Travel: Lost in the land of lung pie

Jonathan Bousfield sleeps under goat-hair rugs and tries some unusual local delicacies in Bulgaria's traditional villages

The bus looked more like an archaeological site than a mode of transport. The seat coverings were black with the grime deposited by generations of fidgeting passengers. The objects bouncing around in the overhead storage rack were so dust-covered that they defied identification. The only other passenger was a duckling sitting on a sheet of newspaper. I didn't notice where it got off.

The vehicle in question was taking me from Koprivshtitsa railway station, 75km (47 miles) east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, to the village of Koprivshtitsa itself, high in the hills to the south. At first glance, Koprivshtitsa is a curiously time-warped place, a tightly packed agglomeration of stone-built houses and cobbled alleyways straggling along both sides of a brook. Smoke from wood-burning hearths drifts up through the crisp mountain air, and the rustic whiff of equine dung tells you that much of rural Bulgaria still runs on donkey power.

Koprivshtitsa is one of several Bulgarian villages which, due to a combination of good luck and state- sponsored renovation, have managed to preserve something of their original Balkan character. The existence of so many fetching examples of village architecture here owes a lot to the wiles of 19th-century farmers, who grew rich on the back of a booming wool trade. Their solid, fortress-like houses still survive, many of them hidden behind high stone walls and ostentatiously studded gates.

Koprivshtitsa occupies a special place in Bulgarian hearts because of its central role in the heroic but unsuccessful anti-Ottoman uprising of 1876, and the homes of many of the uprising's leaders have been preserved as museum-houses. The elaborately carved wooden ceilings, fanciful wall- paintings and locally made kilims exude a Levantine opulence which seems at odds with the sheep-nibbled pastures outside.

The local priest had just finished blessing the diners with a quick swing of the incense-burner when I settled down inside the Starata Krusha restaurant on the main square. Since I had gatecrashed the official opening party, it was impossible to refuse the host's invitation to partake of the traditional delicacy served up on such occasions: drob sarma, or lung pie. Shiny grey slivers of some calf's internal organs were all I needed after a day spent on Bulgaria's rickety transport system.

I found a room by following one of the many signs which read simply "hotel", eventually arriving at a house which turned out to be owned by the local mayor and which offered comfy b&b for $10 (aroundpounds 6). Breakfast came in the form of strange, puffball pastries and thick yoghurt. The house was relatively modern, in the new part of Koprivshtitsa, and it turned out that even more charming quarters at much the same price were available at places like the Byaloto Konche ("Little White Horse"), where delightful low-ceilinged rooms came with creaking floorboards, simple beds covered in goat-hair rugs, and a communal chardak, or porch, overlooking a grassy courtyard.

Thanks to the emergence of private enterprise in places like Koprivshtitsa, village-hopping in the highlands of Bulgaria is no longer the intrepid undertaking it may have seemed a few years ago. However, travel in this endearingly anarchic Balkan country is never straightforward. Buses in rural areas may be restricted to one a day, so hiring a car will greatly increase the amount of ground you can cover - although it may take an age to negotiate the country's notoriously potholed roads.

It's worth enduring such hazards in order to enjoy the drive from Koprivshtitsa to the up-and-coming resort village of Bansko, 150km to the south-west (and if you're dependent on public transport, you'll have to retrace your steps to Sofia and pick up buses from there). Encircled by the peaks of the Pirin mountain range, Bansko combines the role of heritage village with that of modern skiing centre. But most families retain some link with the land as well as providing rooms for tourists. Sundown in Bansko is still greeted by jangling bells as local goat-herds return from the pastures, delivering their charges in twos or threes to the houses where they belong.

Wandering around Bansko's labyrinthine core of stone-paved alleyways I almost missed the impressive bulk of the Church of the Holy Trinity, erected as it was behind a vast wall so as not to offend the Islamic sensibilities of Bansko's 19th-century Ottoman rulers. Once inside the icon-rich interior, a latticed wooden screen separates the male and female areas of the church, a form of segregation which is still respected by some of the older women of the village.

