In praise of potential

For the discerning, intrepid voyager with a passion for lesser-known sites and pristine cultural attractions, Bulgaria is a land of possibilities. As travel tastemakers respond to its potential, Julian Allason sets out on a trip of discovery.

June 16 2011
Julian Allason

“No Guns” says the sign at the entrance to Studio 5, Sofia’s coolest live-music club, located in the bowels of the fortress-like Palace of Culture. Inside, an arty young audience is mellowing out to Theodosii Spassov’s improbably satisfying fusion of Balkan folk and jazz, led on the kaval shepherd’s flute. For the EU’s least-familiar member state, often associated in the popular imagination with blood feuds and corruption – even the trusty Lonely Planet guide cannot resist a reference to the expertise of Bulgarian assassins – it is an unexpectedly urbane scene; but one that is, as it turns out, more characteristic of Bulgaria these days than the fearsome image of old. The only staccato bursts of sound come from the band’s lissome drummer, indulging in an impromptu solo.

If Bulgaria has in the past been considered a hardship posting by diplomats, luxury travel operators have begun to show interest in its medieval monasteries, Ottoman villages and landscape of mountains and valleys that recall the experimental perspectives of Mantegna – a pristine coexistence of a sort that is increasingly endangered in much of western Europe. Now there are signs of a future for the country as a destination for travellers with discerning tastes as well as adventurous natures.

It’s partly to be found in a revival of pre-war café society in the capital and the opening of chic boutique hotels. The handsome art-nouveau buildings of Sofia boast restored faces and now host stylish accommodation, such as the 31-room Les Fleurs, floridly (and florally) grand in the ornate Balkan manner, and host to the well-regarded Le Bouquet seafood restaurant, where local river carp is elevated to something approaching world-class status. The stylish locals’ favourite (and that of luxury operator Cox & Kings, which lodges clients here) is the Crystal Palace, a 63-room boutique hotel opened in 2004 that’s part foursquare architectural monument, part contemporary glass pavilion, overlooking the celebrated Doctors’ Garden and the cathedral.

The Zografski, at 32 years old (and a Kempinski hotel since 1997), is the city’s elder statesman of luxury hotels; the hilltop position and air of efficiency continue to capture the attention of high-flying business and intrepid leisure travellers, who are divided over preference for views of the surprisingly green old city or the snowtipped mountains. But more recently its Intermezzo bar, overlooking the hotel’s serene Japanese garden, has become the key social destination point for le tout Sofia.

The main news this season, however, is in the hinterland. Villa Gella – a six-bedroom, stunning contemporary house, high on a hill overlooking one of the oldest villages in the Rhodope mountains ­– is (as yet) unique: a full-service, fully staffed rental property with, for the south of the region, unprecedented exclusive access to its cultural offerings. Designed to high sustainability standards by Bulgarian architect Krastan Zapryanov, Villa Gella is faithful to the traditions of the National Revival, yet blows the chorapi (socks) off anything built since the strongman Todor Zhivkov was ushered from power in 1989.

A light but deft touch has been applied to the 1,700sq m of airy living spaces, commanding a panorama of snowy mountains framed by cherry blossom. Bedrooms are white yet romantic – three have four-posters and one billowing voile curtains. Each ascending floor overhangs that below in the historic kioshk manner; thus the largest of the six suites is on the top floor, and leads onto a traditional glassed-in wooden terrace with divan seating around a fireplace and a family-sized Jacuzzi. A spa and pool with a lap jet anchor the lowest level.

The villa is the project of a retired banker with Bulgarian roots whose exposure to the French and Japanese concepts of hospitality and the Italian synthesis of art and luxury raised the question, “Why not at home?” The result is a dramatic house, more sporting lodge than conventional villa, which is a beacon of possibility – already a talking point in Sofia (and in certain classes, London and beyond). Here, 120km from the nearest industry, the air is pure and the beaches of the Aegean just 15 minutes away by helicopter (Villa Gella hires one for guests on request). For now, it is an ideal hub from which to explore the remote mountain country and a handful of the nation’s Unesco heritage sites – among over 1,000 designated historic by the government’s hard-pressed Department of Antiquities.

Villa Gella has also been conceived as a stage upon which to mount private performances of the best that Bulgaria can draw upon from its deep artistic heritage. In a land in which who you know counts, it is no hindrance that the owners are in a position to conjure up anything from otherwise unavailable vintages to private access to the sublime Boyana church where some art historians consider the Renaissance began.

