After spending a good day or two roaming around the capital, Sofia, it was time to head out to the countrysides to see the vast landscapes that this country has to offer. Car rentals are easy and the roads are wide enough and easy to drive on. Do be careful of Bulgarian drivers though, they tend to be quick out of junctions and just go for things! It was well worth renting a car to go around the surrounding areas of Sofia and the following Rila stops are easy to get to and highly recommended!
My first stop was a visit to one of the most sacred and famous Eastern Orthodox Monasteries in Bulgaria. Rila Monastry was built in 927, making it one of the most historical, cultural, religious and architecturally important sites in the country. Historically the monastery was thought to be built by St Ivan of Rila who actually lived in a cave nearby and the monastry was built by his students. Over the years, it has been highly respected by Bulgarian rulers and have been left untouched. It now houses around 60 monks and is a picturesque and beautiful site to visit.
In the center of the courtyard is the main church with great arches. The colours and horizontal patterns gives it this peaceful presence. The artwork at the outside of the building is really rich and colourful too.
The surrounding courtyard houses mainly the residential areas for the monks. There is just something so pretty about the arches and coloumns of each floor! If you want to experience staying here, they do offer roooms for travellers at decent prices.
For those early risers, try making it to the morning service. It is quite a unique experience with lots of chanting and a lot of locals paying their respects to the picutres and statutes of Saints in the church itself. The interior is really really rich and colourful, full of golden colours and lots of paintings of Saints.
After the morning service, head through the back exit of the Monastry to the little window for some well deserved breakfast. This little window offers mainly fresh yogurt and donuts , which was essentially deep fried dough! The yogurt was very fresh too. Here I met a nice Japanese man who has been camping out for a few weeks and hiking around the gorgeous nature of the Rila mountains, my next stop.
7 Rila Lakes
With plenty of articles and blogs online about the seven Rila lakes, I was really excited to attempt the hike. After a little drive from the monastry I was getting closer and started a gradual ascend up the mountains. What I was completely shocked about was the sudden appearance of snow! It was around November and as I gradually kept driving uphill, the trees and roads turned white and by the time I got to the cable car, you can see the ski slope full of whiteness! Determined to hike in the snow, I made my way to the cable car entrance only to find that it was closed because of the heavy wind at the top! I was really gutted as I literally drove miles to get there.
Before I made a decision on what to do next, a group of friendly Greeks turned up and I had to convey the disappointing news to them. We then contemplated to walk up the ski slope before a middle aged Bulgarian man came up to us and literally said ‘I have Jeep, I take you‘. We looked at each other kind of confused but somehow all six of us ended up at the back of his Jeep and off-roading up the side track of the ski slope. It was like some kind of rollercoaster ride as we bumped and rumbled our way to the top. It was actually kind of fun but we were all glad to get off at the top to the incredible views!
When we were at the top we really could feel the wind. It was cold and kind of sleety and made us think about whether we wanted to attempt hiking the seven lakes.
We spoke to some of the people who had just finished their hike and they said the visibility was poor at the top, so we decided to embark on a hike to a lower lake. We agreed with our driver that we would be back at the ski lodge in 4 hours and made it for the first lake. The start of the hike was really windy as we were in the open but once we got within the shelter of the hills, the hike was pretty easy and there wasn’t any wind at all.
We followed the marking polls and started hiking along the snow and into pretty much the unknown. It was such a great opportunity to have shared this experience with the fellow travellers from Greece. It was nice to chat and it was a great way to get to know each other. Hiking in the snow was for sure so different to my last hike in Wales!
Finally, we made it to our destination of the lake and it was quite rewarding to see the blue waters in the distance! It was definitely photo opportunities at this stage before we headed back to the ski lodge and our grueling jeep ride back down!
A Night in Panichiste
My original plan was to hike the 7 lakes and check into my hotel in the late afternoon near the bottom of the ski lifts. With visibility so bad, I was back down by early afternoon and had a few hours to spare. I decided to check into my hotel before heading back into Sapareva Banya for the famous spa (Bulgaria is famous for their hot springs! In fact one of the Roman Emperors almost moved the capital to Bulgaria because of this). I stayed at Hotel Panorama, a nice medium budget accomodation in the forests, a short drive from literally anything. The reviews at this place was pretty good and it had some good views from their rooms too. But with me arriving just after the hiking season and before the ski season, I found mself in a rather large hotel as the only guest! It was quite a daunting thought thinking that you are in this big hotel all on your own and a good 5 minute drive from anything else!
I actually felt a bit obliged to have dinner at the hotel as the restaurant staff came into work. But the food was actually really good, with a great wine and rakia selection!
All in All
This first part of my road trip started from the capital of Sofia and I managed to see an incredible monastry before a hike in some really pretty snow mountains and then staying as the only guess at a hotel! What an experience this mini road trip has been! Although sitting in the car alone for a good few hours was quite a mental challenge, the scenery and drive was pretty beautiful. This was definitely a road trip I won’t forget! The next stage of my Bulgarian adventure is a stop at Plodiv, one of the most well preserved Roman towns!
Also published on Medium.