ACROSS BULGARIA - 1,000 KM HIKING
Not unhappy to leave Greece after all this time spent there, we arrive in Bulgaria. This is one of the countries we like to cite as an example to illustrate how badly we know our European neighbors. What images of Bulgaria do you have in mind? We discovered a country covered with mountains, with a rich and varied gastronomy and people with sometimes a… rustic temperament but always a big heart!
Language and alphabet
On the alphabet side, we weren't really more lucky than in Greece. Cyrillic is not really automatic! On the other hand, on the language, we could really benefit from our knowledge in Serbo-Croatian since the languages are very close. It was a real pleasure not to have to start from scratch for once.
A mountain culture
Second good surprise, here we are in a country with a real mountain culture. National parks, mountain refuges, marked trails, we feel that the Bulgarians have this taste for the outdoors and we found a very alpine atmosphere in these beautiful mountains. On the two long distance trails we have hiked during our crossing of Bulgaria, refuges, almost all open in winter, punctuate the sections and allow you to discover these mountains without camping if you don't want to. You know us, we still spent a few nights outside! But it was such a relief to have the choice every day and it is great to see that these activities are made accessible to different kind of people, including those who don't want to camp.
Among the refuge keepers, we found a little of everything. The vast majority didn't speak English. Like everywhere, for many it was an impossible obstacle to overcome, for some others, it took nothing away from their desire to communicate and they always found other means to do so. Once or twice, we felt we were really unwelcome and at other times, we had great encounters. In this season, we were often the only guests of the refuge.
At the end of December and the beginning of January, we were on the heights of the Great Balkan mountain range. It gave its name to the whole Balkans. In various Slavic languages it is also called Stara Planina, "the old mountain". It literally cuts Bulgaria in half since it goes from the Serbian border to the Black Sea. This wall from West to East is a real barrier to the freezing winds from the North. For this reason, there is a real difference in climate between the North and the South of the country. This is also what makes these mountains dangerous. In winter, the wind can be terrible and the weather can change very quickly.
On the ridges, winds an ancient long distance path. The Kom Emine starts at Mont Kom and ends at Cape Emine. The European trail E3 follows the Kom Emine over most of its Bulgarian section. The highest point of the trail is the Botev peak (2376 m), which is also the highest peak in the Balkan mountain. It is probably the most famous trail in Bulgaria, so it's well maintained and the marking is easy to follow, both in summer and winter. The maintenance of the Kom Emine is a new sign of the mountain culture here in Bulgaria and the desire to make them accessible to as many people as possible without spoiling it.
We didn’t cover the entire Kom Emine, we started it a little after Mount Kom and we decided to head South before reaching the Black Sea to discover another, more rural Bulgaria.
Seasons don't count for anything anymore!
Up there, the temperatures were a challenge and even more the perceived temperatures because of the wind. We regularly reached -15°C (5°F) or even -20°C (-4°F). Add to that an icy wind charged that whips your face and you will have a glimpse of what the first weeks of 2020 looked like for us. At the opposite, at the end of December we were surprised by abnormally high temperatures for the season. Already equipped with our warm winter gear, we found ourselves having to walk in underwear to avoid reaching overheating!
In the middle of our crossing of the Kom Emine, we received an invitation which presented itself as the perfect excuse to cut in half our adventure on the cold heights of the Balkan mountain. At the start of the trip, we tried to get in touch with people from the countries we were going to cross. People in our age group, hikers and outdoor lovers. This is how we met Petar on Instagram. Almost 2 years later, we are in his country! We finally met physically during our stay in Sofia where we spent a lot of time together.
At the beginning of December, Petar told us: "I know what it's like to be far from home so I offer you come and spend Christmas with my family, at my parents' place in Ruse". Can you imagine how emotional we were when we accepted? We lived an unforgettable, traditional and warm Christmas, making us forget the time of an evening that we had been far from our loved ones for so long.
Happy New Year!
As we approach New Year's eve, we looked for how we could celebrate it in a nice setting. We were back on Kom Emine and estimated our walking days to arrive on December 31st in a shelter. We knew it was open but we didn’t know if we were going to be face to face with the keeper or if some other people would have thought of coming up there to party. Finally, we ended up with twenty people around a good meal! We left pretty early the next day for a long day of walking in the cold.
No less than three guests joined us during our crossing of Bulgaria.
Maya, Franco-American, met us from the first day and we crossed the Pirin mountains together. It was the first time she had put such strain on her knee after a heavy operation. The huge Pirin screes were not always ideal, but she made it out like a boss. Perhaps her second concern was not finding many vegan options for food in Bulgaria. So she arrived with a lot of food stocks, her breakfasts and a lot of snacks, it was great to share that with her. And finally, she left with almost a comparative study of Bulgarian bean soup.
Tom left Paris to cross the Rila National Park with us. The capricious and difficult weather did not make his good humor disappear. He enchanted this week with his spirituality and his big smile, each step bringing him a little closer to his future role as a dad. Little Soan arrived in early March!
Finally, Aleksandar made a long trip from Slovenia to walk 8 days with us on our last kilometers on the Kom Emine. We had a lot more snow than expected. When we went down to our knees, we almost regretted having told him not to take snowshoes and having left ours in the valley. Having a Slovenian who speaks Macedonian with us really gave another dimension to our contacts with the Bulgarians since they spoke very close languages.
The Pirin rocks
The Pirin is a relatively small and compact mountain range, it does not extend over a very large area, it is also known to be very rich in water, many rivers and no less than 186 lakes. The national park was created in 1962, it protects the largest Bulgarian forest of Bosnian pines, Macedonian pines and junipers. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983.
Thank you Wikipedia 🤓 but what was our experience with this section?
