Thursday, 30 August 2018

E4 in Bulgaria: General comments

The official section of the E4 Long Distance European trail through Bulgaria crosses the Vitosha, Verila, Rila, Pirin and Slavyanka mountains. Most of it is in the Rila and Pirin Mountains. Very much an alpine trail, the highest point is at 2914 metres. One of the most scenic parts of the E4 in Europe, with rocky ridges and lakes left from now departed glaciers, the Bulgarian section is well worth hiking as a stand alone two week walk. There are some big climbs and descents involved so a certain degree of fitness is needed. Climbing over rocks and boulders is required. This does not require any special skills, however I was glad I did a scrambling course at Plas-y-Brenin first as it gave me the confidence to tackle some of the sections described as "difficult" on my own.
There are some specific E4 signs but for most of its 260 kilometres the route follows red and white waymarks and associated signs. With a few exceptions  (most especially the descent into Predel) I found the waymarks of such a standard that I only occasionally needed to consult my GPS. The paths were also in good condition (again with the exception of the descent into Predel).
I found the Balkans Navitracks map that I loaded onto my GPS more than adequate for use in Bulgaria. The GPS track of the E4 in Bulgaria downloaded from Waymarked trails or Traildino.com was my primary means of finding the route, the Navitracks map allowed for making minor detours and showed the location huts and places of interest that I had not waymarked in my planning. In addition I bought the Domino paper maps of Rila and Pirin, they were nice for seeing the overall route and might have been useful if major changes in my route were necessary due to weather or something. "Tourist Route E4 in Bulgaria" was a better buy. This guidebook split the trip into manageable stages and gave a description of what lay ahead each day. Timings would have been difficult to estimate without the book given the large climbs, descents, boulder fields and other factors.
I found August a pleasant time to walk through the mountains, temperatures were good for walking in a tee shirt and sitting outside huts. It could be cold in the mornings, requiring an extra layer or two. I was fortunate with only a little rain and avoided any thunderstorms, however I would not want to be on a high ridge with high winds or lightening around. I checked various weather forecasts on days when there was access to a mobile signal, especially a local one at vremeto.v.bg  (use Peak Mousala for the Rila mountains and Bansko for Pirin), however forecasts were not that reliable. It looked like the weather could be quite localised - some mountains cloaked in black clouds and others in sunshine. Difficult for a weather forecaster! If you are walking on into Greece then August has the disadvantage that it will be very hot (over 30 degrees C) once you hit the Greek plains.
Once in the Rila and Pirin mountains you can sleep and eat in a mountain hut every night. The quality and nature of these huts varies enormously. Some are excellent such as the Predel and Slavyanka huts, others only have "squat" toilets which I dislike (such as Ribni Ezera hut), some only have outside toilets (e.g. Vihren and Lovna huts) which is not so convenient to me these days as I generally need to get up once in the night. In Pirin hut you clean your teeth etc. at the spring. Cold showers are the norm. Standards of cleanliness varied from very good to very poor, with bathroom facilities generally being the weak point. In Pirin and Izvora huts the mattresses were old and stained. Boots should be placed outside the dormitory door to help keep bedrooms clean. Some huts were very busy when I visited (e.g. Sedemte Ezera, Yavorov and Vihren huts), in others there were only a few people (e.g. Predel, Pirin and Izvora huts).  This reflected the popularity of the stages, some sections of the E4 were very popular with lots of people out walking, other stretches I had too myself. Two types of people stayed in the huts, walkers like myself who went to bed moderately early, and people using the hut as an opportunity to socialise, who partied until midnight. Some sleep disruption could result.
Food options were pretty standard: meatballs (actually a sort of beefburger); omelette; chicken or pork steak; bean, lentil or chicken soup; shopska salad; coffee, tea and Pirinsko beer; sometimes French fries with cheese, or an oven cooked offering such as moussaka. Within the limitations of language most hut staff tried to be helpful, Macedonia hut being the exception, although in some cases they were so busy that help was somewhat delayed. I am happy to read my kindle in the evenings but if you are more social there was usually someone among the people staying in the huts who spoke some English, and there was a certain camaraderie among the walkers, who you might see for a few days in a row as you followed the classic sections.
I was very glad I paid Bulguides to book the huts and provide support. A few huts are on booking.com but I would have had difficulty booking the others as most hut keepers spoke little or no English. Maybe enough for you to order a beer or food but not enough to make a confident reservation. In some cases a reservation would not have been necessary but in others it was essential, either because a hut was full (as in the case of Sedemte Ezera and Rilski Ezera huts) or because the hut keeper may not otherwise be there or there may be limited or no food for you if they do not know you are coming (e.g. Izvora and Slavyanka huts). Margarita from Bulguides was also needed for translating when gesticulating failed (e.g. to tell me when dinner was or ask when I would like breakfast), as well as providing some helpful weather updates. The time I most appreciated Margarita was at the end of my trip through Bulgaria when some villagers seemed suspicious of my presence. Margarita was able to explain in Bulgarian what this strange, solitary man was doing in their village.
If you do not wish to stay in the huts, camping is allowed at some huts and shelters but wild camping in the Rila and Pirin national parks is not allowed, although it is commonly practiced. If walking from Sofia, camping is necessary the first two nights (at locations outside of the Parks). This means carrying the weight of your camping equipment for the rest of the trip, however if you are walking the E4 as a standalone trip, camping can be avoided if you start from Klisura rather than Sofia, Vitosha can then be climbed as a day trip from Sofia.
I was somewhat worried about being attacked by dogs given my walk to Sofia from Serbia but the dogs in the mountains seem more accustomed to hikers and thankfully less aggressive.

