Dave the motorhome’s tucked in at base camp, the car park to the Seven Rile Lakes chair lift, 5063 feet above sea level (N42.24274 E23.32441). Arriving here there’s a barrier across the mountain road and a friendly fella took 10 Lev (€5) from us, telling us sure, overnight sleeping is fine. Great news: it meant we’d be able to make our long-awaited attempt at the mountain to try and get to the spot where it’s possible to see all 7 of the Rila National Park Lakes at once. We were fired up to go, our preparation was non-existent and we were armed with T shirts, sandals and a limited supply of humour. See below to find out how we did.
Having a motorhome’s much like being a kid again. That feeling of setting up a tent in the back garden and ‘roughing it’ out in the wild as a nipper, that’s motorhoming that is. At 9:30pm last night the tourists were gone from the Rila Monastery, just a couple of ‘Group 4’-attired security guards remained, chatting with each other, their heads shaved to the skin. We’d already eaten, the act of cooking sausages and mash under the fortress walls of the monastery bringing out the ‘nipper in a tent’ feeling. Ju walked over to the monastery and photographed it some more, this time in the dark, gently lit by the moon and (of course) electric lights. I walked over after her. The monastery draws getting on for a million visitors a year, so is predictably a little hectic in the courtyard. By nightfall it reverts back to what it’s supposed to be, a place of contemplation set high in the woods and mountains, a place where the Bulgarian identity has been guarded in tough times, and there’ve been plenty of them here.
This morning a couple of tourist coaches arrived at 6:45am, waking Ju up, I snored on. By the time I got up at 7:30 she’d been in and one of the buses was preparing to leave. The place cries out to be photographed, it’s hard to look at it without peering through a view-finder. Some folks only put the camera down to see where they were walking, I can hardly blame them.
The route we drew out on our Bulgaria map while in Greece has little arrows leading from the monastery down to the main, EU-loved-up road into the capital city, Sofia. We blew it out though. After reading of other folks accounts of the place, it sounded not worth the effort. That sounds bad, I know. Jacqui and Marc, our Stuttgart Guardians, had told us about the campsite in Sofia. There’s only one, it’s €20 a night, and it sounds little better than sleeping in a field. In fact, we’ve slept in some great fields, but for a lot less. Jacqui and Mike, closely named but different folks, made it in and their blog explains they managed to park up in the centre for free, in the evening, during the day they used a shopping centre car park 3 miles from the centre. We ummed and arred. Sometimes Motorhome+Charlie+Big City+No Decent Secure Place to Park+Us Not Reading Anything Too Exciting About the Place+Our Waiter Telling Us ‘It’s a Dirty Place, I Don’t Like It’ = sod it. It’s on the list to fly into with RyanAir sometime.
Plan B: The Seven Lakes. These were introduced to us by Sophie and Adam on their blog, europebycamper.com, and they looked pretty special. They’re a series of small but beautifully formed lakes located above 2000m in the Rila National Park, up among the mountains. Up early we figured we’d have loads of time to get up to them, bag the summit (there is, apparently, a legendary spot where you can see all 7 of the lakes at once) and get back in time for tea and biscuits, ticketey-boo, what-ho.
Heading off back down the hill, Dave found himself rolling to a halt outside a scrapyard. Somehow he’s still not broken down though (apart from the unfortunate the Clutch Incident), another Adam and Sophie-inspired attraction attracted us. The place is a goldmine of, arr, stuff. Old stuff, some of it Communist-Era, although the majority I guess is newer. The rolling gate was ajar enough for us to walk in and gape at the stuff in childlike awe. A lad with a straw broom engaged himself in wafting dirt around, completely ignoring us, so out came the camera for a snap-athon:
Satiated, Ju spied a stack of old Cyrillic signs. ‘How much?’ we asked the lad, with the universal rubbing of thumb and forefinger. His job was clearly crap-shifting, not dealing with punters. Another guy turned up, worked out what we wanted and shouted for The Boss. The Boss is capitalised as he was (a) smoking a cigarette without actually looking like he was smoking a cigarette, (b) rather large, like an already large man who’d been pumped up to the point folks stuck fingers in ears waiting for the bang and (c) he was bare chested, his belly reaching us a few minutes before the rest of him. Ju showed him the sign ‘what does it say?’. ‘Smoking, ah, No Smoking’. ‘How much?’. He takes the sign from us, his fag dangling from his lips as he turned metal over and sketched out 25 in the dust. 25 Lev is about €13, a bit much for us, we popped it back with the rest, he looked non-plussed and we left. Outside the gate we confabbed: I thought it was worth about 5, Ju guessed at 10, she wanted it though and thought about offering 20? You know what it’s like when you think this is your only chance to get that little something? She went for it and he accepted the offer by taking the note and rubbing it on his sweating cheek, and then his crotch.
