We left the Pirin mountains the next day and entered the vast flat plain of the Maritza River Basin that connects Sofia to Plovdiv and opens out towards the Black Sea. The was the great path from Europe to the Levant. The road to Constantinople and Asia.
The iron pipes of fountains gushed spring water from rocky hillsides where drivers stopped to fill their bottles. Nearby, the watermelons of roadside vendors were stacked like cannon balls on trestle tables that groaned aloud under the weight. Tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes — for which Bulgaria is famous throughout the Balkans — rose in heaps next to clear bottles of golden honey, and plastic bottles of homemade wine. Every time we passed one vendor, we’d round a curve and spot another sitting patiently beneath a parasol or the shade of a nearby tree.
The road eventually led us to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. The town was founded by Philip the Great — father of Alexander — on his eastern campaign against the Thracians. Expanded by the Romans under the emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, it has been invaded by Persians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Slaves, Crusaders and Turks. Evidence of habitation stretches back to Neolithic settlements in the 6th millennium BC, making Plovdiv the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, a place where the land itself is a manuscript layered with stories of former lives.
Ancient Philippopolis crept up the slopes of three steep granite spurs. The old town was a hillside cluster of buildings in the Turkish Ottoman style, with upper storeys jutting out on massive beams, so far that two houses could nearly join overhead, linking wood above cobbled roads. In Paddy Leigh Fermor’s day, this was a busy place where “metal-workers, tobacco-sorters and wool-carders worked cross-legged in their open fronted shops.” But on the day of our visit, it felt boarded up.
We were destined to abandon it, too, in favour of forest trails. The Rhodope Mountains straddle the border between Bulgaria and Greece and form Bulgaria’s most extensive mountain range. We wouldn’t have time to explore their furthest reaches, but we did venture into the foothills for a look at Bachkovo Monastery, founded in 1083 by Byzantine statesman and military commander Gregory Pakourianos, whose remains were held in a nearby stone ossuary, next to a tempting path that led us astray.
The heat of the summer had dried up the waterfalls for which the area is known, but gaps in the trees provided a tantalizing glimpse of higher peaks towards the Greek border. I thought we had the entire nature reserve to ourselves until we crossed a series of open meadows and spotted a Bulgarian family having a picnic.
“Where are you from?” they called as we passed. We told them, they smiled and wished us safe travels, but we heard them call out again before we reentered the forest. “Would you like to share some of our food?”
We pulled up a bench next to the stumps of two trees, where they’d laid out a feast fresh from their garden: potatoes, cucumbers, perfectly ripened tomatoes, and roasted paprika pods, hardboiled eggs from their chickens, and kebapche, the Bulgarian version of that ubiquitous Balkan dish of minced meat mixed with spices and herbs, rolled and grilled in a long sausage shape. A glass of rakija was quickly thrust into my hand, and a glass of deep red wine handed to Tomoko. These had come from the garden, too, the product of their own grapes.
Dimcho, the group’s patriarch and chief storyteller, was from the nearby town of Asenovgrad, He was pleased to learn that I was Canadian. “Celine Dion should come to Bulgaria,” he said, “we’d give her citizenship. She’s more popular here than Madonna.”
We filled the afternoon with stories, even as our laughter filled that sunny glade, but we also discussed the difficulties of the past. “When people in other parts of Europe think of Bulgaria,” he said, “they immediately think of Gypsies doing something bad in their countries. But we designed our own cars before the Russian occupation.” He wanted me to know that Bulgaria isn’t just a small country on the periphery of the West. “When they came, all the skilled people left. But we had all those things too, and they were ours.”
When daylight finally faded from the sky, we stretched our legs and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Sofia. Dimcho reached into his wallet and handed Tomoko a four leaf clover. “Please take this for good luck.” She’d only just reached out to accept it when matching laminated four leaf clovers came out of every pocket. He shrugged and smiled. “I have 137 of these at home.”
They sent us off with a blessing for safe travels, and with all the leftover food and rakija. We feasted on it again that night in an airport hotel room, where we raised a glass to the unexpected pleasures of Bulgaria, a land rich in mountains, folklore, food and kindness, and a place where we now had friends.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2019