A Weekend at the Roof of the Balkans
January 1, 1970
by Spasimir Radev
Where and What Is the Roof of the Balkans
Bulgaria is probably one of those places that you have heard almost nothing about – yet, whenever you have come across someone who has been there at least once, the feedback has invariably been one of amazement, if not slight bewilderment. On the one hand it’s a small country, roughly the size (and population) of Arizona. On the other, Bulgaria sports a tremendous diversity of cultural sites, folk traditions, and yes, breath-taking landscapes as well. From the ancient quarters at the heart of its major cities Sofia and Plovdiv, to the quaint tiny villages nestled amidst mountains awash with greenery; from the sunny Black Sea coast in the east lined with fine sands of gold, to the imposing shades of the colossal peaks in the west – there are tons of treasures, both historical and natural, that are just ripe for exploration. All it takes is some adventurous spirit, and a pair of strong legs to carry you across the magnificent scenery.
One of the local routes that are most highly recommended for globe-trotters with a relatively limited amount of time starts in a rather urban setting at the capital city of Sofia, and quickly plunges south into the splendid mountainous regions of South-West Bulgaria, featuring stops at some of the highest peaks on the Balkan peninsula, in the Rila mountains. One can’t help but gasp in awe at the panoramic sights that are revealed from atop the Musala summit, standing tall over this corner of the Old Continent at 2925 m above sea level.
Setting Up the Trip at Sofia
In my experience, a two-day trip across the Rila mountain, whose pinnacle is the Musala peak itself, is entirely within the capabilities of any traveler arriving at the Sofia international airport from a relatively nearby destination. Most of Europe’s capital cities are located within an arm’s reach from Bulgaria, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to reach Sofia from anywhere across the continent. After the regular check-out procedure at the airport, it is recommended that visitors look for the Bus Station South, located just south of the city center. One could easily make the connection from the Sofia Airport via the newly built extension to the Sofia Metro system. 9 stops with the Red line in an Obelya direction, and then a 200 m walk south along the Dragan Tsankov Blvd should bring you to the Bus Station South, from where the buses to Samokov run at every half an hour.
Samokov and Borovets
The local equivalent of three euro (six Bulgarian “leva”), and just about one hour later, you would find yourself in the small southern town of Samokov, whose picturesque center abounds of cozy restaurants offering traditional Bulgarian food. Towns like these are where one could truly feel the authentic atmosphere of rural Bulgaria.
The final stage of the road trip includes a short 7 km bus voyage to Borovets, a very old winter resort sprawling at the feet of the spectacular Rila mountain. The place is basically Heaven on Earth both for skiers, snowboarders and mountaineers alike, as it boasts a number of Alpine skiing rounds, plus one of the best biathlon tracks in the world. Surprisingly, Borovets is nearly as lively in summer as it is during the active winter season, as it’s the starting point for most hiking routes across the Rila and Pirin mountains.
For those more inclined to take a bite of the traditional local cuisine and taste the spirit of this place, Borovets provides ample opportunity for accommodation: from posh five-star hotels to small budget hostels: it has them all. The restaurants sitting around the main pedestrian street and lying at the feet of the skiing slopes are definitely not to be missed – as are the multiple street stalls offering all sorts of souvenirs. Local specialties like pine cone honey and a variety of sweet jams are highly recommended!
Whether you would opt for a one-night extension to your stay, and choose one of the many hotels in Borovets, or you’d rather prefer to take on the Rila peaks straight away, there is a neat convenience for you: the Yastrebets gondola, which would spare you a 3-hour toll up the steepest initial part of the mountain. The freshly renovated facility overcomes a height of 1054 m, and offers spectacular views along the way. You would find yourself at the heart of the mountain in less than 25 minutes without having to lose your wind even once. Just be prepared for the long lines at the ticket desk down at the Borovets station, especially on weekends. And make sure to buy a two-way lift card, which remains valid for the entire duration of the day.
Yastrebets: Starting the Hike
The upper station of the lift, located at the Yastrebets ridge, operates until 5 p.m. every day, which you should have in mind on the way back. The line is fairly busy on weekends, as is, indeed, the overall route to Mussala itself. What can I say, this is the most popular mountain route in the country!
Do not miss an opportunity to have a warm herbal tea at the panoramic cafes perched at the edge of the ridge. You would be amazed by the unparalleled beauty of the Rila mountains. If luck is on your side and the weather permits, nearly half of Bulgaria would be visible through the crystal-clear air atop Yastrebets: the Stara Planina ridge (also called Balkan, after which the entire Balkan Peninsula was named) can be seen running across the horizon in the north, while the Malyovitsa section of the Rila mountain looms like a horde of angry giants far in the west. A staggering maze of lesser mountains and valleys spreads all across the region in between.
