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Alongside the Struma river – the beautiful Zemen canyon

Струма – Struma is a river in the Western part of Bulgaria. It has its source in the Vitosha mountain and flows into the Aegean sea after more than 600 kilometers of picturesque meanders within Bulgarian and Greek territory. The river is a beloved destination for kayakers in Bulgaria, as far as I know it is the best location for kayaking in our country. This stubborn body of water had to fight for its way with rocks and mountains along its path and the result are several breathtakingly beautiful gorges one can nowadays enjoy. The one we visited recently is the not very famous, but just as marvelous – the Zemen gorge or the Zemen canyon – Земенски пролом.

To get to the Zemen gorge eco trail, we decided to use the Zemen monastery as a starting point. This is an ancient monastery located near the tiny town of Zemen in the Northwestern part of Bulgaria.

The monastery is well-preserved and impresses with unique frescoes that rank among the oldest and most valued pieces of Renaissance religious art on the Balkan peninsula alongside with the ones in the Boyana church.

We did not spend too much time in the monastery yard as we were eager to get to the eco trail and with the friendly help of the lady who sells the candles in the monastery, we made our way to the beginning of the path.

To get there, just walk back a hundred meters from the monastery entrance towards the big metal cross and before the cross, turn left and follow the unpaved road, it will lead you to a fence and a small brick building from which stairs ascend – this is where the path starts. The sad thing is, the eco trail was actually renovated and equipped with signs in 2015, but was quickly let go, so now it’s very easy to lose your way, which we actually did… twice! In order to avoid our mistake, follow the stairs downward and once you get to this rundown little house, take a turn to the left:

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The beginning of the eco trail is actually not that interesting, there is a spot where one can take a small rest, but since we had only been walking for about 15 minutes, I thought it was quite impractical to have it there.

After this first (of several) rest spots, from where you get a nice view of the town Zemen and a little bit of a taste of what expects you further on, the path enters a forest. This was a nice change for us, since noon was approaching and the sun was scorching hot. A steep 10-15 minute descent took us to the railway track along which the eco path continues. There was another rest stop and an outside fitness area there.

This is where we got lost again! 🙂 There must have been a sign at one point directing tourists to the left, but not anymore.. So we turned right. Anyway, for a while it was also nice to go that way, but we kept approaching Zemen and civilization generally, something we were actually trying to get away from.

Along the way we passed a small neighbourhood which looked abandoned as well as several pretty rock formations and something that looked like an ancient fortress. But all in all we realized that we must have gotten the wrong way. After about an hour of walking, with my already rather big pregnant belly I was getting quite whiny and did not feel too well in the scorching sun, so we turned back.

When we got back to the rest stop I mentioned in the above paragraph, we saw a large family with kids who were nice enough to show us the correct way – well, the opposite way to the one we had taken and so we decided to do at least a little bit of the real eco trail.

That turned out to be a great decision, since the path runs along the cool river and is hidden from the sun. We saw some amazing views of stunning rock formations and had I not been so tired already, we would have walked much more.

The thought of having to climb the steep forest trail on the way back also plagued my mind, so we turned back with the promise to go back to the trail and see more of it next time. My advice on this route – just turn to the left when in doubt! 🙂

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The spring of live water near Bosnek village

Only approximately 40 minutes away from Sofia is the picturesque little village of Bosnek – Боснек, also known as the “lungs of Pernik” – a miner town back during communist days, which by the way is home of the famous Surva festival, an event which I can highly recommend.

This neat little village houses several sights worth the short drive from Sofia – one is a 600-year-old oak, a truly interesting view to behold, another one is the longest cave in Bulgaria – Duhlata – Духлата, which is only accessible with speleological gear and is not an easy challenge with its 18 km length. The sight I want to tell you about, is a lovely ecopath leading to a natural water spring called the Live Water of Bosnek. Right next to it is the Live Water cave which is also worth a short visit.

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The path starts at the end of the Live Water street in Bosnek and is a very easy walk, about 2 hours both ways. We were lucky and there were barely any people to meet in spite of the fantastic weather. The nature is versatile, there’s plenty of bird species to be observed, as well as game, apparently – a sign for this was the blood trail that ran along the path almost the entire way until the water source. This was a bit stressful for me, as I imagined wounded wolves, bears and all kinds of forest monsters stalking us from the trees, but even if there were any, none of them showed their faces, thank God!

All the more, we had our border collie with us, and a cute little beagle bitch from the last house in Bosnek decided to join us, so with these hunting beasts alongside us, my worries subsided.

The weather was fine, we saw different birds and as the path presented us with a very chill walk, the mood was excellent. The path turned into an icy creek at one point because of the melting snow, but it was still passable.

