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The Wild Farm

Story by Meindert Brouwer,

Dutch writer and publisher:

October, 2009

They call their guesthouse The Wild Farm, ‘a rural house for adventures in the Eastern Rhodope’. And wild it is, not the farm, but the region. Father Nikki, mother Betty and their four children live on the verge of the hamlet of Gorno Pole in the Eastern Rhodope mountains in Bulgaria, not far from the border with Greece. It is a late sunny afternoon in the beginning of October and the autumn wind caresses the flowers in their walled garden. Nothing suggests that just outside this paradise of colours wolves have killed two sheep the night before.

We have arrived at five o’clock and installed ourselves in the two cosy guestrooms. Betty will serve us a genuine Rhodopean dinner at eight, so there is still time to have a stroll and discover Gorno Pole. As dusk arrives the roofing-tiles of the stone houses turn pink against the blackening slopes of the mountains further away. A shepherd returns with his flock of sheep. Will they be safe tonight? We walk empty streets. There is yellow light shining from some windows. Other windows remain dark, the glass broken. In the still of the falling night a small chapel freshly painted in white, awaits worshippers. The next morning they will come in large numbers from far and near to witness the blessing of the newly built home of devotion.

It is dark when we decide to go back. Behind an iron fence, at the back of a courtyard a fire lights up in blazing orange in a big open oven. An old woman walks around. With gestures – we do not speak Bulgarian – we ask her what the fire is for. May we come and see? Yes smiles the old woman, whose traditional head-shawl covers greying hair above a wrinkled face. She unlocks the fence. We approach the fire and warm ourselves. Burning, crackling branches and twigs, but no sign whatsoever why the fire has been lit. The old woman understands that we do not understand and indicates to follow her into the house. In the passage behind the door on a low table, a whole, beheaded, carefully prepared sheep is waiting to be roasted in the oven outside. Then a young granddaughter enters. She speaks a little German. It will take three hours to roast the sheep, she explains. We are very welcome to return that night and enjoy the meat. We thank her for this great hospitality and explain that Betty is waiting for us and that we do not know if we will be able to come back …   

The Rhodope Mountains – named after the Thracian god Rhodopa – measure 15,000 square kilometers in total, of which 85% is Bulgarian territory and 15% belongs to Greece. The forested mountains have an average heigth of 785 metres. The highest peak in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains - Veykata – is 1470 metres. Waving slopes alternate with steep rock cliffs above blue rivers which meander their way through the sparsely populated mountainous landscape. In the riversand, gold may still be found. The Eastern Rhodope mountains are rich in many ways. Here the temperate climate of central Europe and the mediterrean climate meet, making the region a hot spot of biodiversity: my brochure lists 1400 species of plants, 27 species of reptiles, 59 different mammals and 278 species of birds, including an incredible number of 37 species of birds of prey. This abundance makes the Eastern Rhodope a treasure trove which attracts birdlovers from many countries. They come to see the vultures which nest on high rocks: the griffon vulture with its bold head and neck sticking out of its white fur collar and the bearded vulture whose whistling, piercing call is heard high above the mountain range.

We had started our trip in the town of Ivaylovgrad, in the very southeast of the Bulgarian part of the Rhodope. The sun was shining and the sky was totally blue. Piles of woodblocks on the side of the streets were announcing winter but this seemed far away as the temperature rose to a very pleasant 25° Celcius. In the old part of town on the hillside, houses of yellow stone were dozing as they must have done for centuries. In small gardens pomgranates in green trees showed their red beauty.  As timelessness had taken hold of us for a moment, we recalled the remarkable public meeting that morning in the House of Culture of Ivaylovgrad. There Dutch Foundations Ark and Avalon and their Bulgarian counterparts had unfolded a stunning plan for this remote part of Bulgaria with a striking name: The New Thracian Gold.

