Day 203 – Mini Escape: Rila Mountain

Golden Hour at the Monastery

 

The afternoon passes slowly, our pedals spinning round and round as we push 30km up the road into the Rila mountains. The famous Rila Monastery is only the entry point into this marvellous park. As the light begins to turn bright gold we roll up to the monastery. At the gate a very average looking middle-aged man greets us and says, “Good job. Welcome.” He drops what he is doing to guide us around the monastery. As we walk he explains details we would have otherwise missed.

The Bulgarian mountains carry a mystic feel. The monastery is no exception. Even the black of the church’s arches feels bright during the golden hour, as the last tourists trickle back to the parking lot. We’re left alone with the monks. A priest begins to circle the church, taping a board with a wooden pointer. A rumbling chant escapes his throat and bounces off the ramparts. Before dusk falls, we leave, taking the bikes deeper down the dead-end road after the monastery.

Private Campground

Immediately before the marked road ends, a campground appears on the right. We ride up the leaf covered road to the entrance; it looks closed for the winter. Sniffing around for a spot to discreetly set up our tent, we hear the scratch scratch of a broom. Not so closed after all! Down by the bathhouse there is a small shack, smoke spiralling out the chimney. An elderly man with a hunched back and a limp is sweeping the walk with a broom made from branches lashed together. Ashley catches his attention and walks over. He only speaks Bulgarian and she speaks none, but through hand gestures he says it’s fine for us to camp. She asks where, and opening his arms as wide as he can, he says anywhere you like!

While we set up our tent, he flips on the hot water for the bathhouse. Standing under steaming hot showers, the windows open to the mountains, is a moment of pure relaxation. It’s difficult to understand why no one is here. The leaves fall like rain, the forests are afire with color and the temperature is perfect — where is everyone? 

Ridge Running

 

Our alarms buzz two hours before sunrise. We wiggle into our hiking clothes and double check our day packs. The peak we want to reach is 14km from the campground. 1700m of ascent separate us from the ridges of Rila park. We walk to the trail head and enjoy an hour walking by the light of our headlamps. When the sun still hasn’t crested the first peak but it’s bright enough to see, all the birds of the forest break into song. Then they’re silent.

By the time the first beams of light hit us, we’re above the tree line, climbing up to Dodov Peak. The alpine grasses are long and dry, the path very narrow and a bit slippery. The summer flowers have all gone to seed. Each species’s grains are like a snowflake, intricate and individual.

At the peak, we enjoy a snack of bread and cheese. We slug down the last of our tea and zip up our windbreakers. Time to jump into the fun part of the hike: running along the ridge.

The next 5km we run along the ridge. The distance rolling away under us, the sky and mountains surrounding us, a vast open range to be explored. Approaching the Seven Lakes, the most visited attraction of the park, we pass a handful of smaller alpine lakes. They’re more difficult to access . We appreciate running alongside them more than when we finally arrive at the Seven. Several hundred meters below our lookout point, the first humans of the day come into view. Tourists filing around the largest of the Seven Lakes, taking photos. Then they file back to the lift they rode to get up here. For us the descent is more challenging.

We run back along a different ridge for 7km. The real descent begins, a steep path covered in leaves and slippery as hell. The moment we enter the rich forests, the light begins to change, setting everything aglow. We arrive at the monastery at almost the exact same time as the day before. A big meal at the monk’s canteen restaurant and we amble back to the campground. Our tent and bikes remain exactly where we left them, and the guardian has already turned on the hot water for us. Tonight we don’t wonder why we’re alone, instead we relax and appreciate our fatigue and the solitude of the forest.