By Sarah Souli
Photographed by Marco Argüello
Aug 24, 2022
IT WAS WELL PAST MIDNIGHT when we arrived at Zornitza Family Estate, a rambling property in southwestern Bulgaria, near the Greek border. The country roads were unlit, our path illuminated by nothing but the moon and stars. Our only senes of place cam from the smell of roses that hung heavy in the air. My husband, Nikos, and I stumbled into our room, exhausted and half-blind from the eye-straining drive, and immediately fell asleep.
“I think it’s almost nicer to arrive here at night,” Yavor Kirov, the property’s general manager, told me the next morning with a smile. “Because then you are pleasantly surprised when you wake up.”
In the pale morning light of May, this corner of Bulgaria is old-world bucolic. Zornitza, a member of the Relais & Châteaux hotel consortium, sprawls out across softly rolling pale-green hills that are striated with more than 40 hectares of grapevines. (The estate has its own wine label.) Everywhere I turned there were roses, from tiny pink buds crawling up stone walls to giant tiger-streaked petals trembling in the breeze. There were organic orchards flush with early-summer sour cherries and apricots, herbs growing along a creek, beehives, a livestock farm, and a lake for fishing. Guests are encouraged to pick any fruit or flowers they find on the estate, mimicking the feel of a traditional rural Bulgarian childhood.
“This is really the concept,” Kirov explained. “To create a place where guests are in full harmony with the great nature we have.”
Long overshadowed by its southern neighbors and, for Americans, often associated singularly with its Communist past, Bulgaria is only now starting to be seen as a travel destination—boosted by a growing interest in Eastern Europe (and far enough removed from the war a few countries north in Ukraine). I first became enthralled with the country while reading Kapka Kassabova’s extraordinary book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Kassabova, who left Bulgaria as a teen after the collapse of the Soviet Union, returned to her homeland 20 years later to explore the layered communities along its borders with Greece and Turkey. Her book highlights the natural beauty and mysticality of Bulgaria; instantly intrigued, I began plotting a trip from my home in Greece.
Kirov was happy to indulge my curiosity. He took us for a hike in the nearby Pirin Mountains—a range that, as one story goes, derives its name from the Slavic god of thunder and lightning. (Neither, thankfully, was on display during our walk.) The area is known for its special energy: abundant mineral springs, thought to have healing properties, make this a popular wellness destination.
Our first stop was the Melnik Pyramids, a natural rock formation that looks like rust-colored sandcastles emerging, rather incongruously, from behind a forest. As we scrambled up a jagged ridge, Kirov pointed out a dormant volcano, Mount Kozhuh, in the distance. This, too, is revered for its energy—and for being the birthplace of Baba Vanga, the blind mystic and medium who holds a special place in Bulgarian culture. On our way back down, we stopped at the medieval Rozhan Monastery, resplendent with 16th-century frescoes and wood carvings.
Our appetites piqued, Kirov ushered us into the restaurant at Rozhenski Han, which has an open stone courtyard decorated with local ceramics. Before long, a steaming cheese-topped loaf arrived on a wooden plank. The chef, his belly generously protruding in pitch-perfect marketing for his cooking, sliced into the stuffed bread with surprising delicacy. Tender slices of meat and vegetables fell out of the loaf and onto the plate, and the smell of a typical Bulgarian spice blend, tsubitsa, wafted through the air. This was bohcha, a dish so good I didn’t wait for the heat to subside before digging in. Luckily there was plenty of chilled rakia, the Balkan fruit brandy, to cool me down. The chef took a shot with us and, in a typical display of Bulgarian hospitality, sent us off with presents: a warm, fluffy loaf for Kirov, and a small bag of tsubitsa for me.
THE next day, my husband and I left for the capital, Sofia, taking the longest possible route through the mountains. I rolled down the windows and breathed in the damp forest air as rivers and trees rushed past. We made a detour east to see the Rila Monastery, the largest and most important Eastern Orthodox monastic complex in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in the 10th century, the original structure burned down in the 1840s and was rebuilt in the National Revival style. Black-and-white-striped domes curve upward, the restored frescoes within painted in vivid colors. I could’ve stayed for days looking at each scene (and some devoted people do, sleeping in the old monks’ cells), but a crack of thunder and subsequent downpour forced us back into the car.
