Bulgaria: A Tale of Three Ranges and Thracian Cities

Warm Welcomes in Wild Bulgaria
  • Rhodope Mountains
  • European Wolf
  • Bulgaria Guest house_1575x1050
  • Plovid Amphitheatre_1573x1050
  • Belogradchik Fortress_1575x1050
  • European brown Bears
  • Old City Sofia
  • Nevsky Cathedral Sofia
  • Aerial of Perperikon
  • Kesten Bulgaria
  • Bulgaria Devil Bridge
  • Garga Guesthouse
  • Dyadovtsi Bulgaria Ruined Village
  • Bulgaria Ortseva_Shuterstock
  • Kaba Gaida
  • View from Gaarga Guesthouse
  • Malyovitsa

Find the Warmest Welcome in Wild Bulgaria on a Tailor-Made Tour

For those of us on the fringes of Western Europe, Bulgaria – at the opposite end of the continent – is often overlooked. And that is a terrible shame. For a relatively small nation, Bulgaria packs a disproportionately diverse cultural, geographical and historical punch. From the shores of the Black Sea to mountains rich in myth, magic and wildlife; from beautiful cities to Thracian ruins; from Roman amphitheatres to world-class ski resorts, this is a spectacular, multi-layered land which will leave you wanting more.

Help Conserve Wildlife on the Fringes of Wild Europe

On this tailor-made Bulgarian odyssey, you’ll not only meet fascinating people, stay in wonderful places and feast your eyes on beautiful things, you’ll also be playing a small part in conserving Bulgaria’s wildlife in variety of wild locations. By letting us organise your trip, you’ll contribute to rewilding efforts on a pan-European level, and also to those local projects and initiatives that are at the coal-face of conservation.

We organise travel that should be guilt-free and which should have a lasting positive influence not only on your own mind, body and soul but also on those communities – natural and human – that you visit.

DEPARTURE/RETURN LOCATION Arrive: London St Pancras Station (or your local station)
Depart: London St Pancras Station
DEPARTURE TIME Flexible: see Itinerary tab for details
INCLUDED
  • Rail travel to and from your home
  • Accommodation throughout
  • Visits to rewilding and conservation projects and donations to these projects
  • Annual membership of Mossy Earth, supporting rewilding and conservation efforts
  • Some or all meals, whichever you prefer
  • All transfers and transport
  • Professional English-speaking guides
  • All entrance fees
  • Coffee, tea, filtered water and fresh fruit throughout
  • Carbon calculation to show the carbon impact/benefit of your trip
NOT INCLUDED
  • Visas – if required
  • Guide tips
  • Souvenirs

Thracian Citadels, and Mountains, Mountains, Mountains

On this tailor-made Bulgarian tour, you’ll explore remote mountains, hike to the spectacular ruins of Thracian citadels, learn about the country’s Soviet past and feel the threads of magic and mysticism that still course through the veins of this country at the edge of our continent. As Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova says: “to its credit, the Eastern Orthodox Church only condemned pagan practices in principle, not in practice“. Perhaps this is one reason why Bulgaria remains so ‘other’ and special.

As with all of our itineraries, this is just a sample of what we can offer, and can be tailored to fit your interests and style of travel.

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Day 1 - Crossing Europe in Style

Start Point: London St Pancras (or your home station in the UK or elsewhere in Europe)
Destination: Brussels or Cologne and onward to Vienna
Travel: Intercity Service, Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels or Cologne. Nightjet Sleeper from Brussels or Cologne to Vienna
Notes: Join the overnight sleeper service to Vienna, 1st class cabins available with at-seat breakfast

With us, your holiday starts the moment you leave your door. There’s no struggling with airport parking or stressful security checks – instead, you’ll be gliding out of London St. Pancras on the late morning Eurostar. If you like, we can even collect you from home, or arrange your train tickets from your local station to London.

Eurostar at Speed

On arrival in Brussels – or Cologne, depending on the best connections – you’ll hop aboard the overnight Nightjet sleeper service to Vienna. This departs at around 21.00, giving you plenty of time to enjoy a bowl of moules and a carafe of wine or two.

Thanks to the modern Nightjet carriages and their comfortable cabins, you’ll spend a peaceful night speeding south through Germany and Austria, before arriving into Vienna in time for breakfast.

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Day 2 - Vienna and onward to Zagreb

Start Point: Vienna
Destination: Zagreb
Travel: Train into and onward from Vienna.

You’ll arrive into the City of Music and Dreams at around 08.30 this morning and, as your next connection doesn’t leave until later this evening, have the whole day to enjoy the delights of Vienna.