Off to the lavish EU-funded tarmac of the E79, we turned north and cruised on, eyeballing the widely separated villages and towns from a distance.
Just after Dupnica we turned east, hugging the edge of the Rila Mountains to our right as we’d been doing all morning. The road went all technicolour dream coat patchy, but suddenly widening into a dual carriageway, to much rejoicing of lorry drivers as they hammered past us.
We’re finding that many of the road signs in Bulgaria are in both Latin and Cyrillic, at least on the larger routes. Our best map is all in Cyrillic, so it doesn’t much matter, we just try and match up the shapes like something from Play School. The route up into the mountains starts at Sapareva Banya, which is: Сапарева баня on our map. Shape-matching takes time and we’d flown (trundled) past the first road signalling the place, taking the next one instead, a tiny be-holed thing through the wheat fields.
The little town was easy to navigate, leading up to the mountain road Adam had written about on his blog. It’s a weird old road, about 14km up the mountain side. In a reversal of the universal rule of mountain road quality, it gets better, drastically better, the further up you get. After twisting about on a single track through the trees, passing points filled with melon-sized boulders, an EU-funding sign pops up (you know the ones – the little blue flag signal with a ton of indecipherable writing with the exception of a huge sum of money in €s). After this our road pulls its socks up, despite the fact it’s a cliff-on-either-side cornice it’s two lanes wide, smooth, barrier-lined, white-lined, good stuff, we got up here in a jiffy.
Barrier man paid, we attempted to park where everyone else had parked only for a high-vis man perched on an opposite hillside to sign to us: go back and around, there’s a big area. Happy where we were (we’re lazy, the car park was 200m away downhill) but not wanting to annoy anyone, we decamped. It’s a good spot here though, silent but for the spinning-concrete trucks kicking up clouds of dust as they pass.
Come 1pm, with Charlie walked and us fed, we geared up, rubbed on some Factor 50, and slogged up to the chair lift, past an array of Bulgarian-registered cars and 4x4s, just a single Russian car breaking the local monopoly. The lift’s 15 Lev each, for a return trip, about €7.50, taking us to Camp 1: 6890 feet. Sadly Team Dave had already started to fragment by this point, no dogs were allowed on the lift and we didn’t fancy the 2km long, 500m up ascent on foot. Dave himself didn’t make it either, for obvious reasons, he’s scared of heights.
At the top, Team Dave, now Ju and I, danced off up the hillside following the well-worn path to the summit. Morale took a slight hit en-route as Ju swallowed a fly. Looking upwards we could see a pile of stones, surely a sign folks had made some sort of spiritual association with the place, the grail? Nope, from there you could see maybe 2 lakes, we regrouped, renaming the false summit Camp 2. We checked watches, metaphorically speaking as we don’t have any, just the time on our phone. Lift man told us to be back by 4pm, and it was now 1:40pm. We pushed on.
I could go on in this vein, and I’m tempted as I read a book about K2 recently, but I’ll save you those precious minutes of your life. We legged it onwards and upwards, reaching the ‘Kidney’ lake (the others have nicer names: The Tear, The Twin, The Trefoil etc) and stared at the ascent on the other side, and then back at the phone. Ju made the ultimate sacrifice for Team Dave, sitting in the sun alongside the lake while I carried on scrabbling upwards on the other side. I gave up at the point my lungs went pop and I realised the descent through the gravel and stones with my sandals was going to get messy if I had to run. This was as high as Team Dave got:
Back down the hillside, Ju pointed out a lass in heels who’d just cracked open the Vodka and we headed for home, a little disappointed, but happy to be pooch-bound. We grabbed more photos on the way. If you get a chance to come here, it’s a truly beautiful place, and in June we had perfect weather.
We’ve had a smashing day, Bulgaria’s really surprised me for how bloomin’ lovely it and the folks around here have been. Bring on tomorrow.