The Rila Mountains
13 Sept. Borovets to Hizha Ledenoto Ezero. 12 km. 4.5hours. 1440m up. 30m down. We went to the salubrious Rila Hotel for their 8 euro breakfast buffet and gorged ourselves, then managed to persuade the reception to keep a bag for us for 5 days. Our route today was from the ski resort of Borovets up through the forests to a cabin before the summit of Mt Musala. However there was little information on our options. We could have gone to Yastrebets. It was not a hikers hut and a gondola went up the mountain to it, but it could have been an option to take an early lift and then walk from there to Granchar hut. This was not in the spirit of our hike. The other options were Musala Hut or Ledenoto Ezero Hut, neither of which were contactable and we could not find anyone who could give us information. From what we had gleaned Musula Hut was closed and Ledenoto Ezero should be open but did not serve food. So we bought bread, cheese and chocolate for 4 meals (2 lunches, a breakfast and dinner) and set off at 0930.
We walked up the road through the village on the tarmac road and went under the gondola and then got to a junction called the Musala Pathway. We decided to go up it rather than the fussy and overcomplicated route suggested by the Cicerone book. The Musala Pathway was largely a rough track which went up the valley of the stream between the mountains of Yastrebets and Graba. It was an easy walk up the gentle track with great forest on each side. Initially the forest was dark and dense with thick spruce, but as we climbed it thinned a bit and some pines and then even larch appeared. We crossed back and forth over the stream a few times and a good two hours after leaving Borovets we came a sharp hairpin in the track at the bottom station of a chairlift. After the hairpin the track went in completely the wrong direction and up to Yastrebets gondola top station, so we left it and continued up the valley.
The route was now on a path through the dwarf pine. It was occasionally boggy but easy to follow. We passed the bottom station of another much smaller T-bar ski lift. We had been walking just shy of 3 hours now so stopped for bread and cheese in the sun on a rustic bench on the edge of the dwarf pine forest. The willow herb and blueberry bushes were turning red and where there sun shone through them they were bright. The path from the last lift to Musala hut was less than an hour and was a joy. The trees were small enough to look over and the mountains to the south were starting to look craggy and imposing. The path still had the odd boggy area but it was easy to avoid weaving through the bushes. Sooner than expected we reached the Musala Hut. It was one of 3 Musala huts actually. One was a huge concrete carbuncle dominating the edge of the lake. It looked like it was previously abandoned, perhaps when the Yastrebets gondola was built, but was now being restored very slowly. One was a stone building which was closed and had rusty scaffolding round it as if its restoration had ground to a halt, and the third was a rustic 2 storey log cabin which had smoke coming from the chimney. We went to it.
Inside it was a bit scruffy with seating for 30 on wooden tables. Behind a gloomy hatch a old man was cooking in the dark depths of a chaotic kitchen. He was tall, thin, unshaven and with blackened hands and I assumed his food was unappetizing at the best, even if it was the bean soup which he said was the only thing to eat. He showed us some rooms upstairs which were not too bad. He said he did not know the status of the next hut, Ledenote ezero, and I suspected he was hoping we would stay. However people outside returning from climbing from Mount Musala said the next hut was open, so we took our chance and continued to it.
The next hour was a delightful walk as we climbed up past a series of small tarns in glacial bowls carved by glaciers into the granite ridges and buttresses. The tarns were shallow and then sun was shining into their turquoise and green waters. A few hardy dwarf pines persisted as we climbed up the rocky path beside a derelict line of electricity poles, each one now decorated with a small Bulgarian flag. Scores of people were descending having climbed Mount Musala and were now heading down to Musala Hut for a drink before walking down a near ridge-top track to Yastrebets Hut and the upper station to get whisked down to the hibernating fleshpots of Borovets for the night. It was not far to Ledenote ezero hut from Musala hut but there was a 400m climb to the Ice lake right under Mount Musala where the hut lay in its spectacular position.
