First overnight stay Aleko Hut
On Monday July 30 we (Annelies de Wildt, Bram Schouten, Josette van Luytelaar, Marianne Sprengers, Maud Leenhouts and Arjan Schuiling) left a warm Holland behind us, to arrive in a rainy Sofia. Our first overnight stay, mountain hut Aleko, had sent a small van to the airport allowing to quietly observe the first 1800 metres of climbing from our bus seats.
Aleko shows us its two faces. The old part has hardly seen a lick of paint since the communist days, the new part hardly distinguishes itself from a hotel with double rooms and comfortable beds. Luckily, the one that took care of all our bookings, good friend and business partner Mihaela Kircheva, has booked us into the new part.
A good night rest was welcome as the first few hours of hiking were all ascending to Cherni Vrah (Black Rock 2290 metres). It was dry but clouds hung in low, forcing us to stay closely together, in order to keep an eye on one another. Reaching the top did not bring us the coffee we hoped for. The small cabin on top of Cherni Vrah was closed and the usual 360 degrees views, north to Sofia south to Rila mountains, were hidden by the clouds.
Luckily skies cleared while descending but a new problem arose. Annelies was troubled by her knee. Taking over her backpack provided some relief but nevertheless we slowed down considerably. Any plans to continue after the first town Yarlovo on foot to final destination Belchin were idle. Luckily there was a bus dropping us off closely to Belchin View with its comfy rooms, a wonderful vegetarian meal and my first chance to sleep outdoors (balcony).
Dozens of storks and a small track of cycle path
The next day the owner of Belchin View was prepared to drive Annelies to hotel Zodiac in Samokov: our third overnight stay. The remaining five hikers walked the relatively light stage past various villages, saw dozens of storks and even hiked on a rare cycle path into Samokov, the city where Bulgarian guide Grigor Stoyanov joined us to help us across the Rila mountains.
Up to mountain hut Mechit
Despite climbing from 900 metres (Samokov) to 1750 metres (Mechit) this day was not extremely heavy because the morning part to the long-stretched t
own of Govedartsi was along the wildly moving Iskar river gradually going up. The stretch after Govedartsi slowly got steeper and we created our own small rivers of sweat. Just like the previous day there were five of us. Although Grigor had joined us, Maud and her blisters had stayed in Samokov together with Annelies and they both had a good time.
Following the historical Emperor’s Road
The next day featured our toughest hiking day from Mechit up the historical Emperor’s Road almost to the peak of Golyam (big) Mechit at 2568 metres. Once again the climb was almost entirely covered in clouds but during the descent the skies cleared and from that moment onwards we never saw any more clouds in the Bulgarian skies.
Chanterelles and Broom?
Personally, I considered the descent from Golyam Mechit into Kirolovo Polyana the highlight of all the routes we
covered during these two weeks. The start was in a wide valley passing the small shelter Kobilino, cow-filled meadows, the Dry Lake filled with water after an usually wet Bulgarian summer and finally ending in a forest full of chanterelles: an edible mushroom and an absolute favourite of mine.
However, not everyone was enjoying the landscape as both Josette and Marianne were getting exhausted and had to take long breaks. As a consequence Bram was way ahead of us which resulted in the following dialogue between me and guide Grigor:
Arjan: What do you mean?
Arjan: I don’t understand what you mean with Broom
Grigor: the guy Broom where is he?
Arjan: Oh you mean Bram, I think he is ahead of us
A moist welcome
Our welcoming in Kirolovo Polyana was not quite as heart-warming as we had hoped for. Annelies and Maud were already there and had hung out all the bedding which was wet and moist. My request to prepare some of the chanterelles with the dinner that night was refused. However, the moment the male manager of our bungalow park arrived the atmosphere lightened up and with the help of Grigor we managed to agree on a complicated logistic deal for the next day.
Rila Monastery or ‘light’ walking
First part of the logistic deal was that the ‘men’ were brought to the place where the asphalt ended. The ladies visited the monastery and were consequently transported to Semkovo with our luggage driver. Consequence of this deal was that the men could give part of their luggage with the luggage transport and could walk ‘lightly’ this day. Walking lightly still meant climbing from 1000 metres to heights above 2200 metres, the altitude of Makedonia hut. In hindsight we made it unnecessarily tough for ourselves by ignoring a brand new foot- and cycle path funded with EU money. Instead we chose a path that descended steeply and required a final tough climb to reach the hut.