Bulgaria is almost obscenely fertile—right down to its name, that bulging B and those round vowels filling up the mouth. After just a few days in the countryside, I had gotten used to being surrounded by abundant nature. So entering Sofia, with its clogged streets and faded Socialist-era apartment buildings, was a shock to the system. Many post-Communist cities have a reputation for being drab—but as with most good things in life, their charm lies beneath the surface.
We checked in to the Hyatt Regency Sofia, where we were greeted by sleek lines and a subtle color scheme. It’s one of the newest additions to a scene dominated by grand, if dated, hotels; the Hyatt is among the few energy-saving “smart” hotels in the city. It overlooks Vasil Levski Square, named for a hero from the Bulgarian revolution against the Ottomans in the late 19th century. The property is a stone’s throw from all the major cultural sites (including St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia University, and the National Gallery), which I took in all at once from the hotel’s rooftop bar with an expertly crafted negroni in hand.
“Sofia has existed for more than seven thousand years,” general manager Laurent Schauder explained over a coffee in the light-filled lobby. Those centuries brought many different would-be conquerors to the city, all of whom left their imprints: Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Ottomans, and, later, Russians. Churches, mosques, and synagogues sit on the same street, and Ottoman-influenced food is served in the shadows of Baroque Revival buildings.
Of course, Bulgaria’s Communist past looms large in the imagination of Americans. Georgi Georgiev, a history student and guide who led us on a four-hour tour of Communist-era sites, feels similarly: “It is part of our history,” he told me. “It was short, but it completely changed the lives and mindsets of Bulgarians.” The architectural styles of the Eastern bloc can be found throughout the capital, but I was most touched by a somber monument tucked away in a corner of the National Palace of Culture park, where the names of thousands of victims of the regime are engraved in black marble.
These days, the leafy-green neighborhoods around the Hyatt, including Doctor’s Garden and Zaimov Park, are a pleasant jumble of hip restaurants, record stores, and third-wave coffee shops. At Raketa Rakia Bar, we tasted our way through an extensive spirits list, accompanied by copious amounts of grilled meat and the buzz of happy diners.
BUT even Sofiates will tell you the most beautiful city in Bulgaria is Plovdiv. We drove east out of the capital and headed to the country’s second most populous city, famous for being the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe: a dizzying variety of people have passed through, and at one point, it was the Byzantine Empire’s third-largest metropolis. The layers, of course, remain. Plovdiv’s founders were the Thracians, an early Indo-European group who spread across the Balkans and to whom many Bulgarians still feel a historical and cultural connection.
“An early name for this city was Evmolpia,” explained Hristo Gyulev, the owner of the Hotel Evmolpia, an Ottoman-style inn in the city’s old town. “Evmolpus was a Thracian king and famous warlord who could talk with the gods.” Ah—there’s that Bulgarian mysticism again.
If Sofia was concrete, Plovdiv, built on seven hills (well, now six, after one was mined for cobblestones), felt totally green: fruit trees and bushes line the sidewalks, and mulberries and cherries fall onto the ground, leaving sticky traces underfoot. “Well, we are located in the middle of the most fertile lands in Bulgaria!” Gyulev told me. In June, the air smelled like flowers or apricots or, if the wind was blowing in a particular direction, both.
The entirety of Plovdiv, particularly the old town, exudes a kind of fairy-tale romance. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned, pastel churches hide behind towering elms and lindens, and the views from the hilltops are breathtaking, especially when you get a glimpse of the city’s most famous landmark: a second-century Roman amphitheater, well preserved and still hosting performances. A gaggle of schoolchildren entered at the same time we did, shrieking with delight. “This isn’t even the most impressive thing to see here,” one blasé Plovdivite told us. “You should go to the Bishop’s Basilica.”
Bulgaria has some of the most well-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy or Greece. The government has made an effort to restore these monuments, but they are so numerous it can’t seem to keep up. The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis is a notable exception. In 1982, roadwork accidentally unearthed stunning Late Antique mosaics dating back to the fourth through sixth centuries. They once covered the floor of this early Christian church—which was probably demolished in the Middle Ages—and were later hidden away under a parking garage. After years of restoration, a new museum built around the ruins of the Basilica opened to the public in 2021. We padded into the structure wearing protective slippers; an elevated glass walkway allowed us to roam without damaging anything. Exquisite geometric patterns and exotic birds unfolded underfoot. The site is still being excavated—one bespectacled archaeologist sat in the middle of the floor, methodically sweeping dust with an almost religious devotion.