This easy walk though was about to get somewhat strange: all of a sudden, the dogs which were running ahead, stopped at a turn and barked, obviously startled by something. We hurried after the to see what scared them and saw a man, carrying a hunting rifle and a big yellow bag full of something (poached game?). The man was scrambling to get away from us and into the trees, away from the path. Together with the blood trail, this creeped me out even more, I kind of felt like in the beginning scenes of a horror movie, but my husband laughed my worries off and called me a scaredycat as he usually does..(once he was dead-wrong, though, when a bear growled at us and made his pants turn brown after having called me a coward imagining things again :D). The man must have been a simple run of the mill poacher, as we met him once again on the way back and he again hastily hid into the forest before we could say anything to him.

Soon we reached the Live Water Source, which is supposed to look like a dragon, but to me it’s just a plain crocodile 🙂 Right next to it is a small shelter with a fireplace one could use in the summer for some nice barbecues in the forest shade. We took some pictures and continued on for about 300 meters to reach the little cave above the source. A small altar is inside, and I think one can advance in the cave, as there is a narrow corridor disappearing in the dark right corner.

We didn’t linger, as it was chilly among the trees and we hurriedly went back to the sunny path. Took us somewhat less than an hour to return to the beginning of the eco path. There were about 15 horses peacefully grazing next to our car. I think Buck frightened them, as they all of a sudden galloped behind the houses in order to reach a little hill far away from our “killer” dog. They were a beautiful sight.

On the way back we stopped at the giant oak for a while, but my phone had died, so I didn’t take any pictures of it. But hey, here’s your reason to go see this beautiful path for yourself 🙂

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200 meters in 5 hours. Bezengi

Even though this summer was quite a bummer when it comes to climbing – meaning I barely had the opportunity to, we were able to finish the season off with a couple of fulfilled dreams. One I already wrote about – the little Lakatnik house and the other one was a famous multi-pitch climb at the Vratsa cliffs – Bezengi. Bezengi is the first equipped route on this part of the Vratsa rocks, firstly equipped back in 1962. Currently it consists of 6 ropes and measures to a 160 meters according to most websites, but summing the separate ropes it adds up to 200 meters. Most climbers skip the last two ropes and rappel down from the top of the fourth as the climb ahead can be quite dangerous due to unstable rock. Sasho and I had our minds firmly set on completing the whole thing so one windy October Saturday morning we set off for Vratsa.

The weather was very inconsistent and I did not feel particularly energized; Sasho was constantly worrying about the 4th rope of which he had read was the most difficult one on the route and as such was naturally his responsibility to lead. Both of us had our doubts and when we finally arrived, I was almost ready to turn around and go home. The wind was strong and ice cold and there was only one group of climbers who had spent the night, they were just opening up their tent, whereas usually there are crowds of people ready to climb. Thank God Sasho was braver and more psyched about climbing than I and ignoring my whining he quickly started to gear up. I sighed and did the same – we were gonna climb.

The overall UIAA route difficulty is 6-. Bearing that in mind and also what a great climber Sasho is, I wasn’t worried whether we were going to make it. My fears were rather connected with my use of the gear and also – how was I going to survive for at least 4 hours on the rock without being able to pee (I have a tiny bladder)?! After having completed a course on cliff climbing where we sporadically did a 2 rope multi-pitch climb, I hadn’t really been on a multi-pitch route before. But climbing with Sasho is easy – he has the situation under control, always has a plan B and is impeccable about the use of gear, he is very good both in theory and practice, so after a quick check which way exactly to go, I set out on rope one.

The wind kind of subsided, the sun came out in between the clouds and it was very nice on the rock, which was sort of warm and the climb was easy.

There is a reason why Bezengi is often called one of the most beautiful climbs in this part of the Vratsa pass. The views were stunning, I was able to snap a few photos on the way before the mist came out again, which it unfortunately did the higher we climbed.

Sasho was uneasy about the 4th rope which we rapidly approached. I did not have any doubt whether he could make it – he certainly could, but he is a little bit susceptible to fear and I have seen him set psychological boundaries for himself which prevented him from doing a climb he would normally ace. I had my concerns and tried encouraging him several times. Before the fourth rope we allowed ourselves an extended break, we had some chocolate and water and got mentally prepared for what was next.

As expected, Sasho killed the route, no problem whatsoever so we proceeded with the ascent. When we got to the fifth and sixth rope, the rock did start to get very unstable. It didn’t help at all that the bolts were scarce and oftentimes we were unsure which way to continue. We received some directions from a climbing couple beneath us – two girls who climbed one rope behind us, with a pretty good timing – we never clashed on the wall and none of us had to wait for the other pair, so it worked out great. They had climbed the route before and let us know which way to continue.

