15 August 2005
Zillertal in Bulgaria
This weekend we had our first taste of what lies outside of Sofia. Everyone has been telling us that Sofia and the rest of Bulgaria are two different worlds. So, Saturday morning we headed out on an excursion arranged by VEGA. They utilized the services of a company called EcoLogic; the founder, Sletlana, her husband Vladimir, and colleague Dimitrina were our guides to the Bulgarian hinterland. (In picture left to right: Joel, Sletla [ELC], Tony [guesthouse], Julia, Lucy [guesthouse], Ryan, Valdi [ELC]; Paris and Dimi [ELC] kneeling.)
The first stop was for lunch in the suburban town of Bistrica. The first course was a tomato and sirine (feta cheese) salad and bread; it is said in this area that all you need to sustain yourself in the summer is sirine, tomatoes, and bread. The entrée was chicken on a skewer, the Bulgarian equivalent of chili rellenos, and some kind of potato pancakes. After such a heavy lunch, a little exercise was in order, so we hiked up the hill to a monastery—no monks, just a little church and a caretaker family.
Over the course of afternoon, we visited a succession of small villages between Sofia and the Rila National Park. The point was well made, despite their proximity to Sofia, these villages might as well be on the dark side of the moon. They were totally devoid of any young people (except those visiting their grandparents), and nearly lifeless save a few farm animals. These two pictures are of a seemingly abandoned cooperative “Koop. Melnitsa [est.] 1946.” However, we actually met some guys who worked there and said they expected to enlarge their herd of cows from 40 to 200 over the next year—I wish them all the best, these towns certainly can use any kind of growth they can get.
As we drew near to our destination of Bela Iskar at the foot of the Rila Mountains, I was reminded of a trip to the Zillertal in Süd Tirol (Austria) with my parents over a decade ago. This town was not as clean and did not have the same tourist infrastructure (restaurants and such), but it definitely has potential. We stayed at the guesthouse “Vila Orlovi Skali” (Eagle’s Rock); our hosts were Tony and his energetic wife Lucy (don’t know their Bulgarian names.) We had a wonderful dinner followed by plenty of Tony’s homemade Rakia; needless to say we slept well in the quite, cool mountain air (despite a deafening thunderstorm during the wee hours of the morning.)
For breakfast we had flinzen! Theses crepes were about 75% the size of mom’s and filled with jam and/or sirine cheese; they call them “palachinki.” Next we visited the home of a typical rural pensioner; this couple probably works harder since they’ve retired tending to a cow, a pig, sheep, chickens, and a vegetable plot. Being self-sustaining, their meager pension is really only needed for utilities and animal feed, putting them in a much better position than pensioners living in the city. It is obviously a hard life, but they enjoy it and pride themselves in supporting their children and grandchildren with gifts of food even if they don’t need it. Before we left, they prepared us a lunch of sheep’s milk yogurt and banitsa, a dish consisting of wafer-thin layers of filo dough enclosing a filling of spinach and cheese.
We finally began our hike up the newly constructed eco-trail in the Rila National Park (established in 1992.) Despite lingering rain and foggy conditions, we thoroughly enjoyed the rugged beauty of Bela Iskar River and the tremendous gorge it has carved through the center of the park. We were not alone: along the park road we saw half a dozen movie production vehicles; apparently the park is being used as the backdrop to a film call “The Contract” starring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (we saw neither, but Julia is still hoping to run into Cusack—I don’t get it ladies, what is it about him?!)
On way back to Sofia we drove along the Iskar River. We noticed evidence that we were passing through an area that had just been hit by a tremendous thunderstorm. At one point there were still accumulations of hail on the ground, a downed tree over the road, and 18 inches of standing water on a bridge that, despite being over 10 feet above the lake below, presented a 50 meter-long gauntlet of floorboard-deep water to less adventurous driver (we made it through without a problem.)
Ryan has already posted his version of the weekend’s events; make sure to check it out as well.