An Adventure in Bulgaria

Until my recent trip the only information I had about Bulgaria was from friends who had been there skiing.  There views were not always complimentary.  I had no idea that it had so much to offer for walkers.   The scenery is amazing, the walking varied - from easy to challenging - and it's well organised.  The mountain huts are generally excellent and finding your way is easy.  It's also incredibly good value and Bulgaria must be the cheapest place to go hiking in Europe.  If you want a specific recommendation than have a look at the Rila/Pirin traverse.  It's an epic 10 day walk and it's easily as good as better known trails such as the Haute Route or the GR20 in Corsica.
Rila Lakes

I started to think about the trip after Lyuben Grancharov, a Bulgarian mountain guide, left a comment on my E4 blog.  He helpfully pointed out that I hadn't finished the E4 and that from Budapest it carries on across Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece and that the stretch through Bulgaria, from Sofia to the Greek border, is particularly beautiful.  Lyuben's comment and his excellent website (www.bulguides.com) made me realise that there was a world of Bulgarian walking that had passed me by.  The Rila and Pirin mountains in particular contain some big peaks with the highest approaching 3,000 metres.  I hadn't realised that there was a big walking/climbing tradition in eastern Europe and before the fall of the iron curtain Bulgaria was the No 1 walking destination.  The legacy is a network of well marked trails and high altitude mountain huts.

I got back to Lyuben who offered to help with a schedule.  The E4 starts in the suburbs just to the south of Sofia and crosses 4 mountain ranges, the Vistosha, Verila, Rila Planina and the Pirin Planina before reaching the Greek border.  I didn't have enough time, only 9 days, for the whole of the Bulgarian E4, but a truncated version of the Rila/Pirin seemed feasible.  The plan involved starting at the "Rilski Ezera" hut (a day into the Rila traverse which normally starts at Klisura) and finishing at the "Popovi Livadi" on the Pirin traverse (rather than Petrovo which would take another day).

The Plan

Day 1: Rilaski Ezera - Razdela - Mount Malyovitsa - Malyovitsa Hut - about 8 hours
Day 2: Malyovitsa Hut - Kobilino Branishte - Ribni Ezera Hut - 10 hours
Day 3: Ribni Ezera - Makedonia Hut - 6 hours
Day 4: Macedonia Hut - Predela Hut (the asphalt road to Bansko) - 7 hours 
Day 5: Predela Hut - Yavorov Hut - 7 hours
Day 6: Yavorov Hut - The Foal (The Horse, Koncheto) - Mount Vihren - Vihren Hut - 9-10 hours
Day 7: Vihren Hut - Tevno Ezero Hut - 6 hours 
Day 8: Tevno Ezero - Popovi Livadi Hut - 10 hours

The times are Lyuben's estimates and we allowed a day's contingency for bad weather. Theoretically you could do the whole of the Rila/Pirin traverse, including the plan's missing bits, in 10 days but it would be a real challenge.

Setting off with my wife Christine, I felt well organised.  I had most of the route plotted on my smart-phone, Bulgarian maps (Pirin National Park (Bulgaria) 1:50,000 Touring Map by DOMINO Rila Mountains (Bulgaria) 1:50,000 Hiking Map by DOMINO) for the whole route and an English language guidebook (Julian Perry's The Mountains of Bulgaria: A Walker's Companion).  Best of all, in Lyuben, I had a "phone a friend" facility should things not turn out as expected.

The Adventure

Needless to say the unexpected happened but, particularly with the benefit of a couple of days hindsight, we think the trip to Bulgaria was one of our best and would definitely go back there. 

Day 0

The journey to the start of the walk - the Rilski Ezera hut - went very well.  After an evening flight from Heathrow, an overnight stop in Sofia, a bus ride to Dupnitsa, a taxi ride (organized by Lyuben) up to the bottom of the ski-lift at Pionerska, and a 2 hour walk up the hill we were in our first Bulgarian mountain hut at about 2 in the afternoon.  If anything we wish we had gone for the early morning flight - even with the two hour time difference from London I think we could have made the trip in a day.  As it was we had time to relax and enjoy a pleasant walk to the Sedemte Ezera, the hut on the other side of the valley.
The huge Rilski Ezera hut

The Rilski Ezera hut at 2150m is enormous, a but run down but comfortable.  We had our own rooms with a shower.  Unlike Austria, bed linen is generally provided in the huts and the food at the Rilski was good, particularly the shopska salad, the traditional Bulgarian salad, which you get nearly everywhere.

