I have been visiting Bulgaria both in summer and winter in the last couple of years and have been pleasantly surprised by the improvement of the infrastructure since the country joined the EU. Just like the other Balkan countries Bulgaria is culturally rich and has beautiful unspoiled nature, so it is worth visiting both in summer for hiking and in winter for winter sports.
Bulgaria has the highest peaks of the Balkans. During my recent trip with London European Club we reached the peak of mountain Rila, Musala at 2925m and the peak of mountain Pirin, Vihren at 2914m.
Being close to 3000m early in the morning is certainly a unique experience, the clear air and the perfectly sunny conditions opened spectacular views that will long remain in my memory.
Describing the feeling of reaching a peak is impossible, for me it is a picture of absolute clarity an overwhelming feeling of happiness, a wider perspective. Yes it takes hours of climbing and in the case of climbing peak Vihren, even wondering if a wrong step won’t mean stumbling down the rocks.
Hours of steep descent add to the tiredness and the pain in my legs, but when on top of a mountain, while seeing all the hiking opportunities that open up in front of my eyes, I can’t stop myself from planning the next adventure to the next mountain.
Seeing a peak that you have reached in the distance also gives one a special feeling of achievement, as funny as it may sound, I feel happy when I say: I was there.
Our guide Stoyan had been to Musala and Vihren with many friends and tourists numerous times but his enthusiasm and knowledge of nature and culture is both impressive and catching.
Aside from taking us to the highest peaks of the Balkans , Stoyan took us to the seven Rila Lakes, each of them unique and all of them visible from a point on mountain Rila.
The lakes are beautiful, but the chairlift that was built nearby brings hundreds of people on weekends, so I would avoid going there on a Saturday or a Sunday. My prior visit to mountain Rila was in May and there was hardly a soul there, but you should be prepared for snow if you go that early in the year. Hiking in August is pleasant and warm but you may be faced with crowds of hikers coming from Sofia.
A nice thing about visiting Rila and Piin are spas. Both mountains are rich with hot mineral waters and there are many spas one could visit. We stayed in Bansko, a quite little town which has thermal waters.
My favourite is still Sapareva Banya near Samokov with open outdoor pools.
Our trip ended in Sofia this time, the Bulgarian capital certainly deserves more than just a 12 hour visit, as there are many places of interest, nice parks and gardens, restaurants and theatres. Sofia already “suffers” from EU standardisation, so you will see the same adverts and products like in every other Debenhams, Subway or Starbucks in Europe. Never the less it has valuable treasures like the 4th century St. George Rotunda built next to the palace of Constantine the Great and now hidden in a little square in Sofia.
It is also still very easy to find a restaurant or café which is mainly visited by locals in one of the side streets of Sofia iif you want to feel a more authentic atmosphere.
While Hiking the Balkans it was never my intention to stay in cities for long and I am off to my next hiking adventure starting soon in Montenegro and following the trails to the Accursed Mountains in Albania.