The hut was open and had lentil soup on the menu. It was great as it would supplement our bread and cheese. It was cold in the dinning hall/sitting room which could seat 30. Upstairs was a a single triangular room with about 30 beds. There was no one else here so we had our pick. We took two beds at the far end and then had a lentil soup. After the soup we explored the lake and then when the sun disappeared the temperature plummeted down to low single figures so we went inside. By now a Czech, a Frenchman and a Bulgarian had joined us for the evening in the dormitory. There was no toilet here though and the boulders around the hut were supposed to suffice. Perhaps Musala hut was more comfortable, and even cleaner, but this one had a much more dramatic location. We learnt it was closing in a week around the 20th Sept.
Sept 14. Ledenote Ezero to Granchar Ezero. 10 km. 4 hours. 610m up. 1160m down. It was cold in the night and there was a small frost especially on the woodwork. Howerver, once the orange glow of the sun on the high flanks on Mount Musala had worked its way down to the hut it almost vanished at once. We had another bowl of lentil soup and bread for breakfast and then set off at around nine. It was a relief to get away from the squalor of the toilet-less hut. The path up the last 250m to Mount Musala summit was well constructed and easy to follow as the electricity poles still marked the way. After 45 minutes we approached the summit ridge and could see the large Beli Iskar valley to the west, which cleft the Rila Mountain massif in two. Beyond the valley were the rolling granite hills and cirques, a few with lakes, of the mountains around Malyovista. The mountains were not dramatic, with spires towers and crenelated ridges, but like the eons old granite mountains of Scotland. Just before the top we saw a mother and kid chamois.
The top itself was ruined with 2 ugly buildings which were a research station. They were completely out of place, especially the newer one clad in the blue sheeting of an industrial estate. They looked like they were scientific, especially weather, stations. The older one looked like it was put up in the communist era and was as much as a scientific station as a symbol of mans conquest of the inhospitable environment. There was a bitterly cold wild blowing so we did not linger at this uninviting place and instead descended to the south down a steeper ridge. Almost at once human influence dropped off and the mountains took on a wilder, peaceful and more natural persona.
We dropped down to the saddle and saw a couple of fantastic glacial lakes with deep hues of turquoise and green in the U shaped valley to the east. It could have been a pastoral paradise but I had not seen any evidence of livestock or transhumance here in Bulgaria so far. It might be that in the comunist era it was discouraged and all meat and dairy production was switched to collective barns in the lowlands. At the top of the Bliznak mountains the wind dropped off more and the sun was warm.
We stopped for a snack of bread and cheese at the next bigger saddle after the Bliznaks. A few other trekkers passed us heading north and we made some necessary small chat before carriying on along the craggy ridge with impressive slopes on each side. To the west we could see the Beli Iskar dam and reservoir and then the mountains to the west of it. In the distance to the south were the Pirin mountains, which did not look too craggy or interesting. After a good hour on the craggy ridge for the enjoyable lofty walk we reached a rise were the Granchar Valley came into view. We could even see the Granchar hut were we would spent the night on the edge of a lake.
The way down was easy as the path treaded a course through the islands of the dwarf pine. Soon the islands merged into one and the path almost tunnelled through their 3 meter high branches. After half an hour of descent we reached an open saddle where a track crossed the path. We followed this track and a shorcut path for 15 minutes down to Granchar hut. As we approached it looked less idyllic and more of a collection of miners shanties. We reached the lake, crossed the small dam and arrived at the hut.
It was a major disappointment as the hut was more of an abandoned barracks which which had been converted into tourist accommodation. There was the choice of a large empty dorm with some 10 metal bunks and very old mattresses in one room or one of the squalid cabins, half of which had already fallen down with the same old dirty mattresses. We took the latter as at least there would be no others. It seems Bulgaria just has not got it’s hiker infrastructure in order yet and everything is a working ruin from the Communist era 30 years ago. It was good a toilet block existed here, as opposed to the previous night, but it was almost a ruin and so dirty I would go al fresco here also. The one redeeming factor here was the simple food which was simple and hearty.
