While visibly poor and largely rural, Bulgaria’s material poverty, an ephemeral condition, belies the country’s historical, natural, and cultural wealth. From frescoed Thracian tombs to Byzantine monasteries and Soviet-era monuments, temptations abound on a journey into the mountain fastness of southern Bulgaria, where ancient traditions meet modern comforts.
Places of note: In the western Rhodopes, Dyavolsko Garlo, or the Devil’s Throat cave, is a popular site where the mythical Thracian musician Orpheus came to persuade the lord and lady of Hades to bring his beloved wife, Eurydice, back from the dead. For your stay, the grandest accommodations in Sofia—think chandeliered guest rooms and swaths of Italian marble—can be found at the Sofia Hotel Balkan, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection brand. It is located within easy reach of the city’s most noteworthy museums and monuments, and even wraps around one: the Church of St. George, a converted Roman rotunda that lays claim to being the oldest building in Sofia. In the Smolyan region, Villa Gella, named for the nearby hamlet of Gela, is a hedonistic base from which to enjoy the rural charms of Bulgaria’s southern mountains, not to mention the spectacle of the Kukeri festival. For skiers, the slopes of Pamporovo are a just short drive away.
How to get there: There are direct flights to Sofia from numerous European cities. From Southeast Asia, the best bet—connections allowing—is to fly to Doha with Qatar Airways and continue onwards on the carrier’s Sofia-via-Bucharest service.
When to go: Bulgaria’s high season is the summer months, but to witness the out- landish costumes and carnival atmosphere of Kukeri, you’ll want to aim for the tail end of winter; Shiroka Laka’s version of the festival is held on the first weekend of March.