Mark Cocker

Healing herbs in abundance in an unspoilt corner of central Europe

The Mesta region of Bulgaria, where the river meets the forests of the western Rhodope range, remains remarkably intact and rich in wild harvests

Haberlea rhodopensis, or Orpheus flower, also known as a resurrection plant, is a relict from the Ice Age and unique to the Rhodope Mountains. It has long been used in the region against animal diseases, and its potential in the treatment of cancer and the repairing of skin tissue is now being researched. [Alamy]

The only thing I’m uncertain about in this uplifting and beautifully written book is its subtitle. Granted, the landscape Kapka Kassabova invokes does sound like ‘a place that struck you dumb with its majesty’, but we are not in some Shangri-La beyond the reach of mortals. The valley in question is a two-hour drive from a modern European capital. Elixir is set on the banks of the Mesta River (known as the Nestos in Greece), where its life-giving waters meet the forests and mountains of the western Rhodope range in Bulgaria.

Mesta’s montane flora has provided wild crops and herbal medicines for centuries

This is the author’s country of origin; but she left it 30 years ago and is unflinching in her judgment of its recent past, which she divides into three phases. There was the outright tyranny of the old Marxist state, with its peculiarly anti-environmental mantra: ‘In the fight against nature we shall be victorious!’ Then there was a transitional period of economic gangsterism; and finally a post-EU settlement of mature kleptocracy.

Things are bad in Bulgaria as a whole, says Kassabova, but they are particularly bad for those living in the Mesta region, where she spent much of the lockdown period. Many of the inhabitants are Pomaks, a group of indigenous Balkan Muslims who have not only suffered the corruption of recent decades but endured victimisation as a religious minority throughout the world wars, and two further regional conflicts. More than 20,000 Muslims died in the decade after 1910 alone.

In all these upheavals, the Pomaks have had one great advantage. Much of their personal and political resistance, as well as their economic sustenance as a community, has stemmed from their profound relationship with nature, particularly with Mesta’s montane flora, which has provided wild crops and herbal medicines for centuries.

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