Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Angelakis
Village of Gela
We flew on British Airways from New York via London to arrive in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, early on a beautiful sunny day with a real blue sky, puffy white clouds, and no pollution – due no doubt to the lack of industrialization which collapsed, along with the Communist regime, back in 1989. Driving the short distance from the airport into the city center, I saw a sophisticated, clean, modern city with beautiful wide boulevards and modern outdoor vehicular-free shopping malls. Lending a pastoral air is the 2500 meter-high Vitosha Mountain towering over the city.
Our day was spent exploring Sofia (see Undiscovered Bulgaria), and the next day we headed out to Villa Gella, a luxury retreat in the Rhodope Mountains, and our home for the next few days. The drive into the mountains was a continuous series of torturous curves, providing an ever changing scenic kaleidoscope.
Unfortunately there were few opportunities to stop and record the passing scene as the road was as narrow as it was curvy. We passed through the quaint town of Gella and climbed a bit higher to reach the Villa which was situated at an angle so that the town disappeared after we rounded the final twist in the road. After a warm welcome at Villa Gella and a delicious dinner, we were entertained by a bagpiper dressed in traditional costume.
He recounted the history of the bagpipe and introduced us to its component parts. A little known factoid: he claimed the instrument originated in Bulgaria, traveled to Greece, and from there was introduced into the rest of Europe. Regardless of the history of the ancient instrument, we were delighted by the story spun; the tunes played; and the Hora danced - a circle dance originating in the Balkans and enthusiastically performed by our hosts - and which we gleefully joined in, kicking up our heels. Among the tunes played for us was a hauntingly beautiful folk song Izlel-ye-Delio-Haidutin that was recorded on the Golden Record placed aboard the Voyager I and II space probes.
Villa Gella is a family run, fully serviced, authentic destination unto itself but will serve as our base for exploring Thrace, the mysterious country which the Greeks believed to be the birthplace of Dionysus, the God of wine; Orpheus’ cave known as the Devil’s Throat; and the world famous Rila Monastery; and for just enjoining the absolutely stunning views out the windows or from the terraces at the Villa. The well-designed Villa has three floors with six en-suite double bedrooms, each theme decorated, and individually designed, with terraces, wood burning fireplaces, and with windows affording mountain views even while enjoying a luxurious soak in the bath. In all cases the view is unobstructed, with the closest neighbors far enough in the distance to offer a picturesque photo-op, without feeling closed in.
Our Oriental themed room had 2 king sized, four-poster, really comfortable beds, with two couches facing the windows and separated from the beds by a free-standing fireplace. Antique furniture and artifacts decorated the suite and provided touches of color to the basic black and white décor. The walk-in closet thoughtfully had several shelves, plus hanging space with plenty of hangers, and was spacious enough for a desk situated in front of a window…providing inspiration when writing! The bathroom had a Jacuzzi tub, separate shower, commode room, and the aforementioned window. Amenities provided were of rose essence, the national flower of Bulgaria. The entrance, closet, and bath were all hidden behind paneled doors, planned details that were functional as well as pleasing to the eye. We left the shades open when we retired so that when we awoke, we could see the expanse of lush green hillsides with groves of massive fir trees - straight as an arrow and high as the sky - and white capped mountains towering in the distance.
There is a large comfortable sitting/dining room with floor to ceiling windows providing breathtaking views of the mountainside; a terrace large enough for dining al fresco; a small well-stocked library; and one flight down, an indoor swimming pool and steam room with floor to ceiling windows, offering an opportunity to gaze out on the landscape while swimming or just lounging.
The overall look conveys understated luxury in the reclaimed wood, white walls, stone-worked fireplaces, antiques and art works scattered about the property, but especially in the warm welcome extended to each member of our group. Food was fresh and prepared in typical Bulgarian style with lots of vegetables and herbs, some quite unfamiliar, and served with gracious hospitality befitting honored guests. Villa Gella is perfect to visit in all seasons; in winter there is skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiles, sleigh rides; in fall mountain and road biking, in spring and summer bird and game watching, hiking, mountain climbing, caving, horseback riding, tennis, badminton, petanque, foraging for mushrooms, berries, medicinal herbs (under our hosts watchful eyes) and in all seasons, being pampered in natural hot spring spas which dot the landscape and of course sightseeing.
Speaking of sightseeing, in addition to all the activities and UNESCO World Heritage sites easily reached in the surrounding area, a short drive or hike to the top of the hill above Villa Gella will take you to a plateau with outstanding views, and a small chapel dedicated to the prophet Elijah. The chapel had fallen into disrepair when a local teen, Nikola Beevskie, had a vision instructing him to restore the church. Without any training and no earlier evidence of artistic talent, the teen set about learning how to paint icons and frescos. He self-taught himself and devoted the next 20 years to restoring the church of St. Ilia (Elijah). His work is nearly finished… St. Ilia’s walls are covered from top to bottom with paintings depicting scenes from the Bible, and icons fill the shelves he built to house his works of art. I asked him what his plans were for the future now that his mission has been fulfilled. He responded (translated by Darina Dobreva the amiable Manager of Villa Gella) that “he was waiting for instructions”. I could not help but wonder what the next set of instructions are and what the future has in store for this devoted and talented servant of his faith.
The fully serviced Villa (including chef) is available for weekly (minimum three-day) rentals all year long and sleeps up to 12 adults and 3 children. It is a perfect venue for small business meetings or family gatherings. It also operates like a boutique hotel offering single rooms with or without meals, depending on availability. For more information visit www.villagella.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 (0) 7780 009 226 or +359 (0) 888 566 872
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