Sept 15. Granchar Ezero to Rila Monastery. 35km. 10hours. 890m up. 2000m down. We left 0730 after a great breakfast. The hosts of Granchar, Angel and Maria, had grown on us a lot and their hospitality and humour, though not exceptional, was but far the warmest we had had in Bulgaria so far. The full moon had just dipped below the ridge line to the west and the sun was just coming up behind us to the east as we crossed the lakes dam and followed the path up between the impenetrable clumps of dwarf pine. It did not take long to climb to the saddle again and start up the gentle, but sustained, slope towards Kovach which was pretty much the highest point of the day. We did not go to the summit but skirted round the west side and then dropped down to a saddle on the SW side of it which had a few dried up ponds. To the north we could look down the cleft of the Beli Iskar valley which divided these mountains in two. As this valley rose it veered west to end in a high bowl and it was to the west end of this high bowl we now walked.
The path was easy underfoot as we rose up over a rounded hill and then dropped down the other side to another shallow saddle, Gorni Kuli. We had almost been going 3 hours now so stopped for lunch on the ridge and snacked in the sun. There were a few valleys to the south which dropped down to the forests surrounding the Rila Mountains. From this saddle there was a small rise up the grassy ridge top to Vapa, where there was a great view down to some lakes in a bowl at the top of a pastoral valley. But still we had seen no livestock in what was great grazing. The path continued west from Vapa round the lip of the large Beli Iskar valley towards the pointed peak of Kanarata. Here it climbed the mountains shoulder on grassy slopes to a saddle before descending a rough path through granite boulders on the east flank of the mountain. The going was slow here until we passed the boulders and reached the saddle at the head of the Beli Ishak valley. The flowers were still in their prime here especially the small purple Bulgarian gentians. It was a short steep descent on the west side of the pass down through pine bushes to the upper of the Ribni lakes. The views on the descent over the lakes, the mountain hut and the Malyovitsa range to the NW were sensational from here.
We heard cowbells as we descended towards the large well appointed hut but they belonged to a lone horse who must have been a beast of burden to supply the hut. As with the Granchar hut the nearer we got the less idyllic it became and the more semi derelict. As opposed from the Granchar hut were got a totally indifferent welcome from the apathetic lady who had the concession on this Bulgarian Hiking Association hut. It was as if we were just a nuisance. The dilapidated entrance was blocked by some 6 heavily smoking swarthy middle aged fisherman who were all drinking spirit. We ordered bean soup and a demand for payment was almost issued before I had finished ordering. We sat out side and ate the soup as the men packed up and smoked more and the host smoked and chatted with them. It was disappointing that such a beautiful location had been spoilt by this near ruin of a dirty hut run by such inhospitable people. Better to blow the whole thing up and restore the nature.
We left The Ribni hut walked passed the lower lake and started the long descent down the Tiha Rila valley. The valley was stunning and approaching the full blaze of autumn. It was a good 10 km down it, initially on a path through the pines and then on a track through mixed conifers with a lot of birch. The blueberry bushes where heavy with fruit and their leaves were a bright crimson, the grasses were yellow and some of the leaves were turning golden. It was as if the forest was nearly ablaze. High above them on both side, especially the north were steep granite crags and cliffs where I am sure chamois thrived. It was quiet and easy 10km as it was all downhill and it took about 3 hours with a good pause on a sunny bench. As we descended down the rough track a few cars passed us but generally it was quiet until we got to Kirilova Polyana, a small tourist complex with some cabins, a guesthouse and a couple of restaurants, all of which looking more welcoming than Ribni Lakes hut.
From here the road was asphalt and we followed it down for a half km until there was a great short cut through the woods which were now dominated by beech with some huge specimen trees. The track we were on crossed and re-crossed the road keeping us in the quiet dappled shade of the beech for a couple of km until the bottom of the road’s hairpin bends. Here the path merged with the road and there was no option but to follow the road. On the south side were a series of large picnic places but it would be difficult to link them up. However on the north was a path, perhaps an old pilgrimage path, which we only discovered towards the end of it. It had notices of various saints along the path and I am sure we could have discovered it when the other path ran out at the bottom of the hairpin bends on the road. We followed it for another km past haystacks and scythed fields until it descended down to the asphalt road again.