I ascended the last rope and while I was waiting for Sasho, I casually looked behind my shoulder. When I arrived at the spot, there was nothing there, mist surrounding me and hiding everything further than 3 meters away, see pic above. But when I turned around, the mist had thinned significantly and an enormous tsunami of a cliff was hanging behind me surrounded by a misty curtain. I gaped in awe, this was one of the most breath-taking sceneries I have ever seen. I tried capturing the magic in a picture, but as expected, the photos are nowhere nearly as beautiful as the real thing.

We were naturally super happy to have made it, after all, it had been nearly 4.5 hours on the rock, wind blowing almost all the time and weather getting increasingly colder.

The two opportunities for us were either to rappel 6 ropes down or to take the path downward, which was supposed to take you down to the road within about half an hour. We were already tired and I was cold, so we rejected the rappel opportunity and went for the path. It was a bit scary, as it was a straight down climb and vertical at many places, but there was a metal rope to hold on to and we made it safe and sound off the path 🙂

All in all, this was a dream come true, both for me and Sasho. In spite of my worries and lack of enthusiasm in the morning, it turned out to be a great adventure and I can’t wait to do it again 🙂

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The little Lakatnik house and raspberry wine

As I wrote in this article on the Lakatnik cliffs, I had my mind firmly set on climbing to the Eagle’s nest – Орлово гнездо – a tiny house built on a cliff 300 metres above the Iskar river close by to the village of Lakatnik. I wanted to do it this summer, however, the season was coming to an end and I was slowly beginning to doubt the success of the mission, when finally a weekend with good weather was announced, all other plans were set aside and Sasho and I decided to finally do it.

The weather was sunny and warm and the meanders on the road offered wonderful views of the small mountain villages the road passes through.

To get to the tiny house in the cliffs, which was our ultimate goal, it’s best to drive past the village of Bov and to stop at the small restaurant right at the road – it is currently being renovated and I don’t know whether it will keep its name, but it used to be called “The cave” – Пещерата. We left the car right next to the restaurant and walking 30 meters towards where we came from, we saw the beginning of the path on our right side. Next to it is a pretty mountain creek that quenched my dog’s thirst on the way down.

We were carrying a lot as we didn’t know what the routes were like exactly, so we had two full sets of equipment and were not looking forward to the 20-minute walk upwards to the beginning of the routes.

On the way upward we saw a sign directing to the Темната дупка – Dark hole – cave and we decided to go and take a sneak peek. It was worth it! It is supposed to be 8km long, but we only looked at the entrance with its interesting looking human-made columns.

The way over there is short and very picturesque, as the path increases its altitude quickly and offers a dazzling view over the river canyon.

After the mandatory several pictures we took off for the climbing routes. The walk upwards wasn’t as difficult as I expected in spite of the heavy rucksacks; after about 15 minutes we were at the foot of the cliff with the small hut.

I was surprised at how many people were already there. On the other hand, Lakatnik is an A list location for climbing, so the several climbing teams and a couple of guided courses were actually to be expected.

We climbed slowly and a little bit extremely, as one of the routes I ascended merged with another, already climbed route, so I had no bolts available to clip the rope onto. As the route was quite easy, I improvised and used one of the metal ropes to which the little house is attached to clip a quickdraw and kind of free soloed the last several meters.

Two friends came by and joined us but they were too lazy to climb. They only wanted to brag a little – one with his killer dog and the other one with his drone.

Long story short, we were finally able to take a close look at the remarkable little hut built over the river canyon and all in all it was a fine, albeit a bit short autumn day.

Now let me tell you about the Sunday that followed 🙂 Bearing in mind that the weather was so good and that it was going to change soon, we made plans for a hike to the Trastenaya hut on the next day. Again we drove in the same direction, but turned to the village of Bov  before we reached Lakatnik. From there it’s about two hours of hiking to get to the Trastenaya hut which produces wonderful bio certified raspberry wine on which we had set our hearts.

When we stopped at the center of Bov, Sasho mentioned there was supposed to be a waterfall nearby, so we took a small detour to see it.

The woman we asked about it pointed us quickly, but towards where we saw the waterfall from above, so we had to walk a little bit further to see it in all its glory from the front.

While walking toward the full view of the waterfall, we saw also some beautiful rock formations which were titled The Fireplace – Камината – in Google maps.

Then we were on our way to the hut. On the way Sasho told us an interesting story about the villages in this area – as they are quite high up in the mountain, they often lack churches and the locals took up a tradition to set stone crosses in meadows, where they would gather on religious holidays. Every cross is connected to a certain saint day in the orthodox calendar. Then families are “assigned” a cross and a saint and so they gather their fellow villagers on the saint’s day for a celebration at the cross.