A very very rocky part, also quite high, very very cold and humid nights when the days were abnormally hot. We ended up regretting having our mid-season equipment during the day, we were too hot in our shoes, crampons were absolutely not necessary, but at night we dreamed of our warmest sleeping bags.
It's not easy to equip yourself for mid-season without having packages sent to you every week. This is surely the season when the management of our logistics is the most complicated!
The highlight of our crossing of the Pirin: the Koncheto ridge where we felt alone in the world.
Rila in the fog
For three days, we saw almost nothing of Rila National Park. How sad! Fortunately, the many shelters and bivouacs allowed us to spend our nights dry and a little warmer. From big huts full of hikers to little cabins without even a wood stove, we had it all.
We arrived at the Seven Lakes of Rila, probably the most touristy place in the South of Bulgaria! Seven lakes in a huge mountainous circus that we gradually discovered. Most visitors arrive from the bottom, by the chairlift and only a few brave ones get the view that we had when arriving from above, by the ridges.
Several times during our crossing of Rila Park, we heard that this mountain was sacred, charged with energy. Whether you believe it or not, it is a special place for sure.
Vitosha the suburbanite
South of Sofia is Vitosha Mountain. When I say South of the city, I mean literally at the gates of the capital. When you have passed the last house, the slope begins there. Can you imagine such a playground that would be found at Porte d'Orléans for Parisians? The dream: the ski lift at the exit of the metro!
On our side, Vitosha still separates us from Sofia. As we climb, we go from a yellow and green environment to all gray. We reach the clouds that soak us in less than a second, the wind blows at a crazy speed!!
Some crowd and urbanity in Sofia. We spent a week there, mainly working on our videos, photos, articles, etc. But we also went out quite a bit with our different Bulgarian friends, met in shelters or on Instagram!
The legend of Belogradchik
Belogradchik undoubtedly ranks in the top 5 of the most beautiful places discovered during this crossing of Europe. How is this place not more famous outside of Bulgaria?! It's still a mystery to us… Belogradchik is the reason why we left Serbia at this precise point. We saw photos of the place and decided we couldn't miss it. Sandstone, limestone and conglomerate stones with a particular shape. The color of the rocks varies from ocher to yellow and some reach up to 200 meters in height! Belogradchik is also known for its fortress! It was originally built during the Roman period and modified several times during its history.
Let us tell you the legend of the Belogradchik stones! Each stone here is loaded with legend, suffering and heroism which explains the incredible beauty of this place. Centuries ago between the rocks was a convent. The youngest of the nuns - Vitinia - could not hide her incredible beauty under her cassock. The rumor of her beauty spread throughout the Roman Empire. One day, on Peter's day, when the monastery could be visited, Vitinia met Antonio. They hid their love from the nuns for a long time, but after a year, the fruit of their love was born. The child's voice filled the monastery with tears. Vitinia had to face the strict law of nuns. They decided to curse her and expel her from the monastery with her child. At that moment Antonio came from the hill on his white horse. He begged the nuns not to punish her. Suddenly, a storm broke out, a thunderclap and the earth trembled. The monastery collapsed into ruins and everything was turned to stone - the nuns, Antonio, even Vitinia who turned into a Madonna with her child. Even if we are not superstitious or religious, we love these old stories that give a dreamlike charm to each place.
Up there on the Botev
The highest point of the Great Balkan mountain range: the Botev at 2376 m! From above, we realized that we were on the last section beyond 2000 m of altitude of this expedition. The last lunar landscapes, the last freezing winds...
It is impossible to cross this place without thinking of all the summits that we have traversed in the past 2 years. We were not done with the snow yet, but surely the hardest part is now behind us.
Barely post-Soviet adventure
Buzludzha is a conference center built by the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1981 and abandoned 8 years later with the fall of the regime. Today, none of the public institutions takes the initiative to conserve and renovate this historic monument, linked to the country's painful political history. In 2011, the Bulgarian government transferred ownership of the monument to the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but the party itself is taking no steps to retain its most important symbol. This is the reason why this place is today one of the most famous Urbex sites in Europe. Today, each entrance has been walled up and there is no way to enter, there is even a cop who guards the place all day. We were all the more disappointed to find out when our drone got stuck on a window sill after a block of snow fell on it...
We ask to the policeman, he says that there is probably a key somewhere in one of the towns in the valley, he makes a few calls and says that we must wait. We wait. We wait for hours and we feel that he is not making much effort to resolve the situation. It's our second day with Aleks and we don't want to waste too much time on our schedule. We are starting to call everyone we know in Bulgaria to try to convince him that we are responsible people, that we just want to collect our equipment. We even contact the Ministry of Tourism. Aleks calls his cousin who is dating a Bulgarian guy. His hometown happens to be the city where the key is supposed to be! He calls the local police chief who then calls the cop in front of us to tell him that he can let us in. The key was in his pocket all this time! From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., we tried to locate this key that was right there! Anyway, we have the key, we can enter this building! Woops, the lock is too rusty and the key won't help. Nil runs for miles to find WD40, he finds it... But it does not work. Ok then, you have to untwist the iron bars blocking the door and here we are!!! He finds the drone, manages to take some photos and rushes outside!
After descending from the Stara Planina, we had to walk for a few days in the flat country before reaching the Turkish border. Frankly not the best section of our crossing of Bulgaria... Fields as far as the eye can see, nonexistent paths and above all a cold spell that surprised us one evening. We had sent back our winter gear and we didn't sleep all night because we were so cold!
Here we are at the gates of Turkey. We are obviously very moved since this border will be the last of this adventure. It has taken us 2 years to reach Turkey, needless to say how impatient we are to find out what it has to offer!
Talk to you soon! Marie & Nil