We were high in the Rhodope mountains of southern Bulgaria, one of Europe’s largest wildernesses, a place where wolves and bears can still be found, that is home to a scattering of hardy villages, mostly Turkish-influenced from the long presence of the Ottoman empire.
The narrow valleys have tumbling rivers that carve deep gorges, inspiration for many stories, notably that of Orpheus, the divinely inspired musician.
We had trekked up from the village of Yagodina, spotted a snake among the flowers, and now we were tired.
We needed distractions. It was then that disaster struck, the sort of thing that can occur in myth-soaked mountains.
It was my daughter Maddy who roused the slumbering gods. She took out her phone and started playing music: Shakira to be precise, the one about hips.
I leaped up on a rock and, egged on by the adoring jeers of my family, performed an inadvisable parody of the Colombian diva. The gods passed their judgement. Something in my lower back snapped.
By the time we had descended to our destination, the village of Trigrad, I knew I was going to suffer.
Fortunately the Rhodope region is renowned for the longevity and good health of its inhabitants and, at the Triibria hotel, the owner, Nevse, brought out all the secrets of Rhodopean vitality: ironwort tea; mursalski, renowned for anti-inflammatory properties; then patatik, a potato-based Rhodopean favourite, filled with cheese and herbs collected on the mountain.
Later came other balms, notably mavrud wine (Bulgaria’s best red, grown on the lower slopes of the Rhodopes). Still I sat there, twisted and contrite, clutching my coccyx. Finally yoghurt was brought.
The Rhodopes’ reputation for health is not new: back in 1905 a Russian researcher noted the unusually high incidence of centenarians and decided the secret was in the yoghurt. A bacteria, lactobacillus bulgaricus was isolated.
Scientists went on to find that Bulgarian yoghurt helped increase bone density and reduce chloresterol. It was a wonder cure. The Rhodopeans, of course, knew their yoghurt was good, but the secret of long life? They kept quiet.
I ate my yoghurt; I drank more ironwort tea. I staggered over to the bar and was shown dozens of proprietary spirits, none of which had any claim to healing.
Finally, an unlabelled bottle of tawny liquid was produced and a tot poured. Ice was added. Two hours later I knew I had found Bulgaria’s secret weapon in the war on decrepitude: rakia.
Next day, I was much better, and we strolled through the village towards Trigrad’s famous gorge.
Down The Devil's Throat
Despite it only being early August the villagers were clearly preparing for winter: everyone appeared to be chopping or stacking firewood.
The streets were lined with long walls of logs and the houses fortified by ramparts of kindling. Beyond the houses was the gorge, deep enough to swallow London’s Shard.
At its narrowest point there is a dark, savage hole into which the river plunges, the Devil’s Throat. It was here that Orpheus supposedly descended to Hades in pursuit of his deceased beloved, Eurydice. We decided to follow.
Fortunately someone has built a footpath into the cave which enters lower down so you pass into the bowels of Hades first, admiring some of the 35,000 bats who live there, then climbing through vast vaulted chambers towards daylight.
At this point Orpheus made the fatal mistake of looking back, despite having been warned against it, thus losing Eurydice forever. The moral is clear: once the right answer to a problem is found, do not look back.
We spent the rest of the day climbing up on the crags, admiring some of Rhodope’s 80 unique plant species.
Clouds of butterflies went with us, hitching lifts on our shoulders. There were glorious panoramas of endless forests and mountains: one of the pleasures of the Rhodopes is the sense of vast wild spaces. At sunset part two of my cure commenced: ironwort, bean soup, yoghurt, and several medicinal shots of rakia.
Some notes on the music. Music Lessons Around The World For Baby Boomers
Going hiking? Essential Items For A Trekking Expedition
Rakia Works Its Healing Wonders
Next day we walked a gorge near Devin village, soaked my back in renowned spa waters and ended the day higher up the valley in the village of Lyaskovo at the homestay of Rumen and Zacharina Rosenovi.
After a superb dinner, our hosts’ son, Boris, played the bagpipes and Zacharina got Sophie and Maddy dancing. Personally, I still felt some Shakira-inspired caution, something Rumen clearly understood, leaving me in the company of a rakia bottle that, bizarrely, contained three woodcarved musicians – a gift from another villager.
Could it have been Orpheus? I lifted the bottle and I did not look back.
Later, a group gathered and an impassioned discussion on the fragile legality of making rakia in modern Bulgaria ensued.
“Anyone who has tried our mountain rakia,” declared one man, “never wants anything else. Big business doesn’t like that.”
Deeper into the evening, if I recall correctly, we debated the correct way to express Yes and No with your head. Ruman said the British shake for Yes and nod for No which, at that moment, seemed entirely accurate.
Next day, we set off through Lyaskovo, calling greetings to all the people out chopping logs and admiring some venerable communist-era vehicles – Bulgaria could snatch the mantle of “ex-communist country with great vintage vehicles” from Cuba.
Then we trekked upwards into the forests and collected handfuls of wild strawberries and raspberries, crossing the highest ridge at 1,900 metres, before dropping down to Chudni Mostove, a stirring sight where water has carved several massive arches in stone, the largest over 45 metres high and wide.
I scrambled down steep gulches and leaped from rocks like a mountain goat.
Our last night we spent in Kosovo, a restored village, then next day stopped by Bachkovo, an 11th century monastery busy with little ceremonies and rituals, before returning to Plovdiv, an ancient city and a great base for any exploration of Bulgaria’s southern mountains.
The Rhodope had cured me, but I don’t believe it was the yoghurt.
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Bulgaria.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.