The path upward was easy and the views were so beautiful due to the autumn colours of the mountain. We met several huntsmen on our way and heard several shots – apparently the season was already open for wild boar.

We walked for about 2 hours and in spite of being somewhat uncertain of the exact direction, Sasho’s gut turned out to be a good enough GPS and we finally made it to Trastenaya.

We were so excited to get the bio raspberry wine, but we were unfortunately too late, a large group before us bought out the raspberry wine, so we had to make good with the merlot/raspberry mix, which was also okay. By that time it had already become rather chilly, so we didn’t stay too long. It was also full of people due to the hut’s accessibility by car. And many people are always a turn off to me 🙂

I can only recommend a trip in the proximity of Lakatnik, due to the beautiful nature and the many outdoor activities one can engage with. A group of climbers had done the smarter thing and had booked nights at the hut from Friday on, they spent the Saturday climbing and hiked on Sunday, also a great option if you want to spare yourself the trip back and forth to Sofia.

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A short morning walk right next to Sofia

To fill a scorching hot summer day, which this Saturday indeed turned out to be, we decided to take a short, non-challenging early morning walk starting from a well known Vitosha hut – Selimitsa – Селимица to the next hut on the path – Ostritsa – Острица. To get to Selimitsa hut you’d have to drive westward from Sofia, toward the village of Kladnitsa situated right at the foot of mount Vitosha. The drive takes about 40 minutes. We left around 8am, which, in retrospect, was even late, next time we’ll try to get there earlier trying to avoid the crowds. The place is very popular with Sofia citizens, as it is very easily accessible, but at the same time it is a ‘real’ serious mountain, with all its benefits such as a cool clean air, a cold mountain creek and many paths to roam for those willing to leave the side of their car.

After getting to Kladnitsa village, take the road going “upwards” from the central square (or just ask any local you see). The road meanders along the mountainous terrain ever ascending to the hut. At the end of the road there is a small parking lot and a barrier indicating the beginning of the natural park. We left the car at the parking and headed for Selimitsa hut, which is a mere 5-minute walk from the parking lot. From there on after passing several summer houses, we entered a deep cool forest, the trees rising high above our heads provided sweet shade.

The beginning of the path

The path was very picturesque, at one point we passed a stone river consisting of large moraines, so typical of Vitosha. Every now and then, a gap among the thick forest would allow us to see the beautiful scenery below us.

A stone drinking fountain was a great place to splash out faces with ice-cold mountain spring water.

There were many huge stones scattered around the path, we used the opportunities to do some grade 3b (very low, haha) bouldering, even the dog decided to participate. It was such a nice walk, the heat had still not overtaken the forest and we were able to enjoy the sun without the nowadays traditional fear of skin cancer and all kinds of UV rays plagues.

After having walked for about an hour and a half at a slow pace, we heard what sounded like a very big dog barking. Some people we met (the first ones on the path) told us they had passed the dog and that it was on a leash. Having been reassured like that we marched on determined and saw Ostritsa hut. The dog, a huge ferocious-looking Bulgarian shepherd was barking relentlessly at Buck, who really only wanted to play. Alas, we did not let him. Here some pictures of the hut and its fierce guardian:

Luckily there was another set of early bird tourists who directed us to the Ostritsa peak, which is extremely close to the hut, no more that a five-minute walk upward, The peak itself does not look like the peaks we’re used to seeing in the taller parts of Bulgarian mountains, but it’s more of a huge meadow with some of those moraines scattered around. We sat there for brunch enjoying the amazing view overseeing dam Studena Студена.

 To reach the peak itself was not very easy, but we still managed. I also gathered some herbs from the meadow, there were so many of them and I can only imagine the sweet-smelling tea they are going to turn into.

On the way down we met many more people, which was a signal for us that we had taken the right decision going as early as possible. The topping on the cake, however, was the endless crowds of people who had “camped” around Selimitsa hut, having left their cars and opened their mats within 3 meters of the cars. Barbeques sizzling,  hammocks lightly swaying in the wind, chattering buzz and trash everywhere. If you are looking for  a quiet spot to enjoy the solitude of nature, this is not it, or at least not at lunch time. Otherwise, a fantastic walk! Highly recommended!

 

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The Balkan’s ridge – from Beklemeto to Kozya stena hut

Stara planina – Стара планина, or the Balkan, is the mountain range after which the Balkan peninsula is named. It is humongous, running from one end of Bulgaria to the other and it is said to be the harshest Bulgarian mountain claiming lives every year. Despite this rather grim characterization, the Balkan is also one of the most beloved and most visited mountains here, it is home to one of three national parks in the country – Central Balkan – Централен Балкан. Exactly in this national park is where the one-day trek described in this article took place.

