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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 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 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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Vratsa – THE climbing spot in Bulgaria

Climbing in Bulgaria is rather popular, and the country has some amazing places to offer, I think you’d be surprised.

Here I would like to tell you about the most popular climbing destination – the rocks in the Vratsata – Вратцата – mountain pass. I will not go into technical details as to how difficult the routes are, how equipped they are and so on. All the necessary information for climbers can be found for example here as well as in the Climbing Guide to Vratsa, which can be purchased online.

The place is not far from Sofia, you can easily just go and climb for one day or weekend – there are a couple of good places to camp next to a small creek.

There is as many as 500 routes on the limestone of Vratsa, about half of them are equipped and ready for a sports climb – here you can find a short description about climbing one of the more famous routes. There’s  many trad and ice climb opportunities as well and when the weather is good, you will almost always see climbers messing around.

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The mood is always good 🙂

The most interesting and challenging area is the Central wall, with its almost 450 meters and vertical climbs, it will make any climbing enthusiast sweat.

You can make a nice weekend out of climbing, while your beer cools down in the creek running between the rocks, spend the night camping and after a short climb the next day, head for a deserved good meal at Vratsa, the nearby town, called after the mountain pass (meaning Gate, Door).

Vratsa’s downtown is dominated by the monument of Hristo Botev, a Bulgarian revolutionary, but please don’t mistake him for the communist kind of revolutionary. He actually fought for liberating Bulgaria from Turkish yoke and found his death doing it. He was a remarkable man and a brilliant poet. His death place is very close to Vratsa, called Okolchitsa, where a huge cross marks the place and a musical festival is held.

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Even if you are not very interested in climbing, I definitely recommend the area of Vratsa and Vratsata gorge. Very close to it is the famous Ledenika cave, on which I already wrote a post.

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The views are amazing

On the way to Sofia, close to Mezdra and not far from the main road, is the archeological complex Kaleto – Калето. If you are a history enthusiast, you could stop and check it out and then head back to Sofia.

All in all, you can make a weekend, even a week of staying in Vratsa and the surroundings. It’s a really nice place which also offers hiking opportunities in the moutain surrounding the town – the Vratsa Balkan. A really nice article on Vratsa’s sights and places to visit, should the above not be enough, here.

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The Wonderful Bridges in the Rhodopes

 

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With some friends at the Bridges. That was a fun trip 🙂

The Wonderful Bridges, sometimes the Marvelous Bridges, – Чудните мостове (Chudnite mostove) is a rock formation in the proximity in the karst valley of the river Erkyupriya in the Rhodopes on 1450 above the sea level, at the foot of Golyam Persenk peak (2091). The natural landmark is at a distance of 80 km south from Plovdiv and 35 km north-west from Chepelare. The rock formations d0 resemble bridges above the small river floating underneath them. They are an amazing sight and it’s difficult to grip their beauty in photographs. Here a couple of tries, though:

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There are two bridges across from each other. In the summer there sometimes is a zipline between them

The Bridges are easily accessible by car. From the main road, there’s an exit for a village called Zabardo. Take it and prepare for a curvy narrow mountain road which keeps ascending for about 35 minutes. The road meanders next to a small river and is quite picturesque.

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You can stand on top of the bridge – see the rail at the top right corner?

You can combine visiting the Bridges with this one-day trip I posted earlier, and combined with Krastova gora, you would have a lovely two-day trip (I recommend an overnight stay at Plovdiv). They are stunning both in the summer and in colder months, however, I imagine that the narrow mountainous road leading up to them is not accessible and/or dangerous in snowy winters.

Next to the Wonderful bridges there is a hut (sorry, link only in Bulgarian, however, you can find some contacts and a map) at which you can stay for a very cheap price, but you would need to book beds for the summer days as it is quite full. There is a cheap restaurant at the hut as well as several friendly Rhodope grandmas selling their home-made produce.

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At the Bridges in April