Get under the Skin of Bulgaria. Peter Duncan Enjoys the Landscape and History of the Balkan Country
Just before I left home for my sixday guided holiday, I had the chance to listen some beautiful Bulgarian harmonies - and the traditional songs of love and tales of rural bliss were a unique introduction to this eastern Balkan country, which boasts pine-clad national parks, mountains, sandy beaches on its Black Sea coastline, ski resorts, as well as the Danube river to kayak along.
When I arrived at Sofia airport and saw the Cyrillic letters above the English translations on the signs, I realised that the three-hour flight had taken me to somewhere culturally very different from home. Sofia itself is a city right at the crossroads of civilisations - here you will find classic Greek and Roman architecture alongside shiny gold-domed cathedrals influenced by the Russians.
The huge Vitosha mountain towers over the expanding metropolis of Sofia, which boasts three new shopping centres. Prices are cheaper than in most other EU countries (Bulgaria joined the EU fully in 2007 but has kept its currency, the lev).
The country has a population of seven million - and its people really seem to wear their heart on their sleeve and are always friendly when you interact with them.
My plan was to experience the Rhodopes, an elevated area in the south of the country. Although there was still snow on the ground, the region claims to experience nearly 300 days of sunshine every year.
After a three-hour drive from Sofia, we reached our hotel in Trigrad, close to the Unesco-protected Devil's Throat cave. That evening, as I was served a traditional stew in front of a log fire, I discovered that the ancient inhabitants of this region were the Thracians, who thrived in fortified tribal villages. Within these villages they developed a highly artistic culture, worshipped horses - their most famous son was Spartacus, the mercenary soldier.
The next day the cave opened early for tourists. Above the entrance was a woman trying to tempt visitors with jars of honey. After a tasting session I settled on a jar of coriander bee flawho vour.
On the way out I met Viagra Man, as he is known to the locals. He actually sells mursalski tea - let's just say he assured me graphically that drinking it would improve both my heart and other areas.
In between sampling honey and tea, I explored the cave where, legend has it, Orpheus, a musician philosopher - a kind of Thracian Bob Dylan - made an agreement with the devil, had imprisoned his wife Eurydice in the underworld.
The deal was that if Orpheus sang his beautiful melodies, he could lead Eurydice into the land of the living once again - but he had to walk in front of her and not look back. …