Here we should have crossed a bridge to the south side and followed a quiet track down the riverbank for a km to cross a bridge with a paved lane to reach the hotel. However unsure if we could get back across the stream we continued down the road on the north side of the stream which was a mistake partly caused by our fatigue and a better the devil you know caution. The hotel was the first building we came to and the monastery was just beyond. The hotel looked nice but the receptionist was the most inhospitable woman we have met so far in Bulgaria, and she has had some stiff competition. There was no restaurant here but apparently one a 5 minute walk away which closes at 2200 and this is where we should have breakfast also it was explained. The room was not too bad, but a bit over designed, however there was copious hot water to soothe our tired feet and wash our clothes. We got to the restaurant at 2000 to find it shutting and I had to explain out predicament to the host who ungraciously allowed us to eat. The food was poor but we were hungry and ate it all and washed it down with Czech beer, which was the only treat. I managed to bash out the blog in the evening before crashing out at 2300.
Sept 16. Rila Monastery to Ivan Vasov. 15km. 6 hours. 1310m down. 320m up. We slept well in the comfortable bed after the 10 hours walk yesterday and did not get up until after 0800. We wandered along to the restaurant from last night and passed through it hoping to find something else, but there was none so we were resigned to the restaurant of last night. In the meantime we decided to look round the monastery first. It was an astonishing building. Almost hexagonal in shape and 4 stories high it enclosed a huge courtyard. The courtyard was large, about the size of a football pitch, large enough to house a large church and separate clock tower. The monastery itself was a beautiful building with 3 or 4 stories all with a arched walkway in front of the rooms overlooking the courtyard like a giant veranda on each floor. The arches and pillars of the veranda were black and white and looked like the Moorish pillars of the Islamic grand mosques and palaces of Andalusia. The whole building was in very good order with huge copper gutters and drainpipes. There was money here to spend, unlike the mountain huts. I went into the church and was surprised by the opulence. I always assumed Orthodox was more restrained than Catholic, but not so here. The gold in the alcoves and altar area was lavish. As we walked round the deserted courtyard the sun appeared on some of the east facing upper stories and illuminated them brightly. Photography was impossible with the contrasts. It was a very beautiful building.
After an hour at the monastery we went to the cafe for breakfast, which was surprisingly good. We ordered a second one of a cheesy bread to have as lunch. We went back to to hotel packed and paid the ungracious receptionist and set off about 1100 from the monastery which was now busy with bussed up tourists. We found he path easily and started up passing the grave of James Bouchier, an English Times correspondent who championed Bulgaria a century ago. The walk up initially was through beech woods with dappled light on the forest floor. It continued like this for an hour until the path reached a spur and made a sharp hairpin. In the beech forest before the hairpin there were quite a few windfalls, some 3-5 years old, which had still not been cleared.
After the hairpin the path went up more steeply climbing through mixed woods. Some of the stretches were very beautiful and we mananged to get some views through the tree. As we climbed the mixed conifers, birch, maple and oak, the forest thinned and there were frequent glades covered in high brown grass as high as us. The area had obviously not been grazed at all. We climbed this for another 2 hours until the forest becamer spares and the grassland dominant. We went from glades to copses. Under one 5 needle pine copse we found a shaded place to have our cheesy bread from breakfast. It was cool under the tree but hot outside it’s shade in the hot afternoon sun.
After the late lunch we carried on up past a flange of spruce which was a cool respite from the sun and then emerged at a saddle where there was a small shelter and a corral for sheep. It looked like the sheep had been here recently but the water supply to the area had dried up and the pastoralists had moved on. It was nice to see signs of this pastoralism, and it was the first on the Rila trek we had seen any. The path now climbed up past the dried up water source and then up the west side of the Cherni Rid ridge climbing steadily until it got to about 2450m, when it reached a saddle on a rocky ridge. We were spared going up the ridge to the NW of the saddle to the larger hill called Varla and instead just crossed the saddle to the east side into a new green valley with two herds od cattle grazing verdant pastures watered by small springs.
