Almost two years and one month to the day since Julie and I started work on this house, we have finally decided that we need a holiday 😮 A last minute trawl around booking.com, and confirmation from a friend that she can come and house-sit, and we’re off to visit Chiflik, a small village in the hills above Trojan. So small, it doesn’t even have it’s own Wikipedia page! I’ve often heard Chiflik mentioned for the quality of it’s spa’s and mineral springs, thanks to some prompting from our friends Friderik and Daniella, and Trojan is legendary for being a center of traditional crafts, something close to both of our hearts, so it seemed a good location for our first foray holidaying in Bulgaria. Plus, it’s in the middle of the Stara Planina, the mountain range that cuts through the center of Bulgaria from West to East, and the one thing I really miss from the UK is time spent in mountains.
We had a largely uneventful journey through Veliko Turnovo, skirting the foothills of the Stara Planina before finally striking south at Lovech. Strangely enough, you don’t really seem to rise up into the Stara Planina, at least not at first. They just sort of grow up around you. We we’re later surprised to discover that Chiflik, right in the midst of the hills, is only 400m above sea level! We picked up a hitch-hiker on the way; she was returning home to Trojan from Cardiff, where she is studying drama, spoke very good English and gave us the low-down on good walking in the area. She particularly recommended an area called ‘Kozia Stena’, which translates as ‘goat wall’, on account of there being goats there. It is also home to a rare crop of Edelweiss flowers.
By the time we reached our hotel we’d just about got used to using the satnav on our tablet. I can’t quite believe that we’ve ended up with one of these. The saleswoman in Vivacom was bloody good, the price was good, and actually it’s been really useful, although Julie’s been a bit pissed off at the amount of time I’ve had to spend ‘learning how to use it’ 🙂 Still it got us there. The hotel was delightful. Small, with only eight rooms, and run by a local family who were immediately welcoming. Their son speaks really good English which helped with booking in and questions etc. Having settled in and taken a hot shower, we went for a walk around the village to see where we’d landed.
The next day, with the weather looking fine, we decided to tackle the ‘Goat Wall’ walk. Given the choice between a relatively easy ascent from a nearby hotel, and an arduous flog up 800m of steep hill from further up the valley, we chose the hard flog. I know, don’t ask, it’s just what we do. Anyway, we were pleased we did. The lower hills are a dense forest of mainly beech, the trees rising without branch or stem for thirty feet or more, before branching out into a shady canopy. We climbed for over two hours through this forest, seeing nobody else, before emerging out above the tree-line onto the higher meadows. There are few walking maps of Bulgaria, so we were relying on the marked trails, which led us surely to the hut at the end of the trail.
The mountain hut of Kozia Stena was high up on the trail that leads the length of the Stara Planina range, and had fantastic views across the hills and valleys that make up the range. It was occupied by a young woman and her boyfriend, who manage the hut and provide for travellers. She’d lived there for two years, her boyfriend for four. They were happy there, but got tired of all the tourists and visitors during the summer and were looking forward to the winter months, with few visitors, and time to themselves in their mountain eyrie. They eventually planned to return to their home village and set up a life for themselves with a smallholding.
The walk back down went much more quickly! We still didn’t see any goats, but we did see lots of fresh dung. The woman in the hut had explained that it was the wrong time of year for the goats. They are mostly about in the spring, and you have to be up really early, and be very quiet, to see them as they are shy animals. She also said there were eight bears living nearby in the woods; she has only seen one that raided their compost bin, but her boyfriend has seen more of them. There are also wild boar living nearby. Neither of them has seen the wolves that also live in the forest, but apparently they are incredibly shy and very difficult to spot, moving softly among the shadows. Even though we didn’t see any, it still added a frisson of excitement to our walk, knowing that there are dangerous wild animals living nearby!
The descent into the trees marked a sharp change, from light, into shade, from twittering birds, into an eerie silence, so we were pleased to get quickly to the bottom, where we spent a pleasant hour watching little birds flitting about around the mountain hut, Haidushka Pesen (хайдушка песен), a name which celebrates the mountain outlaws in their battles against the Turks. Being somewhat short sighted, and totally inept at using binoculars, we were only able to identify nuthatches in the trees, but there were lots of others.
