Aisling and I have been thinking about going to Bulgaria for about a year now. Originally we wanted to fly there and travel around, but we soon realized that we wanted to visit so many places that it would be best to take the car. So we packed up the good old family Volvo V70 and hit the road. We spent almost two weeks there, exploring Rila National Park, Plovdiv, Sofia and other places we bumped into along the way. Here is the story of our trip, plus what we recommend you to do and what to avoid when you go to Bulgaria!
The Way There Through Novi Sad
Getting to Bulgaria from Budapest is a 700+ km journey which required us to go through Serbia. The good thing is that we had to drive through Novi Sad, where a very good friend of mine lives. So of course we stopped there to catch up with Danilo, grab lunch and spend way more time there than we had originally planned. I’ve been to Novi Sad before, but it was very nice to explore a bit. I liked the fortress and the neighborhood around, it feels like it’s a place from a different century. You can enjoy coffee with exceptionally slow waiters, but great views from the top!
It’s not easy to say goodbye to friends so quickly, but we needed to get to our accommodation on the other side of the country. We decided to spend the night in some random village a few kilometers from the Serbian-Bulgarian border. Next morning, we drove to the border, spent a frustratingly long amount of time waiting to get into Bulgaria, but we eventually made it!
Seven Rila Lakes
The Seven Rila Lakes are one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Bulgaria, with tons of people flocking there to look at these amazing glacial lakes. Having seen the photos, we couldn’t resist going there either! I’m all about taking the roads less travelled, but certain things are just a must see - and the Rila Lakes were truly mind-blowing. Stunning mountains, the seven lakes all shimmering in slightly different shades of blue and snow still melting from the previous winter. I took more photos in a day then I'd usually take in a week!
We took the chair lift to the lowest lake and hiked up all the way to the highest one. It’s an easy, short hike, but good shoes are definitely needed! We cooked lunch on my trusty gas cooker at the Kidney Lake and made our way to the top, where we chilled out for a while, gazed at the pure water, then I decided to disturb the peace a bit by flying the drone. The late afternoon is great, because the light is less harsh, with beautiful long shadows and there are less people up as well. Of course, the best would have been to be there at sunrise, when the light is the most beautiful, but we couldn’t really do that this time. Instead, we headed off, catching the last chairlift down and drove to a camping spot in the woods outside the National Park boundaries.
At 2925 meters, Musala is the highest peak in Bulgaria (and the entire Balkan Peninsula), so of course that was another destination which we had to tick off the list. Like most visitors, we parked in Borovets and took the ski lift up to Yastrebets early in the morning. The main trail up is super easy, as you just follow the steady stream of people going up. There are a bunch of lakes along the way, which are absolutely amazing. Everyone is interested in getting up Musala, but the lakes by themselves are worth a visit!
From the top lake, the tough climb begins and a very steep, but short stretch later you are on the top. Great views 360 degrees around and you are just pointing at the other hills like “damn, I should climb that one too”. But seriously, it has a stunning view if you take the time to walk around and not just rush into the shelter to buy hot tea. I could just sit up there for hours observing the how clouds move, the changing light on the landscape and the amazement on people’s faces as the first see the view from the top. You can also see what’s probably one of the world’s sketchiest cable cars, which looks very scary…
The real fun for us started on the way down. We decided that we want to avoid the crowds and enjoy the place in a little more peaceful, albeit more challenging way. First, we took a little detour near the peak to climb out onto a cliff to take some photos of the lakes from a better angle and of course some oh-so-instagrammable foot-dangling photos. FYI: I wasn’t actually out on a steep cliff, there was a ledge under me! Just trying to look badass, but I’m not stupid.
