If you like nature enhanced by 18th-century rural architecture, traveling from Bansko through the Rhodope mountains to Plovdiv will likely be the highlight of your sojourn in Bulgaria. It's not just the scenic beauty or the long, empty roads, but the romance of seeing fields tilled by horse-drawn plows, and women and men in traditional garb reaping the produce that will end up delighting your palate at a roadside restaurant. Exploring the mountain villages (the best of which are Leshten, Kovachevitsa, Dolen, and, to a lesser extent, Shiroka Luka and Gela) is like stepping into a living museum, where old folk sit mutely on benches in the sun against stonewalled, timber-framed homes, just as their ancestors have for over 300 years. Alleys and lanes in these villages are impassable by car -- potholed, and sometimes thick with dung and mud -- so you must explore the villages on foot (wear sturdy shoes), stumbling onto images of novel beauty: An old woman walking her goat like a dog greets another bent under a huge stack of hay. A gaggle of teenage girls move their hips to a badly tuned radio, giggling at a passing boy on a powder-blue Communist-era motorbike as a girl comes thundering past on horseback, riding with no bridle or saddle, her long brown hair streaming behind her. A camera is essential; extra film or memory card is recommended.
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