So we took our jelly knees back to the car and returned to the village, well satisfied with our day’s hiking, the first proper walk we’ve done in about three years! We stopped on the way at the spa, which is just outside the village in a complex of hotels and bars. My idea of hell, usually, but this time it seemed like a good idea, so we got booked in for a much needed massage each for the next day, and had a lovely meal at the tavern adjoining in the spa. We thought we we’re fairly familiar with Bulgarian menus. It turns out that we only know our local menus; here, we barely recognised anything and Google translate really struggled. So, most of our meals on this holiday were delicious, but really strange combinations, as we had no idea what we were ordering. On this occasion we ended up with a plate of chicken gizzards, tripe and ox tongue. It tasted very good, but we weren’t keen on the texture of the tripe; a bit slimy, but not at all rubbery. We chased it down with the obligatory salad, chips and a beer, before returning to our hotel.
Day two of our holiday was a relaxing spa session. Not at all our usual type of holiday, but we both figured we could do with a massage at least, and the pool did look very inviting. I didn’t manage to get any decent pictures, unfortunately! Our massage was everything I’d expected; thorough, brutal, but just what I needed. We then spent the entire rest of the day lounging around by the pool, taking a dip when it got too hot, reading books and eating a delicious lunch at the pool-side tavern. Being out of season for Bulgaria the pool was sparsely populated, although judging by the number of loungers around it can get pretty busy during the peak season. We probably wouldn’t want to be there at that time!
Our last day was spent taking in some historical and cultural sights. We paid a visit to the Trojan monastery. Set in the foothills of the Stara Planina, near to Trojan, it was a lovely place to visit, very cool and relaxed. It was having some extensive restoration and roof-work done when we visited, with some impressively sized timbers being shaped and jointed using traditional hand-tools, and some big slabs of rock being hauled up onto the roof to be used as slates. We then went to see a natural history museum at the next village south. We were interested to see some of the wild animals that we’d heard about in Bulgaria, but are rarely seen. Julie was surprised at how big a wild boar is, and now understands why our neighbour won’t take her out to hunt one! The exhibits were a bit old, and some of the animals had somewhat startled expressions, and some looked like they had once been road-kill, but we managed to get the general impression of what they looked like. After that we returned to the monastery area and visited a museum of contemporary, traditional crafts, which was excellent. We were surprised to see that some of the exhibitors had spent a lot of time in the UK, and had won many awards for their work there, before returning to Bulgaria. We managed to make good our escape without buying anything. Phew!
Finally, we went back into Trojan to visit the best museum, which was a museum of traditional crafts. This was amazing. Trojan was once a major centre for crafts in Bulgaria, and the exhibits explored each of the major crafts and traced their history and development in the area, from neolithic times to the end of the communist era. We wished we’d seen this first, as it shed light on the contemporary crafts exhibition that we’d seen earlier. I particularly enjoyed the recreations of traditional workshops, complete with tools, benches, and descriptions of the methods used. Now we know what some of the stuff we found in our barns is for!
Finally, on the way back to our village, we saw a small restaurant called ‘Hitar Petar‘, below the road, hugging the side of a large stream. It looked interesting, so we pulled in for a meal. The food was great, the setting magical, but it rather intriguingly offers a ‘room for a break, 2 hours, 25 lev’ Draw your own conclusions! The view from the restaurant might have been spoilt by the huge embankment of the road bridge that spanned a small stream that joined the main stream just beside the restaurant. It wasn’t spoilt though, as the owners had artfully disguised the concrete walls of the embankment as a traditional village house, complete with barns! Very clever, and most unusual. As we were paying our bill, and seemingly to add to the general air of weirdness, the chef went whizzing overhead on a zipwire.
All in all, a delightful holiday, and an area that will warrant further exploration. We hadn’t even begun to explore the mountains nearby, and there are some fantastic rock formations to visit, Roman ruins to explore, and wildlife to find. See you next year, Trojan!