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It’s summer. It’s Friday afternoon. Days are long, sunny and warm. Sofia is dusty, stinky, sticky and crowded, and we’re dreaming of a little trip… and nature. We quickly pack our bags, Google for a place to stay in Belogradchik, and after a few “sorry, we’re fully booked” replies, the guy at Madonna guest house says we’re welcome for tonight. Yay! Weird name for a guest house, indeed. Later I’d learn that this is the name of one of those funny rock formations. And it’s after mother Mary, not this Madonna that you thought about… or well, the one I thought about. We get into the car and we drive off. We drive through the tiny little winding Petrohan pass, make a coffee break on the lake in Montana and just before sunset we arrive in our guest house.
Like most Bulgarians, I’ve already been here and though, except for the fortress, I have absolutely no clue what else around is worth seeing. But I’m sure there must be something – Bulgaria is big, and beauties lurk around the corner*. So here we are, we check in, we go to the little garden and we enjoy the view to the fortress, the town, the forest and the romantic sunset. We also enjoy the cold beer and the ton of omelettes and fresh salads – we were starving, and those are… oh, so yummy!
After dinner there’s a little walk around town. Tiny little neat and clean houses, some dirty and abandoned houses, maintained and not so maintained places, a newly built fancy hotel here and there, some remnants from soviet times and so on – a typical small Bulgarian town, with all its charms and all its ugliness… We go to bed without having a plan about what we’re doing tomorrow, but still we’re sure it’s going to be interesting.
Saturday. Breakfast. Then, let’s see the most popular thing: the fortress. We buy tickets and get in. We’re both not such big fans of tourist crowds. Especially not of those who like to walk very slowly in a very dense row, in a way that makes it impossible to pass them. And if they notice you with a camera in your hand, they would proudly step just right in front of you with their camera in their hand, and, obviously with the intention to stand there forever… or at least for the next couple of hours.
Therefore we decide to go through this as quickly as possible and then move on to more interesting things.
The weather is great, the views are lovely…
After all, the guys who decided to build a fortress here must have known the area and must have picked one of the best locations, right?
We check all the nice spots, trying to avoid the crowd, then we get out. Well yeah, crowded, but it’s worth every minute.
Last week I’ve read an article written by an American guy living in Bulgaria. Belogradchik was on his must-see list, and his comment was like “it’s just a couple of funny rocks, but it’s cool”. Well, indeed… in comparison to, let’s say, Grand Canyon (which I’ve only seen through the airplane window so far =/ ), this here must be just a couple of pebbles. But believe me, it’s more than just cool. It’s beautiful. Especially if you dare to leave the fortress and take a little walk around. They say this area with the “funny rocks” is about 30 km long and we decided to check out a part of it.
Hiking routes around Belogradchik
Did you know there was such a thing? I did not. We’ve seen several signs around town, pointing out that there must be some hiking and biking routes. Like, interesting, but not absolutely wild, and marked, so we won’t get lost in the ass of nowhere in the middle of the night. None of my friends knew about that, Google didn’t know a lot about it either… and all those signs were leading to a mysterious “info center” which turned out to be a tiny little kitschy building, abandoned before it was even finished. Well, unless you’re totally new to Bulgaria, that’s no surprise – such things also lurk around every corner.
The guys from the café next to the fortress had no clue, the guys selling souvenirs were not interested in anything else than selling you a souvenir, and the woman on the ticket kiosk stared at me as if she had just seen an alien when I asked if those routes do really exist. Still, after several minutes of digging through piles of things, she found a map: “But it’s in English”, she said, visibly embarrassed. “Yay, that’s even better!” I said and I bought that sacred precious one and only map .
Now it finally became interesting. There are whole lotta hiking routes ’round here, hm. Seven, to be more specific. The maps say they’d take you between 4 to 8 hours, their lenght is between 4 and 13 kilometers and the displacement – 150 to 600 meters. So far, so good! It was already around noon, so we picked “something average” – the “orange” route: 9 km., 6 hours, or at least that’s what’s written on the map. What’s not written there, you’ll see soon… And so we started.
Later I’ve read on the website of our guest house this route must have been super easy, the path well made and marked. And this would have been almost true, if only you could ignore the fact that eversince those who went and put markings here and there, no other homo sapiens seemed to have set their foot in a radius of about a gazillion kilometers. And if you so badly want to make the little extra tour to the Lepenitsa cave, you’d need all your four limbs in order to get down there and then back up, especially if it’s wet and slippery. Luckily, we were both fine there, but I just imagined what drama it would have been if we were to have other people with us, who are not so mobile, or who just don’t like the idea of having mud or dust all over their ass (please excuse my language, but that’s how you end up ).
