With roads that flow across sun-drenched mountain ranges, Bulgaria is creeping its way up the list of must-visit European road trip destinations. The country is small enough to travel across without too many long days at the wheel but boasts a consistently captivating Balkan landscape. For summer 2018, The Calvert Journal has charted a driving route from the capital Sofia to Polkovnik Serafimovo in the southern Rhodope Mountains, home of the Meadows in the Mountains festival. Taking you north to south and through the heart of the country, it’s the perfect way to see the best that Bulgaria has to offer.
Start in Sofia
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Aside from the Black Sea holiday resorts, most flights to Bulgaria will take you to Sofia. The city is heading upmarket thanks to an influx of tourists and EU money, but its small and compact layout means you won’t need more than a day to soak up the vibes. If you want to hit the sightseeing hard then the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a must, though the Ivan Vazov National Theatre and the Church of Saint George are also worth a visit.
If you’d rather discover the city for yourself then Vitosha Boulevard is the main pedestrian thoroughfare and a hub for restaurants, bars and entertainment. Walk toward the National Palace of Culture to find a park perfect for people-watching: preferably with a glass of Bulgarian wine in hand.
Up in the Mountains
When you want to leave Sofia, drive south on Route 82 until you reach the town of Samokov, a base for heading into some of Bulgaria’s best-known national parks. If you go south-east to ski resort Borovets, you’ll be able to scale Musala, the highest peak in the Balkans. While the climb isn’t too difficult, you will need some proper outdoor kit. There’s a cable car to take hikers to the higher slopes, but it will still take you a day to climb up and down — and the weather can be changeable (make sure you check when the cable car closes overnight). Another option from Samokov is to go west to the villages of Sapareva Banya or Panichishte, the gateway to the Rila Lakes, a group of seven scattered and idyllic mountain pools. Exploring Rila is an easier choice if you’re not a confident walker but both sites are popular with hikers, so you’ll find plenty of hotels nearby if you want to stop overnight.
If you’d rather avoid getting back to nature then the town of Batak, two hours or so from Sofia, is a good stopping point before you hit your next overnight stay in Plovdiv. The place is rich with Bulgarian history: most notoriously the infamous Batak massacre when thousands of local people were killed after rebels attempted to dislodge Ottoman forces in 1876. You can visit the church today to see the piles of skulls left by Ottoman soldiers, or the well villagers dug with their bare hands in a desperate attempt to reach water. There’s a small museum that’s worth your time if you want to find out more about Bulgaria’s struggle for independence, but don’t expect too much information in English. For lunch, stop at one of the cafes in the main square or overlooking the river.
Further down Route 82 is Plovdiv. Built on seven hills, Bulgaria’s second city is a hub of winding streets and Roman history. Plovdiv is gearing up to be European City of Culture in 2019 with a full schedule of high-brow events this summer. Brightly-coloured, traditional houses lean out over cobbled roads, creating a warren of alleyways to explore. As the hills fall away, you’ll come to the city’s Roman amphitheatre. Stop for a few pictures while the sun is shining, but don’t forget to head back at night, when you might be able to catch an open air opera with English surtitles. The balmy evening air and the panoramic views are a perfect backdrop — as are the local cats who slip on to the stage whenever they can.
If you’d rather catch some of the more contemporary nightlife, head to the city’s Kapana neighbourhood: a rapidly developing sprawl of independent shops, bars and restaurants near the city centre.
Fortresses and Monasteries
South from Plovdiv, you can follow two different routes. The first will take you west, to either Studenets or Orehovo. From here, you can embark on a day-long hike to the “Chudnite Mostove” (“Marvelous Bridges”). These naturally-formed arches, deep in the Rhodope Mountains, are reached through the karst valley of the Erkyupriya River and were created as portions of a large cave’s roof were weathered away over centuries.
If you want to take things at a more leisurely pace — or if you can’t face any more walking — stick to Route 86. Take your morning coffee break at Asen’s Fortress, just outside Asenovgrad. Perched high above the surrounding countryside, Asen’s fortress has existed since the time of the Thracians. A full restoration was carried out in 1991, returning the fortress’s chapel into a functioning Orthodox church. A few miles further along the road, you’ll find the similar Bachkovo Monastery. Founded in 1083, it boasts 17th-century frescos and ancient icons. Make sure to get out and explore the complex: there are four churches with 18 chapels, as well as waterfalls cascading down the mountainside in the monastery grounds.
When you want to head on, continue down Route 86 to Chepelare, or further to Progled and Pamporovo. All three towns are ski resorts, so you’ll find plenty of hotels, places to eat and picturesque picnic spots.
The Final Push
By now, you’re about an hour from your final destination (Polkovnik Serafimovo) — but there are still a few treasures you won’t want to miss.
If you have enough energy, head to the town of Sredoka to discover the Canyon of Waterfalls (find a place to park your car by following signposts labelled “ecopath” in Sredoka itself). The canyon is a thundering stream of 46 waterfalls with the highest, Orpheus, dropping almost 70 metres. The circular route to see the falls should take three to four hours, but be prepared for a steep climb.
For a more leisurely trip, drop by the village of Shiroka Laka, an ancient centre of Bulgarian handicrafts. Small but picturesque, it hosts some of the country’s biggest folk festivals. Wander the streets to take in the atmosphere before a quick lunch and onwards to your final destination.
The Meadows in the Mountains festival will take place in Bulgaria between June and June. For more information, visit the festival website.