Hiking trip through the Eastern Rhodopes

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Report on the group hiking trip through the Eastern Rhodopes


October 14 to 24, 2016

While most of Holland was enjoying their autumn break the six of us (from Flanders Annemie Demuynck and the Dutch: Marja Bakker, Marianne Sprengers, Marieke Schuiling and Rolf-Jan Sielcken) flew from Eindhoven to the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Driver Kiril was waiting for us and drove us in approximately 4 hours to the south-eastern city of Kardzhali.14889945_1600056953353295_418468540537981698_o

Marieke Schuiling, Rolf-Jan Sielcken, Marianne Sprengers, Annemie Demuynck, Marja Bakker and Arjan Schuiling

First hiking stage Ardino-Lyubino

The same Kiril brought us to the town of Ardino the next day. This is where the ancestral roots of SultansTrail chairman Sedat Cakir can still be found. We bought ourselves a lunch and our driver dropped us off at the end of the asphalt road towards Devil’s Bridge. Contrary to most roads in Bulgaria this road was in perfect shape and not surprisingly financed by the EU.

dscn0607Devil’s Bridge

Less than an hour hiking brought us to the Devil’s Bridge built in the 16th century by the Ottomans when this part of the Eastern Rhodopes featured some major trading routes. These days this is hard to imagine when you see mainly deserted villages.

After we had admired the Devil’s Bridge from all possible angles we started the steep climb towards Lyubino where we were received warmly by our host Lee and hostess Melly in Melyana’s Mountain Retreat. Tea was served on the viewing platform that offers a 360 degrees panorama. It got too cold to have our supper there so we moved over to the veranda where we served rabbit soup and kavarma, a traditional Bulgarian clay pot dish. In the background a fire was warming us.

Most of the hikers retired to their beds soon after dinner but Rolf-Jan and host Lee discussed world politics into the wee hours fuelled by cigarettes and home-made rakia. As Lee summarized the next morning: ,,we finally agreed on something, but I’m not quite sure about what”.

Second stage Lyubino-Kardzhali

The slightly hung over Lee drove us this Sunday morning to Suhovo where we started our hike crossing a footbridge filled with fisher men. Next was the long but gradual climb to Penjovo with wide views of the dammed river Arda. The river that would more or less guide us step by step towards the Greek border. Our proper guide would be the Bulgarian Mihaela Kircheva.

She had arranged two taxi’s for us in Penjovo, allowing us to skip a stretch of asphalt and having lunch on one of the boat restaurants floating on the dammed Arda (Studen Kladenets).

dscn0618view of the over embanked river Arda (Studen Kladenets)

After a lunch a pleasant path curved some dozen meters above the water line to the great dam at Kardzhali. At two other occasions we could pass through a gate to get on the dam and continue our route but due to the refugee crisis and terrorist threats we were no longer welcome on the dam. However, a friendly guard showed us an alternative route to our sleeping place, a homestay called Plamena.

That night we went out for a dinner only with the four of us because my sister, Marieke, had caught some virus and her boyfriend Rolf-Jan kept her company.

Third Stage Kardzhali-Madrets

The next day Marieke had not recovered enough to hike with us to Madrets so she joined the guy who drove to Madrets by car with our luggage. In hindsight a good decision because not only did she manage to recover that day but weather-wise this was not the best day with rain and low temperatures.

dscn0623Stone Wedding

Nevertheless, my sister did miss a few beautiful sights like the special rock formation Stone Wedding and the viewpoint near Visoko Polyana. The viewpoint allowed sights of Fist Rock, an odd shaped mountain which we were to climb the next day and Studen Kladenets (the dammed river Arda). In Madrets we were cordially welcomed by our Turkish-Bulgarian hostess Sevda Ali. Her white fish from the oven (no bones!) attracts visitors from the entire region and was, despite fierce competition, my favourite meal during this trip.

Fourth stage Madrets-Gnyazdovo

Because I had been hiking here last year with Marieke and Rolf-Jan I knew today would be a relatively light hiking stage. Most of the time we hiked parallel to river Perperek (Gold river) which contained little water after 4 months of drought. Usually we could just follow its bed and in the early afternoon we arrived in Gnyazdovo (40 inhabitants) and situated right on the banks of Studen Kladenets.

One of those 40 inhabitants is our guide Mihaela who has started a guesthouse under the name Mihaela Lake Retreat. At the end of this trip I did a little survey among my hikers and they placed this brand new accommodation right on top of the list of accommodations. That is why Marianne and Annemie had no problems to skip the afternoon excursion, climbing Fist Rock, and stay indoors.

dscn0631Misha, Annemie, Marja and Marianne with Fist rock in the background

The path up to Fist Rock was not always easy to find but the GPS of host Vasko helped us out. Higher up vultures circled high above us and we enjoyed the great views of the mountains covered with forests in autumn colours.

Back at the Lake Retreat a delicious rabbit stew awaited us. Hostess Mihaela is not just a guide, touristic advisor, owner of a guesthouse but also the owner of a rabbit farm/children’s farm and a good cook.

Fifth stage Gnyazdovo-Arda complex

In my opinion Mihaela also served us the most varied breakfast. As an experienced guide she knows that hikers are not necessarily waiting for a heavy breakfast. Before this trip Mihaela and I had already discussed that hiking from her place to the next accommodation, Arda-complex, would be too much for one day and that is why we had devised the following plan.

We were picked up by a boat and surrounded by a group of ducks we came close to the nature reserve of Studen Kladenets. We counted about 40 deer drinking on the banks of the lake, or playfully running or perhaps running in panic, because the hunting season was on.

