The missing link: a hiking trip past three Bulgarian mountain chains, August 2016
If you crown yourself with the title Bulgaria coordinator Sultan’s Trail it makes sense if you have really hiked most parts of the Sultan’s Trail route through Bulgaria. That is why I hiked from Sofia to Borino in the Rhodopes in the company of my sister Marieke, her boy-friend Rolf-Jan (RJ) and the Dutch-Bulgaria Kristian Koop (Kris) from August 4 to August 18, 2016. This beautiful, but strenuous, route led us through three different mountain chains first Vitosha, then Rila and finally the Rhodopes.
Officially the route starts in the heart of Sofia at the mosque but on our first hiking day it was well above thirty degrees and we decided to start in the southern suburbs of Sofia. They are situated a couple of hundred metres higher than the centre and therefore they are a bit cooler.
Our first stop was at the Dragalevtsi monastery, followed by a small lake filled with frogs and snakes and after a steep climb we arrived at Boyana waterfall. In hindsight it was one of the few days that we walked as a quartet and before arriving in our comfortable mountain hut Moten (1840 metres), Kris had returned to his house in Sofia.
This is how we had to apply stickers in the snowy conditions of May 2015
De tweede wandeldag
On our second day RJ was weakened by a virus and caught a gondola back to Sofia to catch up later. Me and my sister, accompanied by hundreds of inhabitants from Sofia who had caught the gondola up, walked to the summit of Vitosha, mount Cherni Vrah (Black Rock, 2290 metres).
During the descent me and my sister were not alert enough and we more or less followed a group of German hikers that instead of heading for our destination Yarlovo set course for the more northern town of Zelehnitsa. The descent to Zelehnitsa is merciless and I will keep on feel this descent in my thighs for days to come.
I have hiked part of this route before in May 2015 when there was still a load of snow. The poles placed to help orientation in snowy conditions were used for Sultan’s Trail stickers but now that all the snow is gone there is no way I can get to these stickers even if I stretch my arms to the max. In May 2015 there must still have been at least half a meter of snow!
At night we are reunited with RJ in guesthouse Zodiac in Samokov. The owners recognized me from the previous visit and wanted to know all about the Sultan’s Trail project. The next morning we met Kris at the busstation where we were to catch a bus to Separeva.
Banya at the foot of Rila mountains: the second chain of mountains that we would pass through.
In Separeva Banya we caught another smaller bus that would take us up to the chair lift starting at mountain hut Pionerska (1520 metres). At least that was the plan but thousands of people from Sofia had a similar plan and decided to drive up the same road that was totally clogged with cars so at some point we had to leave the bus and hiked the last few kilometres.
Because the four of us were pretty late, there were no queues and we could go up with the lift to Rilski Ezera (2150 metres). Luckily Kris had reserved two rooms for us in this hiking area that is very popular in summer. Marieke, who had inherited the virus from RJ, stayed in her room, while the three of us were stunned about the beautiful environment of the Seven Lakes but also about ladies in high heels that seem to come walking right off the catwalk
The next day Kris did not trust the weather and the three of us climbed to the highest point of our hiking route, about 2700 metres, surrounded by clouds. But as soon as we descended towards mountain hut Ivan Vazov we enjoyed stunning views that reminded us of Mongolia although neither of us has ever been there. When we went down from Ivan Vazov to Rila monastery, which is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage, we needed to put on our rain gear for the first time and also for the last time this trip.
From Rila monastery we got a ride to Kirolovo Polyana where we slept in little bungalows. At least, Kris, RJ and me slept, Marieke kept running to the bathroom and would not hike the next day and RJ stayed with her.
Kris had already left in the dark unaware of Marieke’s condition. I couldn’t reach him by phone because in this area there is no connection. Luckily I caught up with him in mountain hut Ribni Ezera (Fish Lake, 2230 metres). From Ribni Ezera he had already made a steep climb up to 2600 metres but he didn’t trust the weather and came down again. Together we went up again but once again Kris didn’t feel comfortable upon the ridge and we came down again. However, a third try in the afternoon proved to be successful and we managed to reach the ski resort of Semkovo where we found ourselves a comfortable spa hotel.
From Semkovo Kris and I hiked towards mountain hut Treshtenik (1764 metres) where we enjoyed a very late lunch and faced the prospect of having a descent of more than 500 metres down to Yakoruda. Suddenly I saw a car ready to leave and I mobilized some energy for a little sprint. The three students in the car didn’t mind at all to take me and Kris down to Yakoruda. We might consider ourselves lucky because during the hairpin ride down to the valley we did not encounter one other single car. In the cosy town of Yakoruda Marieke and RJ had found a very friendly homestay with Ivan and Maria.
Maria kept shoving presents and food towards sister Marieke although she had still not completely recovered. The next day Kris gave his painful knee a bit of rest and the Dutch trio managed to find a nice route to Smolevo and returned to Yakoruda by narrow gauge railway.
The next we took this same railway to go to the somewhat bigger city Velingrad to hire a car. Marieke and RJ drove Kris and me to the place where we stopped hiking yesterday and we continued our route to Yondula where we met Marieke and RJ. Kris drove back the car to our hotel and the three Dutch found a nice hiking route into Velingrad.
Lunch-break in the hills above Borino surrounded by cows
The same three Dutch thought they would have a relatively light stage to Batak in this no man’s land between Rila mountains and The Rhodopes. Batak is a famous place in Bulgarian history because some really bloody battles took place between the Bulgarian independence fighters and the Ottoman occupying force. This time no lives were lost during this stage but a lot of sweat and my mobile phone. However, the next day Marieke managed to find my phone back in the shoulder (!) of a road. By then Kris and I had started the long stage from Batak to Shiroko Polyana (30 kilometres). Kris and RJ did the afternoon stretch of this long stage.
The final stage was also not carried out as a quartet. Marieke and RJ drove to Borino by car and hiked the spectacular stage passing the Devil’s Bridge to Yagodina. In Yagodina we were suddenly back among the other tourists again and the first four guesthouses we tried, were all fully booked. The fifth one evacuated a room for us and I would try to sleep outside.
I barely enjoyed the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the bright star-lit sky because I fell asleep immediately. In the middle of the night I woke up because water was flowing down my face. I was not crying, it was not raining but the sprinkler had been turned on automatically. I managed to drag all my stuff to a dry corner and finally fell asleep again.
This last night in Borino/Yagodina has more or less closed the circle because this is also the area where I started my first group trip. I would like to thank Kris for making all the arrangements, his navigating and his interpreting. Marieke and RJ helped me once again in further developing the Sultan’s Trail in Bulgaria.
It is possible to come along on this stretch in 2017. However, this stretch is only suitable for people with ample experience in mountain hiking. Moreover, in contrast with other Sultan’s Trail trips you will be carrying your own luggage during the entire trip. If you are willing to make this extra effort you will be rewarded with one of the most stunning mountain scenery in Europe. For more information send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org Arjan Schuiling Bulgaria coordinator Sultan’s Trail.