Start at Sofia Airport (Terminal 2) where you will be met by your leader and transferred east across the Thracian Plain to the historic city of Plovdiv where we will spend the first night.
After breakfast, we will have a short walk around the old part of Plovdiv, seeing some of the main sights such as the Roman theatre, stadium and beautifully preserved merchants’ houses. Then, having bought ourselves some picnic food, we drive south into the Rodopi Mountains and begin our explorations with a visit to one of the most sacred sites in Bulgaria, the Bachkovo Monastery. One of the largest and most atmospheric monasteries in the country, we enjoy a glimpse into the seemingly timeless monastic world of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and have a chance to admire some of the most outstanding examples of religious art in the country. As well as visiting the monastery itself, we will also enjoy a gentle walk (2 hours) in the tranquil valley behind, a nature reserve that shelters several picturesque chapels. In the afternoon we drive on into the heart of the Rodopi Mountains, briefly stopping off at the village of Shiroka Laka, an architectural reserve that preserves a picturesque church and some fine examples of local vernacular architecture. Completing our transfer, we then arrive at the remote village of Yagodina, seemingly located at the end of the world in a rugged karst region. Here we will be based for the next four nights in a comfortable family-run hotel that is renowned for its hospitality and delicious traditional food.
Setting off on foot from the hotel, we will climb steadily up onto the broad open ridge that rises directly north of the village. Here on the cliffs at the westernmost end of the ridge we will find an amazing viewpoint known as the ‘Eagle’s Eye’, from which there is a breathtaking view down into the depths of the Buynovo Gorge. The cliffs are the haunt of Peregrine Falcon, and occasionally Golden Eagle can also be seen soaring overhead. Resuming our walk (3-4 hours), we then head east along the ridge, being rewarded with a succession of stunning winter panoramas that stretch out over the village and across the seemingly unending folds and forests of the Rodopi Mountains. Having returned to the hotel, we will then receive a cookery lesson, and have an opportunity to prepare ourselves a traditional Rodopi dish that will then be served up as part of our dinner.
The focus of todays’ exploration is the amazing subterranean world of the Trigrad-Yagodina karst region. During the day we will visit two of the most famous caves in Bulgaria, and discover more about their formation as well as the fascinating creatures that live within. Beginning at the dramatic Trigrad Gorge, we first visit the so-called ‘Devil’s Throat’ Cave, an enormous chasm containing a thundering waterfall and underground river. This is the cave from which Orpheus is said to have emerged after his fateful trip to the Underworld. However, today the cave is renowned as one of the most important hibernating sites in Europe for Schreiber’s Bent-winged Bat which is found here in colonies numbering several thousand, accompanied by smaller numbers of Long-fingered Bat. Having emerged from the cave, we then make our way back towards Yagodina on foot (3 hours), skirting around the Durdaga massif through prime Brown Bear habitat. At this time of the year, the bears are normally tucked away sleeping in their dens, but if the weather is unseasonably mild, then they often awake from hibernation, and we may come across their tracks and scats. Our hike finishes at the Yagodina Cave, internationally renowned for its great variety of cave formations. We will spend about an hour walking through the cave learning about the different speleothems, and also keeping our eyes open for hibernating Greater Horseshoe Bat and Lesser Horseshoe Bat.
Leaving the hotel on foot, we set off on an exciting walk (4-5 hours) into the lonely wilds of the surrounding forests. Often this part of the mountains experiences significant snowfall in winter, so it is likely we will need to use snowshoes in places to help us break a trail. Our route leads us into a remote region that in winter becomes the realm of the Grey Wolf, and we will keep our eyes open for any signs of their presence, as well as look out for the tracks of other animals such as Wild Boar, Roe Deer, Brown Hare and Red Squirrel. The silent forests also shelter a variety of interesting birds, and if we are lucky we may encounter species such as Black Woodpecker, Hazel Grouse and Crested Tit. Finally, having made our way across the mountains to the village of Trigrad, we will be picked up by our bus and driven back to Yagodina. Before dinner, we will be able to visit the village ethnographic museum, and see some of the traditional handicrafts that are still used and manufactured by the locals. Later in the evening, some of the village ladies will come to the hotel and, as well us entertaining us with traditional songs, will also teach us some of the local folkdances, thus bringing a lively close to our stay in Yagodina!
Leaving the village of Yagodina, we have a short drive to the nearby town of Devin. Here, in the mountains surrounding the town, we will meet up with guides from the local game reserve and spend several hours trying to track, observe and photograph a variety of elusive animals such as Wild Boar, Balkan Chamois, Mouflon, Roe Deer and Red Deer. Our exciting forest safari will be partly on foot and partly in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Later in the afternoon, you can then thaw out and soothe away any tired and aching muscles in the warm mineral waters of our hotel swimming pool; or if you are feeling especially self-indulgent, perhaps treat yourself to a massage or other treatment in the hotel spa.
After breakfast, we will spend the morning walking (2 hours) along the valley of the Devinska Reka, following a specially constructed eco-trail that sticks close to the water’s edge. The sparkling stream is home to Otter and a habitat for typical riverine birds such as White-throated Dipper, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail. Finally, having checked out of the hotel and bought yourself something for lunch in the town of Devin, we then start the transfer back to Sofia, a long but interesting journey that first takes us through the dramatic Krichim Gorge, then out into the Thracian Plain. The final night of the holiday is at a hotel in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
Depending on flight schedules, there should be time for a short sightseeing tour of Sofia’s main sites, before driving on to the airport for departure.