Slipping and sliding around Bulgaria's Rila mountain range on snowshoe
If you can walk then you can snowshoe.” That’s what people tell you. It’s what, in fact, I and 13 other trekkers had just been told by Asen and Krasimir, our Bulgarian guides, as we gathered on the thick underlay of snow beneath the pines in the Rila Mountains.
There is, though, a bit of a problem if you know how to ski as well as walk. Because what with snow all over the place, the poles in your hands and things strapped to your feet, it all feels too much like you’ve just stepped off a T-bar and are about to glide swiftly off across the white stuff, rather than having to march about in exaggerated, ungainly goose-steps. The confusion between what I felt should happen and the reality meant that my first steps on snowshoes left me reeling and stumbling like a drunk running in circles on a trampoline.
My next concern was whether snowshoeing was going to be much fun. Perhaps I’d signed up for a long and monotonous plod or – given the muffling effects of the snow – a ‘pflod, pflod, pflod’ up some steep-looking hills.
Well, no worry there. We’d barely set off before we were faced with a single, narrow log bridging a deep ditch that we had to shuffle across, sideways, rather like tightrope walkers who’d decided to handicap themselves
a little by wearing flippers. Apparently our guides could make snowshoeing pretty challenging.
Rila translates as ‘full of water’, but in the cold of winter this naturally meant ‘full of snow’.
As we floated across the thick duvets and pillows of drifts it was a revelation to realise that our snowshoes made it possible to walk on top of the frozen water rather than punching through the powdery surf and floundering around, waist deep.
Snowshoeing was beginning to make sense, though I think we’d all been a bit disappointed to find that our footwear was high-tech plastic rather than something lovingly crafted from bent birch sticks and knotted rawhide.
On our first day we walked up to lunch at the Malîovitsa Hut in the shadow of the 2,729m Malîovitsa peak. Among the trees the group stomped along in single file; at our most synchronised we were as rhythmic as a conga line. More often, though, we looked rather like a pantomime centipede staggering along wearing 18 pairs of clowns’ boots. However, once on the open hillsides we could spread out and slip into the silences that framed the tinkling of melt-water streams and the calls of coal tits.
Though there was still deep snow – our hotel was higher than the summit of Ben Nevis, and the Malîovitsa Hut was higher still – it was spring-warm in the sun. Indeed, that morning we’d all been handed little red amulets of silk to pin to our lapels to symbolise the Thracian coming of spring, a date almost as significant for the Bulgarians as the expulsion of the Ottomans at the end of the 19th century.
Krasimir had promised us “not just a snowshoeing trip but a cultural tour”, so he or Asen were constantly demonstrating their polymath knowledge of wildlife and geography. Local history, though, took a bit more explaining, what with Romans, Slavs, Thracians, Byzantines, Alexander the Great, Tsar Boris III and Spartacus all likely to end up squashed into a single sentence in attempts to explain Bulgaria’s relationship with its six neighbours.
But these desiccated ‘cultural learnings’ sessions always ended up in singing and jokes. Our group might have been mixed in age, fitness and interests but we could still field a team able to compete in drinking with the Bulgarians, strum guitars competently and provide a solo star in Sam, an authentic blues and soul diva who transformed each evening.
By our second day we were all advanced snowshoers. This meant longer distances and greater extremes of landscape. Leaving the groomed piste of the Malîovitsa ski slopes we waded down the face of precipitous hills and walked on the very tops of small pine trees where they had been submerged in snow. The braver tried running and then leaping, often disappearing deep into too-soft snow piles.
But then we began climbing, steadily and into a white-out. Dark cross-hatchings on the cartridge paper of the landscape showed the forests far below, while above there was just the numinous mystery of the sky and snow melting into each other.
The trip down was arduous for some. The group’s snow tigers were striding ahead while the kittens of the slopes – with painful joints, blisters and heaving lungs – fell behind. Words of encouragement from the former to the latter could easily be misinterpreted. And resented. It seemed that Peter, the author of a sociology study called Murder in Society might have material for a sequel. But our café stop in Govedartsi levelled the playing field with some volatile home-distilled liquor that took the legs from the über-sportifs and gave heart to the exhausted.
Our last morning of snowshoeing was on the warmer, southern side of the Rila Mountains. Under the trees the snow had disappeared like a retreating tide, exposing reefs of fallen logs and tangles of kelp-like shrubbery.
We abandoned our snowshoes to reach the Chapel of St John and its ‘Miracle Hole’, a narrow chimney boring through an outcrop of rock; to prove one’s clear conscience, you wriggle up the chimney on a dark, damp climb. This, apparently, was a necessary test before visiting Bulgaria’s biggest tourist attraction, the 10th century, Unesco-listed Rila Monastery.
The monastery is as much fortress as retreat, with buildings of black, white and red brick and a lining of dark-wood balconies set in a huge, off-kilter walled courtyard. A lofty, black-robed, box-hatted monk – one of only eight occupying the 100 or so cells – stalked the verandas like a doomy raven among the colourful, chattering flocks of tourists. In a small gallery, a line of paintings portrayed the monastery’s succession of heavily bearded abbots – providing surprising proof that Jerry Garcia, Gerry Adams and Gerald Durrell were all once Bulgarian Orthodox prelates.
But stranger even than this trinity of unlikely beardies were the polychromatic and morbid frescos that covered nearly every exterior surface of the monastery’s chapel like an architectural manga comic, showing cartoon visions of the afterlife and the punishments for sinning.
Among the hundreds of garish storyboxes there was a man suspended upside-down, legs apart, being sawn in half by two busy devils; a bunch of adulterers being boiled alive; Adam and Eve at the pick-your-own-fruit farm; and a very graphic illustration of what going to hell in a handcart would be like – squashed into a tumbrel and prodded by bat-winged imps with lances.
All in all, I realised I’d far rather head for the next village bar on a pair of snowshoes.