Instead of taking the easy route and catching the ski lift at Yastrebets we decided that we’ll walk all the way down. As we turned off the main path, it was as if we were transported to a completely different place: the crowd instantly vanished! On the whole way down (about 10 km) we met maybe 3 people. We of course got into some funny situations, as we accidentally cut through a bog, then the trail on our map led us into a low coniferous forest where we had to jungle-fight our way for a few kilometers, while the stream was running along where once the path was. It just made the hike all the more fun! Eventually we got to a bigger dirt road and we slowly made our way down to Borovets, with a total of 27 km of hiking that day. It’s not all so joyful though – sadly Aisling injured her knee on the way down, which later meant that we had to re-organize some of our trip.
Before I go on to talking about Plovdiv, I have to tell you about the most random experience we had with a hitchhiker who we picked up. We already took two hitchhikers from the Hungarian border down to Novi Sad, but this guy was something special. We picked up an older Bulgarian gentleman near Borovets as we were heading to Plovdiv. He only had a big folder with him, spoke zero English and it took about half an hour into the drive to figure out where the hell he wants to go. Despite us speaking no Bulgarian, he talked to us a lot and the whole thing was just really funny. Finally, we dropped him off just outside Plovdiv and as he got out he opened his folder and gave us a painting to thank us for taking him. It was unbelievably sweet! He must be some kind of travelling artist. The whole thing was just so surreal and we had a great laugh!
Plovdiv was a place for us to chill after the tough hiking and camping in the Rila Mountains. Aisling especially appreciated that there was a shower, as she was less inclined to try bathing in the ice-cold mountain streams than I was. We ended up getting a room in a 4 star hotel for the price of what would in most places get you a bed in a 12-bed hostel room. Bulgaria is pretty damn cheap when it comes to accommodation! Plovdiv itself is an interesting place, because it is supposed to be one of the oldest cities in Europe, with a huge mix of cultures, architecture and history. Or at least that’s what you get in the center, because the outer bits of the city are still the usual Soviet-block concrete jungles that make your eyes hurt.
The center is indeed lovely, with some Roman architecture remaining scattered around the city and the biggest attraction is the Old Town of Plovdiv, with its buildings built in what is called the Bulgarian Renaissance style. The simple explanation is that they are cool colorful buildings with exposed wooden frames that hang out over the street… I just butchered the art historical explanation of the style here a bit, but this if you are seriously interested it, just go to Wikipedia. Our favorite places here were a Turkish restaurant which had amazing service and great food and a coffee and craft beer place where we basically had to re-organize half of the trip. Why so? Well, Aisling’s knee didn’t allow her to do long hikes anymore and we had originally planned to spend the next 2-3 days in the Central Balkans National Park, but instead we just improvised something new and it turned out to be just as exciting in the end!
After an afternoon of frantic google-searching and planning, we decided to hit the road to Kocherinovo on the other side of the Rila National Park and combine some light hiking with some more cultural activities. We stopped by an awesome lake on the way called the Iskar Reservoir where we played around with the drone, made lunch and chilled out.
Kocherinovo itself is a completely unremarkable and boring little village, but we found a nice place to stay there last-minute and used that as the base for exploring the area. Our main goal was to see the Rila Monastery, but just as I was searching for that, I bumped into an interesting suggestion along the way: a museum/junkyard run by some crazy local in the outskirts of Kocherinovo. Let’s just call it “The Museum of Random Crap”. I loved it! It’s full of old cars, motorbikes, TV sets, street signs, etc.
It was started by a local guy who just loved collecting stuff and it got kind of out of hand. There is no proper information available online in English. Google Maps just calls it “Museo Historico Bulgaria” but I think that’s just some random name someone added to it. But you can wander around freely, exploring the outdoor and indoor sections. There is a room full of old TVs, radios and motorbikes. Old cars are scattered all around the place in various states of disrepair, both in- and outside. You also get random things like an old Stalin statue peaking out of a lovely BMW Isetta.
