Melnik and Rila

By the way I have shared the map overview of my solo driving after the Rose Valley Workshop here. This does not include every side detour or detail but it gives you the basic outline of the loop. And pictures are here:, though it may not be clear yet which pic goes with which destition. I will try to add some sort of labels to the pix later…

Last we heard from this intrepid traveler he had arrived in Melnik, famous for wine and “sand pyramids”. The local grape variety is called Shiroka Melnishka Loza, although the local vineyards and producers also grow and produce wines from other grapes such as Syrah. The wine is almost always drunk when under a year old. I tried glasses at two restaurants and had a tasting at a fun wine cave. As it happens I am not a fan, though I expect that is because it is so different from the wines I drink and enjoy frequently, and I could likely develop a taste for it. I hear there are a number of other wines in this region that are quite different, which I did not taste. The soil is sandy and the climate dry, with a long growing season, and moderate slopes, which combine to make an ideal locale for growing wine grapes.

The sand formations are quite impressive and I had a view of them out the window of my hotel room. In the evening I climbed up a little-used path up steep stairs to a small chapel on top of the outcropping closest to the town. It was a great view and again satisfied my exploring yen.

Melnik has a tiny population of residents, but a main street running up a valley containing an intermittent stream that is lined with beautiful and picturesque large old houses and some fairly old (crusader?) ruins. It is a real tourist trap. When the rains come the riverbed fills up with sandy torrents, and due to unpaved roads with totally inadequate drainage, the main road gets deeply rutted. While my little Skoda managed up the road fine, a couple of BMWs had to bad to back down when they reached the damaged section.

After a mediocre but expensive dinner, I had a good night in the hotel, which then served a generous breakfast with endless coffee. Took a walk up to the ruins of the fortress and stopped in the wine cellar for a tasting (not too much for the driver!) then headed off for the last stop before returning to Sofia: the Rila Monastery. I had mostly skipped over the churches and monasteries to this point, but this place really impressed me. It is located in a steep-sided valley at about 3,700 feet altitude, and the mountain peaks around it are up to 9.000 feet! The Monastery itself is quite large and decorated beautifully. I’ll have to post the pictures when I get back home. The monastery hosts guests in a large number of austerely-outfitted rooms (horrible beds) that are large and beautifully decorated. I got to see the inside because I ended up being a guardian angel to two young Belgian sisters that showed up at my hotel exhausted, soaking wet, and very achy from the 5,000 foot descent in heavy rain after 5 days of high altitude hiking. That is a story for another post. Inside the monastery is a large and super impressive old Eastern Orthodox church. I got to hear and enjoy the monks chanting during a service and surreptitiously recorded them.

After a somewhat disturbed night of sleep I set off with the sisters in tow and drove the short 1.5 hours to Sofia. Parked in the center of town, said goodbye to the sisters, and walked around a bit. Saw the synagogue from the outside, had some hummus at a hole in the wall Arab restaurant, then headed for my airbnb where I am now about to go to bed. Tomorrow at 5am I will hopefully return my rental car and hop on a plane to Newark via Vienna. Whew!!


Trigrad, Gotse Delchev, Breznitsa and a new friend

Once again a lot of adventure since my last post. Let’s see how much I can remember.

It seems many Bulgarians have espresso cofee, maybe milk (mliako), and not much else for breakfast. Daniela served a generous serving of fried dough fritters stuffed with a little feta cheese, plus coffee and herbal tea. YUM! After that I went for a walk and my exploring instinct led me to the trail going northwest toward Jagodinska village. Aside from knowing the general direction, and following the road up along the side of the mountain, my final clue was an intersection with a well-maintained dirt road where I noticed a modest size rock with just barely visible red and blue arrows on it. After following it around 30 yards finally some signs were posted with destinations and mileage for hiking. Yay. So I followed it for about 1/2 hour and followed a side track that obviously led to one of the dramatic stone outcroppings I had seen and photographed the day before. The outcropping on the left with the vertical cliff down into the gorge is the spot I found.

After returning to the guest house and checking out I started on the road back down the valley going north to meet up with the “main” road going west. But on the way just as I was below “my” viewpoint from earlier, I noticed some trails and information signs so I parked the car in the shade and got out to investigate. Chatting with some folks, turns out I was just a few hundred yards from the famous “Devil’s Throat” cave so I walked down to check it out. Since it wasn’t too crowded and the tour was about to start, I bought a ticket. This cave is much shorter than the previous one, but it was worth it to descend into a huge cavern (I think about 300 feet tall) with a stream cascading through it. Getting out was via a very steep set of stairs leading to a lovely riverbed through the gorge, lined with greenery, including zdravets which is a type of geranium that grows prolifically in Bulgaria and also in our garden at Lake Celeste (thanks to Henry Goldberg!) Back to the car, unexpectedly just a few steps from the exit, and onward!

