ARTICLES 
In the realm of Orpheus
Article by Sue Plummer, The Sofia Echo, 16th - 22nd September 2005

I have just returned from a hiking holiday in the Rhodopes, the mountains of Orpheus. This extensive mountain range has a beauty and mystery, much of which comes from its remoteness and grandeur, and the myths that are very much a part of its history. It was one of the best holidays I have had, with all aspects joining forces to bring about a rare sort of perfection.

Our first nights destination was the former Gornivodenski monastery, which was restored and converted into the Hotel Sveti Kiril in the late 1980s. The hotel lies high up and alone in the northern foothills of the Rhodope, just south of Assenovgrad, on the road from the village of Gorni Voden. It is similar in layout to other Bulgarian monasteries, but quite small.

The four storeys, with pleasant and spacious guest rooms with en suite facilities, a bar, a restaurant and other offices, surround a courtyard made bright and colourful with a wide variety of summer flowers. On a wonderfully warm summer evening, dinner was taken on the wide balcony outside the restaurant, accompanied by the spatial ballet of the house martins that were nesting in the eaves.
We introduced ourselves and the walk leader did likewise. We were a mixed group, of ages ranging from the 30s to the 60s. The group gelled quickly, which made each day an additional pleasure, although I never could talk and climb at the same time!

Julian, however, does need an introduction as he played such an important part in our enjoyment of the holiday. He was an Englishman from Herne Bay, but also a man steeped in the language, life and stories of the Rhodopes. He had a fascinating stock of myth, legend and truth. Sometimes, it was impossible to tell which was which! Now 40, he had spent most of his adult life in this south-western corner of Bulgaria, knew it intimately and loved it dearly. This close relationship with the area and its people had enabled him to make many friends in the mountain hamlets and villages of the Rhodopes. Those we met welcomed Julian with the enthusiastic chatter of old friends, including us in the welcome with understanding smiles and interest, and on two occasions, considerable hospitality. An already special holiday was made a truly memorable one by these warm and welcoming people.
We started off early the next morning from the monastery/hotel. The minibus and its thankfully calm and experienced Bulgarian driver took us further up into the mountains to join the sun that barely left us for the whole 10 days. Before reaching Yagodina, and its delightful hotel that was to be our home for the duration, we stopped briefly at the 12th century church and Assenova fortress built by King Assen to guard the Chepelarski Gorge from the Ottomans. Here we marvelled at more of the chequered history of our host country involving the Byzantines, the Romans, and the Ottomans as well as the Bulgarians.
Further on, the busy Bachkovo Monastery was our next port of call. The road leading to the monastery was lined with cafes, souvenir stalls and large groups of visitors, mainly students. Our visit was specifically for a short walk in the surrounding hills to view three small though exquisite chapels serving the monastery. The second of the small chapels was built into the rocks high up on the hillside at a site where the precious silver-framed Virgin Mary icon, normally housed in the monastery, was successfully hidden from the marauding Ottomans for many years. The icon is brought up here every year in thanksgiving, as the mural on the monastery refectory testifies in brilliant technicolour.
Yagodina, is at the end of the road a very bumpy road, at times no better than a cart track. It is 1100 m above sea level, surrounded by mountains, green pastures and some of the most unusual flora and fauna we had seen. The hotel, built in 2002, stands proudly in the main square opposite the mosque.

It is a family-run hotel with young staff drawn from the village and, as befits a virtually self-sufficient community, lots of excellent home-made food with good wine and a locally grown herb used to make a flavoursome and thirst quenching tea. Needless to say, as we started walking most days at 9.30am, and didnt return until 5pm, we were always ready to eat and drink.
One of my favourite dishes was the Rodopski Klin a round cake, about the size of a side plate and just more than a centimetre thick, with a thin skin of filo pastry holding together a mixture of rice, cheese and yoghurt. This might follow a Smilyanski fasul (bean soup) and a Shopska salad. We certainly never went hungry! Katmi, or special Rhodope pancakes, were delicious when topped with home made bilberry jam or the luscious dark pine honey at breakfast, as were the Mekitski a thin, crisp doughnut. The variety of food in such a remote area was remarkable, as was the youthfulness of the cook. I cant end without mentioning the yoghurt a wonderful fresh saucepanful, made every morning, to which we helped ourselves and then topped perhaps with wild strawberry jam or another variety of honey.
This set us up well for our daily walks in the surrounding hills and meadows. My favourite, because of the views, the setting and the sense of achievement, was our climb along the ridge to the peak of Mount Elijah. This mountain (1509 m) dominates the village. At one end of the ridge, it drops away dramatically and you feel yourself to be on top of the world. The other end is equally dramatic the bare mountain dropping down to the wooded gorge. While on the ridge, we met three villagers looking after the village cows intelligent cows we were told. They know not to go too close to the edge!

I could write so much more of sights, sounds, company and understanding but space doesnt permit. I look forward very much to returning to the Rhodopes. It is a unique place, the stuff of legend, a world away from our western experience, a perfect holiday destination.

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