By Patricia Weismantel
Traveling through Bulgaria you feel like you were the last one invited to the party. The Thracians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans and Turkish were all there first and have left plenty of proof to remind you of your tardiness in visiting Bulgaria.
For many Bulgaria still remains a mystery, perhaps associating it with yogurt or Communism, but there is a lot on offer as others have discovered long ago. Wedged between Romania
and Turkey, with a long Black Sea coastline and Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria’s absorption of cultures while still maintaining their own identity and language, makes it a fascinating biking destination.
The natural starting point for most visitors is Sofia, the capital, and this is where our bicycle group of international riders met. Here a tour of Sofia’s monuments – the elegant golden-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral and St. George Chapel, built by the Romans in the 4th century and later turned into a Muslim and then a Christian sanctuary, are prime examples of the variety of things to come.
Cycling through the idyllic countryside on small backroads takes us to highs such as Glozhene Monastery. The location perched on the top of a steep rocky hill which juts out amid the greenery is explained as the preferred location of the miracle-working icon of St George the Victorious. Not liking a monastery built in its honour on the Cherni Vit River, legend has it that the icon flew – not once, but three times – to the same place. A replica of the icon can be found at the modest monastery.
Our next high is the pass that separates northern and southern Bulgaria where we are exposed to the massive Arc of Liberty, symbolizing the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 from the Ottomans during the Russian-Turkish War. After a glorious descent we are in the Valley of Roses where the scent is heavenly. The Damascus rose was brought from Syria during the Crusades in 1270 and have thrived ever since. The roses are picked in May and June, when the humidity is high, and are quickly distilled into essential oil. Undoubtedly the most fragrant ride of the tour!
We cross the valley and meet a shepherd minding his flock before we enter the Sredna Gora Mountains where we are again immersed in many eras. In Koprivshtitsa we are surrounded
by hundreds of examples of well-preserved 19th century Revival architecture and learn about the many famous Bulgarian revolutionaries that were born here and led the April Uprising in 1876. Hisarya, our next stop, was seized by the Romans from the Thracians and it quickly gained a reputation as a spa town and those in search of a cure for sickness came from all over the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean Islands and even Asia Minor. Though there are still ruins from the Romans the main attraction remains the mineral springs with temperatures between 24 and 49 degrees C, said to be particularly effective with kidneys, liver and gallbladder diseases, gastritis and diabetes.
Once cured we head to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, but once having passed the gritty industrial suburbs, an eclectic hodgepodge of architectural styles awaited us in the cobble-stoned steep streets of the old town. There’s evidence Plovdiv was first settled in 500 B.C., Thracians arrived next, then Philip II of Macedonia conquered the region in A.D. 341. Between 1204 and 1364 alone, it changed hands 11 times. The spectacular Roman amphitheater once held 3,000 people who gathered for theater performances and gladiator combats and is now used for summer concerts. A few of the best anti-Ottoman National Revival buildings are museums but the houses themselves are worth a visit. Getting lost in the old city led us to discover a tiny art museum that featured a national artist from Plovdiv. Such a pleasant find!
Our cycling continued in the Rodopi Mountains, where nature and food took over from history as the highlights. We rode from the Pamporovo Ski Resort through pine forests and meadows of flowers to the Trigrad River then it was up a narrow road through a marble gorge and a visit to the Devil’s Throat. We entered a tiny door in the solid rock wall and were greeted by an icy blast of air, not the normal temperature associated with Hades. A slippery passageway led us down to the “Hall of Thunder,” a vast cavern that owes its name to the 40m/140ft waterfall from the Trigrad River pounding down. Decision time, to continue on and climb a ladder of 288 steps out next to the waterfall or return the way we came. We all made it out to see the light!
Organic honey, fresh cheese, home grown tomatoes, we were always well fed with the dishes that were influenced by the those that had been there previously. Greek and Turkish tastes were evident in the shopska salad and filo pasteries, and so were Russia’s in the stuffed peppers, but again Bulgarian specialties still have their place at the table, such as trator, a chilled yogurt, cucumber, dill, walnut and sunflower oil soup.
More rolling hills took us up and down through pine forests to Velingrad and our last spa town of the tour. Though it is the source of 70 separate springs with healing mineral water the town also boasts the largest karst spring in the country, the Kleptuza, which provides the town’s water supply. One last dip in the spa waters gave us time to reflect on all that we had seen on our cycling tour and it was mutually agreed upon that we were glad we had finally made it to the party that is Bulgaria.