Vienna Aerial

Your luggage can be safely left at the station, leaving you unencumbered to explore this magnificent city.

However you choose to spend your day, you’ll need to be ready to board the Nightjet sleeper service to Zagreb, which leaves around 21.00. You’ll have First Class reservations for a sleeper cabin and be gently lulled to sleep by the rails as you cross the Alps.

OBB Night Train Sleeper Image

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Day 3 - Zagreb to Belgrade

Start Point: Zagreb
Destination: Belgrade
Travel: Train from Zagreb to Belgrade
Notes: Spend tonight in the White City, Serbia's capital.

After disembarking from the overnight sleeper, you’ll take the morning train from Zagreb to Belgrade, passing along the flat southern Pannonian Plain. Arriving mid-afternoon into Serbia’s eclectic capital city, your guide will meet you and transfer you to the historic Hotel Moskva, an iconic building in the heart of the city.

Hotel Moskva Belgrade

This Russian-built former palace has played host to intrigues, actresses, politicians, directors and dilettantes in the hundred years since it opened, and is famous for its Moskva Schnitt cakes, a sort of strudel.  After some time to relax and soak in the atmosphere, your guide will take you to supper at the fabulous Ambar restaurant, an atmospheric place that serves great Serbian gastronomy.

An evening stroll and a nightcap overlooking the Sava River, near its confluence with the Danube, is the perfect end to your day.

Aerial Belgrade Confluence

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Day 4 - Belgrade to Sofia

Start Point: Belgrade
Destination: Sofia
Travel: Train from Belgrade to Sofia.

Enjoy a breakfast on the terrace at your leisure – your train to Sofia doesn’t leave until late morning. Winding south from Belgrade, the flatlands give way to mountains and gorges as you pass the city of Nis and enter Bulgaria, arriving in the capital, Sofia, in the late afternoon.

Your Bulgarian guide will meet you at the station and transfer you to the 5* Sense Hotel, overlooking the huge Nevski Cathedral. The best hotel in the city, you’ll be staying here for the next two nights.

Sense Hotel Sofia

Sofia has a buzzing café and restaurant scene, so you’ll have plenty of choices of where to dine.

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Day 5 - Sofia

Start Point: Sofia
Destination: Sofia
Travel: Vintage Soviet cars. Foot.

This morning you’ll meet your guide and explore some of Sofia’s communist past from the seat of a vintage Trabant.

Trabant Sofia

After lunch in a restaurant serving vibrant local produce, you’ll spend the afternoon nosing round the Booksellers and Women’s Market, before visiting the golden-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral.

Nevsky Cathedral Sofia

You’ll have time to wander the tree-lined avenues of downtown Sofia before supper at another superb local restaurant. This city is much overlooked, and whilst some areas are a little stark with remnant Brutalist architecture, there is a huge amount to commend it to the inquisitive mind.

Old City Sofia

It reminds us a little of how parts of Paris were before they were tidied into conformity; a little rough-hewn, but oozing with character.

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Day 6 - Sofia to the Rila Mountains

Start Point: Sofia
Destination: Govedartsi
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.
Notes: Walking distances and grades can be adjusted to suit all fitness levels

After breakfast, you’ll meet your guide and be driven about an hour and a half south into the Rila Mountains. Arriving at the beautiful village of Govedartsi, you’ll set off for a gentle circular hike, keeping the 2729 metre peak of Malyovitsa in view for much of your walk.

Malyovitsa

This is an area of high mountains, azure lakes and alpine meadows that are filled with flowers in spring and early summer. Even in mid-summer, these high peaks can be dusted with the last of the winter snows. You’ll enjoy a picnic lunch in the mountains before returning to Govedartsi to spend the night at your simple, but comfortable, family-run guesthouse.

Govedartsi Village

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Day 7 - Rila to Pirin Ranges

Start Point: Govedartsi
Destination: Bansko
Travel: Low Emission Hybrid or Electric Vehicle. Foot.

After enjoying a breakfast of fresh local produce, you’ll be driven 180 km south, through wonderful mountain scenery, to Ortsevo, one of the highest villages in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria Ortseva_

This little mountain village has remarkable views over three distinct mountain ranges – Rila, Pirin and Rhodope – and in the viridescent meadows that surround it provide hay for the stooks that dot the settlement.

You’ll have lunch in the village and have the chance to meet Musa, a garrulous local character who’ll tell you all about the history of this remote place.

