Green travel

ESCAPE TO LESHTEN

Rural tourism in Bulgaria was barely known 20 years ago, but in the early 2000s it experienced an EU-funded boom.

But in the late 2000s the still ongoing economic crisis hit and now many guesthouses are struggling to survive with the decreased number of visitors. In the western fringes of the Rhodope, however, is a traditional village which is still one of the best places for rural tourism in Bulgaria.

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PARADISE OR HELL?

The precipitous stone cliffs of the Trigrad Gorge, in the western Rhodope, constrict the tiny Trigrad River, and the sound of rushing water blends with the buzz of tourists. Gathered around the entrance of the Devil's Throat Cave, they are waiting for the guide to come and lead them to the highest cave waterfall in Bulgaria.

"That's the real thing," our guide says and points at the opposite side of the gorge. There is a plain stone wall, high and impenetrable. "Inside, there is a cave, too, the Haramiyska Cave."

"What's interesting about that?," someone asks.

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CHERNI VRAH

Sofia is perhaps an exception to the unwritten rule that every great city should be located either at sea or near a major river. Bulgaria's capital has a rare advantage, though: within an hour you can leave behind the noise and bustle of downtown and be climbing up a mountain.

With its 2,290-metre-high peak of Cherni Vrah, Vitosha is Bulgaria's fourth highest mountain. It is in the southern part of the Sofia Plain, and a mountain view or a house on its slopes command higher real estate prices in some parts of the capital.

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HIDDEN WATERFALL

Travellers don't expect to find a waterfall in the middle of the rolling hills of the Danube Valley, and yet, surprisingly, it is there – hidden amid karst crevices and known only to a handful of people.

The waterfall in the village of Hotnitsa is one of these unexpected sights. In fact, it is one of the two reasons for the relative fame of this village in the Veliko Tarnovo region. The other is the large colony of British expats, which accounts for some 10 percent of the Hotnitsa population.

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BOZHENTSI

The recent craze to escape the crowds has led thousands of tourists and holiday home hunters to the traditional mountain settlements in Bulgaria. Be it the Rhodope, the Stara Planina or the Strandzha, everywhere you can find once deserted houses which have been more or less well renovated and turned into lodgings or private villas. The craze has saved almost dead villages, like Leshten and Kosovo in the Rhodope, but has also killed the erstwhile pastoral atmosphere of places like Arbanasi near Veliko Tarnovo or Delchevo near Gotse Delchev.

In this crowd, Bozhentsi stands out.

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IN THE DEVIL'S FOOTSTEPS

Travel agencies often use the word "paradise" to describe Bulgaria’s natural landscape and holiday hideaways. If you consult any Bulgarian about somewhere in the countryside you are thinking of visiting, you will probably hear the phrase "a piece of heaven" at least once. Even in the national anthem Bulgarian land is referred to as "Heaven on Earth". However, as you become more familiar with the country's geography and history, you'll come across fewer signs of heaven and many more of hell. The Devil and his kingdom appear in the names of rivers, caves and natural phenomena.

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