My husband and I decide we are up for a horse-riding adventure. We’ve done a few and have realised it’s the only way to travel: the truest way to experience an up-close and personal with a country and its people. You’re out of your comfort zone, there’s no turning back, you must abandon all control and anything can happen. There’s nothing like extreme vulnerability to induce trust and affection in your guide and his horses. But gratitude for surviving your holiday aside, it’s not hard to fall for everything the trip has to offer.
We arrive in Apriltsi, a small Bulgarian town at the foot of the central Balkan Mountains, after a three-hour drive from Sofia. You get a sense of the level of hospitality, aesthetic and food quality before you can even smell a horse, and here there was an instant whiff of the authentic. The Bulgarians might want all the ubiquitous capitalist junk, but so far it hasn’t reached the central Balkans. What you get is all the flavours of seasonal produce without the waste of endless choice. Wine was always available and delicious, although their beloved rakia is the national tipple. The accommodation is simple, the homes whitewashed with red tiled roofs and spectacularly unadorned, but every window-sill and courtyard is crammed with coloured splashes of potted plants and grape vines.
Our steeds, bred by the Turkish army, are bomb-proof and fit enough to carry us for up to seven hours a day across the Stara Planina national park. Over six days we will ride 160kms. It seems like a ridiculous amount of time in a saddle, but something strange happens to time on horseback. No sooner have you had your first canter and gasped at your first vast panorama than it’s time to dismount for lunch.
Our overnight abodes are all deeply romantic. The first night is spent in a wooden dairy in a valley of wild horses and sheep whose bells tinkle away like something out of Heidi. There are allegedly still wolves in the park too, although that evening as we scan the tree line we see nothing more than the odd red deer.
On the second night we stay in the Kaloferski monastery, home to three ancient nuns but boasting a 17th-century orthodox chapel of rare beauty. Its interior walls are covered in Christian icons, with a chandelier of disproportionate size and splendour. Dinner is on the cloisters balcony, with the high mountain peaks dressed in light from a swollen moon. It is like something from another time, or even another world.
But our final overnighter surpassed them all. We’d ridden 35km through a valley of roses, the area’s largest cash crop. Handpicked in May and June, three tons of petals make one kilo of rose oil; the entire yearly crop yields two tonnes. We’d ridden through and lunched in the village of Tuzha and then clambered back up the mountain, reaching the summit just before sundown. There are 1,900 varieties of flora in the high country, and I’m sure every single one of them must have been in bloom in our final resting place.
Drinking cold beer and watching the horses rolling in the wild flowers while dinner sizzles on the barbecue plate is — well, if life gets any better, I can’t imagine how. This area is also home to most of the south European population of brown bears and, since that means 800 bears, you could be lucky enough to glimpse one.
Picking our way back down the stony tracks we reflect on the best and worst aspects of the trip. Worst was the pillows. The best is more difficult, but for sheer otherworldliness, it had to be the moment early on the fourth morning as we were following a bubbling river down the mountain. In the distance we heard rowdy singing. Our guide told us, with some urgency, to get off the track. Round the corner a scruffy truck appeared stuffed with carousing young men and, behind them, a cavalcade of galloping horses, ridden fearlessly without saddles or bridles. All the riders were young, dark and wearing earrings — raggle-taggle gypsies. The forest zinged as if we’d encountered the ghostly apparitions of a bygone people.
Completing our mammoth trek, I reward my hard-working steed with a handful of oats, only to be remonstrated for spoiling it. But like the Bulgarians we have met in this secret, beautiful country, the horses trot off with no complaint about their frugal lot. My horses and children have a shock coming when I get home.