In the presence of local authorities, local farmers and interested persons from abroad, the spokespersons had explained how the population of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains could reduce poverty in the region and strive for new welfare. I remembered what my Bulgarian friends had told me about the economic reality in this beautiful part of the world. That once 50 million sheep had been grazing in the valleys and on the mountain slopes. That only some hundreds of thousands of sheep had remained and the meadows were changing into woodlands. That mines for lead and zinc had been closed and local farmers were facing problems to sell their products after Bulgaria had become member of the European Union. In the villages I had seen many empty houses with broken windows, silent witnesses of migration of the inhabitants to the towns and big cities of Bulgaria and further to Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain and the United States.
In the House of Culture of Ivaylovgrad we learned that the green development project of Ark and Avalon contains three elements: wilderness restoration, organic farming and ecotourism. The current deplorable situation in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains can be turned for the better if the natural riches of the region are being used in a viable, economic way, Frank Zanderink of Ark Foundation told the audience:‘The Eastern Rhodope can become one of Europe’s largest wilderness areas again. This will attract new ecotourists who like to spend their holidays in unspoilt nature and who love to see wild animals. The local economy will benefit from that. Tourism is the largest and fastest growing industry in the world. Sustainable, responsible ecotourism can be the new engine of the economy of the Eastern Rhodope.’

Zanderink explained the steps to be taken: ‘Together with our Bulgarian colleagues we intend to start with wilderness restoration in an area of 20,000 hectares. There big grass grazing animals will provide for open spaces in the forests. In the past the bison and wild horses cared for grass lands and we may reintroduce them in the future. First we will bring in more deer and traditional cattlebreeds, like the famous Rhodope Shorthorn. Half open land is important, it is the richest in biodiversity.’ Deer are prey animals for wolves who may kill less sheep in the future. The lynx is known for killing a deer now and then. Its has become rare in the region but Zanderink hopes the lynx will grow in numbers and the brown bear will recover too.

Tourists who come to see wildlife, that is understandable. But why fit organic farming into the project? Vladislav Popov of the Agricultural University of Plovdiv and manager of Avalon-Bulgaria regards organic farming as a sound alternative for the local rural population: ‘Rural gardeners and farmers do not have to buy expensive agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. In organic farming you don’t have to use these. Organic farming enhances nature protection and ecotourism perfectly. It does not harm biodiversity and organic food may provide farmers and rural households with extra income. The market for organic products is growing. We will support farmers to develop organic farming and to market their products.’

During the presentation Nico van der Werf of Avalon-the Netherlands had emphasized the cohesion of the three elements: ‘The New Thracian Gold-project is all about the integration of wilderness restoration, organic farming and ecotourism. A farmer could turn part of his home into a small guesthouse for tourists. Organic food is rich of taste. Local food specialties of the region are delicious, I know that from my own experience. Imagine, the holiday-guest has spent a wonderful day hiking in the mountains. He comes back exhausted. After he has washed up, the farmer presents his guest with a tasty dinner of his home grown organic food, supplied with excellent organic wine of the region. Outdoor adventure, good food and good wine, that is what the tourist is coming for. He will tell his friends who will visit the year after. We are setting up a model farm in the village of Topolovo, together with a local farmer. Other farmers who are interested, can apply for training in organic farming there. In the future organic products from the region could be marketed with a distinctive Eastern Rhodope brand.’

The mayor of Ivajlovgrad, young Stefan Tanev had hosted the public meeting. Afterwards he confirmed that local farmers need more information: ‘Our grapes are great but our grape producers cannot get their wine to the market.’ Tanev supports the project of Ark and Avalon: ‘It is the integration of the three elements which appeals to me. In several villages people work with one or two elements but not three. I am open for new things.’ So is farmer Ahmed Rasima who had come a long way to attend the presentation of the project. His farm is located at the other side of the Eastern Rhodope, near the town of Kărdžali and near the ruins of the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon. Rasima: ‘I am considering to establish a bed & breakfast for tourists at my farm. I want to know more about organic certification. I grow my vegetables without pesticides in a clean area, so in fact I am almost organic already. I think certified organic products have a better market than regular farm products. Regular farm products may remain to rot in the fields. This happened with the paprika last year and it may happen again this year.’ 

