Bulgarian road trip: Sofia to the City of the Tsars

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One of the Balkans' larger countries, Bulgaria makes an excellent place for road tripping. Despite now being an EU member, enough of Bulgaria’s wildness (literal and figurative) remains to guarantee that travellers have their own unique experiences while exploring the country.

Many drivers will be coming from the capital, Sofia. Once past the city traffic, roads everywhere in the country are more or less open. To visit some of Bulgaria’s loveliest woodland stretches, head east on the main A1 motorway, and veer south at Pazardzhik (114km from Sofia). Head 35km down the B-road passing Batak (the site of a famous 19th-century uprising against the Ottomans), and continue deeper into the Rhodope Mountains towards Dospot. Turning east the forested road (about 60km from Batak) leads to Devin, a small town famous for its mineral water and therapeutic hot springs. Devin makes a good place to relax, enjoy a therapeutic massage or two and hike on blissfully empty woodland paths.

Follow the curving road east and then north past Smolyan, a nondescript town with exciting caving opportunities, and the laid-back ski resort of Chepelare. Emerging from the winding mountain road, full of cliffs and stunning vistas, one reaches Asenovgrad, noted for its wineries, before arriving at Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second (and arguably best) city. Plovdiv has all the services and attractions of a major population centre, but it especially takes pride in its old town. Set on curving, stone streets, the old town retains a bohemian air, and the numerous museums and galleries here are bursting with the work of modern masters and artists of old. The old town has some atmospheric places to stay, some decorated in the vibrant 19th-century ‘national renaissance’ style, and the nightlife is fuelled by an irrepressible student population.

From Plovdiv, take the E85 back road 108km straight north to Kazanlak, an eccentric, agricultural destination where an interesting mix of Bulgarians, Roma and ethnic Turks congregate in the town’s gregarious open market. Agriculture remains a bigger part of the mix here than in most provincial Bulgarian towns because Kazanlak, and its surrounding plain of the same name, is the centre of a major industry in rose oil extract, feeding the needs of perfumiers from around the world. A good time to visit is the first week of June each year, when the annual rose festival takes place.

Continuing north across the Valley of Roses leads to the base of the Stara Planina (Balkan) Mountain, which cuts Bulgaria into its northern and southern halves. A 4th-century BC Thracian tomb was discovered in the nearby village of Shipka (the contents of which are now displayed in Kazanlak’s museums), though the most dramatic sight here is surely the gold-domed Russian church standing guard over the 1300km high Shipka Pass.

Some 57km over the mountains from Shipka lies yet another historic settlement, this one famous as the medieval seat of Bulgarian power – Veliko Tarnovo, city of the tsars. Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s most-visited destinations, and with its classic architecture, churches and castle it’s not hard to see why. Also a student city, Tarnovo has plenty of stylish accommodation to choose from, as well as excellent restaurants and lively bars. Along the way, don't miss Dryanovo Monastery, founded in the 12th century and 5km out of the village of the same name, alone in the woods by the base of a cliff.

How to:

EU driver's licences and international driver’s licences are accepted. The official number for emergency road assistance is 146. Keep an eye out for potholes and wandering livestock in smaller countryside roads.