The world is connected by footsteps. Before steamships and zeppelins, before jets and bicycles, we walked. We crossed distances, left deserts and savannas, on our heels. Walking hearkens back to a world of mysteries, of animism and great unknowns, of shedding our technological present and returning to something somehow seeming more pure.
But does walking generate the same rebirth when surrounded by the machinations of the modern? Of course not–that’s why we walk in parks, substitutes for the cleansing wilderness. For the greatest walks are not found on some urban pavement, but on the trail among the trees and skies and stone. Mountains and clouds mingling, flirting. The backdrop of the awesome.
And now I’ll let you in on a little secret. Bulgaria. What, you ask? Bulgaria? In some vague memory, Bulgaria mists into view–Communism, definitely…guys in dark leather jackets, ok…maybe vampires–or could that be further north? But, my readers, it is time to
reacquaint oneself with this wonderful Balkan nation, perched on the Black Sea, rife with mountain ranges, clear waters, and some of the best hiking this side of the Olympics.
We hiked the Pirin Mountains, the second highest range in Bulgaria. They are mostly contained inside the Pirin National Park, in which it is illegal to camp–so much of the hiking occurs as a series of hut-to-hut traverses. These huts are part of a national system, and cared for by Bulgarians who will spend the summer attending the needs of various hikers and climbers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner can all be had at the huts, but most importantly–so can beer! Imagine hiking in the glorious splendor of the mountains all day without the need for a heavy pack…Simply divine. Each hut is also the prowling grounds for hut cats–a branch of the cat family that has grown accustomed to warming themselves by hut stoves, munching on mice (but more often visitors’ tidbits), and receiving pets from tired hikers.
We used a guiding service–Penguin Travel–for our time in Bulgaria. They arranged all the little details, transportation, etc., and were extremely accommodating. I’m not normally a person who uses guides, preferring to slowly discover a place for myself, but we wanted to get right to hiking–not spend time figuring out marshrutka routes or arguing with taxis…Our guide was named Khristo, and he was excellent and a true Bulgarian. Of course, it helped that I love Slavic culture and speak Russian, so we got along swimmingly. Especially while hiking. Or while sitting back and enjoying the mountains. Or while sharing a drink. Or just laughing at hut cat antics.
Day 1: Yavorov Hut to Vihren
Over the course of thirteen or so hours, Hana and I drank from clear mountain streams, walked through frigid waterfalls, slid down snowbanks, carefully picked our way across lingering snow patches, and tiptoed across the Koncheto–a famous mountain ridge notorious for its exposure.
We woke early, breakfasted at the Yavorov Hut, and headed into the Pirin National Park. Here the ravages of industrialized communism were shed–the sky bled blue, the crisp circles of alpine lakes invited quick dips, and the trees shortened into wizened dwarves as we climbed.
We made the ridgeline, and the valley fell away below us, deep and wide to the neighboring Rila range. Here the path disintegrated, as it was wont to do over the next four or so days. These mountains are mainly visited by hearty Bulgarians and a collection of adventurous Europeans who realize what a gem they have in their far reaches. We would contour the mountain, heading up to the Koncheto which connected two peaks, nimbly pick our way across the catwalk there, then head under the north face of Vihren Peak (the highest peak in the range).
This being June, much of the snow had melted off the upper mountains, but long runs still presented formidable barriers and no-fall zones. After the most nerve-wracking of these bands of sometimes soft/sometimes bullet hard snow, we ate lunch on the side of the mountain and accidentally dropped a tomato. As it gained speed, bounding up and into the air, the red bits and pieces flying off the fruit reinforced the severity of a fall in this heady environment.
After the stress of crossing the snowfields, the Koncheto was a breeze, albeit a beautiful one. To one side, the mountain fell away shear for hundreds of feet, on the other it was less severe but no less pucker-y. In Washington, this stretch of “trail” would be absolutely jam-packed, inching along in single file with selfie sticks and an off-leash dog or two. Here in Bulgaria, we may have been the only people to cross the “Little
Horse” (the English translation) that week (though later on, we learned a young man had slipped near the Koncheto a day or two before, and had to be rescued…which in Bulgaria means walking out with a broken leg or head or whatever–no helos here!).
Originally, we had planned to take the mountaineer’s route up Vihren, but the changing snowpack convinced us it would be fine to observe the mountain on our longer circumambulation…as we came over the shoulder of the great limestone behemoth, we spotted chamoix cavorting on the great snowfield across the valley. The huge north face loomed above us, and we slid down a snowbank, freezing hands and hollering at the same time.
