Routes from Sofia to the Black Sea coast take you through the mountainous terrain of central and northern Bulgaria – a gruelling eight- or nine-hour ride that’s worth interrupting to savour something of the country’s heartland. For over a thousand years, the “Old Mountain” (Stara Planina) – known to foreigners as the Balkan range – has been the cradle of the Bulgarian nation. It was here that the Khans established and ruled over the feudal realm known as the “First Kingdom”. Here, too, after a period of Byzantine control, the Boyars proclaimed the “Second Kingdom” and created a magnificent capital at Veliko Tarnovo – which remains one of Bulgaria’s most impressive cities. Closer to the capital, the Sredna Gora (Central Range) was inhabited as early as the fifth millennium BC, but for Bulgarians this forested region is best known as the “land of the April Rising”, the nineteenth-century rebellion for which the highly picturesque town Koprivshtitsa will always be remembered.
Although they lie some way off the main rail lines from Sofia, neither Veliko Tarnovo nor Koprivshtitsa is difficult to reach. The former lies just south of Gorna Oryahovitsa, a major rail junction midway between Varna and Sofia, from where you can pick up a local train or bus; the latter is served by a stop on the Sofia – Burgas line, whose three daily trains in each direction are met by local buses to ferry you the 12 km to the village itself.
Trains heading from Bulgaria to Greece follow the Struma Valley south from Sofia, skirting some of the country’s most grandiose mountains on the way. Formerly noted for their bandits and hermits, the Rila and Pirin Mountains contain Bulgaria’s highest, stormiest peaks, swathed in forests and dotted with alpine lakes awaiting anyone prepared to hike or risk their car’s suspension on the backroads. If time is short, the two spots to are the most revered of Bulgarian monasteries, Rila, lying some 30km east of the main southbound route, and the village of Melnik, known both for its wine and its vernacular architecture. More traditional architecture is to be found in the village of Bansko on the eastern side of the Pirin range, a small detour from the main north–south route.
Another much-travelled route heads southeast from Sofia towards Istanbul, through the Plain of Thrace, a fertile region that was the heartland of the ancient Thracians, whose culture began to emerge during the third millennium BC. The main road and rail lines now linking Istanbul and Sofia essentially follow the course of the Roman Serdica–Constantinople road, past towns ruled by the Ottomans for so long that foreigners used to call this “European Turkey”. Of these, the most important is Plovdiv (read more), Bulgaria’s second city, whose old quarter is a wonderful melange of Renaissance mansions, mosques and classical remains, spread over three hills. Thirty kilometres east of Plovdiv is the Bachkovo Monastery , whose churches and courtyards contain some of Bulgaria’s most vivid frescoes.