Bulgaria Holidays 2010: The Unexplored Hinterland*


By Sarah Lucas Daily Mail Lovers of Greek mythology may know where Orpheus went - his head was torn off and thrown into the River Hebros - but not where he came from: Bulgaria. The mythical musical hero, whose skill with the lyre calmed savage beasts and made trees dance, was born in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains, which stretch all the way to Greece. Orpheus lost his wife, Eurydice, to the underworld for ever when, emerging into the sunlight, he turned to smile at her. These days, there are new myths about Bulgaria - that it is home to Alexei Sayle lookalikes, women with aubergine hair, cheap ski resorts and sandy Black Sea beaches. But there is much more to it than that. An increase in visitors and predictions that it will become the 'Florida of the Balkans' hide a surprising and relatively unexplored hinterland. As the country struggles to find its own identity after centuries of Turkish rule and a dreary period of communist stagnation, one thing has remained - a strong folklore and folk-music tradition. They say myth is a country's mind at rest. In Shiroka Luka, a village in the central Rhodopes, it's part of everyday life. In homes and restaurants you'll hear the haunting sound of Rhodopean open-throat singing, accompanied by complex rhythms and tunes played out on the gaida (bagpipes) and kaval (flute). They're taught at the National School of Folklore Arts, where a frieze showing Orpheus, his lyre and a group of gaida-playing horsemen covers the outer wall. went to the Rhodopes with my friend, the writer Tony Scotland, who - on a previous visit to Bulgaria - became aware of a different kind of hell. Among some of Europe's loveliest ranges, pine forests and cobbled villages, are the orphanages. Though less well-publicised than their Romanian counterparts, many were equally bad. Tony set up his Bulgarian Orphans Fund, buying goods locally and delivering them to those most in need. Before Bulgaria joined the EU, its government came under pressure from the European Commission to stamp out corruption and close the orphanages. But what happened to Bulgaria's least wanted children? Amid rumours of brothers and sisters being separated, children sold to the West, beatings and fraud, Tony wanted to see for himself. Which is how we came to be driving across a foggy Plain of Thrace in a white van, laden with sofas, footballs and boots. The driver dropped us, and the sofas, in Haskovo. The orphanage was a crumbling, curtainless block in a town run by organised crime. But it could have been worse. And, outside Haskovo, it was. The village of Slavyanovo gave run-down a bad name. When their orphanage was closed, two teenage boys were left to fend for themselves. One was taken in by a farmer, the other was found living alone in a shed with no roof in temperatures of 3C (37F). We followed our consignment of boots to the well-run orphanage at Shiroka Luka by bus. On the way we stopped at Pamporovo, where we were met by Maria Sharkova, a bright young lawyer, and her husband Stefan. He drove, she translated. I just had to remember not to nod or shake my head - as here a nod means 'no' and a shake 'yes'. Shiroka Luka lies in the narrow valley of the Shirokolushka River. It is a fairytale village where the people probably have goblin accents. There are so many crooked houses and twisted streets, it could have been drawn by Arthur Rackham. I was shown hump-backed Roman bridges, statues of local heroes and the Assumption church by Mrs Bochukova, headmistress of the orphanage school. The pearl of the Rhodopes, she calls it. 'We try to live like our grandfathers, without complaining.' In March, Kukeri (mummers) dressed in masks and animal costumes drive away evil spirits with sticks and bells. In August, the mountains ring to the sounds of the gaida, as more than a hundred bagpipers get together for an international festival. After supper with the Sharkovs, which included home-made yogurt and patatnik - a delicious dish of cheese and potatoes - two surprise guests arrived: Mrs Bochukova and her husband. He opened a tartan bag and pulled out an expanse of goat skin and three pipes, which he screwed together. He taught the gaida at the folk-music school, and she learnt open-throat singing from her mother. With the Sharkovs, they sang songs of love, sorrow and memories. The notes had a dying cadence so, even when the rhythms were happy, there was a sense of yearning, a sound of sadness - like Orpheus's lyre. While Shiroka Luka keeps memories of Orpheus alive in music and dance, nearby Gela claims to be the birthplace of the legendary hero. It's a peaceful little village, with lovely views. You might find a flower with lyre-like stamens - the Silivriak or Orpheus flower. Its pink petals are said to have been coloured by his blood. But the Trigrad Gorge is where it went so wrong for him. In an awesome landscape, the sheer sides of the Trigrad canyon hang over the river Trigradska, which disappears into one of the largest caves in Bulgaria - the Devil's Throat. You hear the roar of water before you see a waterfall that vanishes into a void below. A long tunnel at ground level lets you in. Like Eurydice, people don't always come back. We stood on a viewing platform outside to see where the river went underground. With water boiling away below like a cauldron, this is where Orpheus is said to have entered Hades. When we got back to the orphanage, a cooker Tony had ordered was being delivered. Later, I took some art classes and, leaving trails of glitter, glue and gouache everywhere, the children produced scenes of the snowy landscapes they knew so well. One boy drew a Christmas tree with more presents underneath than he would surely ever see. Though tourism is fairly new to the Rhodopes, I found immense warmth and hospitality. If you went for tea in a restaurant - or even a full-blown meal of Shopska salad (diced tomatoes and cucumber with grated white cheese) and spit-roast lamb - the chances are someone in folk costume would start up the music and invite you to dance the hora. There are several cosy hotels in Shiroka Luka - the Kalina, for instance - and a number of private rooms, and while public transport is inexpensive, hiring a car would give you greater flexibility. While for some Bulgarians entry into the EU means nothing more than exorbitant price hikes, others can see opportunities for their country. The smart people are staying home. *The title of the article has been changed by the Editorial Staff of Novinite.com