This trek can easily be done within one day, as the drive from Sofia won’t take you more than 2 hours, so if you leave early enough, no problem. However, I strongly recommend the area close to Beklemeto, your starting point. There are many guest houses and small hotels there because of the mineral water springs. Chiflika, Beli Osam, Shipkovo are all lovely little villages full of welcoming natives prepared to accommodate you. I am lucky enough for my grandma to have a house in Beli Osam and so our trip extended over a whole weekend.

Our group included among others a one-year-old baby and two brave little girls, aged 5 and 7, who had no problem with the path and its difficulty. This is why I can firmly say that the trek is not a serious challenge and is suitable for all types of tourists.

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The beginning of the path is straight from the road. Once you have reached the highest part of the Troyan-Karnare pass (beautiful views by the way), just park your car somewhere in front of the “Welcome to the Central Balkan national park” sign and head straight ahead following the winter markings.

If you are not in too much of a hurry, go check out the Freedom Arc at the top of the ridge. It is placed thusly that it marks a division point between Southern and Northern Bulgaria and the views are breath-taking. It is also a very fertile blueberry territory, so if you are there in late July, pick some berries for a delicious snack.

The beginning of the path is very even. We saw some horses on the way, several mares even had foals. Our puppy enjoyed the way a lot as it was not very sunny and he was not too hot.

After about one hour of walking you will reach the area Kozya stena – Козя стена – Goat wall, which is a really steep ridge with a 50 to 100 meters fall on one side. Looks really dangerous, so be careful if you decide to go take a picture at the edge of the cliffs.

The path gets steeper and steeper until it reaches a rocky ridge equipped with metal ropes, as the fall on both sides is very dangerous. Well, not to fear, both the baby on his dad’s chest and the little girls of our group made the climb without the blink of an eye, so it is totally doable. Just looks a little scary, especially with the fog that was rapidly approaching us from behind.

After a four-hour walk we finally reached the hut. Normally the hike over is not supposed to take more than 2 and a half hours, but our many stops to take pictures and the kids getting tired somewhere along the way delayed us a lot. I almost stepped on a lazy snake lying on the path, I guess it was too cold for it, because it barely moved, even though the dog passed it several times. I was too chicken to take a photo of it, though, sorry!

We had some lentil soup in the hut and ate our sandwiches. Kozya stena is a great place and the hut keepers are young, innovative people. They have even setup a small library. From there you can continue your hike to hut Eho, or to the Chiflika village, all great routes offering some more amazing views.

We, however, had to hike back to the cars on the parking lot at the Beklemeto pass. The lentil soup had helped us recharge greatly, so the trek back was less of a problem than the one over.

We followed the summer markings this time, so we didn’t have to pass the section with the metal ropes again, which saved us a lot of time. We needed about 2 hours and 40 minutes to reach the cars.

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The way back wasn’t without adventures either – we stumbled upon a herd of cows, all of them horned, grazing peacefully with the path amidst them. Peacefully, that is, until they saw our dire wolf of a dog, who seemed to scare them with his mere presence. One cow even started approaching us and scared the kids, but shouting at it helped divert it from its threatening intentions.

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Here the doggo is, just to give you an idea of how not scary he is 🙂

All in all, this is a wonderful, rather casual hike, which can be done within one day including the travel to and from Sofia. If you wish to dedicate an entire weekend to this beautiful area of Bulgaria, I strongly suggest sleeping in one of the nice villages in proximity – Chiflika – Чифлика,  Beli Osam – Бели Осъм, Shipkovo – Шипково and enjoy the local cuisine and hot mineral water.

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One of the hot mineral water swimming pools in Chiflika

You can combine this great hike with this itinerary which is in proximity.

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Koshov and the canyon of the river Lom

This is a four-day trip in Northeast Bulgaria we did last weekend, but since we saw so much, I will divide it into two separate posts and link them within each other. This part of the trip could be done within a weekend, if you leave Sofia early enough. I do recommend driving to the place, but taking the train is also a viable option.

Here’s the tale of the beautiful village of Koshov in Northern Bulgaria, very close to Ruse, the largest Bulgarian town along the Danube, and fifth largest in the country.

The drive is, according to google, around 4 hours, but it took us longer, as our newly acquired 3 month old border collie puppy felt very sick along the way and we had to stop often for his sake.

