An Israeli relative by marriage is an enormous fan of casinos. This is a bit of problem back in Tel Aviv, where gambling is severely restricted by Israeli law.
So he does what a lot of other Israeli poker players do: He heads to Bulgaria.
Casinos are common across Europe — but the combination of proximity, a historic Jewish community, cultural affinity and (not least) dirt-cheap prices has made Bulgaria a destination for card-crazy Israelis. That’s how Oggi and I were tipped off to the resort town of Devin, picturesquely situated deep in the Rhodope Mountains near Greece, where casinos and spas offer a cool green retreat.
Before it was popular with Israelis on holiday, Devin was famous for its bubbling mineral springs; one of Bulgaria’s ubiquitous bottled waters bears the Devin logo. Any doubts about that water’s purity would be dispelled by the drive to Devin, which — no matter which route you take, and there aren’t a lot of choices — winds through one of the most remote and isolated corners of Europe.
The Rhodopes are a region of thick green forests and tiny, rustic mountain villages. They are also, as I discovered on a recent excursion, the only place in Bulgaria where I consistently confronted holes in the ground floor in place of real toilets.
Throughout Southern Europe (especially Italy), you still occasionally stumble upon these relics at out-of-the-way bar-cafés and gas stations. But in Bulgaria — with its mostly modern infrastructure and some of the nicest plumbing on the Continent — I was unpleasantly surprised. It’s worth noting that many of these squat-holes were hidden behind lavishly carved wooden doors in new buildings.
That brings us to the paradox of the Balkans: Though the region remains poor, a flood of post-Communist investment has resulted in myriad upscale, Western-inspired resorts. But just as you might enjoy a classy hotel for $30 a night or a memorable $10 restaurant meal, you might also find yourself cursing at some unpleasant or frustrating anachronism — such as hole-in-the-ground toilets or, worse, a bathroom attendant demanding money in exchange for toilet paper.
Our room at the Devin Hotel and Spa was nice enough, if overpriced at $40. But it was on the top floor of the tallest building in a mountain town, and the view over the cityscape was priceless. And the high-altitude air was a good 20 degrees cooler than that of the valleys — a boon to heat-weary Mediterraneans.
Devin itself feels ramshackle and lost in time, though its charms would improve considerably if I were a gambler — and I ran into a few, chattering in Hebrew, in the lobby. It’s hard to beat single-digit prices for massage and spa services, though, and the tomato-and-feta salads in the hotel restaurant would make any Israeli feel right at home.
Non-gamblers of any persuasion might prefer, as I did, the adorable village of Shiroka Laka, where 19th-century buildings cling to the narrows of a gorge about 45 minutes down the road.
And what a road it is. Driving south from the Thracian Plain into the Rhodopes, we left behind sunflower fields to climb into a spruce-laced Alpine tundra. The road was muddy with the meltage of late-spring snow; we saw a fox, herds of deer and dozens of icy, frozen lakes. Between Devin and Shiroka Laka, we descended into tentative greenery as the road wound along that deep river gorge, punctuated by hydroelectric dams.
Shiroka Laka, a proclaimed architectural landmark, is known for its musical folklore institute — and the town takes its role in preserving rural Balkan culture extremely seriously. There isn’t a lot to do here, but it’s an extremely pretty place to while away a day.
You wander through the local ethnographic museum; shop for hand-painted pottery and embroidered linens in festive red, white and green; snap pictures of the wood-beam houses; and tuck into cafés hung with bear skins and bagpipes. If you’re lucky, there might be a performance of the live music for which this village — and region — are famous. Agonizingly slow, mournful and curiously chromatic in an Oriental vein, the melodies feature singers accompanied by gaida, the local bagpipe.
Heading back north, we stopped in the ski resort of Chepelare, where the off-season slopes were green and quiet. I heard British-accented English, German and Hebrew on the central promenade, testament to the town’s popularity for foreign second-home buyers on a budget: along the river on the outskirts of town, new multistory complexes were rising alongside casinos. But as the temperature soared toward summer, I saw more donkey carts than skiers (or casino-goers, for that matter).
Whether you’ll like this region is itself a gamble. The Rhodopes are certainly beautiful, the mountain scenery as untouched as anywhere in Europe, and you can’t argue with the water — or the prices. If modern comforts are your thing, though, you may want to head to Monte Carlo.