Finding a wooden stick that is suitable to your height and size is essential for every mountaineer. That goes without saying.
The wide gravel path leads straight south, ever closer to the majestic peaks of the Musala section right in front. It runs beside a series of skiing chairlift lines that are usually crowded with skiers and snowboarders in the winter season.
Musala Hut: Staying the Night at the Freshest Air Imaginable
About an hour’s walk should bring you to the Musala hut, where the real mountain adventure begins. This is the lower edge of the Musala cirque, densely filled with crystal lakes and lined by a cobweb of creeks and stone moraines.
The Musala hut is a fine spot for spending the night deep in the heart of the mountain. It offers basic accommodation facilities: a total of 60 beds, shared bathrooms, stove heating, and a well-arranged tavern, where the tired mountaineers can have fun and taste the traditional Bulgarian food in nice company. But do bear in mind that the extremely clean mountain air allows for a short, deep sleep, so wake-up is early next morning.
The Musala Cirque: Deep Into the Mountain
Day two begins at sunrise with breakfast and tea by the calm shores of the lake. The final stage of the hike is just ahead. As one might expect, the further one plunges into the embrace of the mountain, the harder it gets to put one foot in front of the other. Generally, the hike from the hut to the peak takes up to two hours, and it gets ever steeper with every next turn. But that shouldn’t frighten you: entire families, including young children, make this tour regularly – some even bring their pets along. If a dog can cope, so should you! Just take a deep breath of the pinching-clean air, feel the scent of pine and flower fragrance in your lungs, hit the rubble in your feet with the tip of your walking stick, and attack the mountain!
Ninety minutes after having said goodbye to the cold Alpine lakes filled with silver fish, you will approach a small odd-looking pyramid with a steep roof made of iron sheet. This is the Everest shelter, comfortably sitting at the tip of the highest of the Musala lakes. It looks as if you have just entered a dried up cauldron, encircled by rocky precipices crowned by the occasional shiny pile of late snow. A twenty-minute rest at the tiny cafeteria should suffice for re-charging your batteries for the final assault of the peak.
The clouds dash across the patch of sky that opens over the hollow roof of this magical place, and you get the feeling you are witnessing a fast-forward movie. “Where is the path to the peak? How are we supposed to go on?”, you find asking yourself. But fear not: the final stage of the climb is just ahead, narrowed into a curling rocky path, resembling a staircase to Heaven. Two people could barely pass each other along the road, yet the string of pilgrims never ceases. Charging your muscles with a final dose of oxygen, you find yourself carried along with the stream of feet, rucksacks and bodies, stopping every now and then to both take a deep breath to feed your screaming muscles, and marvel at the ever widening view of the world beneath. You succumb to the overwhelming sensation that you are ascending into the celestial abyss. Seconds and minutes merge into a mist. There is only one thing in front: the peak itself.
A series of new lakes can be seen popping up behind the ridge as you climb ever higher. Those are the Maritsa lakes, which together give birth to the longest river in Bulgaria, Maritsa. One is blue, as if the sky has looked into a mirror; the other green. Two other lakes tend to temporarily appear in late spring, along with the melting of the snows.
Musala: At the Roof of the Balkans
Finally, there it is. The Musala peak, standing tall above all else, the ultimate roof of the Balkans. Clouds rush with a whizz across its bald round pate, clutched in eternal battle with the scorching sun. Hordes of people sit atop, wrapped in colorful anoraks, sipping tea from fuming plastic glasses, stretching numb limbs and taking pictures from all angles. There is a sense of relief and jubilation in the air. This is where a 360′ panoramic photo is a must, as well as a selfie at the stone marking the 2925 m spot. It is also where you can gaze upon the world at your feet from miles high, and feel like you are about to stretch an arm and do a hand-shake with the creator.
Musala is an adventure not to be missed if you have a couple of days to spare for a trip to Bulgaria. Of course, the Rila mountain and its surroundings provide an extensive mixture of experiences for those with a more generous schedule. One is the famous Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, and a showcase of the Bulgarian Rennaissance architecture. Another is Bansko, a traditional town located to the south, between the Rila and Pirin mountains, and offering a vast array of accommodation and entertainment opportunities. The Rhodope Narrow-gauge Railway from Bansko back to Sofia, albeit being a nearly five-hour long ride, is well worth the time as well. And of course, a trip east to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, Europe’s longest continually inhabited town, and European Capital of Culture for 2019, is a detour no one in my experience has ever regretted.
Or you could just retract your steps and make the short descent back to Sofia, and fly back home on the very same evening to tell the story of a unforgettable trip to the Roof of the Balkans.