To cross all of Bulgaria and link up with the E4 in Serbia and Greece, some walking through the lowlands is needed. The additional four or so days help to give a broader view of what the country is like, passing through villages and farmland. Not all of Bulgaria consists of high rocky mountains! See the first part of my blog for the section from the Serbian border to Sofia for example.

My trip continues in Greece, see johnpone4greece.blogspot.com. You may also be interested in my blogs of the E4 in Hungary and Serbia, or a possible extension of the E4 from Portugal.


Bulgarian flag on Mount Gotsev on border post between Bulgaria and Greece

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Izvora hut to Chuchuligovo on E4: Day 20

A very different day in which I crossed into the the lowlands to reach Chuchuligovo, and Margarita saves the day again.
After a breakfast of cheese and tomatoes the hut keeper left me to lock up. As I set off he was already herding his goats. I met a couple of flocks of goats today, each with a few sheep mixed in and being looked after by a goatherd and his dog. Some care on my part was needed to avoid dispersing the goats.
I began along an asphalt road down a narrow wooded valley with plane trees next to the stream and conifers higher up. The village of Petrovo was at the end of the valley. Grapes hung on wooden supports across the pavements, heavy with red and white grapes ready to be picked. Fig trees were dropping their ripe fruits. After the next village of Yanovo I turned off onto a track into farmland. The following countryside was either vineyards, grassland or scrubby trees.
I had picked my route from the map to avoid roads and followed dirt tracks instead. Apart from one overgrown section this generally worked well until I reached the village of Novo Hodzhovo.
Here I spotted a shop and since I was hot and sweaty, having left the cool of the high mountains, I bought a coke and ice cream and sat outside with some villagers to enjoy it. Unfortunately the lady running the shop seemed suspicious of me. I guess we were near the border and me being alone seemed to worry them. Maybe they thought I was a people smuggler. They spoke only one or two words of English but they wanted to see my passport and asked where I was going. They were speaking about the police among themselves and when I got up to leave they made it clear they wanted me to wait, I think for a police jeep. So I phoned Margarita at Bulguides and she spoke to them explaining what I was doing. Then it was allowed to leave.
Not wanting to look suspicious near the border and require Margarita's help again I stuck to the roads for the rest of the way to the Hotel Komitite at Chuchuligovo.
Despite some bad reviews on booking.com the hotel seems fine, well, apart from needing some new, clean carpets, and a few new light bulbs (I had to use my head torch in the bathroom). But compared with some of the mountain huts it was luxury!
Tomorrow I will be in Greece. Follow my continuing travels on johnpone4greece.blogspot.com

The gpx file of the E4 route through Bulgaria (from waymarked trails or traildino.com) ended at Mount Gotsev. A gpx file of the route I then followed into Greece can be found on wikiloc.com and ViewRanger under the short code johnpon0035.

