In the tiny corner of the Balkans where Greece, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia meet, ethnic identity is as fascinatingly diverse as the climate.
The historical region and population of Macedonia today sprawls across three countries — Greek claims on the name notwithstanding. It is not unusual to find ex-Yugoslavs with cousins across the mountains in Bulgaria, Bulgarians who speak a local Macedonian dialect, Muslim Slavs whose ancestors converted during Ottoman days, and Sephardic Jewish teens from Thessaloniki crossing the border for ski weekends.
The landscape of mountains, broad green valleys and plunging river gorges is responsible for dramatic weather patterns. In Pirin Macedonia, the southwestern-most province of Bulgaria, Europe’s cheapest ski resorts sit high in snowy cities. Meanwhile down on the plains, figs, olives and pomegranates thrive in a Mediterranean climate.
I fell in love with the region’s wild, unspoiled beauty on a road trip to Greece two summers ago. Wondering how it might look in winter, my husband, Oggi, and I recently returned to tour the resort town of Bansko and explore local village culture.
From Sofia, we headed south through snowy mountain passes, our ears popping as we descended into a valley. To our right was a purple-gray wall of mountains that separate Bulgaria from the Republic of Macedonia; to our left, breaking through low-lying clouds, were the snowy caps of the Balkans’ highest peaks, the Rila Mountains.
At one point, the mountains closed in steeply and we found ourselves driving a narrow, winding road through the Struma River gorge. The area is known as Kresna (“gorge” in Bulgarian); in summertime, the tree-shaded terraces overlooking the river are a gorgeous place for a lunchtime stop.
As in much of the Balkans, however, the region’s cities turned out to be disappointing.
The unrelenting visual blight of grimy Socialist blocs and rusting industrial buildings mar one particularly gorgeous hillside overlooking the Struma Valley. That blight is the provincial capital of Blagoevgrad, a prosaic university town of about 75,000. (Sandanski, the region’s other major city, lacks even the student vitality of Blagoevgrad.)
Blagoevgrad’s city center offers some respite from the ugliness. An airy central plaza is ringed by student cafés and bars, a busy ’60s-era opera house, and a footbridge to the cobblestoned Old Town, a collection of whitewashed 19th-century buildings.
Blagoevgrad’s chief draw is the American University of Bulgaria, one of the largest American universities in Europe, which lends a cosmopolitanism rare in these parts. While there is little organized Jewish life (most Jews from this region emigrated to Israel), Jewish cultural events take place here from time to time.
I met Jewish students who were talking about the annual “White Gesher” event in nearby Bansko. The annual five-day camp — sponsored by JRegion, an arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — brings Jewish youth from across the Balkans together for leadership programs and outdoor recreation.
Nestled at the foot of snowy mountains, Bansko is one of the prettiest towns in Pirin Macedonia. Development has boomed here in recent years, with charter flights aimed at foreigners looking for bargain slopes.
I’m no skier, but I still found plenty to enjoy in Bansko’s lovely Old Town. After perusing the monuments to Bulgarian heroes in the central square, we strolled by wooden-frame stucco houses with tile roofs and antique wells. At every corner, rustic taverns serve up traditional Balkan fare like stewed peppers, polenta baked with feta and yogurt-and-cucumber soup.
We could have indulged our inner sybarites in the neighboring town of Banya, which boasts more than two-dozen thermal springs for après-ski. Instead, tipped off by some artist friends from Sofia, we stopped at Ilindentsi, a rocky mountain village known for its art scene.
Cheap space and abundant marble have made Ilindentsi a haven for sculptors. Periodically, they gather here from around the world for symposia, leaving their works behind in a permanent sculpture park.
All that activity lends Ilindentsi an unusual vibrancy. There is something refreshing about viewing art outdoors, surrounded by sky, sun and — in this case — the very raw materials from which the art is crafted.
Walking along the gravel road from the sculpture park, I passed an artist hauling marble in a wheelbarrow; meandering donkeys; British weekenders hauling firewood into stone houses; and a band of Roma musicians setting up under a grape arbor.
Yet another paradox of Pirin Macedonia: despite having less than 2,000 inhabitants, a tiny village can feel more international than a nearby city.