Travel: Back to Balkan basics

There are still corners of eastern Europe where storks nest on roof-tops, and monks welcome the weary traveller.
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The Independent Culture
"THIS IS where the horizontal becomes the vertical," boomed a voice from up front. And we found ourselves pitched up an abrupt, pine- needle-strewn mountain path, climbing upwards for almost an hour through a forest of beech, hazel and hornbeam. Suddenly we burst through bracken on to a sun-bronzed plateau.

My party of 10 was making the ascent to Midzhur, at 7,100ft one of the tallest pinnacles in the Balkan region, straddling the western border of Bulgaria that abuts the former Yugoslavia. Beyond, uninhabited green valleys cascade away towards Nis and Serbia.

This must be one of the most idyllic, least trumpeted niches of southern Europe, where you can turn a corner and encounter a view as striking, in its way, as the English Lake District, France's Massif Central or the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I had opted for a trekking holiday on foot (and sometimes by minibus) into out-of-the way Bulgaria, starting out from Vratsa.

Our first day's walking from here set the pace: an ascent, up steepish mountain paths and over a plateau dotted with grass-of-Parnassus and wild lilac, to Ledenika Cave. This Bulgarian equivalent of Cheddar was proudly shown off by Vanko, the chatty, English-speaking proprietor. Ledenika boasts 350 separate underground chambers and a main cavern large enough to stage concerts by the local symphony orchestra.

Later we skirted the spectacular Skakliya, a vast span of 600-ft rockface and waterfall, on the way to Okolchitsa, the spot where Hristo Botev, who led the courageous mid-l9th-century Bulgarian-Turkish resistance, met a sticky end in 1876 at the age of only 27. Our descent lay past neatly laid out village smallholdings, with bright displays of peach, pear, orange and plum trees and with red peppers drying in the sun. One local resident cheerfully offered the dusty walkers clusters of his succulent dark grapes.

At the small village enclave of Ciprovtsi, a two-night stay in a gostopryemnitsa (a tourist pension), with well-herbed fish for dinner and hot apple-doughnuts (mekitsi) for breakfast, offered a further glimpse into village life. Old men sunned themselves on a verandah outside the bar, setting the world to rights in a cheerful haze of smoke and racy Slavonic. Storks nested on precarious chimneys. Flocks of village goats wound up our street in a baleful morning cortege, and returned with tinkling bells at dusk. Donkey carts - still a prime method of transport in rural Bulgaria - sauntered past. Frail old women (the grandmother, or baba, is an indispensible part of the Bulgarian extended family) piled up newly-sawn logs, or pitchforked long grass into old-fashioned propped hayricks.

There were purchases to be made here. Prices (in dollars) for locally hand-woven carpets and hand-carved silver were hammered out in private homes over copious coffee, fruit and heady rakiya. In a tiny, cramped weaving factory nearby, the speed and artistry of a trio of women at their looms awed us into respectful silence. Next door, the local primary school children chirrupped nursery rhymes in English to welcome their visitors.

From here, after a four-hour saunter over gentle hills, we came to Lopushanski, a monastery with sprawling dogs and a spacious, low-lit church. Here Father Endlion proudly owned up to never having been outside Bulgaria, served lukewarm lime tea and presided at dinner in vociferous broken English, holding forth on Turkish duplicity, women priests and the merits of beans for the diet.

Lopushanki's once-rickety rooms, like those in other monasteries, are now being handsomely renovated in pine and white plaster, with funds from the Orthodox church. Most luxurious of the monasteries we visited was Clisurski, with its verandah, bar and restaurant. It seemed all the more welcoming after two nights spent in basic mountain hostels, with their communal kitchens and suspect plumbing.

But the sumptuous views from the relaxed, two-day trek across Kom mountain easily made up for any deprivation. And there was better to come. No sight in north-west Bulgaria quite competes with the breathtaking vista from the spa town of Belogradchik. The balcony restaurant of our eyrie-like, Bavarian-feel hotel looked out across sandstone pillars. It felt like Saxon Switzerland, or a mini-Arizona.

There are other sites worth sniffing out nearby: the elaborate Magura Caves - out of action when we were there, owing to an electricity failure; the awesome Bogya Most - a huge, river-level, arched cavern hollowed out of limestone over countless millennia, which feels like an entrance to the Underworld; the almost Imperial mineral baths at Varshets; the spectacular gorge of the Iskur River, with the Cherepish monastery nestling deep at the foot of the canyon.

Ours was a low-budget tour, definitely not suitable for the five-star traveller. It was the sort of trip that's heaven for anyone with a love of the great outdoors, an urge to walk and explore, and a penchant for the sort of decaying charm and simplicity that you find in old Eastern Europe.

Roderic Dunnett paid pounds 660 for a fortnight in Bulgaria with Mountains and Monasteries, 10 Cecily Road, Cheylesmore, Coventry, CV3 5LA (01203 501959). For the regular Bulgarian tourist routes, Ace Study Tours (01223 835055) offers stylish, upmarket lecture tours; Balkan Holidays (0171- 491 4499) can organise winter skiing as well as a range of summer holidays. Balkan Bulgarian (tickets from Apple Air on 0181-741 7993) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly to Sofia from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively. The lowest fare for travel in July is pounds 210 return, including tax, on Balkan Bulgarian. British passport holders no longer require visas for Bulgaria.

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