Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodopes are known for their unique geological formations. The mountains are set apart by river gorges; there are many deep caves cut into the karst landscape. In the winter months, the snow-covered peaks are perfect for skiing – Pamporovo is one of Bulgaria's most popular ski resorts. In the summer, the hillsides are painted bright green and covered with wild flowers. With snow seen on the surrounding mountain tops, one has a feeling of visiting a "Sound of Music" movie set.

There are many small, picturesque villages perched on the hillsides and in the valleys below. It is said that the region has the highest number of centenarians in the country. This is because the villagers lead simple, stress-free lives; eat homemade yogurt; enjoy healthy vegetables grown in the small plot outside their homes; and, of course, breathe the crisp mountain air.

Bulgarians as a whole are very hospitable, but residents of the Rhodopes are particularly friendly to visitors, especially to travelers from overseas. It’s a bit difficult to communicate with the older generation, but young Bulgarians are fluent in English as well as many other European languages.

Accommodations in the Rhodopes

Besides the off-season lodgings available in the kitschy resort hotels of Pamporovo, most of the places to stay in the region are bed and breakfasts in private homes, most of which cater solely to Bulgarian natives. Western visitors will find the hosts very friendly, but without the ability to converse in English, the stay could be less than perfect.

Jodie and I head instead to Villa Gela, located some twenty kilometers from the Greek border. We follow road signs conveniently listing the villages in both Cyrillic and English, and arrive in the amusingly-named town of Shiroka Laka. After driving past homes built in the style of 19th century Bulgarian renaissance architecture, we turn off the highway and follow the route to the village of Gela. A steep ascent on a paved road brings us to an altitude of 1,500 meters and the instructions we had received make it very easy to reach our destination.

At the villa we are greeted by our hostess, Darina, a professional travel guide who has traveled herself. Darina speaks Bulgarian, Serbian and perfect English. Darina's family originates in Ruse, on the banks of the Danube; they came to the Rhodopes because Ivan, her uncle, suffered from asthma and needed to move into the mountains. The family fell in love with the location, immediately bought property and began renovating a collapsed wooden home. Completing our complement of friendly hosts is Dimka, the resident cook who creates tasty, innovative meals for the guests.

Villa Gela is luxurious and ultra-modern – not your typical Rhodope accommodations – but the hospitality is genuine. There is an array of solar panels on the roof; the mountains get some 240 days of sunlight a year. Extensively renovated, the villa was styled by interior decorator Marja Walters and has six bedrooms, each of them uniquely themed. There is an Oriental Room, a Wood Room, and a Striped Room. Our bedroom has a Chihuly sculpture encased in glass, and in fact, the feeling is that we are staying inside a museum, although a very homey, comfortable one.

All of the bedrooms in the rooms, but no televisions. Wifi is available throughout the premises. The living room is spacious, with large windows offering views of the surroundings. The long dining table is right behind the sofas; elegant dishes and glassware complete the five star level of accommodations.

Villa Gela was selected as the Best Ski Chalet in Bulgaria in both 2013 and 2014, in a vote among an international online audience, and it's clear to see why.

We assumed that lodging at the villa must be very expensive, but as listed on the villa's website (), half board is £100 per person. The maximum number of guests is twelve; two children with their parents in the family bedroom would be very comfortable.

Our adventures in the Rhodopes were just getting started!

Read the other parts of this series:

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Cuisine and Culture

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Bachkovo Monastery

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Devil's Throat Cave

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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