Fully tooled and rakiya-fuelled, we discover that a short trek through Bulgaria’s south-east mountains is a journey through Eastern European culture
There was a shared gasp as our hiking party reached the Malyovitsa ridge. At that very moment – amazingly and quite unexpectedly – a golden eagle swooped past so closely that we could see its clenched yellow talons and hear the whoosh of wings. We watched it soar, wheel and disappear.I might as well have been an eagle myself as my eyes preyed on the Rila Mountains: turquoise Elenino Lake half enfolded by a sheer-sided amphitheatre; scalloped valleys felted in green; and grey crags streaked with patches of snow on the highest flanks. In the far distance was the speck of Ivan Vazov Hut, a mountain refuge named after the undisputed heavyweight of Bulgarian literature.
“Vazov died in 1921 while he was having sex,” announced my fellow hiker Maria, a young dentist from Sofia. This is apparently a truth universally acknowledged about the novelist, poet, dramatist, Bulgarian nationalist and legendary lothario whose exploration of these mountains inspired his 1892 story The Great Rila Wilderness.
I was spending a week in the bottom left-hand corner of Bulgaria because this is the region where I could best combine a distillation of the country’s culture with the cream of its hiking. Better yet it’s still a relatively undiscovered part of the Balkans, meaning fewer travellers – at least for now. As I drove south from the capital on a sunlit evening with my guide Simeon Dimitrov at the wheel, dark olive-coloured outlines reared up on the western horizon to fill my window. These signalled the beginning of a great dragon’s back of ranges – the Rila, Pirin and Rhodope mountains – that march across south-west Bulgaria and through its history, and are all an easy commute from Sofia.
View from the top of Malyovitsa Ridge (Martin Symington)
As a first step, it made sense to get my head around Bulgaria’s impossibly complex history, with a little help from Simeon. A whirlpool of civilisations has thrived here from the Thracians – a rival civilisation to Rome and Troy – through the classical Greeks to the country’s namesake Bulgars, who invaded from Asia in the 7th century. To this list of conquerors you could add Huns and Slavs before the 500 years of Ottoman rule that Vazov termed ‘the Turkish yoke’.
More recently, British holidaymakers with a thirst for cheap beer and fun in the sun have tried their luck at Bulgaria’s Black Sea beach resorts. Then there is the bargain basement skiing in the Pirin Mountains, though nobody pretends the pistes are in the same league as the Alps or Pyrenees. Not so the sublime summer hiking. From May to October the snowline lifts, opening up a dizzying variety of walks from short-and-sweet to strenuous treks across the highest ranges in the Balkans. Think ‘rooftop’; think ‘open’; think peaks and ridges, meadows and waterfalls; think the cries of birds of prey carrying on the wind; think razor-sharp shadows and sparkling tarn pools reflecting deep blue skies.
My highlight was a two-day traverse of Rila National Park, for which I joined a weekend hiking party from Sofia. We started from the old Communist-era Malyovitsa mountaineering school, climbing first alongside a rattling river then through resin-scented spruce woods, before the trail emerged at a treeless green plateau speckled with deliciously sweet wild raspberries. The scenic drama ratcheted up as we zigzagged through blue-grey scree encircled by shards of rock, up to the serrated ridge where we had our close encounter with the eagle.
From the 2,729-metre summit of Malyovitsa it was a long descent into a glacial valley roamed by semi-wild horses and crisscrossed with streams that we had to ford from time to time. There were several hiking groups, including a high-spirited party from Warwick University, overnighting in the bunk-bed dormitories at remote Ivan Vazov Hut. I watched as the mountainscape faded its dimmer switch from peach to copper, before a torch-lit supper was served at a long communal table in the hut. The hot lamb stew was enlivened by bottles of Kamenitza beer, laughter and multi-language stories of mountain escapades. The students eventually headed for their bunks amid a series of Vazov-referenced double entendres about who did or did not prefer going on top.
Wild horses roam Rila National Park (Martin Symington)
The next day we followed an old transhumance route – a trail for driving livestock up to summer pastures. We met families herding cattle and sheep with the help of their huge, hairy Bulgarian shepherd dogs, most of a day’s walk from the nearest road. We climbed to another high ridge before plunging into a steep valley of dense Tolkien-esque woods, bisected by a hissing river and fluttering with dark-winged moths.
We emerged from the trees to an explosion of colour: flamingopink and black-and-white striped arches, towers and domes, all inside a walled quadrangle surrounded by forest. The sheer exuberance of the multi-hued Rila Monastery took me aback; this was a moment of marvel comparable with, say, coming face to face with the Treasury at Petra in Jordan after snaking through the Siq.
Within the walls, long-bearded monks flitted about in black robes and caps. They were joined by pilgrims and tourists by the busload; Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s most sacred site and a top tourist attraction, humming with visitors despite its far-flung location at the head of a twisting valley. I entered behind a gang of touring motorcyclists from Athens, who lined their helmets up on the courtyard wall. Then I crept into the cool, dark inner sanctum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, where vivid frescoes and gilded icons glinted in the sunlight that bled through the slit windows. What, I wondered, would the enlightenment-seeking hermit Saint Ivan Rilski, Bulgaria’s patron saint and founder of Rila Monastery more than a millennium ago, have reckoned to the throaty growl of a BMW 1200 GS?
