Off the Beaten Track
Check out our authors' picks of must-see sights, local hangouts and unforgettable activities.
Take a slow wander through the Rodopi Mountains, home to Bulgaria's most isolated and ethnically diverse communities. The landscape takes in spectacular gorges and steep rocky slopes which open onto tiered fields and pine forests. The traditions of Bulgaria's Slavs are strongest in the Rodopi, and it is here most of the Muslim population lives: ethnic Turks and Pomaks, whose ancestors converted during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. During the communist period a 20km (12mi) exclusion zone was enforced along Bulgaria's southern border, ensuring that the villagers in this region were isolated.
Many travellers only get as far south as Bachkovo Monastery (read more), 30 km (19 mi) south of Plovdiv. Smolyan, a large logging town 70 km (43 mi) farther south, is a good base for visits to the surrounding area. The ski resort of Pamporovo, 16 km (10 mi) north-west, is popular with package tourists from Britain and Germany, but day-trippers are also welcome. Twenty km north-west of Smolyan is Shiroka Laka, a scenic village of stone houses, meandering goats and chatting villagers striking casual poses with pitchforks and donkeys. The School for Traditional Music, founded in 1971 to preserve Rodopi folklore and music, gives regular performances to the public.
Koprivshtitsa has been preserved as an open-air museum of the Bulgarian National Revival and even today is only slightly tarnished by Coca Cola and Marlboro. It was here on 20 April 1876 that Todor Kableshkov led an uprising against the Turks which eventually led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. These events are well-documented in the various house museums; but even without its place in history, the village would still be worth a visit if only to walk its winding cobbled streets and tarry on the stone bridges spanning trickling streams. You can stay in many of the old houses, some of which even have hot water!
Varvara is a tiny fishing community 82km (51mi) south of Burgas. In winter it's pin-quiet, but the village is transformed each summer when artists and alternative lifestylers from Sofia camp on the fields above the beach. The more established groovers have their own leaf and stick shelters which are repaired each year. Private rooms are available in the village if you don't fancy sleeping under the stars or bunking in with your new Bulgarian mates, and you can buy fish and vegetables from the locals.
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