The countryside, food and camaraderie of a riding holiday more than makes up for aching muscles, says Kathy Carter
If the thought of a horse riding, culture and wine trail in Eastern Europe conjures up images of steeds with flowing manes, traditionally-dressed bagpipe players and homemade wine and moussaka, you've come to the right place.
Not knowing quite what to expect, I signed up for a week-long, 300km ride across some of Europe’s most beautiful terrain in Bulgaria. My cultural awakening began when our Bulgarian host, Mitko Koevski, collected our group of five riders from Sofia airport and took us to the village of Trigrad, where we would spend our first night in one of several guest houses.
Aside from myself, there were two teachers, Charlotte and Claire, Danni, a travel consultant, and Thea, a medical researcher and former doctor.
Strangers at first, like many people who book riding holidays, we soon bonded en route from Sofia, when we stopped at the Devil’s Throat Cave at Trigrad Gorge. Here, surrounded by natural rock face and chirruping bats, we climbed almost 300 steps from the 300,000-year-old pass where the Greek King Orpheus visited the Underworld in search of his beloved maiden, Eurydice.
Our culture induction continued afterwards at the adjoining café, with Ariana beers all round and a melding of the red-blooded Bulgarian male’s favourite music - 80’s soft rock and traditional kaba-gaida music - the latter produced from a white bagpipe made from the skin of a goat.
When our excited group climbed into our military-style saddles the next day, 185 miles of riding stretched ahead of us, yet I don’t think anyone was equating that to distance in real terms. Riding from Trigrad up to the 1,600-metre Videnitsa peak on the first day, our cross-bred horses negotiated endless rocky paths and cantered up steep hills, as we felt the first pangs of discomfort in our muscles.
Despite all of us being experienced riders, naively, none of us had put in any real training for the trip, so our bodies were feeling the strain. We swapped pain relief advice (Ibruprofen and Biofreeze gel being my personal recommendations) and diligently stretched yoga-style before mounting... at least when we remembered.
My mount, Nachim, had perfect manners, a comfortable gait and a super-soft mouth, and certainly made riding for over six hours a day a pleasure.
But what of the culture element? We were lucky enough to stay overnight in a renovated monastery in the village of Teshovo, and also visited several Orthodox churches – my favourite being in Dolen, a rustic, traditional village looking much as it would have done hundreds of years ago.
That night, our culture intake was boosted further by a bonfire-side party on the edge of the horses’ fields, where locals treated us to Bulgarian songs and kaba-gaida playing, and we stayed in a newly refurbished, 200-year-old house. A welcome treat was the friendly cow on the ground floor, who produced fresh milk for breakfast.
The diverse scenery in Bulgaria was unexpected. Despite this being my third visit, seeing a location on horseback affords one some spectacular views that normal modes of transport could not reach. Our trek took us through agricultural countryside, rolling hills and pretty meadows, along cavernous mountain paths with incredible, canyon-like formations, and even briefly over the Greek border. As the week progressed, the riding became faster, with plenty of long canters and exhilarating, fast gallops.
The culmination of this fabulous ride was an overnight stay in Melnik, a small town in the southwest region of the Pirin Mountains. Populated with taverns and cobbled streets, Melnik is famed for its wine, so with the riding element completed, we guzzled the local sauce to our heart’s content. It was the perfect moment to re-live the earth-shatteringly long, but exhilarating rides, the camaraderie of riding with a group of new friends, and the cheese-heavy, delicious evening meals.
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I can thoroughly recommend this "point to point" trip to experienced riders, although I would advise gaining a good level of riding fitness first – our longest day in the saddle was nearly nine hours, although most days are shorter. The horses were amazing, the guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and the trip was so well organised by hosts Unicorn Trails.
Unicorn Trails’ Melnik Culture and Wine Trail costs £1,005 per person for one week. All accommodation and meals, starting with dinner the first night and ending with breakfast the last day, plus water with meals, transfers and all riding, are included. Wine-tasting, sightseeing excursions and flights are excluded.
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