Still, the beginning of the route was paradise, and in my thoughts I was blessing those good people who made this beautiful piece of Bulgaria accesible for tourists. Although overgrown with bushes and weeds, and in places almost unrecognizable, the path was well marked. A forest, a river, some of these beautiful red rocks, sometimes you see them from below, sometimes from above… more forest, a glade, and forest and glade again and so on.
And hills, and breathtaking views. And red rocks. We’re standing on one of them, and it’s so wild and quiet, there’s no one but the two of us. Just some birds, lizzards and insects. And green, and sky, and beauty. You realize how little you are and how huge nature is. It feels like magic.
On the map there was a quote from Konstantin Irechek (a Czech historian): “No. This cannot be described. It has to be seen.”
Sounds so cliché, but it’s exactly how I feel. We’re head to toes scratched from those weeds and bushes, we lose our way, we find it, we’re dusty, our shoes are full of pebbles and thorns, we’re sweating like pigs, but we are happy, because this is beautiful.
No decent pictures anymore – the big heavy camera is in the backpack, I need my hands for making my way through and I’m already too tired to take it out even when we reach a flat place suitable for a rest. We walk and walk and it’s beautiful… and hours pass, and we walk, and it’s beautiful.
We have a saying here: “Good job, but Bulgarian”, and as you can imagine, it means that the job is not good. At all. Sometimes it might mean it’s done only half way, and this is exactly the case we have here.
… As my beloved said: somewhere here it stopped being funny. We went totally off trail, markings disappeared, every now and then we’d find one, then miss the next one – because the path has also disappeared. Gone. Just a forest and that’s it. Sun starts going down, we go through a swamp, then a steep hill, then another swamp, then another hill, we look at every single tree from every single side and we shout at each other “Did you find a markeeeeer?” … “Not yeeeet, did yoooou?” … “Not yeeeet!” … “Hereeee! I found one! Come hereee, can you see meeeee?” … Somewhere here I start again with blessing those good people who made this beautiful piece of Bulgaria accesible for tourists… but this time in a little bit different way. Like, I wish them to get lost in a place full of tigers, grizzlies, scorpions or at least rattlesnakes. Or preferably dragons.
You know what I mean – trail marking doesn’t help a lot when there’s no trail… And when we found ourselves for the fifth time on the “roundabout” to the cave, it was really not funny anymore. It’s a gorgeous place, indeed. But we’ve already seen it, and now we’d prefer some water and food and beer, in this order.
We must have been lost for a couple of hours, and FYI: being lost when hungry and thirsty might make you nervous. Luckily, just before getting too nervous, we heard a noise from a car, went this direction and, hell yeah!, we found the road! =) So we hurried up and managed to enjoy the last sun rays with a loooot of water, a loooot of cold beer and some old nuts – the only available food in this café we found. Then relaxed, we went back to our Madonna house.
Some conclusions and tips
… which I hope I will remember myself for the next time :
No area in Bulgaria is so huge and so wild, and unless you’re lost high in the mountains during winter, probably you won’t die if you don’t find your way today. Besides, Belogradchik is not really mountain. Still, the chance of getting lost is pretty good, so if you want to be comfortable, either carry a tent, sleeping bag, headlight, clothes, food and water with you, or just start early – most probably some civilization will pop up into view before sunset.
Two liters are not enough for two people for a whole day… escpecially if it’s 30 degrees. This is more a note to myself, even if I should now it already.
Just like the water… your engine needs fuel to keep running smoothly.
Jacket/rainjacket, even if it’s summer.
The storm came later that night, but when you’re out there, you never know. Better have one. Oh yeees, and good shoes!
In some moments we probably looked just like real rotary fans in our pathetic attempts to chase away the mosquitoes. Looking on the bright side, maybe you burn a lot of calories that way. The not-so-bright-side is, no matter how good of a fan you are, in the end you will anyway look like having one of those terrible viral diseases with the hundreds of pimples. And it will last at least for a few days.
Keep your eyes open.
When there’s no trail marking for more than 15 minutes, probably you’re off trail. Go back.
* * *
That’s it for now. Regardless of the little stress in the end (which was mostly due to our own lack of attention), this day has been wonderful. And if you ever visit northwest Bulgaria and Belogradchik, I’d strongly recommend you to do as we did, without the “getting lost” part: quickly through the fortress, and then: into the “wild”! Again: Bulgaria is big(ger than it looks), and beauties lurk around the corner*. We just need to look around to see them. I wish you a nice walk!
* I’ve stolen that one from the charming movie The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner.