|From Sofia to Rila and Pirin: Bulgaria's Southwest
Bulgaria is for many tourists still a white spot. A couple of prejudices might withhold one to travel there - and if one does so, the destination is usually the coast of the Black Sea. But what do they miss! The southwestern part of Bulgaria offers beautiful rural scenery, unspoiled villages (photo: village of Lesten), famous monasteries as well as wild mountain ranges, e.g. the famous Pirin, Rila and Rhodopi Mts.
I travelled with friends from Sofia southwards and what I discovered there convinced me, that Bulgaria can easily cope with the common westeuropean travel destinations. A land that still waits to be discovered by the individualist....
How to get there
Travelling in the area
Things you shouldn't miss...
Things you shouldn't do...
- Travel Bulgaria - a very good starting point
- Bulgarien Web - pretty good german site on Bulgaria
- Weather in BG by wunderground.com (very good site)
- Yahoo! Weather for BG
Well, a good map for Bulgaria can hardly be obtained outside the country. And even if you get one, you'll have to be able to read cyrillic. But the quality of the maps published by Kartografija is generally very good, they are rather new (1996) and are of 1:55.000 scale. For the Borovetz area (Rila) you might be lucky to find a small green booklet in a book store, which describes a couple of nice tours and offers a 1:75.000 map. It is published by Balkantourist/Institute for Cartography and is at least available in German.
- Simple Area Map from Loneylplanet
- Zoom-In Maps for BG by multimap - nice!
- Bulgaria Map Collection by b-info
- Geo-Locator for towns and places in BG
- Roadmap (1:540.000) (273k) of the jouney from Sofia the Bulgaria's Southwest (Domino, 2003)
- Map (1:55.000) (294k) of the Normal Route to Vihren, Bansko/Pirin (Kartografija, 1996)
- Map (1:55.000) (272k) of the Normal Route to Musala, Borovec/Rila (Kartografija, 1995)
How to get there
I guess I wouldn't recommend to go to Bulgaria by car. Maybe this is just another dumb prejudice, but crossing Serbia or Romania might not be such a good idea. It is anyway much more convenient to fly to Sofia - and the prizes are reasonable. We paid with Czech Airlines via Prague approximately 265 Euro.
- Czech Airlines
Travelling in the area
If you really want to discover the country, public transport won't help much. Getting around in Sofia is okay, and getting to the major tourist places shouldn't be difficult either. But if you want to leave the beaten tracks, rent a car. Driving in Bulgaria might appear a little chaotic at times, but you'll get used to it. Just be aware of the many holes and not motorized traffic participants ;-) on the minor roads (photo) and you'll get around in Bulgaria perfectly. And driving fast in BG doesn't make much sense anyway - you might miss way too many beautiful impressions alongside the road (photo).
- Getting around in BG by hotelnear - info on all transport options
- Bulgarian State Railways - BDZ
- Car Rental in BG by autoeurope.com
Believe it or not: in Bulgaria you'll get a very nice double-bedded room including breakfast for 10 (yes, ten) Euro per person per night. No matter where we went, it was easy to find very nice hotels in the centre of the cities. And in general there's no need to book in advance. Only during skiing seasons and on major Bulgarian holidays the tourist spots will be crowded. Some recommendations: in Borovetz I liked the hotel "Popangelov", yes, owned by the famous Peter Popangelov (mail: Popangelov_Peter@abv.bg). It is one of the smaller and more private hotels in this rather artificial village. If you want to visit the famous Rila Monastery (photos: outside, inside), stay there overnight. We did so and had a simple yet nice room (photo), with shower and central heating. In the beautiful town of Bansko you should try to sleep in one of the old "reincarnation-houses". They are easily found in the old centre (photo), as well as the many "Mehana" restaurants, which themselves are definitely worth a visit. And remember: Bansko is an all season destination as it is during winter time one of the nicest skiing ressorts (photo: skiing-map) in BG in my opinion - much nicer than Borovetz.
- Accommodation Info by cityindex.com
Admittedly, the mountains in Bulgaria are not as big as in the Alps and the scenery might not be as wild. But still, it is a small paradise in the middle of Europe because of the many different landscapes within short distance of Sofia, the quietness and the unspoiled nature around you. The big mass tourism has not arrived yet and the chances to meet your neighbour on top of a mountain are almost zero :-)
Although Bulgaria's highest mountains are almost reaching 3.000m (Musala is quite a bit higher than Mitikas/Mt. Olympus...), hiking is simply a pleasure and on the normal routes technically easy. No glaciers, good infrastructure concerning huts and trail markings allow very nice day-trips in Pirin and Rila as well as extended tours. The hiking season is from early June until late September depending on snow conditions - we have been there to early (end of April) and hiking was still impossible. But anyway, here are some photos of interesting spots in Rila, Pirin and Vitosha - next time....
- famous Maljovica (2.729m), seen from Partisanska Poljana
- normal route to Musala (2.925m) seen from the ridge towards Aleko
- the tour we tried to take to Musala....unfinished
- view westwards towards Maljovica and Rila from Musala
- view from the Vihren hut south...untouched snow
- famous Vihren (2.914m) seen from the skiing area of Bansko
- the normal route to Vihren from Vihren hut...too much snow anyway :-(
- sign at Vihren hut indicating walking times from there (if you can read it...)
- the Cerni Vrah (2.280m) in the Vitosha mountain range - twenty minutes from Sofia
- view towards Sofia from the Vitosha skiing area
- the sandstone formations around Melnik - and a beautiful view from the trail from Rozhen Monastery to Melnik
- Bulgarian Mountains Mini FAQ by thinrope.net
- Hiking Links for BG by traildatabase.org
- Official Website of Rila National Park
- Official Website of Pirin National Park
Apart from hiking you can perform almost any outdoor sport you can imagine in BG. Pretty famous are Caving, Climbing...BG offers more than you might expect!
- Climbing in the Vratsa-Area incl. Overview for the routes in Vratsa central wall - by clubextreme
- Speleology/Caving in BG - by clubextreme
- Federation of Bulgarian Alpine Clubs
- Bulgarian Mountain Rescue Service
...things you shouldn't miss!
Easter in BG, e.g. in Sofia's Aleksander Nefski Cathedral or in Rila Monastery is definitely worth a visit on its own. Although Hiking and the like won't be possible that early in the year you can still go skiing in Vitosha, Borovetz or Bansko. The must-see's in Bulgaria's Southwest are in my opinion: Rila Monastery, Bansko and Melnik - but no matter where you travel in this area, you'll like it. Once there, avoid the big hotels and look for original hotels, restaurants and mehanas. Food and drink are generally of high quality (try red wines from Melnik!) and don't cost much: expect for a three-course meal with Wine a prize of five to twelve Euro!! So please don't book one of the huge, ex-socialist hotels - you'll miss the best!
...things you shouldn't do!
Hmm, it took me a long time thinking about this section. I still don't have an idea what really has to be avoided. Crime is not a big topic in BG, I felt much safer there than in southern France for example. People are very open and friendly in general - so learn some Bulgarian and try to read Cyrrilic and everything is fine. And I didn't discover any rip-offs while I was there. The only thing you should be aware of is that the police might sometimes like to be paid for their services....but this is common in many countries. Well, take the usual precautions and enjoy Bulgaria!