Trekking the Balkan’s Tallest Peak: A Glimpse into Bulgaria’s Brilliance (Rila, Bulgaria)

Rila national park is one of few Bulgarian protected regions. And unlike many other national parks, the Rila region is more than natural beauty that accumulates with the highest point in the Balkans, Musala peak, coming in a few meters shy of 3000m; it has a rich cultural history as well.

Starting with more recent history, Rika national park is home to Bulgaria’s most famous and oldest ski resort in Borovets. The little ski village has a rustic charm with a clearly communist touch to it. With only the ski-in restaurants sporting a complete wood cabin theme, many of the other buildings come with shanti town metal roofs.

Of course since I was visiting in September the village was half deserted and boarded up. Many other places took this down time to gear up for next season with renovations, maintenance, and upkeep.

But like most outdoor enthusiasts who’s idea of a holiday is strapping on boots and exhausting their energy in return for crisp air and serene, scenic mountain vantage points, accommodation, amenities, and entertainment take on much lesser importance.

For me, I enjoyed the tackiness of my room at Rila Hotel. The neon puke green painted walls like you’d find in a hospital that is just as outdated; the elephant strength shower head; the disgusting air freshener the room attendants insist on spraying your room with (ignoring the do not disturb sign hanging outside your door); the horrible breakfast buffet equipped with powered oranges juice and canned salami; the only dinner menu from the many restaurants which you actually want to eat at but you have to do so outside in a cold 10 degree chill.

It’s an experience in itself.

Now onto the main attractions. A pleasant gondola ride gives a tease of what the snowboarding would be like. Lots of trees and long pistes. Arriving at the the top you cut across a ridge to where they’re building a new lodge or refuge in front of a crystal mirror lake reflecting Musala peak above. From there the real hike begins. With so many little lakes along the way you can be fooled into thinking that they are the Seven Lakes also found in this region. Apparently, that is also a gorgeous hike but I didn’t have the time to explore them.

The trek is relatively easy and paved by many tour groups that have come before. The view from the top explains the traffic.

From here the option to stay the night exists for those wishing to trek on. Many that do are on their way to Rila Monastery. This thousand year old Orthodox monastery is a UNESCO heritage site, and quite possibly unparalleled in it’s magnificence.

Rila offers a glimpse of old Bulgaria folk life, yet another treasure of Balkan culture. With scattered villages like Beli Iskar, outdoor activities, old cultural relics like Rila monastery, and more recent communist built resort at Borovets, Rila is a can’t miss spot on any Balkan travel itinerary.

And all this without even mentioning one of my new favorite places, “Bulgaria’s smallest village” a little wine town called Melnik. Tune in Monday for that story.

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