If you are looking for rural and authentic Bulgaria away from mass tourism, then you need to look no further than the southwestern Rhodopi Mountains and the beautiful area of Garmen, where you will discover a piece of rural paradise. The area is a hidden gem of Bulgaria, full of locals, authentic old villages, crafts and traditions. The Roman ruins at Nikopolis ad Nestum, the warm mineral baths of Ognyanovo, the rural tourism village of Leshten and possibly the most impressive village in Bulgaria, Kovachevitsa, are all in this region. Only known for many years to afficionados of Bulgarian village life, these villages are now finding themselves with more and more tourists, who are visiting for a slice of the real Bulgaria.
Garmen municipality has some 16 small villages, which are dotted around the folds of the mountains and the winding Kanina and Mesta rivers. This is an ecological area, with peace and quiet together with stunning countryside.
This small village is often a starting point for those keen on mountain biking, hiking or off-roading. If you are keen on walking, then there is a new eco path which follows along the Kanina River, with wonderful waterfalls and high cliffs. Those having a more adventurous nature will delight in climbing up the rocks using ropes to take advantage of the fantastic view over the Sini Vir (blue pond) Lake. Garmen is where you will find a plethora of ancient Bulgarian traditions: folk dancing, singing, musical instruments - in particular drums, for which the village of Dabnitysa was famous.
The Roman ruins at Nikopolis ad Nestum
Many of the homes in Garmen look at over these ruins. This was once an epic Roman town and a significant Roman site in the country.
Dating from 100 AD, the town remained inhabited until the Middle Ages. Nowadays you can see the ruins of what was once an important Roman city. It was the Turks, who, after a long siege, conquered the town and razed it to the ground. Many of the remaining stone was used to re-build the houses and you can see many huge ancient blocks of stone in some of the restaurants in Garmen. Archaeologists have started to clear the site and excavate further. You can get to see the surviving parts of the fortress, gates and towers, plus the ancient mineral baths with pools and columns. There is an information centre at the site.
Probably not the most charming village but it is set in a magnificent location surrounded by mountains. The mineral baths are outdoors, so it may not be recommended for winter! However, some of the new hotels in Ognyanovo use the mineral water for their swimming pools. An experience!
The tourist information centre here has maps and guides, together with brochures on the most interesting places in the area.
Leshten is a small rural tourism village. There are barely 50 houses in traditional style and many were bought by one businessman with the intention to renovate and create an eco/rural tourism centre. The houses are restored and available to rent. This is a great spot to stay in an authentic Bulgarian village with the mountains on your doorstep. There is a good restaurant in the village with traditional Bulgarian fare.
Don't miss the strange but interesting "clay house" in Leshten. Absolutely everything, the structure, beds, tables, bathroom, is made of clay.
Absolutely impressive and certainly one of the most beautiful villages in the whole of Bulgaria. This has to be on a "must see" list.
A historical and architectural reserve, it is totally protected against the potential ravages of development and tourism. The original settlers here chose the location because it was so inaccessible, being high up the mountains and to avoid the forced religious conversion during the Ottoman period. Kovachevitsa is the site chosen for many film makers due to its originality, a choice which has probably saved this wonderful village from decay. Today, the houses have been snapped up and renovated: mostly large two or three storey homes with big bay windows overhanging the narrow, cobbled lanes. There are a handful which operate as hotels, so accommodation is available and with local bars and restaurants you won't go hungry.
Garmen region is about 50 kilometres southeast of Bansko, taking just under an hour. If you are driving from the capital, Sofia, allow three hours. From Garmen, access to Ognyanovo, Leshten and Kovachevitsa is easy via a new road.
Leshten and Kovachevitsa photographs courtesy of BulgariaPhotos.net