The road heading west from Teshel is narrow and winding, with no lane markings at all, rising up through pine forests, vistas then opening onto various alpine valleys, some quite large, passing through the town of Dospat and the slightly larger crossroads of Sachovka. Quite soon after leaving Teshel I spied a sign for the village of Zornitsa and decided to make a side trip there. It was lovely and peaceful, I took some pix and spent a few minutes walking around and soaking in the scenery before resuming. Stopped a few more times to snap photos of a stone arch bridge crossing a stream and ending in a field, some panoramas, etc. Starting to see the high peaks of Pirin and Rila in the distance, with some snow still left.

The temperature in the highlands was still hot during the day but nice and cool at night. So far not much rain.

After passing through Sachovka I descended into the very large valley where the large town of Gotse Delchev is located. I stopped for a while there, walked around and took pix, and then proceeded to the tiny village of Gospodintsi to find my guest house. Wow, what a trip! Drove a mile up the paved road, which then turned to bumpy dirt road in the village itself. Most of the houses are half-finished or somewhat falling apart – both common sights in poor villages). A few yards in I see a nice looking house with a phone number on a sign which I recognized as the number of my lodging. Had a hard time getting through, consulted some neighbors who had no idea, but eventually did reach someone speaking Bulgarian, who said they weren’t able to let me in right away, and would have an English speaker call me back. After about 45 minutes (I drove around a bit) a caretaker and her two daughters who spoke English eventually showed up to let me in. I had the run of a 2 floors in a modern 3-story house decorated with folk costumes! A lovely courtyard out back. 14 chairs at the dining table and 23 pairs of sandals by the front door (no shoes allowed inside). Seemed out of place in this tiny village – and I think the owners are Bulgarians living in France.

I got in touch with a friend of our friend Martha named Salih (Bukovyan). He lives in Breznitsa which is just 15 minutes away from Godintsi. He gladly accepted my offer of dinner and suggested a nearby hotel a little further up the mountainside. Once again the road turned to a bumpy narrow dirt track, finally leading to a nice modern hotel where we had a lovely lamb dinner and warm but somewhat broken conversation, sometimes helped by Google Translate 🙂 Afterwards he invited me to visit him and his aunt the next morning which I gladly accepted. Little did I know…

Yesterday morning I picked up Salih outside his house in Breznitsa. Salih is Pomak (Muslim) and the town is primarily Pomak. We drove around the block to his aunt Alife’s house. They welcomed us and we sat outside in a narrow courtyard under a typical grapevine arbor. Salih took out two old-style two stringed tamburas and proceeded to play and sing with his uncle Ismail who is 89 years old. All the songs were plaintive sounding, mostly epic ballads, in the key of F (hicaz or minor). Salih explained that they were all local traditional songs. They were gorgeous, with a lot of subtle microtonal pitches, though they might sound monotonous to some. I recorded the entire session and noodled along on my gadulka for part of it. I also sang one song that I thought was vaguely in the same genre called Krifkono Fesce… These folks were very gracious and seemed pleased to have a foreign visitor who was respectful and interested. Once again I was in heaven and just so grateful for this unexpected opportunity to connect with village folks, deeply connected to one of the local cultures.

Afterwards Salih and I went out for soda at a local cafe as they day was heating up. Then I dropped him back off at his house, said goodbye, and headed off towards Melnik.

Heading up into the mountains again, still on narrow winding roads, I took another detour to the tiny village of Pirin. Wow! I think that is the poorest and tiniest village of all. Like many in the mountains, it’s in a steep gorge, with a single cafe (unmarked by any sign), a single store, a falling down schoolhouse or cultural center. I estimate it had around 30 houses, some of which were half collapsed and half occupied! The road in and out was potholed, and the road through the village only had room for one car to pass. I parked and went for a walk across the stream and up the other side. As I passed a horse was leaving one house with his master following, who was being let out to graze on grass by the roadside. I don’t think I mentioned before, people often tie up their horses, goats, cows, etc. in fields to graze, or graze them along the roadside. The man asked me in Bulgarian if I was on foot – I think he was asking if I was hiking from place to place. He seemed friendly, but most of the villagers either ignored me or just glanced at me curiously.

Onward to Melnik! That town has only a couple dozen residents, but it is a big tourist trap – I mean attraction :-). It is famous for its “sand pyramids” – sandy steep sculptured hills – and its local wines.

It’s getting late now and I need to go to bed so this story will have to continue again tomorrow. Darn I’m a full day behind in my story telling.


Thursday in Plovdiv and Friday off to Trigrad and the Western Rhodope Mts.

Wow the last few days have been fantastic and busy!