What to do in the face of so much beauty? I was reminded of something Kirov had explained to me back at Zornitza: Thracian people believed the person who got drunk first was the closest to the gods. I headed to Bandida, a hole-in-the-wall wine bar serving regional varieties, like Mavrud, for a quick aperitif before properly indulging in a full rakia-addled meal at Pavaj, where chef-owner Raycho Markov serves up Bulgarian comfort food with a modern twist. His dishes use traditional recipes and organic vegetables from his family garden: duck-stuffed grape leaves, local sausage, and tangy, crunchy salads.
But the real star was the rakia list, which features 50 varieties from across the Balkans, from a Serbian one made with raspberry to a Bulgarian one made from quince. It’s something new for Plovdiv, but the nightly crowds would indicate that people can’t get enough. “I’m just so glad to see all these people appreciating rakia and learning that this is a special Balkan drink,” Markov told me over dinner. “You feel very proud, you know?” By that point, we had lost count of how many times we’d cheers-ed each other, but we raised our thimble-size glasses once more.
Plovdiv is the frontier between more densely populated Bulgaria and the country’s famed Rose Valley, a fragrant expanse of rolling hills that’s home to the flower-growing industry. The following morning, our heads only slightly pounding from an excess of rakia, Nikos and I drove on to Kazanlak, the area’s main town and a center for rose-oil production. Colors flashed from pink to red, and the smell drifting through the car windows was intoxicating. We made it just in time for Kazanlak’s ceremonial rose-picking festival, held each year in early summer, complete with Bulgarian folk music and village girls dancing in traditional outfits. No one spoke English, but that didn’t impact their generosity. One woman handed me a bag of rose petals with a smile, while another passed me a jar of rose-petal jam.
“DIONYSUS WAS THRACIAN,” said Peyto Nikolov as he poured yet another glass of homemade natural wine. We had stopped at Hotel Gela, the inn Nikolov owns in the village of Gela, for lunch at its standout restaurant. The liquid sparkled in my glass like a ruby. “I’m sorry to say that, since you are coming from Greece, but it’s true.” He smiled and shrugged good-naturedly. We had left the Rose Valley and were now deep in the Rhodope Mountains—an unspoiled range that felt so mystical and timeless that the idea that Greek gods could have settled there didn’t seem far-fetched. Behind us, fog rolled over the pine-covered mountains; the daily drizzles during our stay also yielded daily rainbows.
We polished off our plates of boiled nettle, soft cheeses, and roasted pork with perfectly caramelized skin. The last sips of wine were drunk at a speed that would have made Dionysus proud. We had important business to attend to after lunch: a trip to the entrance of Hades, otherwise known as Devil’s Throat Cave. As we drove through the Gorge of Trigrad, steep walls of rock loomed above us and the forest seemed to shake its leaves with anger. The weather was mythologically on point—thunder rumbled in the distance, and the sky turned a steely gray. Our encyclopedic host, Alexander Bachvarov, deftly shifted gears through the switchbacks as conversation flowed from the Bulgarian economy and pre-Egyptian alphabets to psychotherapy.
Devil’s Throat is known locally as a portal to the underworld: the Trigradska River rushes through the cave, but no object that floats in ever seems to float back out. Bachvarov warned that the place has a particularly deadly allure. In the 1970s, two Bulgarian divers set out to solve the mystery of the river’s course. Their bodies were found days later, along with their still-functional scuba tanks. The coroner determined they had both suffered heart attacks. (They may have been lovers, a slightly reassuring point—at least they died together.) Since then, no one has properly spelunked the cave’s full depth. As we entered through a damp tunnel and were greeted by a roar of water, Bachvarov and I agreed that some mysteries are better left unexamined.
This place is also associated with another doomed couple: Orpheus, who made an infamous descent into the underworld, and his dead lover, Eurydice, whom he tried and failed to retrieve. Orpheus was given permission by Hades to lead Eurydice back to the mortal world, provided he not look back until they were out of the cave. But unable to control himself, he turned around to catch a glimpse of his beloved, only to lose her forever. The spot where this happened, according to Bulgarian legend, is marked with a small statue, and a lump formed in my throat as we ascended a terrifyingly steep stone staircase and re-emerged into the lichen-filled forest.
