My fascination with trekking the exotic mountain ranges only add to the decision to embark on a journey to one of the most mysterious countries in the Balkans. Bridging the Middle East and Europe as Turkey may do to others, Bulgaria seemed to be the right step to begin exploring this part of continent. Although definitely in Europe, Bulgaria is a mix of different cultures, religions and customs. One need to be open minded to fully appreciate the unique combination of ancient history and modern attitudes. That is what inspire travellers, looking over the mass media and do a bit research what each country has to offer, both culturally as well historically.
As my main focus was conquering the highest peaks of the Balkans, I began my trip with climbing two of the many impressive peaks in Rila mountain, namely Musala standing at 2,925m and Malyovitsa rising to 2,729m. The Musala peak, translated into “place for a payer” or “near God”, is situated within the Rila National Park. It is rich with flora, including species such as Macedonian Pine and Bulgarian Fir in the forests, and fauna, including wallcreepers. The annual average temperature reaches only -3 C, making it the coldest place in Bulgaria, and the whole Balkan Peninsula.
I started my trek from the Borovets Resort to which I got from Sofia. I took the gondola lift up to the Yastrebets summit and followed a path through Musala Hut and Ledeno Ezero (Icy Lake) mountain refuge. The next stop would be Musala summit at 2,925m above sea level. Along the way, I was enjoying magnificent views over surrounding outcrops and peaks, deep valleys, and pristine glacier lakes. The route was moderately to very arduous. There were some short stages which were pretty steep, including parts passing through massive stones. The view from the very top is really breath-taking. On a clear day you could spot many other peaks of Rila Mountains, the marble edges of Pirin Mountains, Vitosha and Sredna Gora Mountains, the green summits of the Rodopi Mountains.
I was not fortunate enough to admire these views as the day I was ascending the summit the weather was foggy and misty. The view was ultimately obstructed ending with very limited vision of up to 10 meters. I managed to get back quite easily, though, as the route was conveniently marked for walkers.
The rest of the day was spent in town where I got to meet a few friendly locals and other tourists. Many of them sharing the fascination for the Balkans. There was this lovely Italian couple who could not speak any other language but French. After a number of glasses of local wine we eventually manage to find a common language – gesticulation.
The next day I went on conquering the whole range of Rila mountains, with Malyovitsa in mind. The weather was more favourable. The private taxi took me closer to the foot of the mountain route. I had planned to complete the whole trek in one day. The first resting point was a cosy, vibrant Hut. 30 min spent for a small meal and a cup of coffee. I could see in distance the summit and pictured myself on top of it. On the way up I remember passing by other keen walkers. I could hear different languages. The trek went through very steep parts and crystal clear lakes. The weather was slowly deteriorating and doubts started overcoming me minute by minute. As there were others heading towards the same direction I felt slightly assured I would not get lost. I was nearing the top but energy supply began depleting. It was a real feat despite Maylovitsa being 200m lower. Some upper parts demanded proper climbing although no extra equipment was necessary. The summit was occupied with early mountain walkers. A few organised groups from various countries, however majority were Bulgarians. It may sound as cliché but any cup of hot drink always tastes better once you find yourself on top of any mountain, celebrating the accomplishment.
From that point I had to decide which direction I have to take. Returning to the same starting point seemed boring and lacked excitement. To carry on walking the mountain range seemed risky. The time was running out and the once clear sky were accumulating dark clouds. It could clear up or not. No time to speculate. The map proved unhelpful. But I was not alone. A short exchange of opinions and advice from other trekkers resulted in one and one decision only. I took an unplanned route to Rila Monastery. While the chosen path was much longer it went through considerably less rocky and exposed terrain. Gently hills through forests and brooks. Had I known what a long and arduous task it was I might have thought it through once again. I was glad I had not. The trek proved to have been one of the most amazing adventure I have ever embarked on. Survival instinct and stamina was on my side. Many miles of lone walking took its toll. Exhausted, thirsty and uncertain to whether I manage to reach a shelter before dawn I started to rationalise my chances of completing the doomed trek. Determination and perseverance prevailed.
Although I was completely out of strength and energy, I regained my optimism and enthusiasm once I found myself on the last hill before descending to the now near Rila Monastery. Whatever happen, I would have to secure myself a place to rest and sleep. I ended up on the other side of the mountain range and coming back was not an option. I took that into consideration before beginning my trek that day. Key skills necessary were calmness, situation assessment and clear thinking. The last part was the hardest. An extremely steep, muddy and slippery descent just yards from the castle. The pain was unbearable. Crawling down, desperately hanging to every possible tree branches, it took me another hour to finish. On reflection, I can say wholeheartedly, it was worth it.
The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km (73 mi) south of the capital Sofia in the deep valley of the Rilska River at an elevation of 1,147 m (3,763 ft) above sea level, inside of Rila Monastery Nature Park. The monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD), and houses around 60 monks.