After a sleepless overnight bus ride from Istanbul I rolled into Sofia, a small city of 1.2 million and capital of Bulgaria. Between the impossibly high heels women wear, brightly colored tights from the 90s, bakeries with delicious banitsa pasteries, the streetside convenience stores whose counter is level with your knees (known as “squat shops”), or the traffic booths that I mistook for guard booths, it has a lot of character.
After the first good nights sleep in a week, I hiked around the Boyana Chuch and and hatched a plan for more hiking with a British girl. Back at the hostel another Brit joined our plan to hike to the Seven Rila Lakes the next day and end at the Rila Monestary the day after. I stayed the night with a couchsurfer and after shattering his stove (that story to come later), he offered to give me and the Brits a ride down to Dupnitsa. When we arrived my host helped us find the right bus to Sapareva Banya and he inadvertantly introduced us to a Swede and a Bulgarian who were going our way too. A few minutes after we described our hiking plan (and nearly missed our bus), they decided to join our hiking adventure across Rila National Park. We caught a taxi to the chair lift and as you do in Bulgaria we bought an unmarked, 1 liter bottle of homemade rakjia from our taxi driver. Finally our impromptu hiking group set off up the trail.
When you plan a trip to anywhere there are lots of logistics to consider, like directions to where you are going, how late transportation runs, where and when to buy tickets, reservations for accomodation, and much more. When you are hiking the logistics are the same but there is less flexibility. You can’t call a cab if the metro is closed for the night. If you get lost then chances are there isn’t a tourist office a few blocks away. There are no markets to buy food, no hostels or hotels to crash at, and the signs aren’t necesary in a language you understand.
I know the basics of hiking quite well, what to pack and how much food and water to bring, so I wasn’t worried about our survival. Except we didn’t have a map. I looked up everything I could online about the Rila lakes but most of the results were for organized tour groups and didn’t have trail information. I found a chair lift to a hut with food (if a cheese and butter sandwich is considered lunch) and a vauge description of another hut where we could stay the night. Perfect. The hike up to the lakes was beautiful and there was some snow along the path so we stopped for many photoshoots along the way. It wasn’t a long trek the first day and with some help from other hikers we found the right trail from the lakes to the hut. As we rounded the hill we spotted the hut far in the distance and I breathed a sigh of relief; we had a place to sleep that night.
After a delicious dinner of shopska salad, nettle soup and generous helpings of rakia, we followed the sound of instruments being tuned and were treated to a bagpipe concert. This is the first part, before the singer switched to a bagpipe as well.
The morning was cool and a heavy mist lay over the mountains. A fellow hiker warned us of rain but we thought he was overly confident in his prediction (we were right and it was sunny). We started a little later than planned and walking out of the valley was tiring, my muscles were complaining and I didn’t have the energy I expected. Only after I learned we had hiked over some of the tallest mountains in the Balkans at about 2600 meters (7800 feet), a moderately high altitude. The scenery was incredible though it was hard to appreciate when we were constantly looking down to keep from slipping, though we all inevitably lost footing and used our butts for landing pads.
Eventually we made it to the monestary with plenty of time to explore, wash our dirty feet and eat a few ice creams before riding back to Sofia. Once on the bus we did what any weary hiker does as soon as they sit: we napped.