Passing a herd of sheep
During the descent from Makedonia hut to Semkovo we had to pay attention because we ran into a large herd of sheep guarded by some big dogs. Grigor was able to communicate with the shepherds and could tell us what to do. Our overnight stay in Semkovo, a building that belongs to the university of Sofia, was difficult to find but the ladies that had arrived first were able to guide us.
Generous gypsies and old women
For the first and last time we set off as a group of seven heading for the lower lying Yakoruda. The descending was not ideal for the vulnerable knee of Annelies but once she applied the so-called zig-zag technique, instead of taking the most straightforward route down rather going down like a snake in small curves thus putting less strain on the muscles, things improved for her. A group of barbecueing gypsies overloaded me and Annelies with their food. A little bit later an old woman with eight dogs handed me loads of chanterelles and herbs for tea. With all my presents we stopped at a small restaurant near the park of the Dancing Bears: a shelter for bears that were held in captivity in the past. After lunch we said goodbye to guide Grigor who luckily managed to get back home to Sofia that same night.
Bram has a meeting
The remaining six were very pleased with our most luxurious overnight stay, hotel Helier in Yakoruda, owned by Sarkiss Essayan a former American football player. The next day the remaining two men started hiking to the first village Cherna Mesta where three ladies (minus Annelies) were dropped off by Sarkiss. While driving up there, Sarkiss had expressed his frustrations about Bulgarian bureaucracy and corruption.
At the place where we hit the road we were picked up by Sarkiss and Annelies and the seven of us drove up to Yondola. Bram insists on hiking as much Sultan’s Trail as possible and struggled himself up the mountain encountering a wild animal.
In Yondola bodyguard Kotzu, covered in tattoos, was waiting for us with his mountain bike and took us to his pride: Vila Boshnakovi built up from the ground by himself and three friends only using local materials. The tree that has been cut down to make way for the villa is fully used and the trunk of the tree is still there. As soon as we came to the hut Kotzu took us out into the fields to pick our own herbs for tea. After the tea Kotzu provided us with a delicious barbecue both in the well-known meat variety but also producing heaps of vegetarian barbecued stuff. Despite the fact that neither Kotzu, nor his wife Maria spoke any English they both joined us at the dinner table and with hand and feet we managed to have a conversation.
In the early morning Kotzu and I left for a ride on the mountain bike to viewpoint Pashovi Skali a potential improvement of the Sultan’s Trail avoiding a track along asphalt. On our way back we were able to buy a cake for birthday girl Marianne (68). Our host advised to take a new route into Velingrad, a route we all liked but in kilometres one and a half times further than the previous route and adding 6-7 kilometres of asphalt so in future we will probably keep relying on the previous route.No water but a swimming pool
We managed to avoid at least a part of the asphalt track by catching a bus into Velingrad but when we got to the hotel, all sweaty, there was no water in most of Velingrad. We were advised to go to the swimming pool but unfortunately the hotel staff gave us the wrong directions. Half of our group was still committed to find the swimming pool and were rewarded with a beer along the pool, the other half that stayed behind were rewarded with the fact that in the end water was available in the hotel again.
Velingrad marks the transition from the Rila mountains into the Rhodopes and on the dividing line Lake Batak is situated. Last time is was there with sister Marieke and brother-in-law Rolf-Jan we had quite some trouble to find a direct way to the lake however this time the navigations skills of Bram guided as to the right paths almost without trouble. Almost without trouble because close to the lake we had suddenly lost sight of both Bram and Marianne. We had to use our whistles to reunite.
In the touristic holiday village Tsigov Chark would try to hitchhike while Bram would close down this stage on foot tracking along the main road to Batak. At first the hitchhiking didn’t work out too well. I walked back into the village of Tsigov Shark to stock up on water and when I had done this, the first car I approached confirmed that he was going to Batak and I could hop in. Along the road I saw none of the 4 ladies so I assumed they had gotten a ride as well. However at our hotel in Batak the only one I saw was Bram and none of the ladies. I left the hotel and went into the streets of Batak to find someone who was willing to drive me back towards Tsigov Chark to pick up the ladies.