My journey provides a taster of the possibilities to be explored in this country. After being met in Sofia off the three-hour direct BA flight from London, we pause in Plovdiv, a magical hill town of cobbled lanes with a 6,000-year history. It is a pathfinder for the development of Bulgaria’s potential: kioshk houses in National Revival style are still lived in, serviced by shops selling blood sausage and cafés serving Bulgarian coffee strong enough to activate the nemurtvi (undead). The restoration has been carried out by private enterprise (with some US and EU funding), with façades cleaned and the lanes again echoing to schoolchildren chasing each other home. Below, the restored Roman amphitheatre remains in use for concerts, the acoustics as good today as when it was built in the second century.

While there is still a way to go before a fuller spectrum of comfort trappings has established itself outside Sofia, Bulgaria has long been a gold mine of cultural bounty for those thus inclined. The discovery of two astonishing vaulted Thracian royal burial chambers at opposite ends of the country has established the existence of a well-ordered civilisation privy to high mathematics, advanced engineering skills and a clear appreciation of beauty.

Orpheus, the legendary Thracian musician who accompanied Jason on his voyage, has long been associated with the Rhodope mountains and in particular with Gela, where Villa Gella stands. Indeed, the origin of the Orpheus legend, which sees him descend to the Underworld in a vain attempt to recover his wife, Eurydice, is supported by the existence of a striking natural phenomenon nearby. The Devil’s Throat in Trigrad Gorge, a chasm into which the entire river vanishes over one of the highest underground waterfalls in Europe, has enjoyed a sinister reputation since classical times. All efforts to explore it fully have met with failure, say the site authorities, and an attempt to dye the waters ingressing had a puzzling result: when the river emerged half a kilometre below, no trace of dye remained.

The passing of the seasons opens up new possibilities in this almost Tibetan landscape. In winter, the nearby ski resort of Pamporovo offers pleasant hotels with good lifts up to easy-to-intermediate slopes, where the odds of hearing English or French are virtually nil; more advanced runs are available at Bansko, in the Pirin mountains (where the buzz anticipates resumption of work on a clutch of high-end ski lodges and spa projects put on ice during the downturn).

In milder months, alpine trails invite hiking and riding. Summer also sees the Balkans’ answer to the Edinburgh Tattoo, when 100 Bulgarian bagpipers gather to create an edifice of sound said to echo down to Hades. The Maestro is Petar Yanev, one of only two musicians skilled enough to turn a lamb inside out to create the gaida bagpipe. His virtuosity with the instrument was unmistakable when he and Valya Balkanska (the “national treasure” of Bulgarian folk-singing) performed at Villa Gella.

Somehow the concatenation of the medieval with the modern – a luxury country villa with an indoor pool and underfloor heating, coexisting with horse-cart traffic jams on high-altitude dirt roads – seems unsurprising here. It’s this very unspoiltness that is Bulgaria’s sweet spot; top-end villa agents see real potential in it as a destination for sophisticated travellers, “not least because it is relatively little known,” says Marina Gratsos, director of London-based Carpe Diem Luxury Travel, who notes the sporting and soft-adventure possibilities with approval, and the promising example set by Villa Gella.

Abercrombie & Kent’s ultra-luxe Harrods concession does direct bookings into the country, with soft-adventure and culture-heavy programmes; Cox & Kings now offers many itineraries with monastery tours and wine tastings. Though few Britons currently join the Russian tourists in Varna on the Black Sea coast, it’s increasingly on the radar of the luxury cruise lines plying Eastern European itineraries.

These developments are borne out by the experience of the US’s premier East European specialist travel operator, Exeter International. Alex Datsev, regional manager for Bulgaria, notes interest from upscale clients in winery tours, to sample skilful development of local varieties such as Mavrud (thanks to the nurturing of award-winning – and rewardingly complex – wines from vineyards like Terra Tangra).

Improved access and the opening of charming boutique hotels in rural areas has primed some of the countryside for easier, more comfortable exploration; Exeter, A&K and their ilk usually also afford special access to sites ordinarily closed to the public. A good example: at the Tsar’s stunning Euxinograd summer palace outside Varna, wine produced on the estate was served at a memorable operatic performance in which audience and players moved from room to room – no scenery or props required. Until 1989, the old wooden palace was used by the politburo for summer holidays; now it is a presidential and governmental residence and also hosts the Operosa opera festival.

For now, though, the truth and appeal of Bulgaria still resides in places like Zlatograd, a settlement categorised as a “reserved village”, in which traditional skills such as weaving are sustained, traditional dress often worn, and no deviation from traditional architecture permitted. But there is nothing fake about it; the work of the artisans is encouraged but not subsidised. Dimitar, the bellmaster of Zlatograd, pauses to brew coffee in a djezve pot on heated sand. He is completing a set of a dozen cowbells, each different in tone, for a farmer who has acquired a new herd. “We are Switzerland without the money,” he smiles ruefully. Perhaps not for as long as he imagines.

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