with its Roman amphitheatre, gaily painted houses and bohemian artists' corner. Lunch for two with a couple of beers costs barely GBP 10.
The weekend was such a triumph I'm going back in the spring and taking with me those friends who sniggered when I said I was off to Bulgaria for the first time.
They'll soon realize the joke was on them.
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