Heaven and earth

A trek through Bulgaria's Rila Mountains takes in shimmering lakes, dense woodlands and ancient monasteries. Robert Nurden enjoys the walk
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The Independent Travel

As I scrambled over the last mounds of scree, I could hear the sound of laughter wafting through the mist from the summit. Out of the gloom, a pillar of rocks, held in a wire cage, took shape as cold air buffeted my face. The source of the laughter was a party of French climbers who were consuming cider and cheese in vast quantities on top of the mountain. Well, it was lunchtime.

But Mt Vihren isn't part of the French Alps or Pyrenees, it's in Bulgaria. At 9,500ft high, it is the country's second-highest mountain and the most dramatic peak among many other strong contenders in the wild Pirin range, which offers some of Europe's finest hiking. Greece lies 30 miles to the south, Macedonia 20 miles to the west. They say that on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean, but that wasn't going to be the case today.

During the 3,000ft ascent, I'd noticed a party of students making hard work of the climb. When the slope flattened out into a meadow strewn with wild flowers, they flung themselves to the ground with cries of pain that echoed round the national park. "We've been up all night, talking and drinking rakiya," said Gerasim, "and we've forgotten to bring our boots." But they had remembered their cans of Zagorka, the local beer. Bleary-eyed and with aching limbs, they trudged on to the top in the 30C heat. An hour later, a distant line of stragglers etched against the grey slab of rock indicated that their hangovers had diverted them off-route, up the forbidding face of the mountain.

Thanks to the communists, it's actually hard to get lost trekking in Bulgaria. The authorities under communist rule decided that walking was good for the communal soul and went to great efforts to create paths in areas of scenic beauty. So routes were established with waymarks in red, yellow, green and blue, which still exist. Accompanying them are a selection of hizhi (huts), kind of totalitarian youth hostels, where it costs just a few leva to stay the night.

I dragged myself into a Vihren hut and tucked into the canteen's heart-warming bob (white bean and thyme soup) and lashings of grilled chicken and salad. Then night fell and I realised just how rudimentary my accommodation was. I had my own room, albeit equipped with a rickety bunk bed and a grimy mattress. It was perfectly positioned to receive the incessant techno music that some young campers from Plovdiv played on a loop until 3am, so that not even the sound of the river could lull me to sleep.

South of Mt Vihren are three glacial tarns: Muratovo, Ribno and Okoto, which lie in an amphitheatre bordered by the embrace of rugged, snowy peaks. Here, geraniums, gentians, orchids and harebells paint a patchwork of colour against the emerald backcloth of succulent grass - all part of a unique ecosystem that is host to rare flora. Exotic butterflies are forever drifting past, while horses choose this charmed spot to linger in the sunlight, flicking their tails at the flies, or chasing one another through the plashy streams. No wonder it has been made a World Heritage Site.

Bulgaria is known for its winter skiing and its raucous Black Sea resorts; but the summertime serenity of these soaring granite peaks and tumbling waterfalls remains something of a secret. Having so far avoided the hammer-blow of mass tourism, the country's environmental movement is determined to preserve these pristine, pesticide-free landscapes.

A family on a day out from Sofia had Muratovo Lake to themselves. Dimitar and Vasil, father and son, proudly showed me the three trout they'd caught and invited me to join their picnic. Dimitar's wife Teodora poured me a cup of home-made loganberry tea, while the water lapped at our feet.

Heading up to Mt Vihren from Bansko lie a couple of highly prized tourist sites. The first is Bulgaria's oldest tree, a pine, estimated to be 1,300 years old. It's spawned a forest around it. A few yards away stands a chilling monument to some botanists who fell off Mt Vihren while seeking out the elusive edelweiss which can be found in its dangerous crevasses.

While waiting for the clouds to clear, I decided to visit the Dancing Bears Park at nearby Belitsa, a joint project between the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and an Austrian conservation group, designed to stop the abuse of performing brown bears. Bulgaria is the last European country where this barbaric "entertainment" still occurs, although it is now illegal. Four-month-old cubs are placed on glowing embers to force them to dance on their hind legs to music. Later, a ring and chain are put through their nose, their claws pulled out and teeth filed down; the wounds are cleaned with vodka. At the opening of the sanctuary five years ago, 24 bears still performed in this way; now 18 of them are being cared for. But so severe is their trauma that it is too much of a risk to release them into the woods to join the country's 850 wild bears. Experts say that they will turn on, and kill, any human being they see. One can hardly blame them.

As soon as Charlie saw us, he started his mindless gyrating - a pure Pavlovian reaction and the saddest dance you're ever likely to see. Up the hill, Kalinka and Gosho, more content following their rehabilitation, play-boxed while we watched spellbound - and close to tears - through the protective electric fence.

Bansko, a town on the river Glazne at the foot of the Pirin range, has bars, discos and good restaurants with live music. It is also stuffed with museums - many bearing testimony to the resistance shown to the Ottoman invaders by these tough mountain people. Three days previously, Ivan the terrible driver had met me as I alighted from the narrow-gauge railway that snakes up from the hot plains below, and propelled me to the Hotel Avalon. There, I received a warm welcome from James, the English proprietor, who bore a striking resemblance to Antony Worrall Thompson and was a chef to boot.

Some 20 miles north are the Rila Mountains, where the walking is on a par with that in Pirin. Here, though, you start out at a lower altitude and it's a long walk through dense woodland before you get above the tree line to the sweeping vistas of Mts Maljovica and Lovnica. Persevere, however, and you'll come to the glorious Seven Lakes. Go there any weekend in August and you could bump into the Danovist sect, who dance and sing in rituals that are a blend of paganism, sun-worship, Christianity and faith-healing. The ancient Rila Monastery is a special spot for Bulgarians as it was here that the Orthodox faith was preserved during centuries of Turkish occupation. Despite being Bulgaria's most visited monument, the functioning monastery - and home to coenobite monks - still offers tranquillity once the coachloads have left. For a price you can sample that tranquility and stay in a cell. But be prepared to pay inflated prices to the monks, who charge 50 leva (£16) for a bare room with only cold water. Not such an outrageous price, you might think, until you realise that the locals pay just seven leva.

The nearby Drushliavitsa restaurant serves fine fresh trout: pick the right table and you can even have the stream running right under your table, though you are exposed to falling temperatures as the night draws in. In order to keep myself warm, I made the mistake of borrowing a monastery blanket, nudging the security guards, who must surely have one of the world's least stressful jobs, into action. They thought that I was stealing monastery property and they weren't happy.

I was summoned to the monks' office where I was reprimanded by Brother Anton. I returned to my cell, chastised, shivering and penitent. But, in spite of my shame, this time the sound of the river rushing by did lull me into a dreamless, and techno-free, sleep.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Bulgaria Air (020-7637 7637; www.air.bg) flies from Gatwick to Sofia; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow. From September, Wizz Air (00 48 22351 9499; www.wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Sofia, via Budapest.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Avalon, 4 El Tepe, Bansko (00 359 7443 8399; www.avalonhotel-bulgaria.com). B&B from €20 (£14). Rila monastery costs 50 leva (£18).

VISITING THERE

Georo Iopev of Inter Sport (00 359 8887 88859; www.avalon.bansko.bg) in Bansko arranges guides for trekking.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Zig Zag Holidays (00 359 2 980 5102; www.zigzagbg.com). Bulgarian Tourism (00 359 2 987 9778; www.bulgariatravel.org).

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