Southern Bulgaria – Rila, Pirin, the Rhodope Mountains & Dancing Bear Sanctuary
Bulgaria turned out to be all about the mountains…
Following our swift exit from Serbia the signs at the Bulgarian border control explained in great detail the uniforms of the ‘real’ police and that they only drove Opel Astra’s along with other details. A little daunting at first but we soon realised why these signs were in place as no less than 50km down the road we passed roadside stalls selling police and military uniforms! We made our way south east around Sofia towards Rila as we had heard some great things about the mountains here and Bulgaria’s biggest historical attraction, Rila Monastery. We covered ground quite quickly from the border and by early that afternoon found ourselves in the small town. In search of a campsite we followed some hand written signs (in Bulgarian Cyrillic) up the mountain road past the monastery to Zodiac Camping. They were still clearing snow off the carpark and we seemed to be (again!) the first campers of 2013. We had a very warm welcome from the owners, set up the tent and went inside for some food and to stay warm.
The Monastery is also known as the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, and is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. The monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD) and is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments. It is even depicted on the 1 lev banknote!
Leaving Rila we didn’t really know what else to see nearby, but read that Bansko was a nice town. It turned out to be nice enough if ski resorts are your thing but with pricey-looking hotels we decided to move on. A short paragraph in the Rough Guide gave vague details about a remote Bear Park high in the mountains around Belitsa, so we headed for that. As the light faded we drove progressively higher through mountain villages. Passing through the depressingly decrepit town of Belitsa we followed ageing signs for the park; would it still be open? would we be able to get to it? The road turned to potholes as we passed numerous horses pulling carts back down to Belitsa.
After three or four kilometres the road disintegrated and became a combination of river gravel and mud. By this point there were no more signs either. Five kilometres in, nothing, ten kilometres in, nothing. Weaving up the mountain we found a few derelict houses and a notice board for the park some sixteen kilometres after leaving the asphalt, nearly 2000m up in the Piran mountains. Eventually we came across a ‘Jurassic Park’ style enclosure with one building, we knocked the door, nothing. We went for a look around, signs warned of ‘electric fence’ and ‘do not enter without guide’. It wasn’t long before we spotted a curious bear in the darkness (later we found out his name was Monty). Heading back to the derelict houses to wild camp we were about to set-up our tent when one of the guides turned up on a quad bike (he had been out feeding the other bears). He said we could sleep in the park if we wanted and he would show us around in the morning. We drove back to the park where we were invited to stay inside with the guides which was just as well as it turned out to be a cold night.
We woke at 0800 and we headed out in the warmth of the morning sun. It was feeding time! Lisa gave a hand dishing out the bread, carrots, lettuce and potatoes in huge volumes to the five bears in the nearby enclosures. Luckily there is a wooden walkway that rises about the high fence which makes feeding the bears an easy affair. Monty was the biggest of the bears here and ‘does not play well with others’ so has to be kept on his own. Mariana was still young and when she saw us proceeded to pace back and forth on the spot. The psychological trauma caused to these bears is unimaginable. Our Bulgarian guide didn’t speak much English but I later read that these bears are taken as cubs from their mothers, claws and teeth often removed and then put on hot coals whilst playing music to make them ‘dance’. If you thought this stuff didn’t go on any more you are mistaken. The last three bears were rescued in Bulgaria as recently as 2007 with many still dancing in Romania, Serbia and Russia. The Sanctuary buys the bears to save them but they will never be able to return to the wild. They also pushed for legislation on banning the practice in Bulgaria and succeeded. The project is not really a tourism attraction, its just a sanctuary funded by Vier Pfoten and rely solely on donations. That might explain why the road is so bad. If you are in the area it is definitely worth a visit, a place we will both never forget.
Leaving the park the next day we made our way east through the mountains into the Western Rhodopes. A route we thought wouldn’t take long took all day, then it started snowing again. We decided to take a look at the Trigrad Gorge and Devils Throat Caves and find somewhere to camp, hopefully. The road wound its way up the gorge and through tunnels. It was still cold down here as the sun had set and the last tunnel we entered I hesitated and nearly stopped before entering. Icicles hung down in a huge mass like shark teeth, some breaking off and crashing into the road in front of us. This must have been happening for days or even weeks because there were large pools of smooth ice on the road surface. Pushing my foot to the floor we went through the narrow entrance into the tunnel where even more icicles hung from the leaking ceiling. We came out the other-side and pulled over at the caves. They were closed. We spoke to a local women who said we could stay with her family in the local town so we followed their VW. We had a warm welcome and a room to ourselves complete with wood-burning stove! The next day we went to take a look at the caves which were closed but with the use of our local friend we managed to get the key! So we went in for a look. Much like the caves in Slovenia there was a huge river running through it and one large cavern. The steps out were extremely steep and slippery, so much so you could only walk up them and not back down! We exited some 100m further up the gorge where the river has hewn a steep sided gorge alongside the road.
From the mountains we headed north to pick up the main E80 road along the Plain of Thrace towards Turkey. We drove on and on looking for somewhere to wild camp but nothing really turned up. Finally we saw it, something we rarely see on the road, a tent sign. Vague as always we noted the Km and had to cover fifteen of them without missing a turn or junction. We found the right village, Biser. It was 2100 and completely dark, we couldn’t find anything that said ‘camping’. Last resort, ask a local. He sent us back along the road we came in on and we found something that looked vaguely like a campsite from the outside. Closer inspection revealed it was in fact Sakar Hills Camping, but with no lights, sign and nobody home it was difficult to identify. We parked up out of the way and got on with our stuff. Within about an hour a car pulled up and the owner introduced himself as Matt. British born Matt use to work for Land Rover Experience and now does all sorts of stuff for the Expat community in Bulgaria. The campsite was officially closed when we arrived (early again!) so explained a lot. Feeling comfortable here we ended up staying for 2 nights as the weather was good and I could get a service done on the Land Rover. It was great to meet and chat to Matt who was very helpful. Sakar Hills can be found here: http://www.sakar-hills.com/index.html and their co-ords are: 41°52’13.22″N 25°59’29.23″E
We had only been in Bulgaria for 1 week but it was time to move on. We really enjoyed our stay here and the people in the mountain areas were very accommodating and welcoming. The pace of life here is slow, much more relaxed and some of the places we visited made it feel like stepping back in time. It was a shame we couldn’t get up to the Black Sea coast and a few other spots but we cannot see everything in every country, we just do not have the time!
Next stop, Istanbul!