As you go farther and farther back into the yard, you not only notice more cars, but piles and piles of spare parts that I have no clue why they are here. In one of the storage buildings there was a room full of identical red car seats, at least 50 of them, just piled on top of each other, seemingly with no purpose at all. I was of course most interested in the old cars, which ranged from huge old Mercedeses, through almost fallen apart Soviet Block vehicles to old ‘60s American land yachts. It’s just an eclectic collection of the most random crap you can imagine! Many of them were far beyond repair, but some clearly could hit the road again one day.
The Stob Pyramids
As we were driving to Kocherinovo, we saw a sign saying “Stob Pyramids 3 km” (or something similar), so we quickly googled what it is, and it turns out that this area has insane sandstone formations that were washed out by water erosion. They decided to call them “Pyramids” for reasons beyond me... After exploring the junkyard museum, we headed over there and hit the little trail up. It was a nice hike which took as all along the ridge of the hill and we could walk to the edges of the rock formations and look down from the top. It is a truly surreal landscape and it really reminded me of Guadix in Spain, where the whole landscape around the town is covered in very similar-looking formations.
The Rila Monastery is as touristy as it gets – a monastery established in the 10th century that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with huge amounts of tourists, but also a lot of people travelling there from all over Bulgaria for religious reasons. Really, there is no point in me saying that much about it, other than that the architecture and the surroundings are absolutely gorgeous, but the touristic experience is terrible. There is not one museum, but instead there are random bits and pieces that you have to buy separate tickets for, but they have nothing translated into English and the whole thing is just crowded and chaotic.
The best part of the visiting the Rila Monastery was driving a few kilometers up the road, which led to a massive clearing in the forest where there were a bunch of locals just camping out with their whole families, people playing games, enjoying a day in the forest and having fun. We chilled out there for an afternoon and it is a way nicer memory for me than the monastery visit.
Dogs of Bulgaria
Bulgaria has an insane amount of stray dogs in the countryside and if it was up to Aisling, we would have adopted them all. So I thought it would be funny to put in a little album of all the friends that she made along the way!
Our favorite one was this massive bear-dog that we bumped into near the Rila Monastery, although he was not a stray. He was just such a gentle, old, fluffy giant, wandering around and sleeping in his owner’s yard most of the day. Super cute!
I have to admit, I was not that impressed with Sofia. Most of it is just ugly and all the big attractions are churches. If you google the top 10 attractions of Sofia, most of them will suggest going outside Sofia for a good portion of them… but jokes aside, it’s not a very attractive city. While it does have some beautiful buildings scattered around, Soviet times have really put a stamp on it. We slowly started to warm up to it after we discovered a developing hipster neighborhood with some cool shops and food places. I found a place where I got a beautiful camera strap to replace my old worn one, so that was a nice bonus!
We also found a place that was specializing in spicy paprika products, some nice art shops and of course the highlight of Sofia was the hostel. We stayed in a place called Hostel Mostel and it made our time in Sofia very entertaining. The room was loud, the bed was almost falling apart, but in the price breakfast, dinner and unlimited coffee was included, so it was amazing for socializing. Every morning and evening we met different people who we had a beer with, played cards, or even went on a city tour with. Speaking of city tours there is a free walking tour of Sofia, which I would really recommend. It’s a good way to see the few well known sites with entertaining young guides.
Final Thoughts and the Way Home
The trip to Bulgaria was an amazing experience, with little planning and lots of improvisation. We mainly went there to enjoy nature and damn, it certainly didn’t disappoint! The Rila National Park is absolutely stunning, and we definitely plan to return to explore even more of it. The cities, well, they are less impressive, but we did warm up to Sofia a bit in the end, although that was mainly due to the good company in the hostel. I’d mainly plan our next Bulgarian trip around nature – and probably the best way to experience it would be by camper van!
The way home was pretty crazy, we left early in the morning on the last day and we had to be home for a friend’s birthday party in the evening. Since Aisling doesn’t have a license yet, that meant I had to drive about 800 km, which was pretty tough, plus we were stuck at various borders for about 4,5 hours. Luckily, I love driving and I’d be happy to drive this much again just to see even more of that beautiful country!