Grape vines over the pavement in Petrovo

Countryside of vineyards and grassland


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Slavyanka hut to Izvora hut on E4: Day 19

A big climb to the Bulgarian border with Greece (1650 metres total ascent) and a bigger descent to Izvora hut, another old base for border guards.
After a breakfast of French toast with jam it was a long climb to the peaks of Slavyanka mountain, through the now familiar forest zones of beech then conifers. Once above the tree line I was into the clouds and glad of my GPS as the path disappeared at times. Reaching a pillar marking the boundary between Bulgaria and Greece the clouds lifted so that I could see Greece spread out below me from the ridge I was standing on.
The border passes through the crests of the southern summits of the Slavyanka mountains, with the land dropping more steeply on the Greek side. After coming down from Mount Malak Tsarev Vrah I stopped to eat the open sandwiches prepared by the Hut keeper this morning, admiring the grass covered mountains of Slavyanka and picking out where the border went with my map. Then it was up the final summit of Mount Gotsev. As the wind had become very strong I omitted the optional summit of Shabran and headed downhill, back into Bulgaria as I was planning to cross into Greece at an official border crossing. There is a shorter, steep route and a longer, more gentle route down towards Izvora. I decided on the gentle route to save the strain on my knees but some way along a cowherd pointed out a shortcut through the trees, also down a steep slope. As he had taken the trouble to walk back with me a little way I felt obliged to take it, so my knees did not quite escape.
After the paths and dirt track I eventually reached the tarmaced (but heavily potholed) road to Izvora. Blocks of marble lined the road in places, remnants of a former industry.
Like the Slavyanka hut the Izvora hut was a former barracks, but it has not been refurbished or maintained to the same standard. However I have a room with an en-suite toilet so should not complain that the tiling is not finished. There are some interesting posters up from the time when border guards had to stop people escaping from Socialist Bulgaria, cartoons telling soldiers what to do if they spotted foot prints in the raked sand by the fence that marked the beginning of the border zone. People trying to escape from Bulgarian put their hands up on the posters rather than being shot.
I had trouble finding the Hut keeper but Margarita at Bulguides was very helpful in alerting him to my presence and passing on timings for dinner (at 8:30 pm after he dealt with his animals) etc.. As I ate the cheese the Hut keeper had made himself with kebabs, tomatoes and cucumbers, rakiya and beer, it transpired that his son had spent a few years in Wales near where I live. A small world!
Given the grandeur of the landscape I was surprised not to see any other walkers out today.

The gpx file of the E4 route through Bulgaria ended at Mount Gotsev. A gpx file of the route I then followed into Greece can be found on wikiloc.com and ViewRanger under short code johnpon0035.

