We'd intended to take a shuttle to the hike, but when we went to check out and purchase the tickets for the shuttle, we discovered that the shuttle was not running. None of the websites offered this information, so we had to scramble a little bit and ended up renting a car. This actually turned out to be a much cheaper option than the shuttle would have been, since we split the cost of the rental six ways. Additionally, it gave us freedom and flexibility in our schedule and allowed us to not only see the 7 Rila Lakes, but also drive to the Rila Monastery on the other side of the mountain.
Here's the outside of our apartment the morning we left for the Rila Mountains. Before we took off, Carson and Lloyd went out to the grocery store for lunch items, and another group went out for crepes, but the crepe place was closed at 7am on a Saturday.
Sofia is very smoggy and we took a collective breath of fresh air every time we made it out of the city. We drove past fields and villages, stopping once at a gas station for breakfast and once had to slow down for a pack of dogs in the middle of the highway. Soon, the sun came out and the fog cleared and we began to see beautiful mountains topped with snow. We drove through a village that was the opposite of Plovdiv because it was teeming with dogs. We saw dogs everywhere this day - in fields and roads and on the sides of roads. We began to drive up the side of one of the mountains, and we could see for miles on the way up.
We had the option of what they claimed was a 2.5 hour hike up or we could take a ski lift to the start of the hike, and we opted for the lift. As we rose in the air, we realized that this was the best choice we could have made, since there's no way we could have done that part in just 2.5 hours. It looked very steep, and the trail was right under the lift, so we could see that it was snowy and very icy and also not that pretty. Instead, we got to sit tight and take in the scenery for 25 minutes to the top.
We got off by the chalet at the start of the trail and began our ascent.
Initially, the sun was so nice that we decided to shed our coats. This would not last long.
I spy a lake!
Jaime left her hiking boots in the States on accident, so her footwear of choice was a pair of Adidas tennis shoes. She did cross country in college and is apparently very tough because she was ahead of everyone on the trail and even though her socks were soaked at the end of the night, she powered through.
Carson walks on water
We came across two Americans who live in England and talked to them for a bit. They were staying in a drafty cabin somewhere on the mountain and had taken a taxi up to the mountain, all of which sounded like a lot less fun than our cushy apartment and rental car. We took a picture with them because that's what you do when you run into your countrymen in another land.
And that's where Carson and I split from the group. They went up another steep part of the mountain and I honestly didn't know if my knees could take it (yes, I'm 99 years old), so we opted for a different loop. The lake we missed at the top was apparently not that great and covered in snow, so I'm not really that sad. Plus, it was a lot more dangerous and someone slipped and got banged up.
There were places in the snow where you'd step into a hole, which was always a little scary.
I walked on frozen Lake Erie in February of 2014, so why not walk on another frozen lake in Bulgaria?!
Finally, we spotted the chalet in the distance. At this point, I'd slipped and fallen enough times that I was a little bit done with hiking. It was also a little bit too chilly for me!
We were surprised that we beat the others back by about 15 minutes. Here they are, making their way down the valley to the chalet.
Since the hike back down would have made us arrive after dark, and because we were tired and sore, we took the chair lift down again.
We'd split the food up into various backpacks but all we'd really eaten on the hike was trail mix and clementines for some reason, so Jordyn and Carson made everyone sandwiches. We all ate in such a rude and ravenous way. Those were the best sandwiches I think I've ever had. Jaime and I had wet socks, so we took this ride with our socks hanging from the headrests in front of us to dry. I'm sure that rental car smells awesome now that we've finished with it.
Our next stop was the Rila Monastery. It's a big deal, beautiful monastery that was actually only six miles from the chalet, except that it was also on the other side of the mountain. So it was an hour and 45 minutes to drive there. We arrived after dark, and it was still beautiful, but I wish we could have somehow seen it in the light, because from the postcards they sold there (but wouldn't let us purchase for some reason - the other people who came in the same time we did were fine to buy one but not us), it was magnificent. And, like everything else we'd seen that day, there were lots of dogs there. This was was really sweet and just wanted us to love him. So we did.
