Through the heart of the Rhodope mountains: group hike Bulgaria June 12 to 19
The first damage
Our evening flight from Schiphol Airport to Sofia ran smoothly and so was our luggage pick-up at Sofia Airport, including Gerhard Busch’s giant white suitcase. Our driver Simeon waited for us in the arrival hall and we, a group of 8 Dutch men and women, were on our way to European Cultural Capital Plovdiv.
Simeon had told me that he was not exactly sure where to find our hotel Alafrangite. So when we arrived in Plovdiv he regularly stopped our bus and went out to ask passers-by for the right route. A route we had already found on our phones but what Google Maps didn’t show was the bad match between Plovdiv’s Old Town and a mini-bus. At one of the first narrow passages, the side of the van touched a wall and the brand new van was damaged. A few minutes later Simeon was completely stuck at a small square surrounded by deep drops and had to manoeuver for minutes to turn his van.
After some time it was obvious to me that we couldn’t get to the hotel with this van but it was not easy to explain this our driver who did not speak any English. Luckily a guard from a parking lot offered to walk us to the hotel and that was the trigger for Simeon to no longer resist our desire to walk to the hotel.
The first Kamenitza’s
Despite the late hour, it was already past midnight, the hotel owner was willing to pour us a few Kamenitza’s the local Bulgarian beer. I am not sure whether this Dutch invasion was appreciated by the other Bulgarian guests in the hotel but the Bulgarian revenge followed a few days later.
I slept outside on the balcony enjoying the stars and the sound of birds in Plovdiv’s car-free Old Town. I woke up early for a little stroll through the empty streets.
First hiking stage
At breakfast our group was introduced to Anna Gavendova, our ninth group member, from the Czech Republic who had already stayed in Alafrangite for an extra night. It was Anna who had bought us our tickets for the public bus from Plovdiv to Smolyan a beautiful three hour ride through the mountains. At the bus station we were welcomed by our Bulgarian guide Alexander Karadzhov (Alex).
Alex took us to the Three Fir Tree Guesthouse where we dropped of our luggage, collected our lunch packages and got on to another bus for the 25-minute ride to the start of our hiking stage at an altitude of about 1.900 metres. After lunch, we entered nature reserve Waterfall Canyon where lots of trees had toppled over due to heavy snow last March. It made our supposedly light afternoon hike into quite a hard acrobatic exercise.
Our aching muscles were soothed by new rounds of Kamenitza and the lovely, varied cooking of our hostess Milena Yurokova. She also provided our lunch package which could have taken us all the way to Istanbul. However, we needed our firm lunch packages because most hikers considered this second hiking day as the toughest day. The hardest part was right after lunch when there was a stretch where there was no longer a proper path and we had to do a bit of ‘roughing’ on a steep hill. Luckily after this difficult stretch the final part to the town of Polkovnik Serafimovo was easier. In Polkovnik Serafimovo we stayed over in Vila Kati where we had the entire second floor including veranda to ourselves. On the ground floor Kostas was cooking for us and the shepherd dog Ares was eagerly waiting for someone to play.
Goodbye to Alex
Vila Kati was also the spot where we said goodbye to guide Alex. Luckily I can work with him again in September. After his parting it was up to me to lead the group and in order to make sure that I knew at least the first part of our hiking stage I made an early morning trip familiarizing myself with the route, but also bumping into a deer and hitting upon loads of wild strawberries.
Leading the group along the right route went fine but communicating with the Bulgarians is a different chapter. At the final destination of our third hiking day, the village Kojnarci, I was looking for a van from our hotel Izvora in Srednogortsi. I did not see a van but I did see a taxi and I asked the driver Hotel Izvora? He replied Razbiram (I don’t understand). For me this was a sign to keep looking out for a van that could take nine people but when no such van appeared after twenty minutes I send a Whatsapp message to Mihaela Kircheva who had arranged all our overnight stays, transfers and the luggage transport. She replied that I had already talked to our driver, the cab driver that had been standing next to me for 20 minutes without saying a word. The idea was that he was going to bring us to the hotel in three shifts each with three people.