Day 1 - to the Malyovitsa Hut

A wonderful first day's walking although ominously there was more snow than we were expecting.  The distinctive feature of this part of the Rila are the lakes, old corries carved out of hard rock by some recently departed glacier.  Known locally as "blue eyes" there are seven in the immediate vicinity of the hut alone.
Salzatta Lake

After an initial climb up the ridge behind the hut the walk took us across open moor and down to our first lake, then up past another lake to the ridge above (and past another lake).  You then cross a plateau before starting a ridge walk which eventually leads to a steep climb up to Mt Malyovista (2,730).  The views all around were excellent with the patches of white snow contrasting with an otherwise green landscape.  

Another pleasant Rila/Pirin traverse feature, revealed on Day 1, is that climbing is usually rewarded with a long contour or ridge walk.  The route follows the grain of the landscape - the watersheds - rather than crossing it.  Unlike the Haute Route which generally takes you up a pass in the morning and down the other side in the afternoon, the Rila/Pirin traverse keeps you high for as long as it can.
Views from Mt Malyovista
After staying high for 4 hours or so we did eventually have to make our descent and it's a tough one down to Malyovista Hut - 800 metres down over a short distance along a difficult path.  The hut itself was grim, dark and dirty and with a couple of drunks who seemed like permanent residents.  The menu was limited and although we had a large bunk bed room to ourselves it was not nice.  The Hut was the worst we experienced and I was told later that it does have a nicer part (not sure why we didn't get to see it) and is being restored. Still, we got there just before it started to rain.

Day 2 - Stuck at Malyovista

It was still raining hard next morning and we were so desperate to escape that we seriously contemplated setting off on a 10 hour high altitude trek to the next hut, the Ribni Ezera. Once we had worked out that there was an alternative, a hotel down the valley at Malyovista, common sense prevailed.  Although the hotel wasn't luxurious (amazing soviet era furniture and water pouring through the dining room roof) it was heaven compared to the hut and the kind friendly manager spoke English.  We found a lovely bottle of Bulgarian wine at lunchtime and I was transported back to the early 1980s when the first decent wine I could afford was Bulgarian.

Day 3 - Cross Country to Gotse Delchev

Next day and after 36 hours the rain stopped but it was misty and very wet underfoot for what was now potentially an 11 hour walk.  Having retraced our way back up the hill to the hut we left yesterday we discovered that the river that we had to cross at the start of the trail was in full flood.  I got half way across - to a sort of island in the middle - but Christine showed no signs of following me.  If our lives had depended on it, if we had absolutely no choice, I think we could have made it, but instead, and I think sensibly, we headed back down the hill to the hotel.

From bad it only got worse.  Our English speaking manager had disappeared and we sat on the plastic soviet settee thinking what to do next.  I put my smart phone on the arm of the settee and the plastic turned out to be nonstick almost propelling the phone onto the stone floor.  The screen shattered and the phone, and my GPS, was as dead as a dodo.

We went to the hotel next door where the chef had a misplaced reputation for linguistics.  At 10-30 in the morning he was already alcohol fueled - very loud - but one thing we did manage to learn was that we had missed the twice a day bus out of the place.
Waiting for the bus at Dupnitsa
Using Christine's phone we called Lyuben and soon had a new and fairly radical plan.  After a restorative four hour walk, two bus journeys, a short taxi ride and another bus journey we were at Gotse Delchev ready to start the Pirin traverse next day at the point where we had expected to finish it.  Navigating our way across south-west Bulgaria had rebuilt our confidence and it was like starting the trip again.  Over the next four days we completed a northward traverse of the Pirin. Tough walking, and for various reasons the middle two days are amongst the most memorable I have ever done.

Day 4 - to the Pirin Hut

Leaving a very comfortable hotel in the centre of Gotse Delchev, Day 4 started with a taxi ride up to the Popovi Livadi (taxis in Bulgaria are embarrassingly cheap).  No longer supported by a GPS we had the map, guidebook and the way marks to help us - three sources of information which occasionally agreed with each other.  Initially the trail took us up through trees, then across upland low scrub before diving into forest - a mix of ancient pine and beech.  Navigation required a lot a patience, something Christine frankly lacks.  There were animal tracks, including from local wild boar, everywhere and we were constantly taking the wrong one and getting lost.  The weather and the walking however were excellent and although there were times when we questioned whether we were actually making any progress we were, it turned out, always going the right way.
On the Dobro Pole
Eventually, in the early evening sun, the trail spat us out into a clearing near some shepherd's huts.  Below the huts was a noisy river but not the promised bridge. Wading thigh deep through rushing water was not the ideal way to end the day but the shepherd, watching us from high up on the bank, seemed to enjoy it.  20 minutes later we were in the excellent Piren Hut (the only guests) drinking beer and ordering what turned out to be an excellent dinner.
With a Shepherd (or herdsman)