The monastery was beautiful and big. It was built in the 10th century, and all the Bulgaria guides we read named it as their top spot to see in the country. But although we were there well within open times, and despite the fact that it is a big tourist spot, we found that we were shooed out and that they wouldn't even let us buy a postcard (or anything) at the gift shop. It was beautiful despite that, and I'd guess they are friendlier when it's light outside (it was just before 6pm when we arrived, and they close the gates at 8). For a detour that took us three hours total, it was a letdown. Still, we saw it, so I guess I can call it a win?
The dog looked hungry, so we fed it. I'd wanted something with protein for breakfast that morning and my option was McDonalds or nothing, so I got a chicken wrap but the sauce was nasty so I just ate the chicken. The dog took his time eating this, which made me think that he was either super hungry or that he also thought the sauce was gross.
I snagged this picture off Google images... the monastery had an aerial shot on a postcard that I couldn't find online. It was really beautiful!
Our journey back to Sofia was uneventful until we got into the city, and then finding parking was a nightmare. Everyone was so aggressive and Jenna had a prime spot ready to pull into, and then someone cut her off and took it instead. After about 30 minutes (all of which were aided by the five annoying people not driving) we finally found the world's smallest parallel parking spot. It didn't look like she'd be able to get in, but Carson and Lloyd hopped out and managed to direct Jenna into the spot where she was nearly touching the vehicles in front and behind her. I was so impressed with Jenna's ability to keep her cool with all of us and with the crazy city drivers.
After we stopped by the apartment to change into dry socks and exchange our workout pants for real pants, we went in search of food. We'd skipped dinner the two nights prior and we'd finally given up our desire to cook Thanksgiving dinner, so we decided to look for actual Bulgarian food, which was harder than it sounds (there were TONS of pizza/Italian/burger/sushi/everything else options, however, and I've never seen so many KFC restaurants in all my life as I did in Sofia). Jordyn had a list of places in Sofia that served Bulgarian food, so we stopped by those places to see if we could get a table (it was around 9pm by the time we got back to the city). The first place was full, but the second, which was much cheaper and actually looked a lot more authentic, was open! We went to Hadjidraganov's Cellars which was only a ten minute walk from our hotel.
We all had Bulgarian wine (the cheapest ones, because we were running short on Leva at this point and we'd all sort of pooled our money for this meal), and decided to order the platter for six, to get a variety of food. They told us that it would take an hour to make, so we got 1.5 portions of the platter for four instead and they charged us the same price.
We demolished the platter. About fifteen minutes after it was placed on the table (that's being generous), we'd eaten every last bit of it, including the garnishes. They had the best mustard I've ever tried as well.
Full, we returned to the apartment again, where we packed up and debated the idea of pulling an all nighter, since we had to be up again in about 3 hours. Everyone decided to sleep, since the all nighters pulled the night before our trip were still impacting us.
And there we were, up at 3am, ready to fly!
We stopped at the gas station on the way there. An ATM had to be visited because we didn't have enough money to fill up the rental. Gas is sold per liter in Europe which means it's actually ridiculously expensive.
There were two security lines, and Carson's and mine moved faster. It was also under this really neat mosaic map of Europe.
We arrived in Dortmund right on time, after sleeping very soundly on the flight, and despite the kicking, loud baby in the seat behind me. Everyone else took a train from the Dortmund train station, but Carson and I took one from Holzwickede, so we parted ways at the airport.
We are already planning our next trip and it's going to be amazing! We loved travelling with these friends. The size of the group was great (any bigger would have been hard) and it was really nice to have an even number of people, just for things like riding the ski lift. We really had so much fun, even though Bulgaria hadn't originally been a place we were dying to travel. We got to do a variety of day trips and got to really pack a lot in in just a few days. All in all, a pretty great Thanksgiving!