Outdoors Visit Bulgaria

Beautiful Bulgaria | Weekend in the Rhodope Mountains

 I had the pleasure to take Panasonic FZ2000 & DMC LX15 on a trip to the Rhodope mountains to test their capabilities. The photos in this story are taken with these 2 cameras and only adjusted for brightness/saturation.

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Reservoirs, lakes & gorges | The beautiful Rhodope Mountains

According to the Thracian legend Rhodopa and Hemus were a brother and sister who fell in love and called each other by the names of the Gods: Zeus and Hera. And since Ancient Greek Deities are not famous for their good temper, the abuse of their names brought on a curse on the young couple: both lovers turned into mountain ranges. Of course, geologists have a slightly different idea about the formation of the mountain range.

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The Rhodope Mountains takes up 1/7th of the territory of Bulgaria and features ski slopes,  caves, historical cities and villages, hiking routes and some of Bulgaria’s biggest reservoirs & artificial lakes.

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Unlike Rila, which is swarming with tourists (to the detriment of the area’s ecosystem), the Rhodope Mountains still manage to preserve their raw charm and offer travellers a serene look into Bulgarian nature, history and traditions.

Things to do & Places to visit

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Zooming to the distant shore | Shot on Panasonic FZ2000

Fishing and sailing in Vacha. The area near and around Vacha is full of cars parked in the strangest spots on the road: as long as there is nearby access to a forest path to the shore. P1070700.JPG

The reservoir is a famous spot for fishermen: most just park their cars and use forest paths to reach the shore and set up their fishing game.

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Close up of fishermen, taken from the road | Shot on Panasonic FZ2000

Other people prefer to go by boat: you can hire a motorboat or paddle boat and either go fishing or just sail along the beautiful water basin. The girl at the hotel told us that you can hire a motorboat for 50/60BGN per hour or paddle boat for around 15BGN per hour.

Playing with the camera:  The two photos above are all taken from our hotel balcony (as Stef is kindly showing by appearing in the shot). This gives you an idea of how the camera zoom enhances distant objects. The two photos below are both of the same rock: in the distance and zoomed in with a clear view of the boat. 

Shiroka Laka

This small village is famous for its Pesponedelnik celebrations with hundreds of Kukeri* from around the region. We couldn’t be there for the event, but took a short pleasant walk across the village and enjoyed its small streets, traditional crafts and the sound of ringing bells from the costumes people were preparing.

*Kukeri: men dressed in traditional costumes and masks inspired by folklore and aiming to chase the evil spirits away (similar to Carnival processions after Shrovetide and before Easter in other parts of the world).

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Even if you miss the Kukeri you can still buy handmade little souvenirs. Outdoor markets also offer pretty much everthing from homemade sausages, rakia, brass bells, crafts and traditional rugs in vibrant colors.

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The Red Church in Perushtica

The Red Church is another famous sight in the region. It is located near Plovdiv and it is a nice destination to add if you are travelling near the Rhodope region. It dates back to 4-6th century AD.

It is an early Christian temple with Byzantine architecture, heavily destroyed since its heyday. It recently underwent a lengthy restoration process. I will soon post more photos from our visit here on the blog

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The Red Church in Perushtica | Shot on Panasonic DMC LX15

Nearby Caves

Several of the most famous caves in Bulgaria are scattered across the region including the famous Devil’s Throat and Yagodinska: the longest cave in the Rhodope mountains. But visiting each of the caves takes time and with the slow transportation from one place to another I suggest you choose between lake watching and cave watching and leave at least 2 full days for exploring the area.

Other reservoirs & lakes

Tsigov CharkBatak, Dospat and Vacha are 3 large reservoirs in the area which with enough diligence can all be visited within a day. The distances between them are not that big, but this mountain area is full of steep road turns and it really takes a while to get from one place to another. Also: there are many spots where you can pull over and just enjoy the view and since the view is worth it, this slows you down even more.

Vacha Reservoir is a great place to visit, but since it is hard to find a good hotel in the area: I would suggest exploring it on your way to other places. There are many nice hotels near Tsigov Chark which is an area overlooking the Batak Reservoir about 1h 15 min away.

Tracing back the roots

I love the Rhodope Mountains, not only because of their natural beauty but because of the family history we have in the area and some of the childhood memories I’ve kept from visiting places like Chepelare.

