Day 21 – Thursday 18th August – From Blagoevgrad to Rila to Bansko (135km)
We were going to move to a different town to be closer to Pirin natural park, but as once again we did not have much information about treks there yet we knew that we would not be going into the mountains today. That, and the fact the town we were going to was only about an hour away, made us decide to go back to Rila in the morning and try to visit the monastery before heading there.
This time we had done our homework, and found the monastery without any problems – it was just a matter of going further up the valley, but we did not have the time the previous day and in any case we would have found it closed.
As with the road to the chair lift, we found cars parked on the road a while before reaching the monastery, but when we got a policeman let us park the bike by the side of the road on the corner of the building. We saw that he was not the only policeman, there were quite a lot of them, as well as private security guards and several vans with satellite dishes belonging to TV channels.
I asked about it and it turned out that the most important religious leader in the country – bishop, archbishop, pope… I don’t remember – was giving mass that day, and the president of Bulgaria was there as well.
Fortunately, aside from the police and media presence, the monastery was not particularly full, so we quite enjoyed the visit. Walking through the main archway and into the courtyard, the contrast between the tall outer stone walls, which are almost like those of a fortress, and the painted arches that sustain the different residential levels is stunning.
I knew this was the biggest monastery in the country and one of its main tourist attractions, but I must confess that it exceeded my expectations.
After the visit we headed down the valley back to the Blagoevgrad area and the heat, and then up into the mountains again, this time to Pirin national park, glad for the cool air.
We had found accommodation in some sort of ski resort hotel in Bansko, which we had chosen because it was said to be the main gateway to the natural park. As we approached the town, we kept seeing countless billboards advertising not only spas and sports shops, but casinos and nightclubs. Not my kind of place…
We reached the hotel, parked the bike and walked into the reception area, with people looking at us as if we were aliens. There we were, helmets in hand, riding trousers and jacket, sweating the summer heat while guests wearing all-inclusive bracelets walked past us with a cocktail in their hands, heading for the pool area where loud pop music blared out of the speakers. This was definitely not the place for bikers nor for hikers, but hey, it was ridiculously cheap, breakfast, dinner and drinks were included in the price and we had a small studio all to ourselves.
In the afternoon we walked to the centre to try to find information about the trekking routes in the park, and were surprised to see how empty it was. Aside from four or five big hotels like ours, which offered cut-price all inclusive deals to attract customers in the summer, the rest of the town was dead. We saw streets full of hotels, restaurants, ski rental shops, bars, night clubs, casinos, shopping malls, even a sex shop and a strip club… all closed. Only a few sports and souvenir shops remained open in the centre, with very bored looking workers behind the counter. The ski station beyond the town looked enormous, so I am sure that all this facilities must cater for a huge number of people during the skiing season, but I had never seen such contrast before. We could not even find an open supermarket, and in the end we bought a few things to take to the mountain the following day in a small overpriced grocery store. What do people who live here eat?
We also found the tourist information office, where they told us about another lake trek and the highest peak in the park, mount Vihren, which is the second tallest mountain in Bulgaria. Our intention was to climb it the following day, but the weather forecast did not loot good.