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.
The most attractive destination around Plovdiv is Bachkovo Monastery (daily 7am–8pm; free), around 30km away and an easy day-trip from the city (hourly buses from Rodopi station to Smolyan). Founded in 1038 by two Georgians in the service of the Byzantine Empire, this is Bulgaria’s second-largest monastery. A great iron-studded door admits visitors to the cobbled courtyard, surrounded by wooden galleries and adorned with colourful frescoes. Beneath the vaulted porch of Bachkovo’s principal church, Sveta Bogoroditsa, are frescoes depicting the horrors in store for sinners; the entrance itself is more cheery, overseen by the Holy Trinity.
It’s possible to stay in refurbished rooms in the monastery (t 03327/2277; 30Lv/person with shared bathroom and cold water, 40Lv/person with hot water and en suite), and there are three restaurants just outside; Vodopada, with its mini-waterfall, is the best.
Lying some 40km east of the main Struma Valley route, Bansko (Банско) is the primary centre for walking and skiing on the eastern slopes of the Pirin mountains. Originally an agricultural centre, it’s witnessed massive investment in ski tourism in recent years, resulting in the unappealing sight of apartment blocks and hotels squeezed into the backyards of stone-built nineteenth-century farmhouses. Despite this overdevelopment, the central old town, with its numerous traditional pubs hidden away down labyrinthine cobbled streets, is as attractive as ever and the perfect place to wind down after a hard day on the slopes.
Though connected to Sofia and other towns by bus, Bansko can also be reached by a narrow-gauge railway, which leaves the main Sofia–Plovdiv line at Septemvri and forges its way across the highlands. It’s one of the most scenic trips in the Balkans, but also one of the slowest, taking five hours to cover just over 100km.
Bansko centres on the modern pedestrianized pl. Nikola Vaptsarov, where the Nikola Vaptsarov Museum relates to the local-born poet and socialist martyr. Immediately north of here, pl. Vazrazhdane is watched over by the solid stone tower of the Church of Sveta Troitsa, whose interior contains exquisite nineteenth-century frescoes and icons. On the opposite side of the square, the Rilski Convent contains an icon museum devoted to the achievements of Bansko’s nineteenth-century icon painters.
From the main square, ul. Pirin leads north towards the cable car, where there is a buzzing collection of ski-hire shops, bars and restaurants. Ski passes cost 55Lv per day (36Lv for children), and ski and snowboard equipment can be hired for around 30Lv per day. The cable car doesn’t operate outside the ski season so the only option for reaching the summit in the summer months is to head west – on foot or by taxi – via a steep 14km uphill climb to the Vihren hut, where cheap dorm accommodation is available. This is the main trailhead for hikes towards the 2914m summit of Mount Vihren, Bulgaria’s second-highest peak, or gentler rambles around the meadows and lakes nearby.
Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv (Пловдив) has more obvious charms than Sofia, which locals tend to look down on. The old town embodies Plovdiv’s long history – Thracian fortifications subsumed by Macedonian masonry, overlaid with Roman and Byzantine walls. Great timber-framed mansions, erected during the Bulgarian renaissance, symbolically look down upon the derelict Ottoman mosques and artisans’ dwellings of the lower town. But this isn’t just another museum town: the city’s arts festivals and trade fairs are the biggest in the country, and its restaurants and bars are equal to those of the capital.
Plovdiv centres on the large ploshtad Tsentralen, dominated by the monolithic Hotel Trimontium Princess.
Plovdiv’s hotels are almost as expensive as Sofia’s though the influx of backpackers has generated a surge of decent new hostels offering sociable dorm accommodation in line with the prices of private rooms. The only time you might have trouble finding somewhere to stay is during the trade fairs in May and September, when all the better hotels and private rooms are taken and prices can double.
The City Gallery of Fine Arts holds an extensive collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bulgarian paintings, including some fine portraits by renowned National Revival realist painter Stanislav Dospevski. Further along, the Church of SS Constantine and Elena contains a fine gilt iconostasis, decorated by the prolific nineteenth-century artist Zahari Zograf, whose work also appears in the adjacent Museum of Icons. A little further uphill is the richly decorated Kuyumdzhioglu House, now home to the Ethnographic Museum. Folk costumes and crafts are on display on the ground floor, while upstairs, the elegantly furnished rooms reflect the former owner’s taste for Viennese and French Baroque.