It took us about 5 hours to get there, so imagine our joy, when we finally got to the place we had booked and found the most warm and friendly hosts one can imagine – Valya and Nikolay Milkovi. They welcomed us into their house, Milkovata kushta – Милковата къща, meaning Milkov’s house, we were the first guests for the long weekend and so we got the extended tour. They built the house from scratch, but had their mind firmly set on getting the traditional Bulgarian atmosphere, so in spite of it being only 3 years old, the house looks exactly like one from the Bulgarian National Revival period. Check it out:

It is very convenient to stay in the house, as it is a walking distance from the cool stuff – the ecopath and the climbing routes. You wouldn’t have to worry about food either, as Valya, an amazing cook, prepares delicious dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner at a couple of hours’ notice as she cooks everything fresh. Nikolay is very friendly and will engage in a conversation and provide the musical background.

They are super willing to help and try to fulfill their guests’ every wish, the recent proof of that is them promising to set up a bed in the cave behind the house for a guest who plans on spending a night inside this very cave 😀 The yard has a small garden, some decorative hens, a little pond, a football and a volleyball field, a playground for kids. They can also pick you up from the train station in Ruse, if you choose to come by train or bus. One can definitely tell that these people don’t just do it for the money, they really want you to enjoy yourself while there 🙂

Anyhow, let me tell you about the ecopath we walked. It starts at the end of Koshov and meanders along the Lom river essentially passing through the entire river canyon.

There are huge cliffs on both sides of the path for most of it, we even spotted one cave that was accessible, so we jumped on the chance to see the canyon from above. Not sure if one would be able to pass through the dense vegetation once it sprouts leaves in the spring, though:

The inside of the cave was incredible, as it was actually connected to two other caves; there were also leavings of some sort of animal inside, and a few swallow nests.

I am no ornithologist, but I think the canyon is home to a myriad of interesting bird species. Buck raised a pheasant at one point, a magnificent looking bird, but it flew away too quickly for us to take a photo. We also saw several eagles circling the skies and many other smaller birds. Such a rich fauna!

After about an hour of walking, you will reach a small shelter with a fireplace. This is the site of the rock monastery Gramovets – Грамовец, which is not very well-preserved, but well accessible thanks to the wooden rails built-in the cliff.

The view from the top is great. There are also several artifacts ‘on display’ in the monastery, but honestly, I think the place is better off without them!

After Gramovets, the next interesting sight, quite close to the shelter, is the area Smesite – Смесите, the place where the two rivers Beli Lom and Cherni Lom merge to make Rusenski Lom – Русенски Лом. We didn’t get there unfortunately, as we were told that the path was unkempt after Gramovets and it would be very difficult to continue on it. Should you be so brave, however, you’d reach the Ivanovo rock-hewn churches after about an hour and a half.

After having enjoyed this wonderful walk along the river canyon, next on the list was some rock climbing. Since the routes were equipped only last year, I was unable to find any info on difficulty and so it was a bit of a jump in the deep water 🙂

The rock is sandstone, I think, so it was unstable at some places. It was a cold shower, as on my very first route, the second rock I grabbed, fell from the rock face, and I along with it 🙂 From then on, I carefully inspected every hold.

Nikolay told me that there were some longer routes equipped on the cliff right behind his house, but Tsetsi and I didn’t find them. I guess we’ll have to try them next time. In spite of the routes we climbed being very short, they were really difficult, so a sufficient challenge for most climbers. A huge coincidence was that a former climbing trainer of mine arrived at the site with his girlfriend, that was an unexpected meeting 🙂 They had been climbing at some other sites in the area.

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There is my trainer, at the bottom right corner

All in all, a wonderful destination, a great place where beautiful nature, rich fauna, delicious food, and climbing opportunities are combined. Highly recommended 🙂

 

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The Lakatnik cliffs

Lakatnik, along with Vratsa is the place every halfway serious Bulgarian rock climber has been to. Lakatnik itself is a small village not far from Sofia and it is famous for the rock formations surrounding it. The river Iskar made its way through the Balkan carving a beautiful limestone gorge which is nowadays a perfect location for climbing enthusiasts.

Getting to Lakatnik takes about an hour and a half, even though it is only about 70km away from Sofia. The road meanders alongside the Iskar river and you will pass several villages and villa settlements. Right next to railway station Bov there is a famous ecopath called the Vazov’s ecopath which will lead you to the beautiful Skaklya waterfall, so should you have a free weekend, you can combine climbing with a picturesque hike.

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The Skaklya waterfall

The Lakatnik cliffs site is most popular during early spring and late autumn as the endless rocks with thousands of holes, cracks and small caves are also a home to lizzards and snakes, some of which venomous.

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So many holes and cracks in the rock 🙂 I was afraid to stick my hand in them and would spend time knocking around each one to scare any possible venomous fauna

Another thing is, that due to its orientation, the rock just gets too hot in the summer, so Lakatnik was the logical choice for season opening in late February this year 🙂

There are over 250 routes equipped at the so-called ‘Vrzhite dupki’ part – Вражите дупки – meaning ‘The enemy’s holes’. For a better overview they are separated in sections, from A through Q. There are several sites in this area, all known under the general name Lakatnik cliffs, but they do offer different routes and are situated within a few kilometres of each other.