Thursday was my last full day in Plovdiv. I grabbed a light breakfast of yoghurt, fruit and granola at a health food store I had noticed in the main part of the walking district. Then I took an excellent free walking tour for 1.5 hours that took us around the Kapana (arts/restaurant/pedestrian) district, and then into the Old Town. The guide was a young law school student and self-proclaimed history buff with excellent English. Lots of interesting factoids including that evidence of neolithic habitation was found at the peak of one of the hills, in the Old Town. That district has an amazing number of gorgeous historical buildings, along with crusader construction and a Roman road with remains of a city gate. We ended at the impressive semi-cicrular Roman Theatre (as opposed to the amphitheatre I had already seen in Kapana). The guide said amphitheaters, like the Colliseum, are always round or oblong. I then continued on my own for another hour, took loads of pictures of the colorful buildings, and toured the ethnographic museum. The guide got $7 tips from many of the 20-odd participants, making it a pretty lucrative “volunteer” job! It was interesting but some of the explanations were suspect – presented from a Christian / nationalistic perspective and I got the sense that they would benefit from a careful scientific / academic review. I didn’t go into any of the old churches or other exhibitions due to time constraints and my limited patience. I really prefer walking and exploring to long explanations. At three o’clock I returned to Kapana to meet our dear friend and dance teacher Iliana Bozhanova. It was so great seeing her and hearing about each other’s lives. We sat in an air-conditioned cafe (90 degrees out!) and had “melba” and frappe’s. Between us it was a four-ice-cream hang! Iliana had already helped me plan the remaining part of my trip and she gave me a few more hints before heading back on the bus to start her work of teaching and choreographing dance for 120 kids of various ages in the cultural center. I finished the evening at a chamber music concert featuring various classical and contemporary composers and pieces by varying ensembles of piano, flute, violin, cello, and two-handed piano. The piano was a new fancy Bosendorfer C-280 which had travelled from Vienna for the occation. The piano minder and tuner/voicer was a tall Austrian we had previously met when he visited the Rose Valley Workshop I was at!

OK whew… on to Friday. Retrieved my car from its overnight spot in the central district and figured out how to pay for parking nearby while I loaded my luggage and waited for the hostess to check out. Meanwhile took out breakfast of coffee, fresh OK, fresh banitsa, and a super fresh and delish jelly donut from a well known old donut (piroshki) shop around the corner from my Airbnb. Had a slight snafu meeting the hostess so did some yoga and played gadulka but then I was off to my adventure in the Rhodope mountains….

The trip up into the mountains from Plovdiv was impressive! Very winding and beautiful with numerous small rockfalls. After passing a turnoff for Studenets (appears in one of the songs I know), I decided to follow my exploring instinct to see a small village, so I turned off towards the village of Zornitsa (also the name of a band that our friend Henry was/is in). It was a good decision. Passed some locals logging by the side of the road, and emerged from the pine forest into high meadows and a picturesque village. After taking some pix I returned to the journey somewhat concerned to arrive and be able to find my guest house in Trigrad so I didn’t stop at the Bachko monastery or in Shiroka Luka, though the latter has many historical houses and a famous music school. The roadside vendors at each tourist stop were pretty much what you would expect in any country. Here in addition to the normal refrigerator magnets and chotchkes they also sell herbs for tea, home made honey, roasted nuts, etc. I got to the turn-off for Trigrad at about 1pm and decided to first visit nearby Yagodinska cave since it was expected to get really busy / crowded on Saturday. Wow the road to Yagodin is super narrow and goes through a river gorge with numerous overhangs and small rockfalls. Most of the tourists I ran into were Bulgarian but waiting for the cave tour to start a bunch of Israelis showed up. Met a German couple who were hiking on the way to Trigrad. This cave is something like 12 km and we walked over 1km and saw a great variety of stalactites, stalagmites, and stalagtons (? that’s what they are called in Bulgarian when connected both top and bottom). They are white colored and there is some running water but not a lot. One of the highlights are “pearls” – small balls formed I believe by chunks of calcium carbonate that are tumbled and polished by water that drips over them as they sit in a shallow pool. Ended up chatting with the tour guide (it was only in Bulgarian) and discovering that she is also a fan of old / traditional folk songs. Turned down multiple offers to take a jeep ride up to the “Eagle’s Eye” overlook. Finally headed back out to the road to Trigrad. Drove through another gorge with hydropower and irrigation dams, finally reaching Trigrad. The signs to guest house Zora were clear, eventually following a dirt track up a short hill to the place. It is beautiful in a sort of alpine style, and the location / scenery is really gorgeous. Looking out on steep alpine fields and down on the small town with mosque/minaret and church, and small river running through it. The host couple speaks only Bulgarian and we had some funny moments as she was trying to communicate with me using Google translate set to input in GREEK instead of Bulgarian lol. Daniela and Anton. They weren’t super friendly but still OK. I got in a nice long walk through town across the river and part way up the mountain on the other side before coming back for dinner. Met a very friendly family from Varna and had a nice long talk with the husband named Martin Kolev who is now my friend on LinkedIn.