The Bulgarian revenge
It was quite busy at hotel Izvora on this Saturday. While we were trying to hold on to our sleeping rhythm of hikers going to bed at ten or half past ten all the Bulgarian guests came to party and they did so till the wee hours.
Hiking the ridge to mountain hut Shadeetsa
Next morning the taxi brought us again in three shifts to the starting point for our ‘Sunday hike’. The first hour and a half resembled nothing like a lazy Sunday hike but led us up to a ridge. Most of the hikers slowly got rid of their muscle pain and mastered the climbs a bit easier than during the first days. Once we were on the ridge it became a proper Sunday hike with great views to both sides and an encounter with a deer and some turtles. This stretch is not official Sultans Trail but a track that I have developed in cooperation with Mihaela and it is a personal favorite of mine.
We reached mountain hut Shadeetsa at something like half past two and were greeted with Kamenitza and fresh French fries. We had seen a box of potatoes being brought in and half an hour later they served us the French fries which served as an appetizer for a huge evening meal served on a terrace overlooking the Madan valley where the official Sultans Trail runs.
On our way to Lee
This Monday June 17, the stage from Shadeetsa to Lyubino, I was not too sure about whether it would be a success because it was a bit fragmented and logistically complicated. We started with a beautiful descent to the village of Galishte. Whenever I visit this town we always have some nice experiences there. This time a few hikers bought some mineral stones from an ex-mine worker while others bought fresh strawberries that were just harvested. Chris Hijmans, who had skipped one hiking day because of a sore foot and his girlfriend Anna, joined us in Galishte and our complete group was picked up by a bus to be driven to Ardino the ancestral grounds of our chairman Sedat Cakir. In Ardino we shopped for lunch and had both lunch and a swim near the Devil’s Bridge spanning the Arda River.
After our lunch break we crossed over the Ottoman Devil’s Bridge and started our climb towards the tiny village of Lyubino the home of B &B Melanya Mountain Retreat. Owner Lee could not hide his surprise when the nine of us showed up at his doorstep. He had expected us the next day. In no time he had arranged one of his neighbours to assist him in the kitchen and we were served a delicious chili con carne and chili without carne for the vegetarians on the small plateau overlooking the surrounding mountains.
A fifth of Lyubino’s population serves as drivers
The next day Lee had also arranged two neighbours and their cars to bring us to Suhovo in three teams. In Suhovo we crossed the long suspension bridge to the other side of the artificial lake Studen Kladenets. At the other side we had to master a long steady climb up, the first part through a relatively cool forest, the last part in the open under the burning sun. Luckily this was only half a hiking day because in Penjovo a van picked us up an drove us to Madrets where we enjoyed Sevda Ali’s famous trout from the oven.
Last overnight stay
After our wonderful lunch we were transported to Gnyazdovo where good friend and business partner Mihaela runs her Mihaela’s Lake Retreat. Some of us enjoyed a dive in the lake and at about 5.30 we climbed up Fist Rock. After quite some sweating and scratching we reached a nice viewpoint. The only one still full of energy was Mihaela’s dog who had accompanied us. We rewarded the dog with water and the dog rewarded himself with finding a deer paw to gnaw on.
We didn’t see any deer but had spotted some rare black storks and when we were still down at the lake we had seen a group of vultures circling around Fist Rock. Mihaela (Misha) served us a lovely varied meal containing among others rabbit and grilled vegetables.
The next morning we did not only say goodbye to host Misha but Chris and Anna stayed at Mihaela’s Lake Retreat for a few days longer. Their flight back to the Czech Republic was a few days later. The others caught a public bus in the provincial capital Kardzhali, to national capital Sofia. After the three and a half hour bus ride we found a place to leave our luggage and everyone went his way in this vibrant city. I myself went to the small museum of Socialist Art but most of the time I spend inside hiding for the heavy rains. The mediocre weather made it easier to leave Bulgaria behind and reconcile with Dutch reality.
Thanks to all my hikers, guide Alex Karadzhov, Mihaela Kircheva and her Gabi Tours/Nature Adventures and all the other hospitable Bulgarians along the route. We will experience new Bulgarian adventures in 2020 if you want to come along sent an email to Bulgaria coordinator Arjan Schuiling: firstname.lastname@example.org.