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Velingrad The Discriminating Tourists Choice

Based on Artu Paasilinna's bestselling novel, the film Vatanen's Hare tells the story of a life-changing trip around Canada. The movie was shot in Velingrad two years ago. The producer's decision to use this relatively unknown Bulgarian spa resort, 133km south of Sofia, caused a stir. Does this little town, nestled at the foot of the Rila and Rhodope mountains in the central part of the Chepino Valley, resemble Canada in any way? The answer is, absolutely not. But it is surrounded by pine trees. And, as the film crew probably discovered, it can be just as tranquil as Canada's forests.

Velingrad, one of Bulgaria's most popular spa towns, is 800m above sea level and boasts more than 2000 hours of sunshine annually. Yet, in the summer, the fresh nights are a welcome respite from the suffocating heat of cities like Sofia and Plovdiv. A journey from Sofia will take a little more than two hours by car, but nearer three hours by bus from the capital's inconspicuous (south) bus station.

The town of 26 500 people is proud of its range of cultural and natural phenomena, the most famous being its local mineral water. More than 80 mineral springs are located in Velingrad. Their waters were tested and found to be suited to treating almost all diseases. Chepino valley, especially the part in which Velingrad nestles, has been known since Roman times as what we now call "a spa resort". It seems that the Romans, who invaded the region in 46 CE, liked the local mineral water so much that they promptly set about building dozens of bathhouses.

The old Roman bathhouses - or what remains of them - are now just tourist attractions. Giant and imposing hotels, which have mushroomed in the past few years, are the new faces of the resort. Some of these hotels claim to be "spa centres" just because their guests have access to mineral water swimming pools. Other hotels, however, provide services that can rival the most reputable international spa resorts. Standard indoor and outdoor swimming pools, jacuzzi, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, chromo-therapy and cardio-fitness clubs are essential for every reputable hotel in the town.

These hotels offer more than 100 different spa services, none of which cost more than 30 euro. "Hammam massage", "aroma bathtub with wild rose KNEIPP", "yon-ka face and body therapy", "romantic bath for two" and "harmonising bathtub with lavender oil" are just a few of the therapies on offer that may sound mysterious - even to veteran spa users! Some of the hotels are very impressive but, perhaps surprisingly, English-speaking tourists are rare and English-language papers and magazines impossible to find.

Still, it is not the shiny, modern hotels that make this spa resort unique, but the old bathhouses, only slightly modernised since Roman times. Public bathhouses are a difficult phenomenon for the Western mind to imagine. Located in sometimes dilapidated but charming buildings scattered all over Velingrad, they provide an ancient and altogether less private version of modern spa delights. These buildings consist of locker rooms and one huge, steamy stone hall, where people luxuriate in mineral water baths without interacting. Once the cleansing procedure - which often takes more than an hour - is over, you can take a dip in a large swimming pool.

More than 10 public bathhouses can be found in Velingrad, and they seldom remain empty. For between 50 euro cents and 1.5 euro, you can use an unlimited amount of mineral water, including the cost of bathing accessories and towels. While some bathhouses are gender-segregated, others are not. Once they overcome the shock of the shared bathing ritual, many foreigners describe this as the town's top attraction!    
Brochures may proclaim Velingrad to be an exciting resort, but this is just glib propaganda. In fact, the town definitely needs a few more modern clubs to liven up the atmosphere after dark. Another problem is the dearth of sophisticated restaurants. Most offer a disappointingly narrow range of Bulgarian meals. Waiters may also refuse to serve you coffee if you do not also order food or drink. The town seems to be ruled by a surplus of chubby cats, so a good way to select a decent restaurant is to search for feline friends in front of entrances. The greater their number, the better the kitchen!     

Despite a few drawbacks, Velingrad's stunning nature woos foreign and Bulgarian spa tourists alike. Probably the most remarkable natural wonder in the town is Lake Kleptuza - the largest karsts spring in the entire Balkan Peninsula. About 570 litres of ice-cold water springs to the surface every minute. The lake, surrounded by willow trees, fills up with tourists in pedal boats on summer days. Several bars and restaurants surround the lake, but all serving similar fare. Particularly out of season - or on quiet, rainy days -  you may be disappointed by the narrow range of refreshments on offer.  

Another interesting site to visit is the intersection of the 42nd parallel and the 24th meridian. So far the place is marked just by a metal sign but the municipality plans to make a tourist attraction out of this geographic spot, similar to the Greenwich observatory.

For cultural sightseers, Velingrad and the surrounding region are an archaeological haven. The town consists of three villages, amalgamated after 1945: Chepino, Kamenitsa and Luzhene, which are now districts of Velingrad. Chepino was named after an ancient fortress, built on its territory and first mentioned in Byzantine chronicles in the 13th Century. Traditionally, all Bulgarian kings came to benefit from the healing effect of the Chepino baths. Archaeological evidence of the lives led by Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks is scattered all around Chepino and the two other districts. Roman bathhouse excavations in Kamenitsa and foundations of a huge public building from the 1st Century in Luzhene are particularly interesting.

Those who favour active vacations will certainly enjoy the 10 "mineral beaches", the locals' term for the open air complexes of swimming pools and cafes converted into dance clubs at night.      

Some tourists from Eastern European countries remember Velingrad from the Soviet era when it was a small dusty town with several unattractive concrete "vacation centres" and sanatoriums. Anyone coming back after a 20-year hiatus would not recognise the town, given the large-scale investments by local and foreign companies. Even so, Velingrad has managed to avoid the over-building that has eroded the charm of so many popular winter and sea resorts.

At the beginning of the Bulgarian property boom, investors focused their attention on the Black Sea region and the mountains, while the spa sector remained (blissfully!) underdeveloped. Now that the Government has introduced strict measures to preserve nature and prevent further resort expansion, Velingrad is no longer in danger of becoming yet another concrete jungle.

Nevertheless, supply of real estate properties exceeds demand. The town is not nearly as popular as the country's celebrated summer and winter resorts, yet property prices are almost comparable. Houses cost anything from 700 to 1000 euro a sq m, depending on quality and location and the possibility of converting them into guest houses. Apartments in hotels vary from 1200 to 2600 euro a sq m, and land from 50 to 170 euro a sq m. It seems that Velingrad's property prices  - as in most Bulgarian spa resorts - are influenced not by the market's dynamics but by owners' decisions to pursue high prices. Before 2007, purchasing and renovating old abandoned hotels, for prices of between 300 and 500 euro a sq m never accrued less than a 50 per cent return. Nowadays, however, prices for such properties start from 1200 euro a sq m, if they're available at all.      

Velingrad has capacity for 300 000 tourists annually, but hotels frequently remain half-empty, meaning that potential for rental incomes is low - currently about two per cent annually. The problem is that local organisations and the Government are failing to capitalise on the town's attraction as an excellent spa resort. Velingrad's natural beauty, the abundant mineral water resources and luxurious hotels are insufficient to lure crowds all year round.

Experts predict, however, that the town's infrastructure will improve over the next five years, so boosting its appeal. By 2012 hotels will be functioning at full capacity, rental yields will rise by 10 per cent annually and prices in all property segments will soar by at least 40 per cent. For the moment, however, tourists can still enjoy the peace and quiet of this relatively unknown backwater while they wait for the next property bonanza to strike.