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.

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 of the boat below are both taken from the same spot of our hotel balcony: if you pay attention you can see the boat on the left photo: it is the tiny dot below the rock.

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, colorful crafts and the sound of ringing bells from the costumes people were preparing.

*men dressed with costumes and masks inspired by folklore and aiming to chase the evil spirits away (similar to Carnival processions after Shrovetide and before Easter).

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Even if you miss the Kukeri you can still buy handmade little souvenirs with them or purchase homemade sausages, rakia, brass bells, crafts and traditional colorful rugs at the farmer’s markets around the village.

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The Red Church in Perushtica dates back to 4-6th century AD. It is an early Christian temple with Byzanthine architecture, heavily destroyed since it heyday. It recently underwent a lenghty 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

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.

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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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Side note: I really wish I could recommend our hotel, but at this point I can’t

When I saw pictures of hotel Chilingira in Booking, I was very impressed by the place and the pleasant service provided by the receptionist,  It turned out it was a family business: and I really know how hard that is and respect it. However, honesty and truth are of even higher value for me and in all honesty: we did not have a great time there. I mean we had a great time because of the beautiful nature and because we are always happy to be together, but if a friend asks me “Should I visit?” I will have more reasons to say “No” than to say “Yes”.

I recurrently felt like I was in an episode of Hotel Impossible.Many things were done right. As you can see from the photos: the place really looks 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. It was objectively tough to sleep.

Tip: The photo on the right is the view from our balcony.Amazing view to wake up to! If I had slept in a nice comfortable bed (with clean bedding), I would have absolutely loved my stay! My advice is: comfortable beds are much more important than nice deocration. Give guests a good night’s sleep, never ever leave bed covers with stains and people will enjoy their stay much more

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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 great traditional food. Not re-heated sausages or trout stuffed with…ham (?!) for 14 leva… This is considered pricey even for a restaurant in downtown Sofia,so in a poor mountain area, where many people struggle to find jobs, it is outrageous.

Tip: If you have such a truly beautiful lakeview restaurant in a fishing area: use this to your advantage! With a new menu (and staff) this could be an amazing place. Hire a good chef who really knows how to prepare a variety of good fish dishes and rustic Rhodopean meals unique to the area. And put reasonable prices which match the quality of the food: the more you charge, the higher you set the bar, so make sure you reach it

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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 a quarter of an hour to get noticed by the waitress and sitting on a table full of dirty plates for 20+ minutes which nobody cleans up is not OK.

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 something, if I can get better food & experience at home? It is important to understand client needs and bring value and quality to guest experience, not just deliver food to the table whenever you have time. 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, that does not leave a positive impression.

Such problems are not unique to this hotel. It is clear that the people there were trying to create a nice place. I am sure they had the best intentions, and I really wish we hadn’t encoutnered these issues, because the place has huge potential.  We had a long talk with Stef that this pattern is typical of many venues and tourist spots & people should focus on details about the decoration and interior/exterior at the very end. The primary focus should be ensuring comfort, quality food and professionally trained service.

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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