We continued north from the saddle contouring round the east flank of Varla until the pastoral valley came up to meet us. From here the walk was a delight and very easy as it was virtually flat. The prostrate Bulgarian gentian were everywhere, even in the earth rut of the path. There were also many other alpines which were just in flower. Herds of horses grazed the higher slopes on each side of the plateau while small springs oozed water down the shallow hillsides creating long wedges of greener grass in the brown hillsides. We crossed a small pass and then started down the very gentle slope on the other side. Half way down the 4 km to the hut I saw a large herd od sheep, perhaps 300 animals in all, come over a ridge. I knew they would be shepherded by a man and perhaps 4-5 dogs as this was wolf country. The herd came straight for us and I was hoping the shepherd could control his dogs. If we ended up in the middle of the flock without a shepherd to assure them with a whistle the dogs would attack. Luckily this shepherd saw us and directed all away from the path. The dogs nevertheless barked with a deep powerful throaty sound.
After the sheep the hut came into view. It was in a huge pasture full of cows and horses. At last I felt that transhumance was alive in Bulgaria and the previous regimes had not eradicated it. It was reassuring and comforting to the soul to see so many animals in there high pastures. The Ivan Vasov hut was large and deserted when we got there. We were offered a private shed but it would be cold at night, so we went for a dormitory in the hope it would not fill up. The hut warden was a pretentious spiritual man with dreadlocks in his beard. However his family and him gave us a warm welcome. The food was great and ambience of the hut became warm and chatty as the evening unfolded. Even the toilets here were acceptable. It was easily the best hut we had stayed in so far on this trip.
17 Sept. Ivan Vasov to Malyovitsa Complex. 20km. 7.5 hours. 940m up. 1690m down. We were the first up in the dormitory of 6. Fiona had not slept well, mostly due to dogs barking outside in the meadow, but some due to the huffs and puffs of being in a dorm. The host made us a great breakfast of French toast and an cheese omelette. He then explained a good route to us so we could see the 7 lakes from the ridgetop. He also said we could get a bus from Malyovitsa to Samakov, and then up to Borovets which would spare us the 10km walk from Malyovitsa to Govedatsi which I thought was inevitable. The host owned this hut and had put a lot of work and his soul into rebuilding it into something like a Central European Refugio. He said the Bulgarian Trekking Association huts were still maintained and managed as if in the communist era and the owners and wardens had little interest. He was an outspoken man with strong opinions. One of which was he though Ivan Vasov, after which his hut was named, was a distasteful Nationalist and he wanted to change the name of the Hut.
We left at 0800 with the host’s dog in tow. It looked like he was latching onto us for a mornings walk, something I have often experienced. It was yet another glorious day with clear skies which still had a tinge of early morning yellow before the light, and eventually sapphire, blue revealed itself. We headed up the path behind the hut for a good half hour until we reahed the ridge. A herd of horses grazed here, their coats shiny with the good pastures. The dog was wary of them and the horses seemed unfazed by his presence. We made the ridge and could see down to the north side of it. There was a lake in a cirque, but it was still dark in the shadow of the ridges. Beyond the cirque the valley flowed down to the low lying light mist in the plains to towards Sofia.
We turned east now and continued out climb up to Otovishki Vrah, a high point on the ridge. From this rocky summit the views to the north burst upon us. We could see all the 7 lakes laid out in various hues of azure and green, the sun illuminating them all and even the turquoise depths and the dappled mantle of submerged boulders around their fringe. It was an astonishing sight to see the network of them laid in the valley like a string of sapphire stones on ruckled cloth of green velvet. Beyond the bowls where each lake lay a valley formed and it led down to the forests of the lower slopes, which spilled onto the plains to the north. The plains themselves were still full of morning mist save for low ridge upon upon ridge aligned east to west with the crest of each ridge higher than the previous and rising above the translucent plains. The most distant ridge was the Balkan Range stretching right across Bulgaria.
