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Bulgaria, the Western Rhodopes
27 June - 4 July 2024

Rare lilies, mountain butterflies and more

Few countries can rival Bulgaria’s scenic splendour and diverse nature. The country’s most valuable natural features are protected in three national parks, twelve nature parks and numerous wildlife and nature refuges.

The higher plants number about 3,500 species, including more than 400 Bulgarian and Balkan endemics and nearly 70 species of orchids. Bulgaria boasts the richest dragonfly and butterfly fauna in Europe.

This holiday concentrates on the mountains, meadows and gorges of the Western Rhodopes. The Rhodope Mountains are in southern Bulgaria, close to the border with Greece.

The mountains’ pine-clad slopes are occasionally cut by rivers winding through deep gorges, one of which is the magnificent Trigrad Gorge. Around the limestone cliffs of the gorge we can enjoy birds like peregrine, alpine swift, crag martin, red-rumped swallow and dipper. Elsewhere in the forests, crags and mountain meadows of the Western Rhodopes we hope to find black woodpecker, alpine and pallid swifts, nutcracker, sombre tit, red-backed shrike and rock bunting.

The cultural heritage and traditions of Bulgaria include magnificent architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries in many towns and villages. Ancient icons, breath-taking murals and superb woodcarvings preserved in monasteries and churches, form just a part of the religious, historic and cultural wealth.

Other traditions include the tasty Bulgarian cuisine, salads especially, good local wines and, in our experience, a warm welcome in the mountain village of Yagodina. Here we are based at the family-run Hotel Yagodina, well located for walks around the village.

Pennant-winged ant-lion
Pennant-winged ant-lion Nemoptera sinuata (Chris Gibson)

Flowers

Low intensity agriculture means that the Western Rhodopes have retained vast swathes of beautiful grasslands, with a dazzling array of wild flowers, a mixture of familiar species and local specialities.

In the gorges especially, there are several endemic species, one of the best known being Haberlea rhodopensis, which is related to African violets. Others endemics include Valeriana montana, Rhodope sandwort Arenaria rhodoaea, a bellflower Campanula orphanidea and the saxifrage Saxifraga stribrnyi. There are four geum species, two foxgloves, three wintergreens, an unusual bugle Ajuga lazmanii, St Bernard’s lily and many orchids – just a few names from so many in a rich and varied area for a botanist.

Perhaps the star species is the Rhodope lily, found only here and in nearby Greece. It’s in flower-rich high mountain meadows, along with corncrakes and swarms of marsh fritillaries and other butterflies.

Butterflies

The bewildering variety – 72 species on one previous visit – includes many local or unusual species: Balkan zephyr blue, Balkan copper, powdered brimstone and poplar admiral. These mingle with butterflies found more widely in mainland Europe, such as spotted, Queen-of-Spain and Glanville fritillaries, Apollo, chestnut heath, Idas blue and more.

Balkan copperBalkan zephyr bluepoplar admiral
Balkan copper, Balkan zephyr blue, poplar admiral (Chris Gibson).

Other wildlife

Red squirrel, pine marten and wild cat are found in the mountains, plus souslik in the lowlands. Agile frog and fire salamander occur. Among a big range of dragonflies, moths and other invertebrates, one of the most spectacular is the pennant-winged ant-lion.

Yagodina from Chala mountain village (Helen Crowder)
Yagodina from Chala mountain village (Helen Crowder)

Hotel

In Yagodina, we stay at the family-run Hotel Yagodina.

Holiday details

Price: £1,700 per person in twin room for a full week (Thursday to Thursday).

Single room supplement: £130

En suite facilities.

Flights: Scheduled Ryanair flights, London Stansted to Plovdiv. The Stansted-Plovdiv times are a recent (Jan 2024) schedule change).

