The route south from Sofia skirts the Rila and Pirin mountain ranges, swathed in forests and dotted with alpine lakes, and home to Bulgaria’s highest peaks. If time is short, the place to head for is the most revered of Bulgarian monasteries, Rila, around 30km east of the main southbound route. Bansko, on the eastern side of the Pirin range, boasts a wealth of traditional architecture, as well as being a major ski resort and a good base for hiking. Another much-travelled route heads southeast from Sofia towards Istanbul. The main road and rail lines now linking Istanbul and Sofia essentially follow the course of the Roman Serdica–Constantinople road, past towns ruled by the Ottomans for so long that foreigners used to call this part of Bulgaria “European Turkey”. Of these, the most important is Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, whose old quarter is a wonderful mixture of National Revival mansions and classical remains. Some 30km south of Plovdiv is Bachkovo Monastery, containing Bulgaria’s most vivid frescoes.
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