Sofia to Vidin-10 JuneWe flew from Prague to Sofia via Vienna and arrived at midday. It was 10 June 2011. The goal for this weeklong trip was to bag three country highpoints. We planned to first head up to Midžor, on the Serbian border, and climb from the Bulgarian side. We had to climb from the Bulgarian side because we could not take the rental car to Serbia. We were weary of this ascent because we had not found any route info besides knowing to start close to the town of Gorni Lom. Next would be Musala, the Bulgarian highpoint, which we originally expected to be a warmup, but turned out to be tough due to a broken chairlift. Then would have been Olympus, which would be the toughest, and longest drive.
We got the car and drove out of Sofia. The further we got from Sofia, the worse the roads became. The highway was a crumbling two-lane road and we shared it with many donkey-pulled carts. The scenery that we drove by was beautiful, from Vitosha to the peaks near Vratsa, to the northern plains. We made the 120 miles in about four hours, with one stop for petrol.
We drove into Vidin, and were following the GPS in the rental car, which was supposed to direct us to the hotel. The GPS advised us to hang a right, which turned us onto a dirt road. Navigating water-filled potholes and stray dogs on the dirt road, we found ourselves amidst old, crumbling block housing. We hung a right and the GPS informed us that we were at the hotel. We looked for a "Hotel Rovno" sign, but could not find anything. My dad instructed me to get out of the car. I looked at papers taped on the block housing walls to try to find a clue. As I looked around, my dad pulled the car to the side of the dirt road to allow a car to pass. When he pulled to the side, he drove straight into a stone sticking out of the curb and punctured the sidewall of the tire...who puts a curb on a dirt road?!
Well this trip was not going as planned anymore, and so the adventure starts. We took our bags out of the trunk and put them in the back seat to get the spare and tools out. We took the car and raised the jack, and tried to use the tire iron for the wheel bolts. The tire iron was the wrong size for the bolts. Then, a couple old guys sitting on a bench got their friend, who took a regular cross-shaped tire iron and helped us to change the flat. By the time the spare was on, our hands were very dirty. The nice, chain smoking, middle age man, who spoke not a word of English, Spanish, or German took us up into his apartment to wash our hands. We crammed into the communist-era elevator (the type without a door) and went up to the fifth floor. We washed our hands and met his family briefly. This was our first of many encounters with very nice locals.
The man took us back to the car, hopped in the front seat, and guided us out of his neighborhood with hand signals. He guided us to an auto shop, where we got the tire repaired. The guys at the shop quickly fixed the sidewall puncture (I have been told that sidewall punctures are not repaired in the USA due to liability), trued the wheel, took off the spare and swapped the front and rear tires because the newly trued wheel should not be in front. After a half hour the work is done, and the man wrote the bill. 18 levs. We gave the man 40 levs for his quick work, and through his limited German and hand signals we got the point across. The mechanic tried to refuse the extra money, but we insisted. As a gift he gave us an air freshener for the car, putting it on the rear-view mirror and smelling it a few times to demonstrate. We drove out of the auto shop and were guided to the hotel. We tried to give the man who helped us change the tire and who took us to his apartment some money, but he refused. We had very good fortune in an unfortunate situation, and the people here were always friendly.
We parked at the hotel and grabbed dinner in the hotel. Afterward we went for a walk on the Danube, in the company of many stray dogs. Now, Vidin is not a small town--60,000 people live there. There is Calafat, a city of 25,000 people on the opposite bank of the Danube, but yet there is no bridge. In fact, the only bridge across the Danube on the Romanian border is 150 miles as the crow flies from Vidin, in Giurgiu. It is times like these when Prague feels like more than a two-hour plane ride away. We walked through the town, which was mostly empty, and got ready for an attempt on Midžor the next morning.
Midžor and Belogradchik-11 JuneWe got up at 5 am and began driving to Gorni Lom, where we hoped to find the trail to climb Midžor, the Serbian highpoint. It took awhile to drive to Gorni Lom, but we got there by 7 am. We were looking for the "eco trail," as our hiking guidebook described. We drove into, out of, around and through the town. We could not find the trailhead, trail markings or signs. There were many dirt roads going around the town, but most were too rough to take the rental car on. We decided to head back into town for help.
From spending a lot of time in the Czech Republic, I am weary of asking for help in small towns where the chances of finding someone who can speak a common language is rare. At this point we figured that our hopes of climbing Midžor were done and we were making one final effort to climb the mountain.