Police car and Brexit
Finally, I got help from a policeman speaking English: Angel. We got into an old car that stopped running every few minutes and needed to be started up again. In the meantime I was ‘interrogated’ about my position on the Brexit. The underpaid policeman was considering a move to the UK to get a job in ‘modern slavery’. While driving up messages came in that one by one the ladies were getting to the hotel and we could turn our police car to head back to Batak.
The friendly policeman Angel provided me with the phone number of his friend Yosein who would be willing to drop us almost halfway along tomorrow’s very long stretch. We had a bit of trouble finding the right drop-off point but Annelies’s Google maps settled the matter.
Bram who wants to cover every inch of the Sultan’s Trail declined the offer and hiked the entire 32 kilometres to the beautiful spot of Vila Romantika. The fact that he arrived only about twenty minutes later than the five of us, had to with his early departure hour and a navigation mistake by the author of this article.
Boots as bird nests
Some of us would like to have stayed a little bit longer on the oasis on the banks of Shiroka Polyana Dam but the next morning we left in time to follow an easy track along a small brook flowing down. However, after lunch we had to master a nasty, long, steep climb to a plateau trampled by cows. The descent that followed wasn’t easy either but suddenly mountain hut Orpheus appeared and our overnight stay, Vila Perika, was only a few hundred metres from Orpheus. Vila Perika is full of funny self-made items like boots on trees serving as bird nests. There was all the time in the world to study these items as owner Bilgin was not there. I went back to Orpheus, arranged a ride to the nearby town of Borino convinced that I would find Bilgin there. Not even halfway towards Borino, Bilgin came driving down from the opposite direction and I moved over to his car.
Placed on a bier
Once again I slept outside in Vila Perika and Josette advised me to place my mattress on top of a dinner table that was more or less covered from cold winds by plastic sheets hanging down. I followed her advice but it looked like I was placed on a bier, which gave some hilarity among my fellow hikers. The next day we walked the five k to Borino to the regional tourist centre where we received our traditional stamp in the Sultan’s Trail hiking passport. Bilgin arranged a hike for us to the entrance of the gorge that contains the so-called Devil’s Bridge an odd stone formation shaped by the erosion of fast flowing water masses. For the first time in my Bulgarian hiking career, spanning roughly seven years, is saw several other cars stopping at this point as well and making the same hike as we did.
Straight up to Eagle’s Eye
Bram had walked this same gorge in April and had to be back in Holland before Monday so he was brought to Devin by bus, but unfortunately there was no connecting bus to Plovdiv so he had to do this stretch by taxi. When we hit the road after the gorge there was supposed to be a car waiting for us but we couldn’t find it but in this relatively touristic part of Bulgaria it was not difficult to find another car. The car drove us to the centre of Yagodina where we changed into a fourwheeldrive which took a very straight, and therefore steep, course to the top of Sveta Elia the peak above Yagodina famous for its viewing platform Eagle Eye, an iron construction hanging in the air and allowing views all the way into Greece. I had been there twice before and never seen a soul, but this Saturday there were about ten cars filled with people.
Marianne and Maud dared to stay in the car with our stunt driver for the ride down to our guesthouse Milka and took the luggage. Josette, Annelies who had recovered from her knee problems, and me walked down to Milka where we were not the only Dutch people. Our charming host Kosta, who was fluent in English, transformed that evening into a gaita player, the traditional bagpipe music of the Rhodopes.
That night I slept outside underneath a spectacular sky filled with thousands of stars, every now and then one of the stars fell down from the sky followed by a bright taillight. The next day we drove in various stages back to capital Sofia completing our circle in Vila Pontica situated underneath the Aleko hut and Cherni Vrah.
Joining us next time?
Do you want to participate in a Bulgarian hiking adventure? Keep an eye on the hiking agenda at the Sultan’s Trail website or get in touch with Bulgaria coordinator Arjan Schuiling (e-mail: email@example.com)