From here, it’s a short drive to Belitsa, where you’ll visit a bear rehabilitation programme. Sadly the tradition of dancing bears was popular in Bulgaria, and other parts of Eastern Europe, until far too recently. This sad practice – now outlawed and finally stopped across the European Union – resulted in animals that could not fend for themselves in the wild. In partnership with the Bridget Bardot Foundation, more than twenty of these former dancing bears are now cared for in this rehabilitation centre.

You’ll be shown around the centre by the manager, and learn more about their work here, and we will be making a donation to the centre on your behalf.

From Belitsa it’s a short drive to Bansko, Bulgaria’s largest ski resort, where you’ll check in to the 5* Kempinski Hotel.

Bansko Kempinski

In contrast to many European ski resorts, Bansko has retained its 18th century historical centre and, with it, much charm.

There are some great places in the town to have supper or you can just as easily relax in the luxurious surrounds of your hotel.

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Day 8 - Pirin to Rhodope Ranges

Start Point: Bansko
Destination: Gela
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

Following an epicurean breakfast, you’ll have the option to visit one of the many restorative hot springs near Bansko. After Iceland, Bulgaria has the highest density of geothermally active areas in Europe, many of which are rich in minerals. We know the best of these small spas, so will take you to one of our favourites.

From here, it’s an hour and a half hour drive to Shiroka Laka, a beautiful old village of wood and stone buildings. Along the way you’ll stop in the village of Ribnovo – featured in an edition of National Geographic a few years ago – where unusual Muslim wedding traditions featuring painted brides and elaborate gift and money giving ceremonies still prevail. From here it’s south through the forests and hills of the Western Rhodope range to Shiroka Laka.

This evening you’ll be joined for supper by the founder of a Bulgarian-British rewilding organisation who are active across the Rhodope range. Key to their work is understanding the relationship between large carnivores and humans, something which this area has long experience of thanks to unbroken centuries of coexistence between bear, lynx, wolf and humans. Their research is helping to provide support to areas of the continent where apex carnivores are being reintroduced.

You’ll be based in nearby Gela village – reputed birthplace of Orpheus, son of Greek sun-God Apollo – at a chic family-run luxury hotel.

With outstanding food, comfortable rooms and views to sell your family jewels for, we think you’ll like it here.

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Day 9 - Around Gela and to the Greek Border

Start Point: Gela
Destination: Gela
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

The Rhodope Mountain Range straddles the borderlands between Bulgaria and Greece, a frontier which has shifted back and forth many times throughout both ancient and modern history. After breakfast on the hotel terrace this morning, you’ll hop into the car to visit a village that’s been at the heart of these shifting boundaries.

Kesten Bulgaria

During the Soviet period, Kesten was situated on the border between the Iron Curtain and the West. Heavily-guarded – so as to prevent people escaping to Greece – and inaccessible even to local people, it remained isolated from the outside world. Even today, there are remnants of barbed-wire fences – poignant reminders of a time not yet forgotten in these parts. You’ll have tea with some of the locals who can tell you what it was like here during the communist years, and see how things have changed for them since.

From Kesten, you’ll have a gentle hike through the wild woods of the Shabanitsa Reserve. This is a nationally-important beech and spruce forest and home to a number of endemic species.

Shabanitsa Reserve

As very few people visit this area, you’ll likely have the hills to yourself, and enjoy a picnic lunch to the sounds of birdsong and rivers.

You’ll return to your hotel in Gela this evening for a cheverme, or Rhodope barbeque, on the terrace. This will be accompanied by the kaba gaida, or traditional Rhodope mountains bagpipes, played by one of the local winners of the International Gela Bagpipe Festival, held right here each summer.

One of the most distinctive symbols of Bulgarian folk music, these pipes are lower-tuned, softer and more complex than their Scottish cousins, and are used to play haunting, rhythmical melodies. These tunes are often accompanied by the horo, a fast-paced line dance originating in the Balkans. If you’re feeling nimble, you’re welcome to join the players and have a go at the horo yourself.

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Day 10 - To the Eastern Rhodopes

Start Point: Gela
Destination: Near Studen Kladanets
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

After another excellent breakfast, you’ll drive along the Rhodope range this morning, stopping on the way to see the beautiful Ottoman-era Devils Bridge – part of an ancient road connecting Thrace with the Aegean coast – and hike up to Dyadovtsi, one of the many abandoned villages in the Rhodopes.

As with many pastoral cultures, the region’s young people have been drawn to the big cities and Bulgaria’s rural population is falling. In villages like Dyadovtsi, the decline was total. There are many of these beautiful rural settlements in this area, and nature is reclaiming them with astonishing alacrity.