To the south was the high pastoral valley which we walked down yesterday towards the now small cluster of buildings which Ivan Vasov hut, and the home of the gentle dog, a Munsterlander, who was still following us. We could make out the cows grazing far below in the gentle U of the valley and a few larger herds of horses on the slope above. In the distance were the Pirin Mountains, the neighbouring range of the Rila. We followed the ridge east for a few km with the 7 lakes ever chanhing hue to the south and the pastoral valley to the south narrowing. In the distance ahead was the craggy Malyovitsa massif and it was here we were heading. This ridge walk was virtually flat and easy underfoot. It was perhaps the nicest few km of the entire Rila Traverse trek and the rich light of the early morning enhanced it. A pair of goshawks circled up effortlessly in the morning updrafts. After a lovely hour we reached the gentle Radzela saddle, a major path junction in the western Rila. It was marked by a 10 foot high iron sculpture with bells which chimed when the wind was gusty. We could have walked from Ivan Vasov hut to Radzela saddle in an hour but would have missed the sensational ridge walk which only cost us another hour. The dog was still with us often leading the way which he must have known well.
We now veered south and then south east over grassy slopes right above the shallow valley and pass we came over yesterday. To the east was a huge cirque, on the map called Urdln Circus. There was another sensational view here over the stacked lakes of the cirque towards a very craggy ridge with a few peaks on it including Malyovitsa, 2729m, where we would be going. The cirque almost looked like it had been formed by a giant landslip rather than as a result of glacial erosion. The lakes were quite small and were perched on shelves in the cirque. We veered east and started the long slow gentle climb up the grassy ramp leading to the summit of Dodov Vrah. En route we passed another herd of hoses with about 50 animals in all, their healthy coats shiny in the sun. We had now passed perhaps 200 horses so far today and seen many more further afield. These horses were probably destined for the dinner table.
We stopped at the top here as it was 3 hours since leaving Ivan Vazov and started our last loaf and some cheese. The dog was still with us and lay down in the sun while we ate. I tossed him some lumps of cheese as we had bonded a bit with him. I also threw some stale bread down the crag for the ravens who were putting on an acrobatic show for us, playing in the thermals. After lunch we told the dog to return, which he did, while we started down the craggy east ridge. A kestrel hovered making frequent dives into the grass obviously missing his prey each time. At the bottom of the craggy east ridge we got a great view down to the Rila Monastery on the south side of the ridge. There was a knee thumper of a path down to it for nearly 1500m.
At this saddle we started our last climb of the trek up the grassy west flank of Malyovitsa to a flat summit ridge which we followed for 5 minutes to reach the top. The were great views again to the north down the precipitous slopes to Malyovitsa Hut, and then a few km further down the small ski centre and trail head. They seemed deceptively close. The descent down the east ridge of Malyovitsa to the saddle, and then down the steep slopes to the valley were the hut lay was loose gravel and boulders all covered in dust and sand from the eroded path. We had to go slowly as it would have been easy to slip and slide a few grazing metres. It took much longer than we expected. The only respite for the 7-800 metre descent was a small lake, Golyamo Elenino. There were many small fish in its warm shallows where the path passed. They seemed to know walkers meant food and we obliged with the last slices of stale bread which they attacked like piranhas in ferocious shoals. At last the valley floor flattened out, while the sides curved up giving the whole slot a U shape. Flowers were prolific here and the dwarf pine flourished. After a couple of km weaving through them on the rocky, hard underfoot, path we reached the larger Malyovitsa hut. It looked like it was also owned by the Bulgarian Trekking Association and had a apathetic warden, but the hut itself was in reasonable repair. We stopped here for a drink, grudgingly served, before the last stretch.
Below the hut was a very rough track. Too rough and narrow for a 4×4 but perhaps tolerable for a quad bike and certainly for pack horses. The track plunged into spruce trees below the hut and it was a pleasant shaded walk through them. After an hour we arrived at the dormant Malyovitsa Complex which was a small ski lift, 2 dormant hotels, a small functioning cafe and an empty carpark. It was all waiting for the winter snows to come alive. There should have been a bus to Samekov at 1700 but the service was apparently erratic, so when 1710 came we assumed it was not coming and ordered a taxi. Some 10 minutes later the bus ambled up but the taxi was already en route. When it arrived it whisked us down the 10 km road to Govedatsi where we initially intended to spend the night, and then up to the comforts of the dormant Borovets where we finished.