After about an hour on the boat we got off and tried to find our way in this difficult terrain full of inlets and gorges, without marked hiking routes. This was one of the few times that we walked ‘the wrong way’. Wrong way is between quotation marks because accidentally we hit upon a beautiful viewpoint so we may very well try to keep ‘the wrong way’ into our track.

At lunch time we came across the small town of Byal Kladenec which looked completely deserted. When we were having our lunch suddenly people appeared from out of nowhere among them the mayor/shop owner. He did not only give us tea and coffee, but also an ink stamp in our hiking passports and a ride to the next village (Svetoslav).

dscn0653from the left to the right Annemie, Marja, Marieke and Misha on their way to Byal Kladenec

In Svetoslav we started on my personal favourite stretch. A path that descends gradually through a gorge with a small river on your right hand side. After about an hour the gorge widens and the river flows into Studen Kladenets. The eponymous town is home to another dam and from the dam it is another three kilometres by road to Rabovo. In this town the youngest and eldest in our company, Mihaela and Annemie, chartered a car that drove them to our final destination of the day the Arda-complex. The rest of us had over an hour to go with marvellous views of the untamed Arda and the surrounding mountains which are full of rock niches: old Thracian graves.

Arda-compex is probably very lively in summer with a swimming pool and bungalows filled with families but late in October it made a bit of a dead, chilly impression and the staff did not do much to take away this impression. It was not a surprise that this accommodation ended right at the bottom in my hikers survey.

Sixth stage Arda-complex-Madzharovo

Again we had planned some experiments for today. We would try to circumvent a long stretch of asphalt (about 10 kilometres) by hiking closely to the Arda. Not a huge gamble because Misha (Mihaela) had already checked this the night before on Google Earth. Indeed it all went smoothly so this is another nice improvement of the SultansTrail.

dscn0667rest on the banks of the river Arda

On the banks of the Arda we held a long lunch break/siesta in the pleasant autumn sun. Charged with solar power we started the afternoon stretch to the vulture town of Madzharovo. The town used to be all about mining but most mines are no longer profitable, or exhausted or closed because of environmental problems. That is why the population needs to find alternative sources of income.

One of these new alternatives is the vulture centre. Vultures feel at home around the steep cliffs that surround Madzharovo and it also helps that every now and then the employees of the vulture centre dump some carcasses. Indeed we saw a lot of vultures circling around. At the vulture centre we were received with cake and tea celebrating the 55th birthday of my sister. The cake was organized by hostess Nusha Nikolova.

Seventh stage Madzharovo-Gornoselci

This stage had caused us so much troubles last year that after a full day of hiking we were back again at the vulture centre. This time Misha had activated her extensive network and found a local guide, who pointed us the road to the long, steep climb to Gaberovo.

Gaberovo was quite an event. The village is no more than four/five houses/stables and the street is paved with dung. At first we just saw goats, cows, dogs and cats but no human beings but when we were about to leave the village some hunters came driving up.

From Gaberovo we continued to Senoklas and we also managed to find that village without much problems so again it seems like we managed to replace a long stretch of asphalt by a beautiful new stretch of unpaved hiking.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESentering the village of Gaberovo

After Senoklas the route became more straightforward and led us directly towards our destination for that night: Gornoselci. However, before we got there, we still had to overcome a long, gradual climb. Just before the village Todor Mitkov, another guy from Misha’s network, waited for us. He had organized our overnight stay in Gornoselci a deserted village.

Our hostess Maria lives in Ivaylograd but has a second home in Gornoselci in which we were welcomed with all kinds of drinks, bites and a warm fire. Todor used the fire to prepare us an extensive barbecue. The home-made rakia was drunk like lemonade which led to some innocent giggling among some of the women but Rolf-Jan almost fell over into the fire and was rescued by Todor who thought he had seen enough roasted meat that evening. However, then there was still the steep wooden stairs up to the bedroom that Rolf-Jan needed to master. With the help of marieke he did.

Stage eight Gornoselci-Ivaylovgrad

Our last hiking day did not start smoothly. The not entirely sobered Rolf-Jan took the lead, missed a turn-off and we lost sight of him. By the time we could make contact by phone we were able to explain him what he had done wrong and we managed to reunite.

A few hours later a lot of trees had been chopped down to create space for a brand new high-voltage pylon. All the trees had simply been left behind blocking our path. Somehow we managed to struggle ourselves past the trees and reached the town of Pokovran with its catholic church. A rarity in Bulgaria with its mainly Bulgarian-orthodox population. The nuns gave us tea, apples and a small tour of their church.

14939565_1600061436686180_7646574491733342285_oviewpoint above the village of Ivaylovgrad from the left to the right Arjan, Marja, Rolf-Jan, Marieke and Marianne

From Pokovran we found a nice path leading us down to the main road where we stopped a car that dropped off Annemie at our hotel Amira. The rest of us hiked the final two hours partly through the nature reserve Dupkata right above Ivaylovgrad. A small road seamed with walnut trees provided the last metres of a very successful trip.

I would like to thank all my hikers for coming along on this adventurous hike. Moreover, I would like to thank all the warm people from Bulgaria who have helped us along the way by giving us directions or handing us some food. A special thanks to Misha who has led us safely from Kardzhali to Ivaylovgrad, welcomed us in her Lake Retreat and provided us all kinds of inside information on Bulgarian habits.

Gotten into the mood to come along on one of the group hiking trips of SultansTrail in Bulgaria get in touch with Arjan Schuiling Bulgaria coordinator SultansTrail (email: arjans@cerberus.nl)

2016 okt - Bulgarije met Arjan Schuiling