Originally posted June 28, 2007 on my other blog, http://360.yahoo.com/maxwell_woods
For nearly three weeks now Bulgaria has been setting record high temperatures; it’s been above 105 here in Svishtov for an entire week now. When faced with this torture, in a land of no air conditioning, the nature is your only refuge. So last weekend, with my friend Jessie, we escaped the blast furnace of the Bulgarian lowlands and traveled to the forests and mountains of the Central Balkan National Park. The park is the biggest protected area in the country, encompassing nearly the entire Balkan mountain range (also known as the Stara Planina mountains in Bulgarian, though the name “Balkan peninsula” comes from the mountain range), which run across the width of Bulgaria. The main goal of our expedition: to climb the highest mountain in the range, Botev peak, about 7700 feet (the third highest mountain in Bulgaria). We succeeded, and it was an awesome and memorable experience, one of the highlights of my Bulgarian experience.
Starting from Svishtov on Friday morning, Jess and made our way by a series of buses to the entrance to the park. We caught a ride with a friendly local to the trailhead, and hiked a good four to five hours through the forest up to “hija Pleven,” at 5500 feet. A hija is variously translated from Bulgarian as a “chalet” and a “hut,” but a much more accurate word would be mountain hostel. It’s a great network – all across the mountains of Bulgaria there are these hostels, which offer running water, showers, decent beds, and sometimes even hot food and cold beer, all in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain. No need to bring a tent, a sleeping bag, or a camp stove, because the hija system provides all this for about $7 or less per night.
On Saturday morning we started out early for our assault on Botev Peak. The trail is well-marked and maintained, but the hike was really strenuous and in many sections practically straight uphill. We made it to the top in five long hours, but the view made every burning quad muscle and toe blister worthwhile. At the top, we decided to be adventurous and hike down the southern side of the mountain, instead of retracing our steps back down the north face. We were targeting a hija on the south side, but upon arrival the place was full up with all the other smart Bulgarians escaping the heat.
We ran into a young Bulgarian couple and told them of our plight. As it turned out, they were friends with another Peace Corps volunteer and both spoke fluent English. They were hiking off the mountain, and offered us a ride in their car from the trailhead to the nearest town if we wanted to accompany them. Having no other choice, we joined them for the rest of the hike, a good four hours from the southern hija. They gave us a ride into the town of Kalofer, at the southern edge of the park, and we all stayed in a little guesthouse that night. In the morning, we said goodbye to our new Bulgarian friends, and Jessie and I traveled by train back to her town of Stara Zagora.
All told, we hiked for 12 full hours on Saturday. Not the best planning, but hey, that’s what an adventure is all about. I saw some of the most beautiful places in Bulgaria, met some wonderfully friendly and helpful people (it seemed like everyone on the mountain was in a good mood), and most importantly, escaped the heat for two days.