Sofia might be the country's commerce center, but the headiest rush is to be had while traveling into the mountainous landscape that defines much of southwestern Bulgaria. From the soaring snowcapped peaks of the Rila and the Pirin ranges, which flow almost seamlessly into the forested flanks of the Rhodope, the scenery is balm for stressed city dwellers' souls. No wonder that St. John of Rila, Bulgaria's most famous hermit, retreated to a cave in these mountains for 20 years before emerging to establish Bulgaria's finest spiritual sanctuary in the shadow of these peaks. Rila Monastery, the physical embodiment of the skills and crafts spawned by Bulgaria's 19th-century renaissance, is the country's most popular inland attraction, and it makes a wonderful day trip from Sofia. But the monastery is far from the only or even best attraction in this region.
Farther south, in the foothills of the Pirin's mountainous border with Greece, lies the tiny village of Melnik. This is the country's best-known wine-producing area (Churchill apparently got through World War II armed with cases of Melnik wine), but the village itself is lined with tall, whitewashed buildings and it is a delight. It also is the ideal base from which to visit nearby Rozhen monastery, at first glance not as impressive as the larger Rila, but since Rozhen monks still outnumber tourists, it is perhaps the most atmospheric sanctuary in Bulgaria. Northeast lies Bansko, Bulgaria's premier ski resort, but unless you're here for the skiing, head straight through (or, if road surfaces allow, via Melnik) to the real gems of this region: the Rhodopean villages denoted as architectural museums, where cobbled lanes meander past 19th-century stone-and-timber homes, their wrinkled owners basking on benches in the sun. Kovachevitsa and Leshten in particular offer the best places to stay and eat in rural Bulgaria and they are essential stops on the itinerary.