I guess I’ll put today’s adventure in a new post….


Plovdiv first night and morning

Good morning from Plovdiv!

With my new $7 SIM card in my phone, I now have 6GB of mobile data for the rest of my trip. Is that a bargain or what?

When I first arrived my airbnb hostess was not available so I hung out nearby on the main pedestrian street and grabbed a delicious gelato combo of coffee and dark chocolate with hot pepper and candied orange peel chunks. YUM! And such fun people watching.

I was comfy in my airbnb right in the heart of the art/cafe district called Kapana. The pocket park next door is home to skateboarding teens during the day, and at night it seems to host a late night (4am!) party, but fortunately the apartment is pretty soundproof with the windows closed, and has adequate air conditioning. The temperature us up to 90 degrees Farenheit these days. The building itself is really lovely and the inside is modern, clean, and well equipped.

I am thrilled to be in such a walkable area, with old buildings and cobblestone streats. There is a large area of pedestrian-only streets including the place I am staying. I walked for several hours last night checking out the district. The Dzhumaya mosque and one of two Roman amphitheatres are just a few blocks away. I had a delicious dinner right around the corner at a very popular restaurant called Pavash. I ordered grilled baby eggplant with carrot and a delicious glaze and pesto, and chicken livers with sauce and whole wheat bread. Dessert was dreamy creamy cheesecake on a chocolate crumb crust with strawberry. I sat at an outside table watching folks pass by. Mostly Bulgarians but many other nationalities. Since they were full, a nice woman came and sat with me while waiting for a friend to arrive. She is half-Bulgarian, half-Armenian and has been spending several years each in Colombia, The Netherlands, Istambul, etc. working as a sort of cosmetologist. It was nice to have a companion to talk with since I was feeling a bit lonely knowing I will be mostly solo traveling now that the Rose Valley workshop is over.

Afterwards walked some more and met an Italian couple, had a nice chat in Italian, turns out they live near Lake Como which is one of our favorite places in northern Italy.

I am on the lookout for ab embroidered Bulgarian folk shirt for myself, and I found two stores that carry them, but they were chintze and way overpriced.

Parking is an issue in Plovdiv – the main tourist areas are mostly off limits to non-resident parking (green zone) or have severe restrictions ($1.50/hr with many places max 2 hours, except for paid lots which sometimes fill up). I drove around a bit and found long term free street parking in the “Center” district about 5 minutes walk south of the “Old Town”, 15 minutes walk from my apartment.

I am about to head out for some sort of light breakfast followed by a free walking tour in English that was recommended.

I posted a number of pictures from yesterday on my photo album


On the road to Plovdiv

After a few detours I am now in my rental car outside Sofia airport, purchased my electronic highway toll “vignette”, got driving directions to Plovdiv using free wifi (available at all gas stations) and ready for a new adventure!


Last day in Karavelovo

The last few days I have been having too much fun to take time out to blog. That seems to be a pattern for me.

I’ve posted some pictures from the past few days to

Last night we had a visit from the folk dancers, singers and musicians from the village of Kliment which is about 3 miles south of here. It was a wonderful time, each group of folks we meet seems more friendly and animated than the last one. After an initial performance in the dance hall everyone moved outside and we danced in the courtyard of our compound. The colors and embroidery of their costumes were coordinated with the “rose” theme since we are located in the famous “Rose Valley”. The season for collecting rose oil from the local pink rose variety is nearly over. I got a chance to dance with the men of the performing group when I wasn’t busy taking videos to record the festivities.

The weather continues to cooperate, while it did rain a little yesterday night and it’s quite overcast now.

My right knee is a bit cranky but it hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the dancing so far.

I don’t have much more to add right now so I’ll go off to dance class before it is over.

Do utre … until tomorrow, when I will be off to Sofia to rent a car and continue my journey to Plovdiv for two days, and then onward into the Rhodope mountains.


Third night already?!

имаме ракия

A toast to old and new friends.

Already the third evening of spirited dancing, and wonderful music.

I’ve posted some new pictures in my album


Arrived and in heaven

After major delays, missed connections, hours standing in line, and an unexpected overnight in Fankfurt, I arrived at Sofia airport 24 hours behind schedule. The memories of these travails would make for a story but they are already overshadowed by meeting old and new friends, taking in the sights and sounds of Bulgaria for the first time.

We came 2.5 hours east from Sofia to Karavelovo between the Balkan and Stara Planina mountains. The workshop began last night with a wonderful dance party lasting past midnight. After a chilly night, a good sleep, a hot shower and delicious breakfast I am ready for the first day of classes!

I posted a few first pictures on, and will post pix and videos as time permits, and will post more updates here.

Dance class is starting so goodbye for now…. dovizhdane.