At this point, we thought we were reasonably close to our destination hut. We were wrong. Oh so wrong. We came around the long valley of Vihren and spotted, in the distance shining, Rivendell–or at least that’s what I called it…it was actually the Vihren hut, but the hearth and home it represented stirred thoughts of the Last Homely House in my head. We thought we were maybe 45 minutes away. Two hours later, we stumbled into the hut, boots soaked, eyes strained, sweat stained, exhausted. But Khristo had beers waiting for us, and we stacked our boots next to the wood stove. The hut cat came over for an expected pet, and we cheersed to an epic day in the Pirin.
Day 2: Vihren to Demyanitsa
This day consisted of beautiful alpine meadows, melting lakes, vistas galore, and perhaps the best rest stop ever. We began tracing the course of a clear alpine river, meandering back a sweeping valley where waterfalls poured off of the ridges. Here we found lazy lakes and a season’s worth of avalanche lilies, a purple spray below melting snow.
Finally we turned to cross over the pass separating us from the next drainage and the Demyanitsa hut. Most Bulgarian hiking routes are as such–up one incredible alpine valley, reaching the toe of the mountain, sliding over the shoulder, and coming back down yet another incredible alpine valley. When we reached our pass, we could see the high alpine environment of tarns and talus. Ridge after ridge of black and white serrations and teeth. The Pirin.
We headed down into the very headwaters of the Banderishkiy (perhaps…) River, a grassy meadow where the waters braided among varying limestone boulders. Here, two perfect aligned rocks formed a Laz-E-Boy where one could lean back, head nestled too take in the peaks, feet just perfectly dipped into the chilling water. Perfection.
We left this rest stop with reluctance, but we had some miles to go. The waters rose higher and higher as the spring melt continued, and here and there the trail (where there was one) disappeared into expanding lakes. At one very blue and very clear lake, the trail traced a perfect line two feet under the surface. We avoided wading where possible, but as one learns in Bulgaria, sometimes one just has to get wet.
Abruptly, we were in the forest, and the trees began to soar overhead.
More and more wildflowers lit up corners of the trail. The hut, camouflaged in the evergreens, revealed itself like a magic trick. A diversion of the river ran through a wooden laundry “machine” and little umbrellas shielded the long outside tables from the afternoon sun. A broken down Soviet-era truck added to the forgotten mystique, while little decaying cabins molded back into the forest. A Cyrillic sign noted the laughable times to other huts (likely measured in the few hours it took Bulgarian army youths to all-out run between huts). We enjoyed beers and tea, chatted with the one other couple (from Germany) who made this hut, and watched the forest gradually darken.
Day 3: Demyanitsa to Bezbog
Another day, another gorgeous valley. A massive waterfall to our left as we head up through the meadows. A group of Bulgarians, slightly weaving and in various states of disrobing, clambered up the path, en route to a different destination. The hut keeper also joined in the fun, setting out with a rod and reel and glass jars to catch some alpine trout and bleed some pines for tea. We came to a subalpine zone where the trees shortened to shrub-height, and the river braided, cutting deep and clear through the green grass.
Yes, the water was ice-cold. Khristo and I went over, then I helped Hana with her bag and herself so she didn’t get knocked down into the frigid water. My lower legs were completely numb when I stepped out of the channel, and we had to wait and enjoy the sunshine and clear running water before heading on. I should mention here that we drank directly from these mountain streams–the water was pure and cold, and I never suffered for it. This is the best mountain water, clean and unfiltered and rushing hard to the gullet.
We shortly came to a terrific lake with a gurgling outlet, ripe for our lunch of goat cheese, dark bread, tomatoes, and sausage. Outside of Bulgaria, this serene scene not quite far enough from civilization would be trampled by kids and dogs and Enchantment thru-hikers and serious outdoorspeople and dilettantes and trail runners and all manner, great and small. Here, we had the whole sky to ourselves, and this little stream, and this cobalt lake, and the hulking mountains, and the fragile lilies. Let the hordes fight for parking to wander the the slopes of Paradise; I’ll keep Bulgaria.
We slid over another shoulder after leaving the lake, and squish-ran-slid
down a melting snow slope. We were a consistent hour away from our hut for the next three hours, but we didn’t mind. The trail was clear, the walking pleasant, and the mountains majestic. Finally we crossed one last snowfield, sank our boots into two or three thousand feet of deep mud (because Bulgaria despises clean boots), skirted yet another lake, and arrived at the Bezbog hut. Here we celebrated our final day of real hiking (Day 4 would be a morning stroll down the slopes of the ski resort that Bezbog stood above) with Bulgarian beer and little cups of Nescafe. We discovered a broken down “cafe” at the shore, and sipped our beverages in the dying sun. The lighting on the slopes of Bezbog peak glowed pink and gold. The water lapped slowly at our feet. The miles we had walked connected us to Bulgaria, to the Pirin range, to lakes and rivers, to meadows and lilies, to each other.
Bulgaria, this is the secret I give you.