Looking back from my climb up the Slavyanka mountains

The border between Bulgaria and Greece


Monday, 27 August 2018

Popovi Livadi hut to Slavyanka hut on E4: Day 18

While not very scenic, today was an easy walk on forest tracks through the wooded hills where the Pirin mountains peter out.
After passing houses belonging to the village of Popovi Livadi, the first section of forest track was not too pretty. The dirt track was being widened and upgraded, and looked like a great gash through the forest. Last night the hut keeper had proudly showed me on Facebook how he had painted waymarks and put up lots of trail signs in the area. I fear that the track widening has destroyed many of them. Passing a steam roller flattening the new road, the driver asked where I was going and if I had a map. Then there was a digger digging a drainage trench beside the road and later two big JCB's getting ready to dig up tree stumps beside the old track. The trees themselves had been chopped down sometime before. Eventually I reached the old narrow track where nature had long since dressed the rocks with lichen and softened the track's outline with grasses and flowers. Just before I did so I stopped at the spring by a shelter called Dalgia Chuchur where the guidebook said the water was especially "tasty". I found it cool and fresh.
After the excitement of road construction it was an uneventful walk along the vehicle track up and down hills. As there was only one cowherd to distract me today I was soon lost in my day dreams, as I walked through the mist caused by low clouds passing through. So occupied in thought was I that I missed the turn off to the only tourist site of the day, the Sveti Petar Chapel. Or maybe there was a second opportunity for visitors, a sign pointed to an Interpretive Trail and camp ground, but I had not spotted where they were located, maybe along some new yellow waymarks?
Arriving at the Slavyanka hut just after two I was impressed with the modern facilities. I have a room with an en-suite bathroom and hot water. Luxury! There was a curious sign on the wall outside showing the German advance into Greece in the WWII, they must have passed near here. There was also a watchtower, presumably dating from when the building housed border guards, before its refurbishment.
I arrived before the forecast rain and as I lay on my bed thunder was rolling around the hills.
While eating a dinner of pork and shopska salad I watched on old film on the TV. In Bulgarian but looked like rebels out foxing the Turks, all the men had impressive moustaches.

Track out of Popovi Livadi

Walking through the trees in the mist

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Pirin hut to Popovi Livadi hut on E4: Day 17

An easier day for my legs with fewer steep climbs and rocky paths than the last few days.
I had established last night that I could have breakfast at 7:00 am. It consisted of bread, cheese and lots of jam with a cup of coffee. Then it was a short climb to rejoin the path I was on yesterday.
In the morning the path went through pine and spruce woods, followed by beech woods. Much of it followed the contours along one side of a ridge or another, with occassional clearings often with a herd of cows. Passing four cowherds and one woman, possibly a cowherd's wife, I had what almost amounted to a conversation with two of them. It helps being able to guess the questions, typically being - where are you going? (in my case Popovi Livadi hut), where are you from? (Anglia meaning England, actually I am from Wales but England is better known) and finally "Sam?", meaning Alone? Any such conversation happens after they have persuaded their large brown and white dogs that I am not to be eaten. While the path was generally good, in one area the mature beech trees had been felled, now a multitude of beech samplings were vying to replace them, blocking the path with their branches.
In the afternoon, once I had dealt with the large packed lunch that Pirin hut had provided, the landscape was more open with creeping juniper or grass as I climbed higher, close to a TV transmitter station but a little below it.
Then it was a descent through trees down to the Popovi Livadi lodge. I took the opportunity of washing my rather sweaty clothes while things were quiet and put them to hang up on a terrace area where a washing line has kindly been provided. First time I had changed my clothes since Predel hut so they were not to fresh.....

Walking through the woods on route to Popovi Livadi hut

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Vihren hut to Pirin hut on E4: Day 16

