We hadn’t done much research on Bulgaria before we arrived, so we asked one of our Bulgarian Instagram followers for tips. “The monasteries and small villages are a must; the countryside is beautiful,” and our first Bulgarian road trip was born. Our three-day excursion would take us first to Rila Monastery, then further south near the border with Greece to visit several rustic villages in the mountains and other points of interest along the way. After you crouch to enter through a low door and then look up in this intimate space, the WOW element of Boyana Church Museum can’t be emphasized enough! It was such a mesmerizing experience we wished we could have stayed longer. But, a maximum of eight people at a time are permitted to enter the church and stay for only ten minutes.
This small, unassuming medieval church, built in the 900s, preserves large fragments of the most amazing Christian frescoes from the 11th, 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. The murals from 1259 are the most famous and are recognized for their skilled, realistic portrayal of the saints’ faces. Though still within the city limits of Sofia, it’s located in an area far from the city center on the lower slope of Vitosha Mountain. Fortunately, we arrived early before the bus tours of the day started.Our main destination was Rila Monastery, still seventy-one miles away. We made good time on the A3, which had recently undergone improvements, before exiting onto Rt 1005 for a drive through pastoral countryside, shadowed by the snowcapped Musala Peak (9,596 ft) in the Rila mountain range.
Following the Rilska river, through a steep, heavily-treed gorge, Rt. 107 wove past blossoming fruit orchards, abandoned campsites, roadside shrines and rockslides the rest of the way to the monastery.
Rila was the first Orthodox monastery built in Bulgaria in the tenth century, by students of beloved St. Ivan of Rila who lived in solitude for twenty years, in a cave not far away. This is the only monastery to survive during the centuries of Ottoman domination over Bulgaria, when it was rebuilt in defiance of the Turks. The Bulgarian people have great affection for this monastery, as a symbol of their religion and culture during those turbulent centuries.The distinctive architectural style of the monastery, with its arched black and white portico filled with religious murals offset against red brick domes, dates to the 1830’s when it was rebuilt again after a fire destroyed the entire complex except for the stone bell tower. It is considered to be the finest example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.
It was a cold afternoon in the mountains, and we were happy to find a restaurant with a roaring fire in its fireplace to help warm our chilled bones before we started the drive back.Thirteen miles from the monastery, on a side street in the town of Rila, we spotted a church with three small cupolas, that called for a quick stop. The church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Mirikliyski” was a surprising find with its cracked bell tower and muraled covered entrance porch, complete with woodpile. The painter of these hell fire and brimstone murals might have gotten his inspiration from the tortured works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Unfortunately, the church was closed and we haven’t been able to find any other information about this off-the beaten-path treasure.
With the Rila mountains in our rearview mirror, we set off again for Blagoevgrad, where we would spend the night. Twilight was beginning to descend when we caught a glimpse of the Unofficial Junk Museum as we sped past. It had cars piled high on its roof. “Let’s stop.” “It’s getting late.” “Just for a few quick photos.” Faster than a quick genuflect, the car was parked and we were inside. The Unofficial Junk Museum is a vast, rusty and dusty collection of whatever the owner deemed representative of Bulgarian culture under communism. Radios, tv’s, typewriters, farming equipment, cars, motorcycles, household items and busts of Stalin are stacked everywhere. It’s fascinating! And of all the places to buy a bottle of homemade Rakia from – we did not go blind.
The Diva Hotel, for $22.00 a night was a tremendous bargain and very comfortable. Always a good sign, its restaurant was lively with local families.In the morning we followed Rt. 1 south for a while as it hugged the Struma River, which would eventually reach the Aegean Sea, before we turned off and headed in to the Pirin Mountains.