We parked the car in the town square, which was just a convenience store and bus stop surrounded by houses. A few men were outside drinking Turkish coffee and we asked them, in English, whether they knew how to get to Midžor. None of them spoke English, German or Spanish. We used a lot of hand signals and tried to say things in various languages to try to explain that we wanted to climb the peak. We were getting nowhere with this, and we were trying to leave, when we were ushered inside the convenience store. It was dark inside the store because the lights were off, and the only lights came from the refrigerators and the open door at the front. One of the men pulled me over to a man in a corner with a coffee and some fresh bread. The first thing he said was ¿Hablas español?
I have taken three years of Spanish so far is high school, and it was tough to actually speak Spanish--all we do in class is write. The good fortune of meeting this nice man from Vidin, who worked in Spain for a couple years, allowed us to get the details on what was going on. The men who had been talking to us, one was trying to rent out his guest house, one was trying to tell us that if we stayed in the guest house that he would drive us to the trailhead in his jeep, another had phoned the border police, and they were all saying the hike was not possible. A border policeman in a t-shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops walked up to the group of us talking. The border policeman would ask questions and then the Spanish-speaking man would translate for me, and I would translate for my dad. It took awhile.
The men who were left (a few walked away after we informed them that we didn't need a guesthouse) were informing us of a number of problems with our attempt. They found it quite amusing that an Australian and and Australian-American had come all the way from the USA to hike Midžor. The problems that we were informed of were like this:
1. The road to the trailhead is rough and the rental car will not make it. We would need to hire another car.
2. Even if the road was not bad, the it is raining heavily and so the peak is unclimbable.
3. Even if the road was good and there was good weather, we would need permission from the capital (Sofia) to climb the peak.
4. This permission cannot be obtained because it is a weekend and all of the government officials are on holiday.
5. Even if we had permission and good roads and weather, we need a guide.
6. There are no guides available.
7. There are landmines to negotiate, and even with a guide it would be dangerous to climb the peak. My Spanish knowledge failed me here, and I was forced to interpret hand signals of explosions and the word "explosiva." See update below.
8. We may be able to bypass problems 1-6 by returning in good weather with a bribe for the border police, though it is risky whether he will accept it.
9. If the bribe is not accepted, Bulgarian prisons are not very fun.
Update: After a little more research on Gorni Lom, there is a factory that produces explosives near the town. The man may have been saying "fábrica explosiva," or explosives factory. I am not sure about landmines being a problem, but there is a factory that produces explosives.
We thanked everyone for their help, shook hands and told them we would return the next day with a permit after getting a permit in Sofia. We never did.
Disappointed with not being able to climb, or even see Midžor, which was constantly shrouded in clouds, we looked through the travel guide to see what we could do with the rest of the day. We decided to go to Belogradchik, whose beautiful rock outcroppings we had seen on the drive over. We drove through the town, to the rocks, and to the fortress. We spent some time wandering around and messing about on the rocks.
We then got in the car and drove into town. We went into a grocery store and bought some local bread, yogurt, cheese and juice. In the town there was a festival going on and some small children were dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothing. It was very interesting to see. We walked around the town and then took off in the direction of Magura Cave, which we had seen signs for. We had nothing else to do, so why not see the sights?
We stopped for lunch at a lake along the side of the road. My dad was very worried about the car after we got the flat tire, and when we tuned on the car he noticed the brake light was on. We phoned the rental company and they told us to do a checklist...turns out the parking brake was not all the way off! The rental car company also told us that we could not travel to Greece without a paper from them, which we would have to get in Sofia. Fortunately we would be passing by!
We drove on small, potholed roads to the cave. When we got there, it appeared to be closed. We drove back to Vidin.
We still had some time left, so we visited the Baba Vida Fortress on the Danube.
We had dinner and got reservations for our hotel the next night in Borovets.
Vidin to Borovets-12-13 JuneWe got up early and drove down the highway to Borovets. The roads seemed a lot better compared to the rural roads we had driven on the previous day. On the way down we saw a couple crashes. A man drove off a turn, through a guardrail right in front of us, and off a drop. A little bit of excitement on this drive, even for the passenger!
We made good time, and were in Sofia by noon. We went to the airport and picked up the paper. Then we went to the downtown to get some lunch. We drove the wrong way down a one-way street by mistake, and sped down the street to find a parking spot because we were on top of the tram lines! Fortunately we didn't have a head-on collision with a tram, but one passed by us just as we parked. We grabbed some KFC, and we were wishing for a shopska salad when we ate it. We got some food at a grocery store and continued South to Borovets.