Dyadovtsi Bulgaria Ruined Village

After lunch at a local restaurant, you’ll head for Perperikon, the remains of a Thracian city dating back to 400 BC. Built on a commanding hill, on top of earlier Bronze and Iron Age settlements, there was probably a temple to Dionysus here, but the site is very much an archaeological work in progress.  This is a beautiful, atmospheric place, thankfully not yet bombarded by tour groups.

Aerial of Perperikon

You’ll continue this afternoon through the small city of Kardzhali. Heavily influenced by its large ethnic Turkish population and somewhat slumbering since its heady days as a centre of tobacco production for the Soviet Union, nearly half of the residents of the Kardzhali district still work in agriculture. You’ll continue through the city for a few kilometres to the edge of a national nature reserve replete with crystal-clear rivers and old-growth forest, to a delightful and wholly authentic guesthouse with sunset views from your wooden balcony.

This is deep, rural Bulgaria and your host Garga and his family are among the warmest and most genuine people you could hope to meet. You’ll eat with the family this evening, hopefully outside with a view across serried ranks of ridges and valleys.

This isn’t 5* luxury, but it is the kind of authentic experience that no polished hotel can match.

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Day 11 - Bison, Deer and Black Vultures

Start Point: Near Studen Kladanets
Destination: Plovdiv
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

Today you’ll be meeting-up with a local rewilding project team and heading out with them to see the fruits of an initiative to reintroduce European Bison to the Studen Kladanets Reserve. The project has proved a success and, since 2013, a small group of these emblematic creatures have become well established in the reserve.

Bison

Bison were once endemic across much of mainland Europe, but have been missing from Bulgaria since the Middle Ages. These large, peaceable ruminants are uniquely able to create open gallery forest and grassland ecosystems, and niches into which myriad other species can find homes.

Alongside the Bison, Fallow deer are a native species here, and the reserve – which already had one of the strongest populations in Europe – has allowed the species to spread out into the wider region of the Eastern Rhodopes. The Studen Kladanets Reserve is also now home to a reintroduced population of Red deer, and these will hopefully replicate the success of their Fallow cousins.

You’ll have a picnic lunch with the conservation team before heading to another small reserve, at nearby Madzharovo.

Set in beautiful countryside overlooking a gorge on the Arda river, this site is part of a Rewilding Europe partnership which encourages cross-border visits by Europe’s last breeding colony of Black vultures from their range on the Greek side of the Rhodope range. Once prevalent across the mountains of Bulgaria, these large birds of prey are seen as a key to increasing the diversity of wildlife in these mountains. Extending their range into Bulgaria increases the chance that they will survive any issues with their population over the Greek border.

Black vulture

Alongside the Black vulture feeding stations and viewing areas here, there is diverse avian life, including other raptors such as Booted eagles, Egyptian vulture, Eastern Imperial eagles, Short-toed eagles and Griffon vultures. As with all of our visits to rewilding projects, we will be making a contribution directly to the local team on your behalf.

After seeing the birds in this spectacular place, you’ll make the two hour transfer by car to the city of Plovdiv, your home for tonight.

Hebros Room

You’ll be staying at the gorgeous Hebros Hotel, a place which personifies style without trying too hard. You can choose to eat at the hotel on the terrace, or in one of many wonderful places within a five minute walk.

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Day 12 - Plovdiv and Sofia

Start Point: Plovdiv
Destination: Sofia
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

Plovdiv was the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and rightly so. You may be forgiven for not having heard of Plovdiv, but there have been civilizations coming and going here, like waves on a shoreline, for thousands of years. The city is one of the oldest in Europe and has been continually inhabited for at least 9000 years. Alexander the Great named it Philippopolis and that era left a clear mark, with a stunning theatre, arena and section of aqueduct still very much in evidence.

More recently, the city was part of the Ottoman empire until the late 1880’s, and you can easily trace that history in the Old City, or Stari Grad, where winding streets, merchants houses and mosques lend real atmosphere to this laid back city.

Old Plovdiv

You’ve got most of the day to explore Plovdiv, and what better way to start than with a delicious flaxy banitsa pastry for breakfast. This is a compact city, where the Old City and both the arena and theatre are all very close to each other and the creative district of Kapana – filled to the gunwales with pavement cafes, restaurants, galleries and independent shops – just a five minute walk away.

Kapana Plovdiv

At around 16.00 you’ll leave Plovdiv for the hour and a half road journey to Sofia. After checking in to the 5* Senses Hotel once more, you’ll have time to relax before going for a farewell supper with your guide and their family.

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Day 13 - Sofia to Belgrade

Start Point: Sofia
Destination: Belgrade
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle. Foot.