My grandfather’s family roots can be traced to the Rhodope mountains, My great grandfather actively helped bring electricity into the area with the project for building the Vacha reservoir (which was later nationalized and its name was changed to Antonivanovtsi) and got himself the nickname Kolyo The Electrician.So it was interesting and exciting for me to visit the area: not only as someone who loves beautiful outdoors destinations but as someone who’s remotely connected to this place in one way or another. 

The best place to eat on your way back

Zeko is a restaurant on the highway near Pazardjik. It is always packed with people because of the great food. It offers excellent lamb and beef meat, huge portions of homemade bread straight from the oven, traditional salads, dips, soups…

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Good food is one of life’s best pleasures | Shot on Panasonic DMC LX 15

My personal favourite is the adana kebap: lamb and beef minced together with spices and fresh salad on the side. If you enjoy spicy food you would love it. The cream lentil soup is also probably the best one I’ve tried.

Zeko

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Travel advice: I really wish I could recommend our hotel, but I can’t

When I saw pictures of hotel Chilingira in Booking, I was very impressed with the photos and the view.

It really has a fantastic location and initially, I was positively impressed by the service at the reception. It turned out it was a family business: I have seen first hand how hard it is to run one so I respect all such endeavours.

However, honesty and truth are of even higher value for me and in all honesty: we did not have a good time there. I mean we had a great time around the lake because of the beautiful nature and because we were together, but if a friend asks me “Should I visit?” I will have more reasons to say “No”.

I recurrently felt like I was in an episode of Hotel ImpossibleMany things were done right. As you can see from the photos: the place looks really great.

 It has 2 swimming pools, nice architecture, amazing location near the reservoir, a private chapel…but the devil is in the details. And there were definitely some issues with these details.

Problem 1: Beds. Despite the fresh & clean sheets, the stained bed covers (photo below) made me worry that a proper forensic team could probably 3D print the previous occupants based on the available DNA material

And mattresses were really painful & uncomfortable. I’ve spent most of my recent summers sleeping in tents on the ground, so trust me: this is not a case of The Princess and the pea. I never complain about such things so for me to bring that up, that means these beds were absolutely intolerable.

Tip: Just look at the view from our balcony! If I had slept in a nice comfortable bed (with clean bedding), I would have absolutely loved this place! My advice is: do not spend money on useless decoration but invest in the most important thing for a hotel: comfortable beds, clean sheets and good service! 

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Problem 2: Food. When I am travelling in a fishing area in a region famous for its traditional food, I look forward to great fish meals and authentic traditional food.

We had to put up with re-heated sausages or food abominations like trout stuffed with…ham (?!) at the ridiculous price of 14 leva…This price is expensive even for a restaurant in downtown Sofia, so in a poor mountain area, where many people struggle to find jobs, it is outrageous to charge that much for a pretty mediocre meal.

Tip: A Lakeview restaurant in a fishing area is a dream come true, do not waste it. Hire a good chef who really knows how to cook fish and prepare rustic Rhodopean meals unique for this region. And, please, put reasonable prices which match the quality of the food. The more you charge, the higher you set the bar, so make sure the price matches the quality.

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Problem 3: Service. It must be hard for 1 person to serve all tables in a restaurant. Especially if that 1 person covers all shifts from morning till evening. As a human, I understand that. But as a client I don’t want to spend money on poor service. Waiting for ages for your food and drinking wine on a table full of dirty plates which nobody cleans up for half an hour is simply not OK by any normal standard.

Tip: I bus and wash my plates at home immediately after dinner because I want to enjoy my evening on a clean table with just a glass of wine and good conversation.

So the reasonable question is: Why should I pay money for your service if I can prepare much better food and in a much cleaner setting at home? The hospitality industry is about bringing value and quality to the guest experience, not just going through the motions to get money out of the client.

If you have really great food you can get away with not-so-great service. Try to fix at least one the two: if both have issues, you are bound to leave a negative impression.

Such problems are not unique to this hotel. It is clear that the people there were trying hard and I am sure they had the best intentions. If the three major issues I mentioned above get resolved, the place has a huge potential.

We had a long talk with Stef that this pattern is typical of many venues and tourist spots here. In our culture people put way too much stress on appearances and spend money on decoration and looks, all the while forgetting about the substance. If you are opening a hotel or restaurant your top priorities should be the comfort, quality of food and impeccable service: without them it does not matter how expensive it looks, because it leaves a cheap taste.

A good hotel doesn’t have to be shiny or fancy at all: but it should be a place where you enjoy every part of your stay. Fixing the problem areas can make all the difference.

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