The road down to Borovets was good, and we got there quickly. We found out that this hike was going to be a bit more difficult than we had expected. The guidebook stated that the chairlift would be open, which would make Musala, highpoint of Bulgaria and the Balkans, a 7 mile hike with 2000 feet of gain. Because the lift was not running, and it would only begin running the day after we left Bulgaria, we had to walk from the town. It was 20 miles and 5600 feet of gain. We got some dinner, and had a chat with the cordial Bulgarian waiter, who was interested in our attempt tomorrow. We got some snacks at a shop and turned in.
The next morning we woke up at 5 and were hiking by 5:20. The trail, which was actually a road for four-wheel drive vehicles, was extremely steep. For me, hiking on steep slopes, without the excitement of technical terrain, or even a view in the fog was very monotonous. We hiked in the fog, and eventually the dirt road turned into a trail, which turned into wandering through bushes and streams while looking for pink and orange ties on tree branches and old, rusty telephone poles. That was really fun, but a bit disconcerting in the fog.
We hiked up to a hut and a ruined hut. At first we had trouble finding the trail, and found ourselves walking through trash and waste. We found the trail and continued. The trail steepened and we were soon hiking on snow as much as rock. We then continued up and found the cables that lead up to the summit, on the ridge. There is a trail below, but I decided to take the cables while my dad stayed on the trail. This turned out to be a wise decision because it was much faster and I did not encounter snow as my dad did.
I got nearly to the top and waited for my dad right below the summit. He got to the top and we took some photos. We couldn't see anything, which was quite disappointing. There is a meteorological station, and we were welcomed inside. The attendant told us that a storm would be come in a couple hours. We stayed there for a bit and then followed the cables down, hiked through the snow, and got to the mountain hut. We stopped and had a snack near there.
Then, as we were leaving the mountain hut, the clouds broke for fifteen minutes and we got the chance to see the beautiful scenery around us. After a long, cold morning, seeing the lakes and peaks around us was a huge morale boost. The clouds never broke on Musala, and we never saw the peak. The Ice Lake and the sweeping valley were especially beautiful sights.
We continued hiking as the clouds came in, and it began to rain. We hiked down, wet and cold. At the very end the rain stopped and we walked down the street to the hotel in the sunshine. After 1.5 liters of Bitter Lemon, we were both feeling a bit better. A nice mixed grill at the restaurant down the street was polished off in five minutes, evidence of a full day.
We bought some candy at a store and spoke with the clerk for twenty minutes. He was a very nice man who worked very long hours there hoping to send his children to university. He spoke excellent English, and we stocked up on food for the next day and bid him farewell.
After 20 miles of hiking and 5600 feet of gain, we went to bed.
Borovets to Serres-14 JuneWe slept in, had a nice breakfast in the hotel, and headed off. It was a beautiful and sunny day, and we wished we had hiked Musala then. From the roadside we took a few pictures of Musala, the only time we ever saw the peak. We were so tired from the previous day that we were forced to give up on attempting Olympus the next day. That hike would have been 16 miles and 6900 feet of gain.
The GPS that we had did not have maps for Greece, so we had to buy a road map and find a hotel on a highway and out of the city. We picked a hotel near Serres.
We drove a long way, and it was not very fun. It was much warmer here, and the sunny weather did not help. It had rained every day of the trip thus far. The driving was easier than on the rural roads in Vidin Province, but the main freeway could still be dicey at times with some dangerous passing on blind corners and the ever-present donky-pulled carts.
We turned off the road and began driving on a small rural road to Rila Monastery. Soon we ran into some problems with the road being under construction, and had a little route-finding difficulty. We finally got onto the main road out to the monastery...because it was my idea to take a "shortcut" and get off early and take small roads what seemed like a shorter distance than the highway to the road to the monastery.
It took awhile on this road, which went through a beautiful canyon, to get to Rila Monastery. We parked near the monastery and walked around for a bit, looking at the monastery and the picturesque mountains that surrounded it.
Worthy of note is Saint John of Rila, who was the first Bulgarian hermit. He lived in the beautiful Rila Mountains in solitude to pray. He is a hero to many.
We continued down the road and got to the Greek border, but not without seeing a wreck. As soon as we passed the border checkpoint in Greece, we began driving on a beautiful, smooth highway. After a couple of miles, however, the road was closed and we spent the rest of the drive to Serres alternating between the frontage road and the few completed portions of the highway. The economic collapse has stopped all construction.
We knew that when we came to Greece there was a general strike going on, and that we would probably see protesters. My dad was not so excited to see Greece because it is more westernized, but I wanted to see what was happening there (though I was also a bit nervous about going.)