When he’s not taking guests to the edge of the underworld, Bachvarov runs the mountaintop Villa Gella, a bright and airy restored farmhouse exquisitely decorated with his personal art collection. “We don’t want a hotel atmosphere,” he told me as we relaxed on a cream-colored sofa in the living room with a glass of Bulgarian wine. “We want people to have this home-away-from-home feeling.” There are six rooms and a small health center with an indoor pool; Bachvarov’s mother, Dimka, cooks two or three meals a day, flavored with herbs her husband, Ivan, picks from the garden. Within just a few hours, I felt like I had moved in.
Villa Gella also operates as a bespoke travel agency, able to curate whatever Bulgarian experience your heart desires. A pancake breakfast on Thracian ruins? A six-hour tasting of Bulgarian wine varieties? It’s all possible.
I had written to Bachvarov expressing my desire to experience “Rhodopean spirituality,” an annoyingly open-ended request that turned out to yield the most magical moments of my stay. Bachvarov, keen to show off the beauty of the area, took us on a hike to visit the 19th-century Chapel of St. Ilya perched on the mountainside. A thin man, his cheekbones carved inward and his hands clasped, was waiting for us on the porch. He introduced himself as Nikola Beevski before quietly opening the door and inviting us inside.
The walls of the chapel were covered in iconography, the colors astonishingly bright, almost psychedelic. Beevski, the artist, told us he had lived in the village of Gela his whole life. He explained that he had never been particularly religious and had never created art, until one day a deep gentle voice told him, “Do you see this chapel? It is waiting for your hands.” He felt an otherworldly urge to rebuild the crumbling structure and later painted the icons with professional precision. No one in the village questioned his devotion. “This kind of spirituality is accepted here,” Bachvarov told me as we continued walking.
Back at Villa Gella, there was a fire in the hearth and another glass of rakia in my hand. The conversation turned to music—did I know that the bagpipe was originally from the Rhodopes? I didn’t?! Then in walked Dimitar, a local musician and friend of Bachvarov, resplendent in his traditional clothes and blowing into his gaida, a Balkan bagpipe made of a goatskin. A deep, warm sound emerged: OMMM.
Dimitar took the reed out of his mouth and smiled at me. “This is the sound of the universe.” All I could do was nod my head in agreement.
Where to stay and what eat, drink and do in Bulgaria
Zornitza Family Estate
This Relais & Châteaux hotel, spa, vineyard, and farm has its own wine label (plus golf). zornitzaestate.com; doubles from US$375.
A rustic spot for Bulgarian farm cooking—and plenty of rounds of rakia. +359 89 827 2757; mains US$8-$15.
Hyatt Regency Sofia
This modern hotel is already a favorite for its stylish rooftop lounge. hyatt.com; doubles from US$140.
Raketa Rakia Bar
Communist-era toys, televisions, and other artifacts make this space memorable. raketarakiabar.bg.
365 Association Tours
Walking tours in the capital with themes like Communist history or Jewish heritage. 365association.org.
PLOVDIV AND THE ROSE VALLEY
Comfortable rooms inside an Ottoman-style building in the old town. hotelevmolpia.com; doubles from US$65.
Locals love this cozy spot for its updates on traditional recipes and impressive rakia list. fb.com/pavaj.plovdiv; mains US$6–$15.
A bottle shop and tasting room that focuses on wines from the region. bendida.eu.
Kazanlak Rose Festival
The center of Bulgaria’s rose industry is in full bloom over several weeks in May or June, depending on the harvest. rosefestivalkazanlak.com.
THE RHODOPE MOUNTAINS
A sleek six-bedroom chalet near the hamlet of Gela with luxe amenities, home-cooked meals, and unbeatable views. villagella.com; doubles from US$240, buyout from US$1,295 per night.
Rhodopean culinary traditions are the focus of this small hotel’s stellar restaurant. hotelgela.com; mains US$16–$27.
HOW TO BOOK
An Eastern Europe specialist on the T+L A-List, Ternavan can curate a countrywide itinerary similar to the writer’s, with visits to museums and monasteries—plus the option to extend into Romania or Serbia. email@example.com; +914 500 8984.