There isn’t a rush this morning,  – it’s a two hour drive north over the border  to the Serbian city of Nis, with Mount Ruy and the Suva Range to your left. Nis is a good place to stop for a bite of lunch, as you’ll find the food here combines traditional Serbian and Ottoman influences to delicious effect. Our guide knows the best places for food and good atmosphere, so this should prove an enjoyable stop-over.

Nis Aerial

From here it’s a just over two hours north to Belgrade, into the flatlands of the Danube floodplain. You’ll reach the Serbian capital in the late afternoon, in time to check in to the Moskva Hotel and head out for a sunset Martini by the Sava River.

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Day 14 - Belgrade to Zagreb and towards Munich

Start Point: Belgrade
Destination: Zagreb and sleeper train to Munich
Travel: Low emission hybrid or electric vehicle, high speed train and sleeper train.

This morning, after breakfast, it’s just over a two hour drive to the Croatian city of Slavonski Brod. An unassuming small city ranged along north of the Sava River – Slavonski Brod lies across the river from the Bosnian-Herzegovinan city of Brod.

Cafes in Slavonski Brod

After enjoying lunch by the river, you’ll head to the station to catch the 12.30 high-speed train service from Slavonski Brod to Zagreb, arriving at 15.30. Leave your luggage in the station and take a few hours to explore beautiful Zagreb. Your overnight sleeper service on the Euronight Lisinski service to Munich departs from elegant Zagreb Station at 21.30, and we will organise a First Class sleeper cabin for you.

Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor Station

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Day 15 - Munich to Paris

Start Point: Munich
Destination: Paris and onward to London
Travel: Arrive by sleeper from Zagreb and onward to Paris on ICE high speed train

After sleeping across the Alps, you’ll arrive in Munich at 07.45. This is an enjoyable, easily-explored city with a compact medieval centre and an efficient subway system. Don’t omit to enjoy a beer in one of the many biergartens – the beer in Munich is among the finest in the world.

Munich Old city

From Munich, you’ll be in reserved 1st class seats on the high-speed ICE service to Paris. On board dining is available and the quality of both food and wine is excellent as you carve across the Rhinelands.

You’ll arrive in Paris in the early evening. If you want to continue straight on, the Eurostar will have you back at St Pancras in a little over two hours, from where you can make onward rail connections to your home station, or we can arrange to whisk you home in a low-emission vehicle from St Pancras. The choice is yours.

Where will we be staying?

You’ll be staying in a variety of accommodation – from excellent 4 and 5* hotels to tiny rural family homestays. As this is a tailor-made tour, we will book your hotels according to your tastes and preferences. We can all book a 5* hotel and know what to expect but, to our minds, luxury is the chance to get to know real people and understand the culture of the place you are visiting, not simply to see it through the lens of a glitzy hotel. These are the sorts of memories that last a lifetime.

What will the weather be like?

Bulgaria is generally warm – or even hot – in the summer and pretty chilly in the winters, but this is a country characterized by mountain ranges, so as with any mountain weather you can expect things to change depending on your altitude and location. As there are diverse geographical locations, you can expect the climate to change throughout the year and  be dependent on location. Some wildlife is clearly only going to be visible at certain times of year – we can’t expect bears to be awake in winter, for example, but wolves and vultures maybe easier to spot. But whatever the season, Bulgaria’s diverse geography has a huge amount to offer, so just let us know when you can visit, and we will develop a thoughtful itinerary based around that time of year. In any event, we will provide a detailed packing list in your Welcome Pack, so you’ll be prepared whatever the weather.

I’m a solo traveller – is this for me?

Yes. This is a tailor-made trip, so whether you are travelling alone or in a private group of ten, we will put exactly the same high level of care and attention to detail into your trip. This has become our hallmark, and a tradition we are proud to continue.

What kit do I need to bring?

We will provide you with a Welcome Pack after you’ve booked, and this will detail any particular equipment we think either necessary or useful.

What vehicles will we be travelling in?

You’ll be travelling by hybrid or electric cars most of the time.

What will the food be like?

Hearty and tasty  – forget the mental imaged of cabbage soup (although it is served and is delicious). There is a strong emphasis on locally-produced food in Bulgaria and you will find a lot of local dishes to tempt your tastebuds. Equally, you’ll also be eating in some very high-end restaurants with world-quality cooking. The route to most countries and their people is often best experienced through the foods that people grow, prepare and eat, and Bulgaria is no exception to that rule.

Rail bookings look really complicated, do you handle all of that for me?

Yes. Even in the 2020’s, booking international rail tickets is still not a simple affair. Rest assured we will handle all of that for you. All you need to do is sit back, relax and let us take the strain.

Enquire

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