Horseback is the best way to discover a new destination, Rachel Ward finds.
Perhaps given that Bulgarians themselves seem to be still asking those questions, it's not surprising that the rest of us are.
In contrast to most of its Balkan neighbours, recent history has smiled on Bulgaria but according to British historian, Professor Richard Crampton, an expert on Bulgaria, after eons of Ottoman and then Soviet colonisation, Bulgaria suffers a "victim complex" and does not smile back. Indeed in the latest euro barometer, Bulgaria rates as the most discontent nation in the EU. My theory is that, like a beautiful girl hidden under a paper bag where the gaze of the world's adoring eyes are denied and its poet's tongues silenced, she has no idea just how alluring she is. Of course she's not bloody smiling. Yet! Paradoxically her humility and mystery is one of Bulgaria's great charms so here's to hoping a little exposure and flattery won't go to her head.
My husband and I decide we are up for a horse riding adventure. We've done a few and have decided it's the only way to travel. The truest way to have an "up close and personal" with both the country and its people. For starters you're out of your comfort zone, there's no turning back, you must abandon all control and anything can happen. There is nothing like extreme vulnerability to induce uncommon trust and affection in both your host guide (22-year-old Nicko) and his horses. But gratitude for surviving a holiday in the saddle aside, it's not hard to fall for every appeal this holiday has to offer.
We arrive in Apriltsi, a small town at the bottom of the central Balkan mountains, after a three-hour drive from Sofia. You quickly get a sense of the level of hospitality, aesthetic and food quality before you can even smell a horse. Mercifully, there was an instant whiff of the authentic. The Bulgarians maywant all the ubiquitous capitalist junk but, so far, not much has reached the central Balkans. What you get is all the flavour of seasonal produce without the waste of endless choice. Wine was always available and delicious although their beloved Rakiais the national tipple. The accommodation is simple, clean; the homes mostly white-washed with red tiled roofs and spectacularly unadorned. The Bulgarians are more gardeners than builders. Every window sill and courtyard is crammed with colored splashes of potted plants and grape vines.
Our steeds, mountain horses bred by the Turkish army, are bomb-proof and fit enough to take us five to seven hours a day across the Stara Planina park, a national park of 717 square kilometres, up to a height of 2000 metres. Over six days we will ride 160 kilometres. Even for a riding fiend, it seems like a ridiculous amount of time in a saddle but something strange happens to time on horseback. No sooner have you had your first canter, scaled your first sun-dappled beech forest, gasped at your first vast, blue-hazed panorama, than its time to dismount for lunch.
Our overnight abodes are, without exception, deeply romantic. The first night we get a faded blue wooden dairy set in an alpine valley of wild horses and sheep whose neck bells tinkle away like a soundscape from Heidi. In the summer months solitary shepherds still watch and live with their flocks. Purportedly, there are still wolves and bears in the park although, an evening of scanning the juniper thickets above the tree line, doesn't reveal more the odd red deer.
Our second night we stay in the Kaloferski monastery, now home to only three ancient nuns but boasting a 17th-century orthodox Bulgarian chapel of rare beauty. Its interior walls covered in naive Christian icons with a chandelier of disproportionate size and splendour. Dinner on the cloisters' balcony with the high mountains peaks dressed in light from a swollen moon is neither of this century nor earthly.
But the last overnighter surpassed even that. We'd ridden our longest day of 35 kilometres through the Valley of Roses, the area's largest cash crop. Handpicked in May and June, three tonnes of petals make only I kilogram of rose oil. The yearly crop yielding 2 tonnes of rose oil. We'd riddenthrough and lunched in the village of Tuzha in the home of Maria, who served a national favourite, Tarator, cold cucumber and yoghurt soup – delicious – and climbed back up the mountain, reaching the summit just before sundown. There are 1900 varieties of flora in the high country, every single one of which must have been in bloom in the hidden meadow of our final resting place.
Drinking cold beer and watching the horses, of which we have become inordinately grateful and attached, rolling in the wild flowers while a hard-earned dinner sizzles on the barbecue plate, is ... well if it gets any better, I haven't met it yet. And then, out of the forest, comes looping, a massive brown bear and her cubs ...
Just kidding but, this area, (listed as category 1 according to the World Conservation Union), is the core of the South European population of the species and, as it's home to more than 800 bears, you could be luckier. Or unluckier. They eat a mostly vegetarian diet but, apparently, aren't fussy.
Picking our way slowly back down the stony tracks, we reflect on "best and worst" of the trip. Worst was the pillows (definitely bring your own), best is hard, there were too many but for sheer otherworldliness, it has to be early on the fourthmorning as we following a giggling river down the mountain towards the Thracian valley. In the distance we hear the advancement of rowdy singing. Our guide tells us, with some urgency, to get off the track. Around the corner a scruffy Russian truck appears stuffed with a load of carousing young men and behind them, a cavalcade of galloping horses, ridden fearlessly, mostly without saddles or bridles. All of them, young, dark and wearing earrings. Raggle-taggle gypsies. The forest zinged with their passing like we'd encountered a quick ghostly glimpse of a bygone people and its culture.
Finally, completing our mammoth trek, I reward my hard-working steed with a handful of oats only to be remonstrated for spoiling it. (I had shared stories about how badly behaved my horses at home were). My god, I mused, if I treated my horses as sparingly after a 160-kilometre trek over mountains such as these, I'd never be forgiven. But like the Bulgarians we have met in this secret, beautiful country, the horses trot off without complaint of their frugal lot. My horses and children have a shock coming when I return.
We flew into London and connected through to Sofia with Bulgaria Air booked through Flight Centre. Farandride picked us up at Sofia Airport.
The ride was organised by Farandride, they do 300 rides around the world; ours was called the Balkan Mountain Trail.
At the end of the ride we stayed at Hotel Les Fleurs in Sofia, rooms start at $130 per night for a couple. See lesfleurshotel.com.