I realised that I might have made a mistake when the first thing our guide for the week wanted to know was whether our travel insurance covered helicopter evacuation. It had seemed like a good idea when I saw the email advert for an eco walking holiday in Bulgaria’s Rodopi mountains. I had been on botanical walks in the Cretan mountains before – how different could this be?
Very different, as it turned out. But hypothetical helicopters aside, it was not too alarming at first. The other members of our group of ten who assembled at Sofia airport were not athletic twenty-somethings, but middle-aged and older. I didn’t anticipate any difficulty in keeping up with them. Having met our guide, Svetla, we were driven to our overnight stop in Asenovgrad, the ‘gateway to the Rodopi mountains.’ I was surprised to see that virtually every shop we passed in Asenovgrad sold bridal wear. I later found out that this was because it used to be a silk producing centre. Although the gowns are no longer made from silk, it is still something of a tradition for Bulgarian brides to go to Asenovgrad for their wedding dress. Later that evening I tried out the TV in our room, only to find a dubbed version of Carry on Doctor followed by The Benny Hill Show.
Our first full day was scheduled to be gentle start. A visit to Bachkovo monastery, followed by a drive to Chudnite Mostove (Wonderful Bridges), from where we would have an ‘easy’ afternoon walk around the flank of Mt. Kamuka to the village of Zaburdo, where we would be picked up by our minibus and driven to Yagodina, our base for the week.
We arrived at the monastery to find what appeared to be jumble sale taking place in the courtyard. On closer inspection this turned out to be a stall selling clothing and towels as gifts to the Virgin, to whom the monastery is dedicated. I was interested to note the number of satellite dishes on the monastery building and wondered whether the monks were secret fans of Benny Hill. A liturgy service was underway inside the monastery church. To my uninitiated eyes the scene inside was chaotic and incomprehensible. The monks kept appearing and disappearing from behind a curtain for all the world as if they were participating in a Demis Roussos lookalike contest. Meanwhile, oblivious to goings on behind them, women were rearranging candles whilst members of the congregation kissed the icon of the Virgin, and bestowed their gifts of tea towels.
The ‘wonderful bridges’ proved to be huge natural rock arches overlooking a gorge. To my horror, I found that we had to scramble up a steep and rocky slope to the top. No, I couldn’t wait at the bottom for the group to come back – they weren’t coming back. I didn’t have much time at the top to bask in my achievement in scrambling in an undignified fashion up a slope that locals could run up and down in flip-flops, as we were off down the trail on the other side. The path passed through a woodland, where, slippery with pine-needles, it sloped sharply to the left, then emerged onto an open hillside, where the pine-needles gave way to loose stones. As I concentrated hard on remaining upright, I heard one of our party observe how nice it was to have such an easy start where she didn’t have to be watching her feet all the time. The penny dropped. The rest of the group were serious walkers, equipped with poles, expensive walking boots and fancy rucksacks with built-in water supplies. The purpose of these walks was not to look at the local flora and fauna, as had been the case with my guided walks in Crete, but simply to walk. When we eventually reached the minibus, I looked again at the itinerary, which had seemed so appealing when I booked. Now, it looked terrifying. Why on earth had I thought that ‘a spectacular trail that runs high along the flank of the Buinovo Gorge’ was my sort of walk? How on earth was I going to survive this week?
The following morning we set off on foot down the road from the village, accompanied by one of the village dogs, whom we nicknamed Jerry. This was not so bad, after all. But after twenty minutes or so, our guide Svetla disappeared through a gap in the bushes. This was the start of the walk proper. The trail that ran high along the flank of the Buinovo Gorge was, I am sure, spectacular. The drop down to the gorge was steep, but the path was narrow. Unfortunately I only made it a short distance along before my fear of getting stuck and needing that helicopter got the better of me. Gracefully declining the offer of a walking stick from a little old lady, I made my way ignominiously back to the safety of the road. Jerry had far more pluck than I did; he accompanied the rest of the group all the way to the other end.
I decided to spend some time exploring the village, instead. As it was a Muslim village, the main square was dominated by a mosque, rather than a church, but it had a rather deserted appearance. We later learned that the custodian had to open it up if two worshippers turned up. It wasn’t opened very often. An elderly woman sat outside a cafe, eating chocolates. She offered me a strawberry cream. The houses all had large gardens full of apples, pears, raspberries, beans, squash and tomatoes. And the occasional chicken. Sunflower heads were protected with old ladies’ tights. Every house also had a massive woodpile. It was like stepping back in time, except for the satellite dishes. Benny Hill was evidently very popular.
The next day I decided to brave the walk, which was due to start in the Chairska gorge and end in the village of Trigrad, from where we would visit a famous local cave, known as the ‘Devil’s Throat’. The walk began in the bottom of the gorge, following a wide, level path that was a former Roman road. There were no scary precipices to worry about initially. After an hour or so, however, we found ourselves scrambling over rocks, and Svetla looked around rather anxiously. There had been a rock fall, and the only way to reach our destination was to climb up a 20 foot slope to the path above. Somehow, I made it, mainly because Svetla, who was stronger than she looked, hauled me up. The next section of the walk involved a steady climb, but as the path was wide and flanked by trees rather than a sheer drop, I was finally able to regain a little self-respect by overtaking some of the more experienced hikers in the group. We all felt that we had earned a rest when we stopped for our picnic lunch in a quiet meadow. Stopping on the way only to sample some sweet yellow tiny plums tasting like greengages, we made our way down to the village.
The Devil’s Throat is the largest cave in the Balkans. It is allegedly where Orpheus emerged from the underworld (though it is not the only cave to claim this distinction). I was amused to note a stack of beer and coke crates just inside the entrance. The road to hell is paved with coca cola. It is said that anything which falls into the waterfall which enters the cave never emerges from the other side. In an experiment, even dye took two hours to come through, instead of the few minutes expected. For the intrepid, there are around 188 steps to climb up past the waterfall and out of the cave. I preferred to retreat back through the entrance and look for the elusive wallcreeper bird which is supposed to live in the vicinity. Sadly, it was indeed elusive. The only glimpse I caught of it was on a souvenir postcard. Whilst I waited for the others to emerge, I noticed a zip-wire across the gorge. I might have been tempted to have a go, but the bandaged arm of the operator did not inspire my confidence.
The following day, encouraged by my success, I opted to go on the longest walk of the week – a circuit of Mt Durgada. I’m ashamed to say that I was secretly rather pleased when two of the party turned back, citing a dodgy knee, whilst I went on to complete the walk with a real sense of achievement. I was officially no longer the only wimp on the expedition.
I visited Yagodina in August 2009