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Snowshoeing in the mountains
To be honest Bulgaria is a place which didn’t conjure up the most exciting expectations. I can not get away from its communist Eastern European block image, but I joined the trip thinking I knew nothing of the country or the region and was interested to get a truer perspective of what it’s like.
The flight is just over 2 hours from the UK and after another hour and a half transfer we arrived in our hotel for the night. As we arrived early evening we were surrounded by darkness so, so far I had seen nothing of the country apart from a shiny new airport.
There was no one else staying at the hotel I found out the following morning when I went to breakfast which I came to realise summed up the week’s experience – we really were off the beaten track, faraway from the ski resorts. The hotel we stayed in for the first few days was clean and the food was traditionally Bulgarian – tea, coffee and orange juice, along with toast, cold meats and salad was the staple breakfast throughout
The first day’s walking was a simple stroll, gaining about 6-700m to around 2400m. It was our first day in snowshoes and really there isn’t much to it as we all found out. If you can walk you’re ok, you just widen your gait a little to make sure the shoes don’t collide.
We were lucky and unlucky on the first two days as we had about a foot of perfect light, powdery snow. This was obviously great for the snowshoeing as we had some deep snow to sink into, but it also meant we had some low lying cloud lingering around so views were a treat rather than the norm.
This was very much an interesting intro to snowshoes and the avalanche kit we were given – both new bits of kit for me so quite exciting. Thankfully the latter was never used!
We had a 5 hour walk to the head of a valley, and apart from some locals walking to the refuge halfway up and some cross country skiers we saw no one else. This was the theme for the trip, just our group (7 people) in the mountains, enjoying the snow powder and fresh mountain air.
Again rising for breakfast at a leisurely 8am, we were out on the mountains for 9.30am. The snow was still falling today which added the atmosphere and again we had a gentle ascent through the conifer forests to a remote wooden refuge for lunch before another one and half hours traverse to our driver who picked us up and took us to our new base a smart hotel in Panichitse.
This second hotel is larger and more modern. I think it’s been built to accommodate the future demand from skiers, which isn’t there currently but maybe in five years... This place also had a sauna and Jacuzzi, which was useful as on most days we finished walking and were back in the hotel by 4pm. So throughout the trip we always had the early evening to relax and do our own thing before dinner which was normally served at 7pm and after some local wine were all in bed (separate ones) by 10pm.
This day offered something different – we donned the snowshoes for a small walk in the morning and then visited the Rila Mountains Visitor Centre and with the help of Lyubens, our guide, translating, we got an insight into the geography, wildlife and folklore of this National Park.
After this we went to the local village and visited the local spring baths – again this was more Jacuzzi time. There was also a heated pool and plunge pool. The latter seemed impossible to dunk myself in on attempt one, but after some mind over matter and more time in the heated area I managed a relatively comfortable minute in the icy waters but came out pretty dizzy/refreshed. That was an interesting experience; something I have never done at home and certainly brought a few laughs from the group. Following the bath time it was off to a local restaurant to savour another three course meal for lunch. I don’t think I lost weight on this holiday. The average meal was a soup to start, followed by a meat and veg main and a generous wedge of cake for desert. Although on the walking days we were supplied a lighter picnic to eat in the mountains consisting of bread, cheese, meats, some chocolate and fruit.
This was the longest walking day to date up to the beautiful Skakavitza waterfall; a stunning 70m frozen waterfall at the top of the valley. As we were now midweek, on these walks we really were the only people around, we had this beautiful mountain range to ourselves it seemed. Lyubens was beating a track through the virgin white snow – great stuff! Although it was longest day were only walking for four and half hours so really not too long.
This was the finale of the trip and it lived up to its billing. Again, after the normal 9am leave we ascended up through the low lying cloud and suddenly we had views for miles with a fantastic blue sky for a backdrop. After about three hours we arrived at the beautiful Seven Lakes area, stopping by the Kidney Lake (fifth of the seven lakes in a row) for one of the most memorable lunches I have ever had. Again there was not a person around and no traces of anyone either, we were breaking a trail to this stunning location of frozen lakes, with the crunch of fresh snow under our feet. This was high peaks snowshoeing! I think again we peaked around 2350m, so we never get too high on the trip. On most days it was circa 2000m from a base of 1600m.
That was it for the snowshoeing and I was really pleased with that final breathtaking day. Today our driver, Vascos, who had taken us to and from the trailhead everyday, could get some real driving done as we checked out to go back to Sofia. On the journey we stopped off at the region’s number one attraction – the Rila Monastery, which has been home to Bulgarian culture through the centuries. It really was a unique bit of architecture in the middle of the mountains and well worth the visit. I imagine in the summer it’s full of tourists, but at this time of year there’s a small spread of tourists and monks.
From here we went onto Sofia, checked in and after a quick bit of downtime, it was off to a local restaurant for a celebratory end of tour meal. Depending on your flight time your group leader will take you on a walking tour of Sofia on this day or the next.
This was our final day and as our flights were that evening Lyubens took us on a walking tour of his city. With its 19th and 20th century buildings, representing a place which has seen much change in the past 200 years, it’s a fascinating city with numerous highlights, including the stunning Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, the old communist headquarters, and a plethora of statues, monuments and churches. Sofia is lucky in that you can walk to all the main sites so a two hour walking tour covers all the notable sites.
There was a large gender split in the afternoon with the ladies hell bent on spending any remaining lev in the shops and markets, while the blokes all just looked a little bored kicking their feet!
Overall my thoughts were:
It was an interesting trip which was gently paced. It’s ideal for someone looking to enjoy some activity and variety but don’t want to push themselves to the limit. It’s not strenuous so don’t be put off if you haven’t done much walking.
I found Bulgaria had moved on from its communist history in Sofia, but its recent history still dominated the rural areas. It felt like it was trying to find it’s way in the competitive global free market, which is no easy task.
The Bulgarian language, both written and spoken was impossible to pick up so I thank Lyubens our guide. He was invaluable, without him there would just have been a lot of smiles and shrugs, with him we got to know the country better and enjoy a more immersive experience.
The Rila Mountains were stunning at this time of year with miles and miles of conifers heavily laden with snow on their branches. The area is a true European wilderness, a real winter wonderland. Appealing to the little child in me it reminded me of the Narnia, as you followed narrow winding tracks through the forest without a person in sight.
Underpinning all this is its still cheap. I spent £50 out there on top of the listed price, which includes most meals (there were just two additional meals to pay for, plus drinks). Therefore for around £700 I had a week away doing some activity in a stunning location and learning a little more about a country I knew little of.
I hope you found this insight useful…
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