The best drinking holes are the pavement cafés of ul. Knyaz Aleksandar I. The Kapana area just north of the Dzhumaya mosque is the best place to head for late-night drinks and dancing.
The most atmospheric restaurants are in the old town, many occupying elegant old houses and serving good, traditional Bulgarian food. In the new town, ul. Knyaz Aleksandar I is awash with cheaper fast-food outlets, though better quality can be found away from the main drag.
There’s a nightly train to İstanbul, which leaves Plovdiv at 9.15pm and arrives at 8am; tickets cost 51Lv and must be bought in advance from the BDZh-Rila office in Plovdiv's Central Station (Tsentralna Gara; daily 7am–noon & 1–6pm; 032 643120). Australian, US, UK and most EU citizens require Turkish visas that can only be bought online at www.evisa.gov.tr.
Covering one of Plovdiv’s three hills with its cobbled streets and colourful mansions, the Old Quarter is a painter’s dream and a cartographer’s nightmare. As good a route as any is to start from pl. Dzhumaya and head east up ul. Saborna. Blackened fortress walls dating from Byzantine times can be seen around Saborna and other streets, sometimes incorporated into the dozens of timber-framed National Revival houses that are Plovdiv’s speciality. Outside and within, the walls are frequently decorated with niches, floral motifs or false columns, painted in a style known as alafranga. Turn right, up the steps beside the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa, and continue, along twisting cobbled lanes, to the Roman Theatre, the best preserved in the country, and still an impressive venue for regular concerts and plays (advertised around the town and in the local press).
Thronged with promenading Plovdivians and lined with shops, cafés, and bars, the pedestrianized ul. Knyaz Aleksandar I leads onto the attractive ploshtad Dzhumaya where the substantial ruins of a Roman stadium that could hold thirty thousand spectators are on display beneath the square. Among the variously styled buildings here, the renovated Dzhumaya Mosque, with its diamond-patterned minaret and lead-sheathed domes, steals the show; it’s believed that the mosque dates back to the reign of Sultan Murad II (1359–85).
As the most celebrated of Bulgaria’s religious sites, famed for its fine architecture and mountainous setting – and declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO – the Rila Monastery receives a steady stream of visitors, many of them day-trippers from Sofia. Joining one of these one-day tours from the capital (which can be arranged with Zig-Zag Holidays) is the simplest way of getting here, but can work out expensive (most tours cost around 120Lv p.p.). It’s much more economical to get there by public transport, though realistically you’ll have to stay the night in the monastery’s reasonably comfortable rooms.
Ringed by mighty walls, the monastery has the outward appearance of a fortress, but this impression is negated by the beauty of the interior, which even the crowds can’t mar. Graceful arches above the flagstoned courtyard support tiers of monastic cells, and stairways ascend to wooden balconies. Bold red stripes and black-and-white check patterns enliven the facade, contrasting with the sombre mountains behind and creating a harmony between the cloisters and the church. Richly coloured frescoes shelter beneath the church porch and cover much of its interior. The iconostasis is splendid, almost 10m wide and covered by a mass of intricate carvings and gold leaf. Beside the church is Hrelyo’s Tower, the sole remaining building from the fourteenth century. Cauldrons, which were once used to prepare food for pilgrims, occupy the soot-encrusted kitchen on the ground floor of the north wing, while on the floors above you can inspect the spartan refectory and panelled guest rooms. Beneath the east wing is the treasury, where, among other things, you can view a wooden cross carved with more than 1500 miniature human figures during the 1790s.
There are three buses a day from Rila Monastery to Rila village from where hourly buses depart for nearby Blagoevgrad and beyond.
A unique way to experience the spectacular terrain of the Rila Mountains is on horseback. Some of the trails pass through virtually untouched forest areas and alongside staggering glacial lakes; there are also some seriously rocky options for experienced or adventurous riders. The tour operator Horseriding Bulgaria at ul. Orfey 9, Sofia (t 02/400 3095, wwww.horseridingbulgaria.com) offers a number of tour options priced at around €600 for seven days, including individual tours with a guide, out of their Iskar Ranch at the foot of the Rila Mountains.