To get to Vrazhite dupki, follow the road alongside the river and at the sign for Gubislav village – Губислав – make a left turn. In less than a kilometer you will reach a small parking space where you can leave your car and walk the path upwards to the rocks. Alternatively, for the first sections of the site, drive after the parking spot for another 500 meters and leave your car at a sideway on the left – the path to the rocks is on your right.

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Sector Q is at the far right end

There are route difficulties for everyone, most of the lines are not too long either. In sector A, where we were, one would need 13 quickdraws tops, so none of the routes are over 25 meters.

There is apparently a good spot to camp out at the Lakatnik rocks, I myself haven’t spent the night there, but some friends do it regularly. It is worth it to get a tent with you, as the nature around is really beautiful and offers quite a few good hikes. Quite close to Vrazhite dupki is the Transtenaya hut where you can try a fantastic bio raspberry red wine which they produce.

Another famous feature of the area  is the tiny little house built 300 metres above the river called Orlovo gnezdo – Орлово гнездо – meaning Eagle nest.  The cabin is accessible only via a steep climb and was built in 1938 by some of Bulgaria’s leading alpinists. It has become to be one of the symbols of the Lakatnik cliffs and I have my mind firmly set on seeing what its interior looks like this year 🙂

If you are looking for a place to meet many climbers and combine the rock adventures with some grade A hiking in the Balkan, then definitely head for Lakatnik 🙂

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A short summer walk – Tran gorge ecopath

The gorge of the river Erma – река Ерма, also know as the Tran gorge – Трънско ждрело – Transko zhdrelo, is situated in the eastern part of the Rui mountain, not far from Sofia. Despite it being only 2.8km long, it is well-known in Bulgaria, as it is extremely picturesque and ever since an ecopath was built throughout it, it is also easily accessible and well-visited in the warmer months of the year.

I am suggesting a short trip, which I did within one day, but which could be easily extended to a weekend if you combine it with a visit to the town of Pernik.

Duration: one day, two days optional

Car accessibility: recommended

Distance: ca 160km round-trip from Sofia

Day one: Tran gorge

I suggest leaving from Sofia in the morning, because even though Tran is not far from Sofia, the road can be a bit tricky with its curves right before the gorge. The other reason is, that the ecopath is really beautiful and I believe you’re going to want to spend as much time there as possible.

We arrived at the town of Tran around noon and we naturally decided to grab a quick lunch at the Erma hotel right downtown. Tran is a tiny municipality, so I’m sure you won’t miss it. Should you decide to extend the trip, this could be a good place to stay.

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Tran center

The restaurant had very good food and was not too expensive. Tsetsi decided to grab a pleskavica – a very typical Serbian meat dish. As Tran is quite close to the Serbian border, the meat, they assured us, is imported from Serbia. It was very good and despite the fact that they took forever to prepare it, it was delicious and worth the wait.

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The interior didn’t look like much, but the food was good

Finally we finished our lunch and made for the Tran gorge. There is some more driving to do, but there were signs, so we didn’t get lost. The road passes next to the Erma hut, from which the stamp for the 100 National Touristic Places can be obtained. Shortly after the hut, you will arrive to a huge open field, where you can leave your car and head for the ecopath.

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The parking field

The path is beautiful, but a bit difficult at some places, where you need to hold on to the wooden rails. The views, however, are astounding.

There are a few wooden bridges over the river, which don’t look too stable, but fear not, they hold well 🙂

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One of the little bridges over the river

We also passed a small passage dug through the solid rock. That was an exciting venture, as I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to walk through such a tunnel, I have only ever driven 🙂

The ecopath meanders along the river, sometimes crossing it. It can be rather steep at times and it finished at a small terrace overseeing the mountains and forests beneath us. That last bit was quite challenging, the climb was steep and there were a couple of places where I was on all fours 😀

A very good thing was, that we didn’t have to take the same way back. There is an opportunity to walk a small road which used to be asphalt once upon a time, all left of it now is dusty gravel. Anyway, it is not a long walk to the parking and you go through a small village on the way.

This is was a very nice way to spend a summer day. Keep in mind that this is not a suitable hike for wet or snowy days due to the ‘slopy’ nature of the path.

