Thermal springs and glacial lakes provide walkers with a wealth of options above and below the pines.
Bulgaria wellness holidays
“Perhaps one of the most authentic characteristics of the Rhodopes is its ethnic diversity,” says Alex Pazderski, from our Bulgaria walking specialist The Natural Adventure Company. He points to the mix of Greek and Bulgarian Christians and Muslim communities who live here.
From bagpipes to minarets, yoghurt to rakia... Bulgaria’s heritage is fun to unpack as you walk the country’s ‘eco paths’.
This diversity comes with unexpected perks on a Bulgaria spa and walking holiday: you might encounter the strains of a Rhodope Mountain bagpipe – or kaba gaida – a key instrument in local folk music. When the paths through the dense forests aren’t well signposted, you can sometimes navigate by the minarets rising above the trees.
The woody Rhodope Mountains roll over from southern Bulgaria into Greece – which explains why they’re the setting for a few Greek myths. The forests and meadows are vivid with life, from bears to recently-introduced bison, birds of prey and wildflowers. The dried blooms of the Orpheus flower (Greek myth says that Orpheus entered the underworld in these mountains) can be brought back to life years later with a sprinkling of water. The Rhodopean population, too, enjoy unusual longevity and good health. It could be the rakia, an improbably feisty local liqueur – or it could be the spas.
Bulgaria’s eco paths were specifically established in the 1990s by geologist Petar Petrov. They encouraged people to walk in some of the country’s hidden areas of interest, away from the popular Black Sea Resorts. Not enough money has gone into them since. The wooden walkways and bridges that you’ll cross on this holiday have stood the test of time. Nevertheless, it’s best to follow maps and instructions, so you don’t get lost – or even fall into the underworld, like unfortunate Orpheus.
Not long ago, yet another Roman baths complex was unearthed in Bulgaria. This one came with a small furnace to heat it; others have been found which look like early Jacuzzis – with holes that allowed natural spring water to bubble in. Bulgaria has more hot springs than Hungary, trust the Romans to discover as many of them as possible.
What does this trip entail?
You can spend around a week on a self guided holiday exploring the Rhodopes, which allows for plenty of spa evenings. The walking is generally centre based, the walks circular, varying in distance between 5km and 17km each day, but averaging around 14km.
“The Rhodopean trails are mostly forested which is great in summer,” Alex says; you’ll be in the shade of the woods, crossing water cascades on the Elenska River and occasionally breaking out into meadowlands.
The beech forests hide some interesting geology. The rock in the Rhodopes is famous for karst formations, where the limestone has dissolved, forming caves, caverns and abysses. The Canyon of the Waterfalls is a particular highlight of walking, a rumbling train of nearly 50 waterfalls that suffuses the trail around its edges in spray and white noise.
The Rhodope range sits a short drive from the city of Plovdiv, so you can factor in some city time – the history of this city stretches back thousands of years, as you can see from its Roman stadium, 16th century Turkish baths, and streets of brightly coloured Bulgarian Revival townhouses.
What are the spa hotels like?“The spa hotels are not the same as British spa hotels,” Prue Mitchell, who travelled in 2019, points out. “Some of the staff at the smaller mountain hotels are not very well trained but compensate this with friendliness,” Alex qualifies. He’s been operating in the area for many years and hand-picked hotels that are locally-owned, family-run and prioritise, as he puts it, “the genuine mountain atmosphere of a cosy Rhodope household.” Many of these hotels become ski resorts in winter, which, considering all their charming timbering, is easy to imagine.
“The town of Devin is the favourite spa resort of many Bulgarians,” Alex says. You’ll also find lovely hotels in Shiroka Laka, a particularly pretty mountain town. When the houses here were built, in the 17th century, the builders added secret rooms and cellars, where Christian communities could hide from the reigning Ottomans.
If you'd like to chat about Bulgaria or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
When is the best time to go?
The best time to walk in the Rhodope Mountains is from May to October. In May, as the snow melts, the waterfalls are at their fullest, and the meadows at their most colourful – look out for Haberlea rhodopensis, the delicate white and purple trumpets of the Orpheus flower, which is only found here. Temperatures are warm in June, a lovely time for walking. The mountains are at their busiest in the summer holidays, from July to August, but summer temperatures rarely go over 30°C, so it’s rarely too hot. In autumn, the deciduous forests turn autumn and temperatures cool off again, to 25°C in September, down to 18°C in October.
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