Day 5 - to the Vihren Hut

No navigation problems on Day 5 - out of the trees and onto a well marked route.
Walking up the Demirkapiysk Dolina
Heading north the route took us directly up a beautiful glacial valley full of cattle enjoying the summer grass (along with the shepherd and his eight dogs).  The sky was blue but the valley was mostly in shade.  After two and half hours we were climbing up through a snow filled gully to the pass at the Kralevdvorska Dynasa Porta, avoiding the walking on the snow by creeping through the high up gap between the head of the snow and the rocks.  The views at the top of the pass were spectacular - a huge semicircle of peaks surrounding Tevno Lake and its hut.
Views from Kralevdvorska Dynasa Porta

We stopped at the Tevno Hut for lunch.  It's a lovely hut, small but with food and set in a great location.  It would have been a good place to stop if, as planned, we had been coming the other way.
Tevno Hut 
40 minutes later, crossing the Mozgivishka Porta, we were hit with near disaster.  In the northern side of the col a steep long tongue of icy snow blocked the path.  It had been crossed before but I was nervous.  I set off using my poles to brake each step but Christine was less cautious and after saying "its not so difficult" slid 40 metres or so down the gully before coming to a stop.  A horrible moment but thankfully and apart from some ice burns she was OK.
Christine at the bottom of the gully - thankfully no longer falling
The rest of the walk was tough, beautiful but without incident.  There is a strange midday weather phenomenon where the misty Adriatic air hit the drier mountain air and produces a sharp - misty and cold on one side, blue sky on the other - arial demarcation. After an hour or so the sun burns off the mist and the afternoon is again warm and mellow.  The views, particularly towards the north and Mt Virhen (2914 metres) were amazing.  After a final tricky descent across enormous boulders we were back amongst the lakes.  Despite its necklace of snow one lake looked particularly inviting and we stripped off and grabbed a swim.
The view from near Golyam Tipits - Mt Vihren and the right
The hut at Vihren was excellent and we had our own little garden shed type building to sleep in.  We spent a lovely evening chatting to Kiril and Sylvia a couple of young Bulgarians.  Sylvia is going to Cambridge University next year and I had to tell her that Cambridge was not in the best part of the country for climbing.

Day 6 - to Yavorov Hut

Next day involved crossing "the foal" a stretch of walking which has a reputation for being difficult, a reputation which turned out to be well deserved.
From Mt Vihren looking down to the Vihren hut (1000 metres below)
Firstly we had to climb Mt Vihren, the highest peak in the Piren, second highest in Bulgaria and third highest in the Balkans. Climbing up from the southern side is very straightforward and very pleasant - a climb through scrub out of the valley, across a flat glacial corrie and then up onto the ridge at its back and then the final ascent up Vihren which resembles a huge limestone pyramid. Wonderful views from top particularly down to the Vihren hut which looked satisfyingly tiny.
Climbing the southern flank of Mt Vihren

The descent down the northern flank is more difficult, very steep, and with small bits of snow crossing the trail a bit treacherous. At the bottom, on the saddle, we find Kiril and Sylvia huddling from the wind and eating their lunch.  Helpfully they ask us why we have taken so long.
On the flank of Mt Kutelo

The next 90 minutes was truly challenging.  For the first 30 minutes we cross, on a barely existing path formed by the edges of the limestone slabs, the precipitous flank of Mt Kutelo.  The midday mist we had experienced the day before returns and visibility drops.  Eventually we arrive at a line of stanchions driven into the rock - useless because the steel rope that did connect them has long gone.  There is a sign telling us to advance with extreme caution.  I edge my way forward and at the third stanchion discover, through the mist, a long and very steep tongue of snow, about 20 metres across.  It's a complete obstacle as far as I'm concerned and much too dangerous to cross.
Climbing around the snow on Mt Kutelo

After sitting for a couple of minutes contemplating a return we hear voices above us.  A couple of Bulgarians have come along a route above the snow and show us the way around.  They tell its very dangerous and that we should be careful.  After 30 minutes of slow and very cautious scrambling up steep rock slabs we have arrived at the foal itself.  For about 200 meters along a very narrow ridge there is a line of stanchions, this time connected by a steel rope. The route across is spectacular and, with the rope, safe and great fun.
On "the foal"