There's a traditional Bulgarian mehana or taverna virtually every hundred yards or so in Bansko, each serving up local staples like kapama (a spicy stew containing just about every form of meat and vegetable locally produced) in cosy, wooden-beamed surroundings. Dine here at the weekend and you'll probably be treated to a group of local folk musicians belting out their tributes to local brigands and freedom fighters.

If you don't mind tackling the kind of appallingly surfaced mountain roads which are rarely adequately marked on maps, Bansko is a good place from which to explore the wilder, little visited areas of south-western Bulgaria. Heading south along the Mesta valley towards the town of Gotse Delchev, a minor road darts uphill towards the villages of Leshten and Kovachevitsa, the latest places to be colonised by weekenders in search of bucolic isolation. The sense of having momentarily strayed beyond the boundaries of the known world is enhanced by the fact that you're never quite sure where you are: most of the road signs here have either rusted away entirely or have been stolen by impecunious locals and sold on as scrap.

I recognised Leshten by the number of expensive cars parked outside its only restaurant. A poor, depopulated village clinging precariously to a hillside, Leshten possesses a truly wonderful collection of original 19th-century houses, mostly tumbledown affairs with lopsided upper storeys and rickety wooden verandas. Some have been renovated and turned into apartments by a far-sighted local entrepreneur, and they can be rented out for $30 a night if you call in at the restaurant.

Leshten is separated from Kovachevitsa by the Pomak (Bulgarian muslim) village of Gorno Dryanovo, the kind of place where the locals stop and stare at people from the next valley, never mind another country. When I passed through, veiled women were squatting outside their houses boiling up vegetables on outdoor stoves.

People talk about Kovachevitsa as if it's the Shangri-la of Bulgarian village tourism, the place where you recharge your batteries before returning to civilisation a changed person. It is indeed an alluring spot, with yet more wonky houses ranged charmingly across a verdant hillside. A few arty Sofia types have second homes here, and a handful of local families rent out rooms on a b&b basis. However, Kovachevitsa's appeal rests on its lack of any other facilities: there are no museums to visit or tavernas to get drunk in, just an endless rural stillness and the odd bemused goat.

The lack of anywhere to eat in Kovachevitsa forced me back down the valley to the restaurant in Leshten. Listening to the Bulgarians at neighbouring tables, I almost felt as if I was in Islington rather than in the land of lung pie.

BULGARIA

GETTING THERE

Balkan Bulgarian Airlines (tel: 0171-637 7637) and British Airways fly direct from London Heathrow to Sofia (tel: 0345 222 111). Return flights cost around pounds 245 for an Apex return, which must be booked a minimum of two weeks ahead and include at least one Saturday night away.

WHERE TO STAY

The Pirin Tourism Forum (tel: 00 359 73 65458; e-mail: scabrin@pop3.aubg.bg), provides information on the Bansko region, and books rooms in Bansko, Kovachevitsa and Leshten.

Odysseia-IN (tel: 00 359 2 989 0538; e-mail: odysseia@omega. bg), can book rooms in small hotels throughout Bulgaria.

GETTING AROUND

Car hire can be arranged at Sofia airport through Avis (tel: 00359 2 738023) or Hertz (tel: 00359 2 791447).

WHAT TO DO

Lyub Travel (tel: 00 359 2 702287) specialises in one-day or two-day excursions to rural areas of folkloric or historical interest.

Koprivshtitsa hosts a folk-music festival on 14 and 15 August. For information, contact the Koprivshtitsa tourist association (tel: 00 359 7184 2161).

Bansko is a good base for the Pirin Pee ("Pirin Sings") folk-music festival, which takes place at the Predel pass on 21-22 August. Information from the Pirin Tourism Forum (see above).

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