From Ivaylovgrad we had driven to the town of Madzharovo near Gorno Pole. It was magnificent. On the mountain slopes the foliage of trees had turned into yellow, orange and red. Gypsy summer this time of the year is called. At the verge of the road shrubs with big blue berries and pink flowers nodded to us as we drove by. The sandbanks in the bending Arda river seemed to urge us to come and go swimming. Yes, I thought by myself, this is the wild east of Bulgaria, where you feel ultimate freedom as your horse takes you to the top in speedy gallop across mountain grassland. This is the land of hiking through oak forests and flowering meadows. This is the place to raft down the river while refreshing water splashes on your face again and again. Here you can test your muscles and endurance on your racing bike as winding roads take you up and down and up. Here archaeological sites connect you with the Thracian and Roman empires of the past. Here you can enjoy folk music and watch traditional dances of men and women wearing costumes with rich embroidery.

I was also thinking of the poorest of the farmers in this region who rely on growing tobacco, which they can hardly sell anymore. I had watched them harvesting between rows of manhigh green plants in the heat of the afternoon. What they sell in the fall, is the only money they make in a whole year. How do they survive? As we drove on, my thoughts went back to the presentation that morning. And I hoped that the tobacco farmers will be the bricklayers of new ecohotels and guesthouses and that they will profit from The New Thracian Gold which is waiting for everyone. I was thinking of the mayor of Ivajlovgrad and the other mayors in the region, hoping they will be able to offer their population a new future. I was thinking of the projects of Ark Foundation in the Netherlands and in Letland at the Botnic Gulf. There Ark has succesfully created new economic opportunities through wilderness restoration. Now they are ready to offer their expertise to Stefan Tanev and his colleagues. I was thinking of Avalon Foundation who have empowered many small farmers in Romania in previous projects. Will they be able to repeat that here? I recalled Fokko Erhart of the Free Nature Foundation – partner of Ark Foundation – telling me about the Bulgarian who had travelled to the United States in search for new economic opportunities. He had returned to Bulgaria stating: ‘In the US anything you can think of has been done already. But not in Bulgaria, here everything is still possible!’

Mihaela Kircheva, manager of Gabi Tour Ltd in the town of Kardzhali, underlines there are new opportunities in Bulgaria, especially in the Eastern Rhodope. She takes part in the project of Ark and Avalon. Mihaela offers ecotrips to see mammals, birds, orchids and butterflies and takes visitors to Thracian sanctuaries and centers of Bulgarian Orthodox and Muslim religion. At the meeting in Ivaylovgrad she had explained her expectations for the future: ‘We want to develop a new economic alternative for the local people. We will work on local awareness to make people understand they could have a profit if they offer a simple accommodation like clean rooms with private baths, smiling owners and tasty local food. We intend to offer courses to learn English and to qualify oneself in tourist services. We want to publish an Eastern Rhodope tourist map and an Eastern Rhodope travel guide.’

At eight Betty serves dinner on the veranda of The Wild Farm in Gorno Pole. Organic, rich, all homegrown products. First we have a glass of Betty’s raki. She serves four kinds of racia as it is called here: made of grapes or apples or plums or a red fruit from the forest. Then we taste the starter: shopsca salata of cucumber and tomatoe covered with white curls of sheep cheese. Main course: chops of calf meat and pumpkin. Wine: gourgeous red made by Betty herself with local grapes picked by her cousins. Dessert: savarina, a kind of baklava with hazel-nut. A strong wind blows across the mountain plateau wrapped in darkness and the lamp above the table goes back and forth as Betty tells us about living in the Eastern Rhodope.

It’s early when we go walking with her husband Nikki the next day. He is an outdoor man caring for a cattleherd of 350 animals who roam the forests and mountain grasslands. We watch the forest trees reveal their autumn colours as the morning fog lifts and the sun takes over. Cyclames decorate the forest floor, wild bees go in and out their nest in an elm tree’s trunk. We climb high rocks where wolves gather in winter and howl at the full moon. The view is breathtaking. Above the valleys bathing in the sun, hazy blue mountain ridges rise one after another touching the heavens. Yes, we will be back! 

Meindert Brouwer


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