Our destination the village of Melnik, known for its long history of winemaking. We hadn’t expected the Bulgarian countryside to be as beautiful as it was, and it just kept getting better the farther south we went. As we passed through a landscape of verdant rolling hills alive with sheep and cattle, distant snowcapped mountains occasionally broke the horizon. Vineyards soon dominated the terrain.Melnik is situated in a wide gorge under striking sandstone rock formations, called hoodoos, that tower hundreds of feet high, created from millennia of erosion. Locals refer to these geological phenomena as Melnik Earth Pyramids. The village has been renown for making strong wine since 1346 from a regional red grape varietal, Shiroka Melnishka, and wine cellars still line its main street. Once a thriving village with one thousand residents, today it is now home to fewer than three hundred. The village was a delight to explore with its cobbled streets meandering between the whitewashed stone and timber homes built in the Bulgarian Revival style. Ninety-six of the village’s houses are historically protected. Any new construction in town adhered to that aesthetic. From the ruins of Bolyarska kŭshta, high on a hill above the Church of St. Anthony, we spotted the dome of what looked like a hammam, a Turkish bath, nestled between the traditional homes below, and went to explore. With the help of a kind woman, who somehow knew what we were looking for, we found the ruins of a small Roman era spa in a small side alley. Its dome was fully intact and the substructure of its once heated floor remained. There is also a single arched old roman bridge, near the parking lot, that you can still walk across. Before continuing to Kovachevitsa, we relaxed at one of the sunny cafes in the center of the village.Kovachevitsa, an isolated, rustic stone village in the Rhodope mountains, was only 52 miles away near the border with Greece. However, it took us the bulk of the afternoon to reach because “someone stops every hundred yards to take a photo.” And stop we did as we were awed by the beauty of the border region as we drove through the mountains. So close were we to the border that our phones binged with a “Welcome to Greece” message from our cell phone carrier.At one point we stopped to photograph a complete section of an iron truss bridge, just rusting away on the side of the road, only to have our car suddenly surrounded by a flock of bah-ing sheep.
It was slow going into Kovachevitsa as the guard rails along the sinuous route disappeared and the road deteriorated. Night fell as we followed our GPS to the intersection of three dirt tracks in the village. Where to now? Not a soul was around, but smoke was rising from several chimneys. So, we knocked on the ancient door of the closest building only to be greeted by loud barking. Retreating back to the car we pondered what to do when a voice behind us said “hello.” That was the only word of English our host spoke until he said “goodbye” two days later. The barking dog turned out to be a gentle giant, who welcomed us to the inn. In fact, all the dogs of the village were St. Bernard-size, and they must all have been related, because they closely resembled one another. Fortunately, they were good-natured.
On our way into the village we had passed many homes with exceedingly large wood piles. We understood their importance as the heat from the crackling fire allowed us to take off our multiple outer layers and sit comfortably in the stone cellar of our inn, the Basoteva House, a renovated stone home, with huge wooden beams built in 1861. In the past, this lower level served as the barn area for farm animals; now it’s the kitchen, bar, and dining area. Rakia was offered and accepted. Cheers! Bulgarians fleeing religious persecution and the forced conversion policies of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in the rugged Rhodope mountains and established Kovachevitsa in 1656. Agriculture and stockbreeding in the area thrived during the 1800s and the homes still standing in the village date from that time. The tall stone homes of Kovachevitsa are stunning and unique in an organic way.
The three- and four-story homes are built from locally quarried stone using no mortar. Even, layered flat stones are used for the roofs. The natural construction materials blended the village almost seamlessly into the mountainous surrounding environment. With alleys so narrow and the homes so close together, it’s said you can walk the entire length of the village along the rooftops.At breakfast the next morning Google Translate nicely bridged our communications barrier with the innkeeper’s wife. Loading the Cyrillic keyboard into the app for our hostess to use, Donna’s phone was passed back and forth repeatedly during a lively conversation about family, each other’s lives, the village and our travels. Our hosts’ children live with their grandparents in one of the larger towns off the mountain as there isn’t a school in the village anymore. Most of the young families have moved away to find work, leaving only 28 year-round residents looking after the village till the tourist season starts. Strolling under blossoming elderberry trees, we had the narrow lanes to ourselves as we worked our way towards St. Nikolas Church.
Built in 1847, the interior of this Bulgarian Orthodox country church was beautiful with its ornate altar, detailed columns and painted ceiling. It too had a large woodpile to feed the woodstove in the sanctuary. On the way back to our inn we stopped to admire the woolen creations knitted by a lone street vendor with a toothless smile who was bundled under layers of clothing to ward off the mountain chill. Her prospects for a profitable day seemed slim as the street was nearly deserted. When we expressed interest in only one pair of socks, she assertively pantomimed that we needed more. Looking up from readying our payment we could only smile and chuckle when we found she had filled our bag with two extra pairs of socks. They were well made and a bargain, so we caved to her sales pressure. I’m wearing a pair now as I write this, and my toes are happy we she insisted. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were her only sale of the day.
The next morning our hostess with smiles and hugs gifted us a jar of homemade elderberry jam to enjoy back in Sofia.
Till next time, Craig & Donna