Bulgaria is an exceptionally beautiful country of pine-clad mountains, dramatic rocky gorges, alpine meadows and wooded valleys which stretch from Serbia and Macedonia in the west, to the shores of the Black Sea Coast 500 kilometres or so to the east. It is one of the least visited countries in Europe, yet this undiscovered corner of the Balkans holds one of Europe’s richest floras, including many endemic species that occur nowhere else on Earth. Indeed Bulgaria’s geographic position and wide range of habitats ensure a quite outstanding diversity of exciting plants and other wildlife and the country is rightly becoming an increasingly popular destination for botanists and wildlife enthusiasts alike.
This botanical holiday, designed to complement our spring and autumn birdwatching tours, will introduce you to a wealth of beautiful alpine and lowland plants, many of which are endemic to the Balkan region — all set amidst Bulgaria’s dramatic landscapes, rich culture and very friendly peoples. Our tour begins with a flight to Sofia, Bulgaria’s beautiful and vibrant capital city. We then drive the short distance to the Vitosha Mountain National Park where we will be based for the first two nights of the holiday. The pine-clad hills and alpine meadows of this national park are home to a wealth of wildlife ranging from Brown Bear and Wolf to over 1,500 species of higher plants, 31 species of which are Balkan endemics. During our time here we will visit the Bistrishco Branishte Nature Reserve, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that holds such plants as Gentianella bulgarica, Lilium jankae, Hungarian Snowbell (Soldanella hungarica), Lesser Twayblade (Listera cordata), Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) and the endemic conifer of the region, the Macedonian Pine (Pinus peuce). For those interested in birds, the forests and meadows hold Nutcrackers, Ring Ouzels, Ortolan Buntings and Hoopoes, and a wide variety of butterflies can be found in all these habitats.
We next head to the small town of Bansko that nestles within a valley at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. Bansko will be our base for the next three nights as we explore the Pirin Mountains National Park. This is the largest national park in all of Bulgaria, covering over 40,000 hectares and encompassing 100 peaks over 2,000 metres in height. Both acidic and calcareous rocks are exposed here, and the flora is extremely rich; indeed 20% of all the plants outlined in the Bulgarian Red Data Book occur within the national park! We will spend our time slowly exploring the forests, alpine meadows, glacial lakes and rocky gorges of the park, in search of such plants as Campanula lanata, Symphyandra wanneri, Centaurea kotschiana, Heart-shaped Orchid (Dactylorhiza cordigera), Long-flowered Primrose (Primula longiflora) and many others. We will also visit the ‘Baikusheva Mura’s, an old and twisted Macedonian Pine thought to be the oldest tree in Bulgaria at 1,350 years. Although the botany is sure to keep us enthralled, a quick glance skyward might reveal a Golden Eagle drifting silently overhead or the undulating flight of a Black Woodpecker passing high above a forest clearing. Pine Martens are common in these forests and although Brown Bears and Wolves occur here too, they are only glimpsed by the lucky few.
For the final two nights of our tour we move to the alpine village of Pamporovo. This will be our base as we explore the pine forests, rocky gorges and alpine meadows of the beautiful Rhodope Mountains. Over 2,000 species of plant have been recorded here, 90 of which are endemic to the Balkans. We will search for such species as the endemic Haberlea rhodopensis, Arenaria rhodopacea and Minuartia rhodopaea, plus Campanula orphanidea, Sideritis scardica, Serbian Stock (Malcolmia serbica), Macedonian Ragwort (Senecio macedonicus) and Iris reichenbachii. This is also an excellent area for orchids and we hope to find, amongst many others, such species as Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), Large White Helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), Bug Orchid (Orchis coriophora) and Elegant Laxflowered Orchid (Orchis laxiflora ssp. elegans). If we can tear our eyes away from the ground for a few minutes we may see a passing raptor, such as a Short-toed Eagle, perhaps a flock of Crag Martins, or even a crimson-winged Wallcreeper creeping up the vertical limestone walls of the magnificent Trigrad Gorge.
With our holiday now drawing to a close, we must sadly retrace our steps back to Sofia in time to catch our flight home but for those wishing to add a little culture and sightseeing to the tour, we thoroughly recommend spending an extra couple of nights in Sofia, a charming and captivating city.
The flower meadows and scenery was amazing. The local guide Vlado was unfailingly cheerful and well informed. Andrew the tour leader was great at providing the English equivalent to the language. I think that, as a fairly interested botanist, 7 days was enough for me - just the right length of time. Nice mix of different areas.
A really excellent holiday - one of the best from Naturetrek thanks to the two excellent leaders. Both Alan and Vladimir were untiring in their efforts to give us every bit of information we needed. Vladimir's English was superb, as was his knowledge of the Bulgarian flora. Nicolay's organisation was also excellent as was his provision of picnics, lunches and fruit. A really first class holiday and a wonderful country and people.
Our Naturetrek guide worked very hard all the time with pre-breakfast walks, information on wildlife at breakfast and on the coach etc.
An excellent trip; good leaders with expert knowledge. The hotels were all good and catered well for vegetarians. Alan Outen had incredible knowledge of all wildlife which made the trip very interesting. The local botanist, Vladimir Vladimirov, was very helpful and his local knowledge of endemics and local species was another important element of the trip. Beautiful scenery, stunning flowers - an excellent trip.
The hotel was excellent - fantastic setting and excellent food. We were particularly impressed by the local tour guide and leader, Nicolaj Dilcher, who was excellent. He was assisted by Rusko Dimitrov who also contributed very helpfully to the flower discovery and identification.
Overall, a fantasic trip with a lovely, informal and intelligent group of fellow clients and a splendid tour leader, which has left us keen for more trips with you in the future.