That night we swapped the privations of bunks and dormitories for an ebullient welcome at Deshka’s Guesthouse in Gorno Draglishte village. Our hostess was the beaming, matronly Deshka, whose crowning gift was her traditional cooking. Bulgarian cuisine is spiced with influences from all the civilisations that have come and gone, but is more like Turkish or Greek than anything. Our shopska salad of peppers stuffed with chopped tomatoes, eggplant and crumbly white cheese was followed by moussaka, which I had previously thought of only as a Greek dish; the Bulgarian version substitutes aubergines for spuds.
Hikers ford a stream in Rila National Park (Martin Symington)
As with just about every other meal I had, each course came with a dollop of kiselo mlyako – creamy-tasting sheep’s yoghurt. “Life without kiselo mlyako is not worth living,” declared Deshka. Later, decked in traditional white lace embroidered with red and gold, she pressed play on a Mysteries of Bulgaria collection of folk music featuring her own voice in the chorus. This turned out to be a claim, however tentatively, to cosmic fame. With Simeon translating, she explained that one song, ‘Izlele Delyo Haidutin’, features on the Voyager Golden Record aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 and now in interstellar space as a sort of message in a bottle to alien civilisations.
Curiously, I was to have another extraterrestrial encounter the following day – of which more in a moment. However, at the time, Deshka’s story seemed something worth celebrating, and she more than obliged with her home-distilled rakiya – a fiery fruit brandy, ubiquitous in Bulgaria – which she was proffering by the jugful.
“Like the Eskimo language and snow, there are more than 100 words in Bulgarian meaning ‘hangover’,” Simeon told me solemnly as we undertook a restorative stroll through the fields and villages in the Rhodope Mountains’ foothills the next morning. One of these words, ‘mamurluk’, can be used in a figurative sense, such as to describe the hangover from the country’s Communist past. Bulgaria does seem to have been slower to come in from the cold than other Eastern European countries I have visited recently – the Czech Republic or Poland, for instance. Our walk took us through scruffy fields of maize and cut hay that looked semi-abandoned; villages evidently suffer from a ‘youth drain’ to the West. I noticed Soviet-era trucks and tractors that were as clapped out as the ideology they once served.
All this might have something to do with Bulgaria remaining culturally close to Russia, with the two having in common Slavic languages, the Cyrillic alphabet and Orthodox religion. Persecution of Christianity in Bulgaria has waxed and waned in its 1,000-year history, especially during the centuries of the ‘Turkish yoke’. In the early 1600s, for example, churches were tolerated so long as they were built no higher than an Ottoman soldier on horseback with his sword extended in the air.
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria (Martin Symington)
The target of our walk was Dobarsko village where the diminutive chapel of Saints Teodor Tiron and Teodor Stratilat squats unobtrusively in a sunken garden, probably even lower than an Ottoman-era peasant on a donkey. In the flickering candlelight of the interior, a wizened old warden scanned her torch over austere yet intricate frescoes depicting the glories of heaven and terrors of hell. Then, with Simeon translating her rasping Bulgarian, she picked out an outline of what she invited us to see: Jesus on a space rocket, his halo ballooning like an astronaut’s helmet. Then she pointed out an artist’s impression, painted in 1614, of a NASA lunar module.
I certainly felt a sense of terrestrial space when we drove on south through the whitish-grey Rhodope range, whose tail extends into Greece. This was the heartland of ancient Thrace and stomping ground of legendary Thracian gladiator Spartacus, immortalised by Kirk Douglas in the 1960 film. These mountains are also where much of Greek mythology is located; they are the birthplace of notoriously irresistible musician Orpheus, who descended into the underworld via a cave nowadays identified as a grotto known as ‘The Devil’s Throat’, near the Rhodope village of Trigrad.
On a more prosaic note, I was surprised to see fields of tobacco and the plants’ golden leaves drying like herrings on wooden racks. The further south we travelled, the more Mediterranean the scenery became. Mountains gradually gave way to undulating hills of glossy citrus groves, silvery olive trees and vines trailing in neat rows. Then, suddenly, everything changed again as strange, creamy yellow sandstone pinnacles and rocks that had weathered into pyramids and mushroom shapes rose around us.
The chalky soil surrounding Melnik still produces some of the most sought-after wine in the Balkans – especially now that, in the post-Communist era, its vineyards have been re-planted with classic French grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Many of the mansions are wine houses, their entrances guarding cool tunnels dug into the sandstone where the wine can mature at a constant temperature year round. At Lumparova’s House, owner Venti Popnikolov led me through dark cellars lined wall-to-wall with bottles. Then we tasted a few samples under the watchful eye of an unlikely photograph of Venti as a child, sitting in a huge American car with Fidel Castro at the wheel. While we slurped and sniff ed together, my host – now speaking fl uent Spanish – explained how he had lived in Cuba while his Communist parents served the cause as engineers in Havana. “I have learnt that wine is better for you than cigars,” declared Venti, clinking glasses. I bought a few bottles to take home with me, along with a more durable souvenir in the form of a glass jar fi lled with Bulgarian spices, swirled into strata of green, russet and white and serrated into peaks. It reminded me of all the layers of Bulgaria’s history, from the Thracians through to the Bulgars and Ottomans, all the way up to the arrival of Communism, as well as some of the most spectacular and invigorating mountain hiking in Europe.
The author travelled with Sofia-based Odysseia Tours (+359 2 989 0538), which offers group tours and bespoke itineraries of Bulgaria with hiking and cultural activities.
Main Image: Photographing the view in Bulgaria (Martin Symington)