The route stays high for another 90 minutes, the mist clears and the views back to Mt Vihren in particular are wonderful.  The walk down the valley to the Yavorov hut takes forever but happily it turns out to be the best hut yet.  We have our own rooms and a hot shower.  After three very tough days Christine is exhausted.
Looking back across "the foal"

Day 7 - to Sofia

Christine demands a rest day and because of the time lost at the beginning of the trip it's now impossible to complete the Rila as well as the Pirin traverse.  Lubyen has also warned us that the walk up to the Macedonia hut, the first day of the south to north Rila traverse is a long one and that the route is difficult to follow.  We decide to complete the Pirin traverse, get down to the pass and try and catch a bus back to Sofia.  We can spend a day sight-seeing and then on our last day climb up into the Vitosha mountains.
With Lenin in Sofia

After yesterday the walk itself was inevitably a bit of an anti-climax. It's nearly all through trees and the weather is no longer bright and sunny.  After six hours we are standing next to the main road which takes traffic over the pass between the Rila and the Pirin.  Minutes later a little bus turns up and we are on our way to Sofia.  Putting our bags in the back we see some other rucksacks and climbing into the bus who should we see but Sylvia and Kiril.  When Kiril discovers we intend to spend our last full day in Bulgaria walking in Vitosha he offers himself as a guide, an offer which we gratefully accept.

Day 8 - in Sofia

Sofia is a very interesting place.  It's a bit scruffy in the middle with most of the new building investment sucked into suburban shopping malls but there is plenty to see.  We spent the day trying to work out the history of the place looking at buildings and museums that took us from thousands of years BC all the way through to the city's recent communist past.  We found the exhibition of communist art particularly interesting although we came away with the sense that there might be some people who look back sentimentally at the world before 1989.  It was a very strange place - all the artifacts but absolutely no one looking at them.  We really liked the man on security at the front desk who told us he had last been in London in 1982 and had worked in the Bulgarian Embassy - of course we decided that he used to be a spy.

You can't draw too many conclusions after just a day but there is clearly a lot going on at the moment.  Bulgaria is in a state of political turmoil - a turmoil unreported in the UK.  After a snap election in May the new government made some controversial appointments and these provoked mass demonstrations, peaceful evening demonstrations through the city centre which have been going on for over a month.  

The economy of course is in trouble.  The country has the lowest level of income in the EU and young people, who seem well educated and speak good English - are making for the exit.  Amazingly the population has fallen by 20 per cent since 1989 and it's a trend that looks set to continue.

Day 9 - in the Vitosha

A tram and then a bus and you're out of Sophia and up in the mountains - not many capital cities with a 2,290 metre peak (Mt Cherni Vrûh) right on the doorstep.  To be honest I can't remember where we went - either the route up to the top or the route down - as Kiril was in charge.  The weather wasn't good enough for what would otherwise have been great views over Sofia, and by the afternoon we were being hit by a series of heavy thundery showers but we still had a great walk.  After yesterday in Sofia we had a heap of questions to ask Kiril and he was very patient and responded to them all.  I also enjoyed seeing so many Bulgarians braving the weather and going for a walk up the mountain - a lot of them didn't wear a shirt, which Kiril said was normal but it did remind me of Brighton and home.
Kiril - our guide on the Vitosha
Appreciate that this has been a very long blog but even so you might want to have a look at the video - the music alone should make it worthwhile.






4 comments:

  1. Interesting. We're planning to go to the Rila mountains, staying at Borovets, in summer 2017.

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    1. You plan a long way ahead! Great choice though, make sure you have a shopska salad

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  2. Hi John! I'm hoping to do some hiking in Bulgaria late this May (Switzerland and Corsica are too darn expensive), and I was wondering how much you paid at each of the huts in Pirin, and whether you had to speak any Bulgarian. I love learning languages but it might be tough to master that one in just a couple months!

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    1. Hi there, I'm afraid I can't remember the precise amount but we were surprised about how cheap everything was in Bulgaria, much much better value than the rest of Europe. Before I went I asked Lyuben, a Bulgarian mountain guide some questions and I'm sure he would help you. You can contact him through his website http://bulguides.com/self-guided-trips/

      We managed without the local language, the young people in particular speak great English.

      Bulgaria is an excellent choice, you'll have a great time. Let me know how to get on.

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