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Bewitched by Bulgaria's Rhodopes mountains

Travelling in the Rhodope Mountains, the experience of Peter Duncan.
Just before I left Britain I had the chance to listen to some beautiful harmonies sung by the London Bulgarian Choir. The traditional songs of love and tales of rural bliss proved an inspiring overture to my six-day guided visit to this eastern Balkan country. Bulgaria has pristine, pine-forested national parks, sandy beaches on its Black Sea coastline, and – if you like adventure holidays – ski resorts, the Danube river to kayak along and mountains to climb.
The country is economically stable, unlike its neighbour Greece, and the capital Sofia boasts three new shopping centres where prices are cheaper than in most other countries in the European Union. Bulgaria joined the EU fully in 2007 but has kept its own currency, the lev.
The new international airport at Sofia is so similar to Heathrow's Terminal 5 that I thought I had flown in a circle from London and landed back home until I saw the Cyrillic letters above the English translation on airport signs. The change in alphabet proved the three-hour flight had taken me to somewhere culturally very different. Sofia itself reflects the fact that it stands at the crossroads of civilisations – here you will find classic Greek and Roman architecture alongside shiny gold domed cathedrals influenced by the Russians.
The huge Vitosha mountain towers over the expanding metropolis. The Bulgarians are a nation of more than seven million; they seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves and are always friendly when you interact with them. My plan was to experience the Rhodopes, an elevated area in the south of the country. Although there was still snow on the ground, the region claims to experience nearly 300 days of sunshine every year. After a three-hour drive from Sofia, we reached our hotel in Trigrad, close to the Unesco-protected Devil's Throat cave.

That evening, as I was served a traditional Bulgarian stew in front of a log fire, I discovered that the ancient inhabitants of this region were the Thracians who thrived in fortified tribal villages. Within these villages they developed a highly artistic culture, worshipped horses, and their most famous son was Spartacus, the leader of the great Roman slave rebellion.
The next day the cave opened early for tourists. Above the entrance was a woman trying to tempt visitors with jars of honey. After a tasting session, I settled on a jar of coriander bee honey. I also met Viagra Man, as he is known to the locals.
He sells bunches of herbs to make mursalski tea, and let's just say he assured me graphically that drinking it would improve both my heart and other areas. In between sampling honey and tea, I explored the cave where legend has it that the musician philosopher Orpheus – a kind of Thracian Bob Dylan – made an agreement with the Devil, who had imprisoned his wife Eurydice in the underworld.
The deal was that if Orpheus sang his beautiful melodies, he could lead Eurydice into the land of the living once again but he had to walk in front of her and not look back. He failed and his career turned to dust, as did his beloved.
These thoughts filled my head as I trampled up the hundreds of steps through the vast cavern towards the sunlight where, at the exit, the local river turns into a waterfall. The water suddenly disappears into the bowels of the Earth, taking anyone or anything that falls in with it. If you like hiking with the intention of reaching an exceptional viewpoint, then the platform above the village of Yagodina is the peak to head for. The platform was built by the villagers and hangs over the edge of a cliff.
The view of the gorge and the meandering river below is thrilling and the best way to experience the Rhodopes mountains. Later that day we reached the village of Shiroka Laka which, as well as having a national music school, holds a carnival every year where locals take to the streets dressed in animalistic costumes. Using bells and a type of bagpipes, they dance and play music to ward off evil spirits.
A song from the Rhodopes region was so evocative it was included in a collection of music taken on board Nasa's Voyager craft that is now far into deep space. If extraterrestrials ever get to listen to it, I hope they decide to land here for an alien holiday. That night I stayed in Gela, along the mountain road that leads out of Shiroka Laka.
I saw Jupiter and Venus in the night sky, had a sauna and watched live Premiership football on television while drinking Mavrud, the smooth local red wine. Perfect.