Thursday 27 June: FR1836 depart London Stansted 15:50 arrive Plovdiv 21:05
Thursday 4 July: FR1837 depart Plovdiv 21:30 arrive Stansted 22:55

Deposit: £400

Maximum number: 14

Leaders

Vladimir (Vlado) Trifonov has a Master's degree in Ecology, with a thesis in Botany and Environmental Conservation. Over the last 20 years, Vlado has been involved in monitoring vascular plants in the Eastern Rhodopes region, mapping habitats of European importance in NATURA 2000 sites, research, conservation and monitoring of the griffon vulture and imperial eagle. As a dedicated conservationist he has participated in the process of designation of new protected areas, as well as in numerous projects related to the study, conservation and monitoring of biodiversity. He is co-author of the action plan for the endemic rhodope lily (Lilium rhodopaeum) and leader of our natural history and botany tours in Bulgaria.

Since 2003 he has worked at the Ministry of Environment and Water - Regional Inspectorate - Haskovo, where he is responsible for the conservation of protected plant and animal species, protected areas, the national biodiversity monitoring system, etc.

Chris Durdin is the driving force behind Honeyguide, running holidays since 1991. For many years he combined this with his work for the RSPB in Eastern England, often the Society’s spokesman, but has been concentrating on Honeyguide full-time since 2009. Chris is the co-author of a book about Norfolk’s cranes and leads regular walks on his local wildlife trust nature reserve, Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Thorpe Marshes. He’s also a barbershop singer. As a naturalist, Chris is an all rounder.

Conservation project

The Rhodope lily Lilium rhodopaeum is a very scarce flower of the Western Rhodopes. It’s found on just a handful of sites in Bulgaria and just over the border in Greece, about half of which have no official protection. Our local leader, Vlado, is the Bulgarian authority on this spectacular endemic, and with our help leads on its monitoring and conservation.

Ove the years, donations have been split between BSPB and Vlado Trifonov. For BSPB, this has funded meetings with local stakeholders as BSPB continues to lobby to get Tzigansko Gradishte designated for nature conservation. For Vlado it has for several years funded monitoring and mowing at the location visited by Honeyguiders.

More on the conservation of Lilium rhodopaeum here.

Bulgaria map

For prices, see Holiday Details at the bottom of the page.

travel aware logo

FCO travel advice for Bulgaria here.

This holiday is run in partnership with Neophron Tours.

Reports

Bugs and Beasties of the Western Rhodopes. 6MB PDF. A photoguide to some lesser-known species, by Chris Gibson and Judith Poyser.

Holiday report for June 2018.

Holiday report for June 2016.

Holiday report for June 2015.

Holiday report for June 2014. More holiday reports here.

Trigrad gorge (Dimiter Georgiev)

Honeyguide web pages

Rhodope lily Lilium rhodopaeum

Poda nature reserve and other news from Bulgaria, January 2011 - click here

For many years, there were fine views of wallcreepers at a roadside stop in Trigrad Gorge. For now, they are not there. We hope they'll return.

Bulgaria photos

Tim Strudwick's photos, June 2016.

Gallery: pictures from the recce visit to Bulgaria in September 2008.

Pictures from June 2010 by Honeyguider Brennan Aunger here. Click on 'photo album'.

Haberlea rhodopensis

Haberlea rhodopensis (Mihaela Yordanova)
Saxifraga stribrnyi

Rosettes of Saxifraga stribrnyi, endemic to the Rhodope Mountains.

A meadow in June in the Trigrad area of the Western Rhodopes (Dimiter Georgiev)

Crossbill Guide

Crossbill Guides are reliably good and the Rhodope Mountains guide (published April 2023) will be good background reading.

It covers the Eastern Rhodopes as well as the Western Rhodopes.

Apollo

Apollo butterfly

Nutcracker

Nutcracker (Assen Ignatov)

Koprivshtitsa

Before return flights from Sofia, we used to stay at the Bashtina Kashta (Father’s House) Hotel in the conservation village of Koprivshtitsa. More about Koprivshtitsa on Wikipedia here.

Vlado and Tim

Valdo, right, discusses an ID with Tim Strudwick.

Chris in Valencia

Chris Durdin in Valencia, 2016.

Lilium rhodopeaum

Lilium rhodopeaum

SUPPORTING

Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds

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The air holidays shown are ATOL Protected by the Civil Aviation Authority. Our ATOL number is ATOL 3253. ATOL Protection extends primarily to customers who book and pay in the United Kingdom. Click on the ATOL logo if you want to know more.

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