We got to the hotel, and went into the lobby. Empty. We went down the hall looking for someone. Nobody. This hotel was massive, and a giant ballroom was set up for a huge party, but nobody was there. There was a hotel next door, and we went there and asked about our hotel. The man there said he would check us in in a few minutes. He did, and we had a huge room. We were the only guests at the hotel, and some of the only guests ever.
We went to have dinner in Serres at about 7, and had some trouble finding a place to eat because it was early. We ended up in a bar eating gyros and Greek salad, which was excellent. As we ate on the patio, minivans were circling blaring political messages in Greek. As we walked around the city, homemade banners of painted sheets were ubiquitous.
We went back to the hotel, where a clerk was now stationed. We asked him about why the hotel was empty. He explained that the hotel gets some business for weddings, and some guests. He also talked about his career. He is a pilot, but he cannot get a job with an airline because he does not have enough experience. He also cannot get experience because it is so expensive to rent a plane and get hours.
Serres and Thessaloniki-15 JuneWe had breakfast at the hotel next-door and headed off to Thessaloniki. It took an hour or so to get there. We got off the highway and went looking for a parking spot. It took forever to find the parking spot, because we wanted to park on the hill and walk down. The streets were maze-like and crammed with parked cars. Coming down the hill, the riot police had taken all of the parking. After literally a couple hours of looking for a parking spot, we parked in a pay garage.
We decided to take a walking tour, which began at the city walls on the hill and ended at the White Tower. The walk was beautiful, and we saw a few hidden gems, like a small Greek-Orthodox Church in an alley. We also got lost a couple times, and we soaked by the drizzly rain. The entire time we could hear sirens, shouts and whistles as the protest marched through the streets below.
We got to the downtown and saw the protesters in the streets. We walked on the sidewalk while they took to the streets. Still on the walking tour, we headed for the Roman forum. We got to the North side of the forum, and watched the protesters pass by. We were going to wait until we saw a gap, and cross to the South side of the street. Suddenly it began to rain very heavily. The gutters in the roads filled up, and the roads began to fill with water, about a foot deep in places. The parked cars in front of us had most of their wheels underwater, and the spokes of bicycles on nearby bikes became newspaper racks as paper stuck to them.
Many of the protesters who were walking in the street in front of us dashed under the canopy that we were standing under, and it became quite crowded. To me, it seems very weak to ditch a protest for the rain. If you want to make a political point, tough out the rain. After awhile the rain lightened up and we visited the Roman forum.
We went into a cafe-type thing called "Everest" and got some lunch. People here watch the news like crazy. People were popping in just to look at the TV. While we were eating, I noticed fire bombs and a real riot on the screen. I was a bit nervous whether we could have a serious riot, because the protesters were right outside the cafe. Fortunately for us it was in Athens, but I will always remember that day.
We walked down to the White Tower, took a few photos of all of the people camped on the lawn around it, and headed back to the car. We got out of Thessaloniki and drove back to the hotel without a hitch, getting there by 5 pm.
We were both tired, and did not feel like heading into Serres. The hotel clerk said that the hotel restaurant next-door was open, and so we called the front desk to check. The clerk responded "Yes, the restaurant is open. I will call the chef and he will pick up the food and be here shortly." We headed down to the other hotel and had the meal in a huge ballroom, which was completely empty. The chef brought six or so friends with him, and they seemed to already have had a few. They watched the news, yelling at the news anchor and the Greek Prime Minister. After a great meal we turned in.
Serres to Sofia-16-17 JuneWe slept in and left Serres. We had a hotel booked in Sofia that night, so the goal for the day was to drive back and to hike Vitosha.
We drove all the way without much of a hitch, then pulled over to try to find our way to the chairlift to Vitosha. We drove down a road, and got to where we though the lift would be. We could not see it. We drove on the dirt alleys around the town, and did not see anything. We drove around the other town on the road and did not find anything, but did get tangled up in some delays from road construction.
Below, I could see the ring road in Sofia. I thought that we could take a shortcut and get to the ring road. We decided to go for it and avoid the construction. The road we turned onto was nice at first, but still had some construction. We kept driving and the road began to worsen, with more and more potholes. The road then turned to dirt, and we started hitting dead ends. We thought we found the ring road, only to be from it by a huge pit and more construction. We threw the car in reverse and took a right. We finally made it to the ring road, and got to Sofia.
We walked around Sofia, looking at the squares, government building and beautiful churches. We also went into a magnificent mosque. It was my first time in a mosque. We had dinner in an Indian restaurant, and decided that it had been a great trip.
The next day we took the car back to the airport and flew back to Prague. What a great trip it was.