A day jumping over boulders visiting the Tevno Ezera hut while worrying about rain.
Starting at 6:30 am first there was the inevitable climb up a valley from the Vihren hut. In this valley and the others I walked through today there were lots of cows enjoying the grazing, watched over by cowherds making noises like "Hi"  to make the cows go where they wanted. The cowherds seemed to walk up to their cattle in the early morning and return home in the afternoon leaving the cattle spread out over the chosen pasture overnight.
The ascent passed lakes and people wild camping, not officially allowed in the National Park. The latter part of the climb was over boulders, hoping from one to another to reach the next red and white waymark.  Once on the ridge the path went over various summits. I met people coming the other way or just standing around. They all seemed interested in where I was going. There seemed an opinion that Pirin hut (my destination for the night) was quite far. One party warned of bad weather after 2:00 pm and suggested I stayed at Tevno Ezera hut which was on my way. This warning made me hurry on, not stopping to enjoying some of the views from the narrow ridge I was crossing.
I reached the Tevno hut just before 12:00 and, after removing my boots, enjoyed a cup of Chai (tea) and some chicken soup. It is a small hut by a high lake. A crowd of mainly men were enjoying beers outside, so I headed off climbing over a final ridge before dropping steeply into a valley. 
Around 1:00 pm, ahead of schedule it rained for a while. Initially quite heavy I did my usual pantomime act of struggling into my waterproof trousers, a case of "more haste less speed".
The rain did not last and I continued down the valley to the Pirin hut passing cows, waterfalls and fishermen. I had not seen any sign of fish in the lakes and streams so I thought the fishermen, with their long rods, were a bit hopeful.
The Pirin hut has an unusual architecture and is definitely a relic from a previous era, the mattresses and sheets as old and stained as the three storey building. However it is quieter than the last two huts and I have a dormitory to myself, which should make for a better sleep.
At dinner a group of four Czech students from North Bohemia invited me to join their table. We had been passing each other on the same route for the last few days, I had particularly noticed their happy laughter. I felt a bit guilty as my dinner, arranged with my booking, was rather larger than what they were having. However I was hungry, my belly has lost its usual plumpness and I suspect that with all the climbing I have been using a lot more calories than I have been consuming so my dinner (soup, salad, meatballs and melon) was very welcome, especially as I have another month of walking ahead of me...

A rocky section of path to traverse

Curious cows with fluffy ears

Stairwell of Pirin hut

Friday, 24 August 2018

Yavorov hut to Vihren hut on E4: Day 15

Not as difficult as I expected, I enjoyed some clambering over rocks on a sunny day.
I rose at 6:00 am trying not to disturb the others in the crowded dormitory, and was on my way at 6:30. I thought I was first away but I caught up with a group I saw at the hut last night, two British lads and two Bulgarians. We agreed it was helpful to have Bulgarian friends to deal with the language difficulties! They sent me ahead of them.
The climb up from the hut was the reverse of yesterday's descent but up the adjacent valley. First tall conifers, then dwarf pines and grassy clearings but today I climbed above the tree line to reach the ridge.
Turning south the red waymarked path that was the E4, skirted around various summits traversing steep and rocky slopes. It was a game of spotting the waymarks to be sure I was following the trail. In places slabs of white rock extended above and below the trail, elsewhere the rock formed ledges or blocks. At one point I disturbed a herd of deer enjoying the grazing before the tourists arrived.
I reached the famous Koncheto saddle where a heavy wire was stretched between stakes to help you across a narrow ridge with some big drops. Actually a bit of an anticlimax, not as scary as some of the photos suggest as on the west side there were plenty of foot and hand holds and not a dramatic drop. The wire got a bit in the way as it kept you to one side of it, not being easy to hop under or over with a large rucksack. I peeled off to the right before the end of the saddle to follow the E4 as it skirted another mountain so maybe I missed a narrower bit.
The final climb was up Mount Vihren, at 2914 metres the highest peak to date on my E4 walk. It was a fun climb, first up the northern ridge line, then a leftward traverse up a long cleft in the rock, and finally straight up to the summit, all climbing over rock on a steep sided mountain. Chains were attached to help you up but were not necessary today as the weather was dry making for good grip. As you might expect, distant views in all directions on the summit and people taking pictures of themselves, including a lady and some gentlemen who looked the far side of 70. Hope I am climbing mountains at their age.
After the climb to the top of Mount Vihren it was a very long and steep descent, tiring and painful on the knees. It was therefore a relief to arrive at the Vihren hut.
A lot of people and cars were at the hut. I bought a beer from a stall outside and watched while a shepherd drove his sheep into the meadow above me. His brown and white dogs looked a bit like the sheep! Inside a large orange cat had pride of place on a chair in the canteen. A sign on the door said no dogs!
Diahorrea again! Not so nice in the rather over subscribed "squat" toilets.

Koncheto Saddle

Climbing up Mount Vihren