Day two: Pernik and the Krakra fortress

If you like, spend the night and use the next day to walk around the miners’ town of Pernik. Another thing to visit in the area is the Krakra fortress. I myself still haven’t been there, so I am refraining from a longer description here. From what I have heard, it is a great place to visit 🙂

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Hiking up the Balkan’s highest – Botev peak

As I am sure most of you know, the Balkan peninsula is actually named after the longest mountain range on it, which happens to be in Bulgaria – the Balkan. Bulgarians also call it The Old Mountain – Стара планина – Stara planina. It is a grand mountain running for 560km from one side of Bulgaria all the way to the other, where it ends with a majestic cape overseeing the Black Sea. The Bulgarian has somehow always been magically connected to this particular mountain – we even use its name as a general noun when referring to a mountain – “what a tall balkan”, you might hear the Bulgarian say, speaking of, let’s say, the French Alps 🙂

Anyhow, let me not roam off topic too much – I wanted to describe a short weekend hike to the Balkan’s highest peak, called Botev – връх Ботев, after a famous and very popular Bulgarian revolutionary and a genius poet – Hristo Botev – Христо Ботев. Our itinerary was the following – we drove from Sofia to Kalofer on Friday morning, hiked to hut Ray, spent the night there. The next morning we started the ascent to Botev peak and came back down to the hut in the late afternoon. On the next morning we went back to our car and drove back to Sofia.

Distance from Sofia: ca 400km round-trip

Car accessibility: yes. Public transport also possible

Leaving from Sofia: I recommend no later than 10am

Day one: getting to Kalofer and hiking up to Ray hut

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What we did after we got to the nice little town of Kalofer was to drive up to a hotel called Райски кът – Rayski kat where we had a quick salad and soup and left our car. The owners are nice enough to let your car in their parking for a small fee (we paid 10lv for one night, I think). From the hotel there is an approximately 800m walk to the path which will take you onto the real trail to the Hut Ray – хижа Рай. The walk is long and it starts with a very, very steep half kilometer of which I unfortunately have no picture. Probably because I was sweating profusely and was too busy wondering whether I would make it to the hut at this rate! Thank god, the path quickly leveled and became a more manageable obstacle 🙂

After that very steep first part, you will see a sign welcoming you to the National park Central Balkan.

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Welcome to bear country!

As soon as my ever so curious boyfriend saw the sign, he (an otherwise not too keen reader) threw himself at it and started reading it from top til bottom, fine print included. I myself was reluctant to linger on, as I heard a rather unusual noise which kind of reminded me of a bear roar, ALL THE MORE, that that was what the sign said – beware, this is bear country. So, I tried explaining this to my national-geographic-wannabe-journalist boyfriend and asked him to move along. He, on the other hand, started vigorously making fun of me being a scaredy-cat and telling me that the next step would be for me to see great white sharks in the creek running nearby. Right in the middle of his wise-ass speech, the bear starts roaring again, so his jaw drops, he turns a bit pale, catches my hand and starts loudly whispering “Baby… A BEAR!” 😀 Well, duh, I said, while both of us darted off running far away from the damned sign. Half a kilometer further we stopped to catch our breath.

Anyway, the next part of our trip was a large plateau, which was rather unpleasant to walk onto, as it was scorching hot at the time and there was no shade in sight. We walked for a long time on that path, maybe an hour and a half.

On the way we passed one more warning sign that bears lived in this area, I said “Ahem” loudly in the direction of my boyfriend and we continued 🙂 Finally, the everlasting plateau ended and we entered a beautiful lush forest full of little creeks and fountains of the kind on the pic below. That was really fortunate, because we didn’t have enough water.

Walking in the forest was a nice change from the heat on the plateau before. After a loooong hike (around 2 and 1/2 hrs) we finally made it to the hut, which is right underneath the highest waterfall (125m) in Bulgaria – Raysko praskalo – Райско пръскало.

I have to say – one of the nicest and cleanest huts I have seen in Bulgaria with very expensive and not good food. Despite the food, we spent a restful night and on the next morning we hit the path to the peak.

Day two: Ascent to Botev peak

If you are there in the summer, I suggest leaving as early as possible. We started at 8am, but this was too late. I got a heat stroke from the heat during the day, so the earlier you leave, the less unforgiving sun is going to hit your head.

Amazing views all the way to the top. We hiked on what is called Tarzan’s path, because it is rather steep at some places and is equipped with metal ropes.

Honestly, this was the hardest ascent I have ever done, despite people saying that there are more difficult ones in BG, which I have had less problems with. Maybe it was the heat, or the tiredness from the previous day, I don’t know.

It was well worth it, though. The views on the way to the top and from the peak are amazing.

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We spent another night at the hut and on the next morning we headed back to Kalofer. It is a very neat little town and we decided to grab a quick lunch there. The food was cheap and delicious, a nice change of pace after the hut’s “restaurant”.

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A beautiful sculpture of Hristo Botev in Kalofer – his birth place

We had a lot of fun and I highly recommend this trip to anyone who likes the mountain.