July 14, 2024
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A Guide to the Mountains of Bulgaria

Many visitors to Bulgaria never leave the capital, Sofia, which is understandable. After all, the city is a fascinating mix of modern culture, Ottoman mosques, and Roman ruins. If all you want from your holiday is a chance to visit galleries, museums, bars, restaurants, and clubs, you’ll love Sofia. But if you like the idea of venturing deep into the Balkans, where rural Bulgaria comes to life, exploring the mountains of Bulgaria should be on your bucket list.

When to Visit the Mountains of Bulgaria

Winter is a good time to visit the mountains if you want to try winter sports, but if you plan to hike or mountain bike, bear in mind there will still be snow on the ground at higher levels as late as May. The temperatures begin to drop in September, especially higher up in the mountains.

Accommodation

You’ll find plenty of small hotels and B&Bs in the mountains, owned and run by locals. It is a great way to enjoy a more authentic experience when visiting Bulgaria and support poor rural communities at the same time. The locals are always friendly and keen to make new friends. Have fun tasting the local cuisine and if you need a guide, there will usually be someone happy to help.

Pirin Mountains

Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria National Park

The Pirin Mountains are named after the Slavic god of thunder: Perun. There are many huge peaks but the area is most famous for the ski resort of Bankso on the southern edge of the Pirin National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you’ll find pine forests and lakes, and you might bump into wolves, bears, and other elusive creatures.

The scenery in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria is spectacular, which is why it is a popular destination for hikers.

Navigating the Koncheto ridge is not for the faint-hearted. In places, the ridge is less than half a metre wide and causes many hikers serious palpitations. If you are familiar with the Crib Goch ridge on Mt Snowdonia in North Wales, you’ll have a good idea of how hair-raising the route across Koncheto is! Those that make the crossing can spend the night in a shelter at the northwestern end of the ridge.

If you fancy some high-altitude camping, head to Tevno Ezero. Known locally as the ‘dark Lake’, Tevno Ezero is a glacial lake surrounded by towering mountains. There is a small building on the shore of the lake, which has accommodation, food, and electricity, but you are free to pitch a tent anywhere around the lake.

Sinanitsa is another glorious mountain summit with a glacial lake and hut accommodation. The ascent is quite challenging but the views are well worth the effort.

Popovo Ezero is a popular and relatively easy hiking route that begins at the Bezbog Hut and ends at the largest lake in the Pirin Mountains: the Priests Lake.

Vihren is the third-highest peak in the Balkans and it towers over Bankso. It’s a challenging ascent and one slope is only suitable for Alpine climbers. The Snezhnika Glacier below Vihren is hundreds of years old. It’s a popular place for mountain goats, who enjoy clambering on the nearby marble rocks.

The Popina Laka Waterfall near the spa resort of Sandanski is a fun day trip. It isn’t the tallest waterfall in Bulgaria, but it’s still very impressive.

There are also many interesting cultural attractions in the Pirin Mountains.

Rozhen Monastery near Melnik dates back to the 16th century. There are 200-year-old murals in the Nativity of the Virgin Church, as well as woodcarvings and icons. You can hike to the monastery from Melnik, it is signposted along a 7km trail. This is a working monastery, so be respectful and don’t take photos.

The Museum of Wine adjacent to the Hotel Bulgari is in the same area and a fun way to sample the local wines. Try the tasting menu, it’s highly recommended!

Velyan’s House is a wonderful 18th-century mansion in Bankso. It is notable for the beautiful frescoes and wood carvings. The birthplace of Nikola Vaptsarov is another house museum in Bansko. You can learn more about this famous antifascist poet with communist leanings. In addition, check out the Museum of Otets Paisii Hilendarski, the author of a famous book on Slav history.

Kordopulov House near Melnik dates back to 1754. It’s a lovely mansion with plenty of interesting Revival-era features, including stained-glass windows, a huge wine cellar, and a sauna.

Rhodope Mountains

The Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria are the country’s biggest mountain range. This area was once the home of the ancient Thracians and Romans. There are many historical sites to explore, including Villa Amira, a well-preserved Roman villa, and various Thracian tombs.

The food is quite distinctive in this area. Look out for Patanik, a slow-cooked feta cheese and potato dish. This is delicious!

There are a few main roads crossing the region, including a highway that passes into Greece. However, many of the smaller roads that lead into the mountains are narrow and not well-maintained. Watch out for rocks, potholes, and other obstacles if you are driving at night.

In summer, the alpine meadows are bursting with flowers and the temperatures are warm. Here you will find traditional villages like Smilyan, Ortsevo, and Gela, and the area is known for Bulgarian folklore music. In winter, there is skiing, and in summer, hiking.

The mountains are crisscrossed with hiking trails, which follow ancient pathways between remote communities. The best way to explore the Rhodope Mountains is on foot or horseback. The trails are steep at times, but the views are always rewarding.

The Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria are famous for caves and impressive rock formations. The Trigrad Gorge is known locally as the Devil’s Throat Cave. According to legend, this is where Orpheus emerged from the Underworld, after trying to rescue his beloved Eurydice. The cavern is suitably impressive, and deliciously cool on a hot day.

The Devil’s Bridge near Ardino dates back to the 16th century. It’s a popular spot for picnics and photos.

The Devil’s path is notable for some scary wooden stairs fixed to steep rocks. Hiking the path takes around two hours.

The Wonderful Bridges are a series of limestone arches over the Erkyupriya River. They are a national landmark and can be found on the trail between Zabardo and Orehovo. Other strange rock formations include the Stone Mushrooms and the Stone Wedding.

The Canyon of Waterfalls is near Smolyan. There are nearly 50 individual waterfalls, but the tallest one is the Orpheus Waterfall at 68m.

The Orlovo Oko viewpoint, also known as ‘Eagle’s Eye’ offers 360-degree views of the mountains. It’s accessible on foot or 4X4.

Asen’s Fortress is an ancient medieval fortress and popular tourist attraction. It dates back to the 1400s when it fell to Ottoman invaders. There are some excellent views to be photographed!

Be sure to hike to the top of Snezhanka, where the TV tower stands. In winter, this is a ski slope and there is a restaurant at the top for anyone in need of refreshments. The views from the terrace are amazing, and on a clear day, the Aegean Sea is visible.

Rila Mountain

Rila Mountain is the highest mountain in Bulgaria. It is in the southwest of the country and connects to the Rilo-Rhodope Massif. At 2925m, Rila is the sixth tallest mountain in Europe.

There are hundreds of glacier lakes and springs around the base of the mountain and the mountain is the main source of water for many of the largest rivers in Bulgaria. A third of the mountain falls within the boundary of the Rila National Park.

The Seven Rila Lakes are a major historical site in Bulgaria and the most visited lakes in the country. They are situated 2,100-2,500m above sea level. There is a beautiful circular hike that takes you around the seven lakes, passing through ancient spruce forests and across alpine meadows. Hop on a chair lift from the Pionerska hut to reach the lakes. The shorter hike takes around two hours, and the longer one four hours.

Rila Monastery dates back to the 10th century. It is an important cultural site and is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The monastery is the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria and was founded by St John of Rila. Because it is an important symbol of Bulgaria, the monastery is a popular tourist attraction. There is accommodation available if you’d like to stay in a functioning monastery.

The magnificent mountains of Bulgaria never fail to disappoint, whatever the season. If you are planning a trip to Bulgaria this year, don’t spend all your time in Sofia. Bulgaria’s mountains are where you’ll find the true spirit of this peaceful country, as well as connect with nature.

Enjoy!

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