Curious to explore new destinations in Eastern Europe, for winter sports and summer holidays, we head to Bulgaria to get a sense of the history and status quo of this beautiful country, and by creating a mixed itinerary, we get a glimpse of the real life in town and how luxury is “done” up in the hills.
Once out of Sofia airport, we drive through the large sprawling town, which is a mix of buildings dating back to the communist era, creating a dull horizon of concrete apartment blocks, with row upon row of balconies boasting TV satellite discs, laundry lines and fridges, all stored on the outside for lack of space inside. Beside these dilapidated structures stand tall, smart, contemporary glass office buildings and a scattering of modern hotels all in strategic places for the use of foreign business travellers landing nearby, coming to set a plan and a future in motion in this new destination.
All eras of history co-exist in this city, and beyond an eternal flame which burns out of a monumental dark marble bolder, comes the rattle of every-day traffic rushing down the cobbled streets. We join the local cars and beaten-up vans and trucks, and head off out of town.
Half-way to our destination, we stop to visit a religious revelation: an old man sits selling both yellowing lace place-mats and hand-written tickets for the 10th century Boyana Church, which is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasting 3 layers of delicate frescoes dating back between the 10th and 13th century. Hidden in a small wood of fir trees, this treasure looks rather like a page out of a Hansel And Gretel picture book. A set of large ancient steel keys lie on an old rickety wooden bench outside and we wait for Ilia, who is talking loudly to visitors inside the chapel as we arrive.
An extraordinary treasure awaits us…the heavy steel door opens, and out springs a wiry old man, releasing his previous visitors from their unique experience. Inside, we are all a-gasp as we walk into the tiniest chapel painted entirely – walls, nave and ceilings – in midnight blue, with the most exquisitely peaceful frescoes.
Our journey then continues up beautiful mountain roads, and we pass through pretty ski-resort villages, with snow-clad chalets and chair-lifts whizzing happy skiers up the hills. In total contrast to the town that now lies behind us, we take in all the changing landscapes and holiday possibilities, and the immense heritage of Bulgaria.
The sights of Bhutan come to mind. Maybe it is something about the fir trees growing in the heart of these villages, their silhouettes cast against the white walls? Maybe it is the houses stacked up on the hills with their dark window frames and grey slate roofs dotted with smoking chimneys? Maybe it is the local folk and their colourful carpets which line the street walls? But today we know we are in Bulgaria, as the pagan Kukeri festival of every first Sunday in March is in full swing, expelling the evil spirits of winter, and bringing in the fertility of spring.
Villa Gella stands majestically on the last rocky turn in the road at 1700 mts. This luxurious home, a project which has taken its owners a good part of 3 years to complete to unparalleled standards, is now on the map for those seeking a gorgeously elegant stay. The villa is a massive contrast to what we have seen so far, and we soon learn that the 5* standards are really not what we expected to find up here, including a fire-place in every room and en-suite bathrooms throughout.
The ways to relax are many; either in the private indoor pool looking out onto the highest Perelik snow-capped peaks reaching 2000 mts, or on the underfloor-heated yoga terrace facing the sunset, or even in the hot-tub on the top floor penthouse suite. The white-on-white dining room, with its extensive mountain views, opens out onto large, deep, linen-covered sofas facing the open fire, and if sleep does not get the better of you after all the fresh air, you can check your emails and keep a finger on the distant pulse of work. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all home-made and freshly prepared, using only local, seasonal produce.
An extensive ski-resort lies 10 minutes down the road covering a considerable range, which is comparable to known resorts in Europe; it’s just that no-one has dared step out of these comfort zones to experience the new lifestyle of the Bulgarian descentes and wholesome mountain cuisine. But if downhill races and snow-boarding are not your thing, there are other activities such as panoramic langlauf itineraries, trout-fishing, horse-riding in the snow in early Spring, or across the green meadows in Summer.
If time is an issue for a business conference, Villa Gella also arranges private flights with Jet Charters into Plovdiv airport and linked helicopter transfers from the airport to the field outside Villa Gella, to avoid the twists and turns of the mountain drive.
We are due back here in the Summer, as we absolutely have to pick up an Icon commissioned by one of the guests during a visit to a chapel in the hills, entirely hand-painted by Nicolai himself, who had a calling to restore this religious treasure: a modern-day version of the Boyana church, possibly. Now, what could be more unexpected?