Jeannine Williamson immerses herself in the lesser-known delights of Bulgaria
Cleopatra can keep her asses’ milk. After sinking into the wooden barrel-like bath the therapist pours a two-litre carafe of Cabernet Sauvignon into the warm, bubbling water and hands me a large glass of wine to sip while I soak.
The ‘Wine Mascarpone’ spa session at the Todoroff Hotel started with a body scrub and moisturising massage using grape seed oil, and was definitely proving to be my kind of spa treatment. Grape growing and wine production play an important part in Bulgarian culture and the boutique hotel with its own winery, nine miles outside the historic town of Plodiv, is the first in the country to open a wine-based spa.
Most Brits perceive Bulgaria as a cheap and cheerful summer holiday and winter ski destination, but away from the sand and snow there’s much more to discover. Situated at the geographical crossroads between east and west, its history has been shaped by ancient and diverse civilizations, religions and traditions. The Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Slavs all left their mark, and this rich legacy can be found in ornate tombs, temples, fortresses, churches and archaeological sites throughout the country.
Amazing gold treasures troves are regularly unearthed and while selected finds are displayed in Sofia, the rest are exhibited in local museums close to where they’re found so everyone gets a chance to see them.
Sofia is probably the least well-known capital, but it’s deservedly emerging as a short break destination and is an ideal starting point for a longer tour. Set against the scenic backdrop of the Vitosha Mountain National Park, it’s compact, walkable and - in common with the rest of Bulgaria - very affordable as it’s unaffected by the Eurozone’s tumbling post-Brexit pound.
The landmark attraction is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Topped by green and gold domes, it’s one of the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals with room for more than 7,000 worshippers. Nearby is St Sofia, the second oldest church in the city where archaeologists recently discovered nearly 60 tombs beneath the building, and an interesting underground tour revealed the timeline of earlier churches on the same site.
We stop for a coffee, traditionally served strong and black, and a banitsa. These layered pastries with a cheese filling are enjoyed by locals for breakfast, but taste equally good at any time. Afterwards it was fun to stroll around the colourful daily flea market on the cathedral square, where Russian-style hats, badges, flags and other curiosities from the communist era are sold alongside soap, candles and beauty products made with fragrant Bulgarian rose oil, wooden carvings and other local crafts, which all make good souvenirs. It’s also worth watching the high-stepping changing of the guard ceremony outside the imposing Presidency building, which takes place on the hour throughout the day.
Although it’s on Sofia’s outskirts, don’t miss the National History Museum. One of the largest museums in the Balkans, with more than 650,000 exhibits, it’s easily accessible by cheap public transport or taxi. Guided English-speaking tours are available, and if time is short head straight to the room that showcases the world’s oldest treasures. Discovered by workmen on the Black Sea coast in 1972, they include intricate wine goblets and dazzling jewellery dating back to 5,000BC.
When it’s time to move on, you don’t need to go far to find new sights as Bulgaria measures just over 200 miles north to south and 325 miles east to west. A two-hour drive from Sofia is Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city which is divided by the Maritza River and, like Rome, built on seven hills. The main attraction is the stunning amphitheatre, which lies between two of the hills and is the country’s most complete Roman structure. Afterwards we wander through the maze of narrow streets in the old town lined with churches, cafes and pretty coloured buildings with decorative facades. Plovdiv Ethnographic Museum occupies a beautiful 19th century house with carved wooden ceilings and rooms dedicated to different periods of the city’s history.
The country’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites include Rila, at the foot of the namesake mountains in the southwest. The cathedral is a symbol of Bulgaria and one of its top sights. Founded in the 10th century by a hermit canonised by the Orthodox Church, the holy site became a monastic complex and contains priceless icons. Coastal highlights include UNESCO-listed Nessebar, built on the edge of a peninsula that was once an island. One of the oldest towns in Europe, and dubbed the ‘pearl of the Black Sea’, its countless churches are decorated with bright stones and brickwork.
With nearly half the country covered by mountains there are plenty of places to enjoy the great outdoors. Pirin National Park is renowned for its plant diversity and considered one of the most interesting parks from a botanical viewpoint. The 1,300 plant species include the edelweiss, the symbol of the Bulgarian Tourism Union, and it’s also home to 160 species of birds and 45 types of mammals.
When it’s time for a break, dining out is tasty and reasonably priced. Breakfast will often include pancakes or fritters served with honey and yoghurt. Shopska salad made with the salty white cheese Sirene is a popular appetiser, and succulent lamb, slow roasted on a spit, is a classic main course. The sweet-toothed will love desserts which include rose-scented rice pudding and baklava drizzled with honey. As one of the world’s oldest documented wine producers you won’t go thirsty either, and the red grape varieties Mavrud and Pamid are unique to Bulgaria.
As I discovered at the Todoroff Hotel, there are plenty of ways to get a real taste of the destination. The therapist assured me that wine aids health and beauty because polyphenols, the plant chemicals found in grapes, contain anti-ageing properties. I’m not sure if she meant wine poured into a bath or massaged into the skin. But it sounded like a good excuse to open another bottle of Mavrud over dinner. Cheers, or as they say in Bulgaria, nazdrave!
Bulgaria specialist Balkan Holidays offers a seven-night Bulgaria History Trail coach tour, which includes Plovdiv, Pirin National Park, Rila Monastery and Sofia, from £811, including full-board accommodation and flights from Gatwick. Other options include a seven-night wine tour, with a visit to Nessebar, from £790 with half-board accommodation and flights. Call 0207 543 5555 or visit www.balkanholidays.co.uk
This first appeared in the April edition of etc Magazine, pick up your copy now.