The Vihren catastrophe

Day 23 – Saturday 20th August – From Bansko to Vihren hut to Sofia (189km)

At 6:00 the sky was already blue and after leaving a couple of bags at reception we checked out and headed straight for Vihren hut. There were already several cars parked in front of it, and more came as we got changed and started the walk up Vihren peak.

20160819232630The sun came out over the high mountains as we gained altitude through a well trodden path, but nothing as touristy as the seven lake trek in park Rila.

20160820014215Even though this was a relatively easy peak – the way was clearly indicated in red marks and there was not need to climb at all, just walk to the summit – the way the path gained altitude was unforgiving. It went straight up right after setting off from the hut, and it kept going that way for most of the 900m ascent.

20160820015850We reached the col before the peak in good time, having passed several groups of people who had started earlier but were making slower progress, and from there we saw that the peak was covered in clouds.

20160820025531Fortunately, they were not think enough to be a visibility problem, and we could still follow the trail to the top. We reached it in two hours sharp, an hour less than the sign in the hut said.

20160820030648The temperature was a lot lower there, and it was quite windy, so we just took a few pictures, had a snack and glimpsed at the views through the occasional gap in the clouds.

20160820031203The way down was even faster, and we only stopped two or three times to takes clothes off as the temperature rose again during the descent into the valley. We were surprised by the high number of people that kept coming up the opposite way – this was clearly a popular peak, but I have seldom seen people starting a climb so late. Not only was it way too hot on the way up at this time, but there were clouds gathering over the surrounding mountains, and the weather can change very quickly in the afternoon in the mountains. We had started walking at 8:30, and there were very few people ahead of us. If you start walking at that time in the Pyrenees, you are likely to be among the last.

When we reached the hut I checked my watch to see what time we had made – four hours total, up and down. It was a great time, and I reached into my backpack to get the GoPro out and take a picture of the time on the watch with the hut as background. I rummaged about and was not able to find it. I emptied the whole backpack, turned all pockets inside out, and realised, to my horror, that the camera was not there.

I remembered that I had taken the last picture on the col, right after coming down the rocky slope from the peak, and after we had only stopped once – the first time I put my neck warmer into the bag, the second time Nat took out some stuff to get some tissues. Either I had left the camera on a rock on the first occasion, or it had fallen out of the bag on the second. Most likely the latter.

That had happened about 300m above the hut, so without thinking twice, I told Nat to wait for me and went running back up the mountain. I reached the spot a while later, covered in sweat and out of breath, hoping to find the camera lying on the ground, as it was a bit off the main path, but it was not there. The other place where we had stopped was much higher, almost two thirds of the way up to the peak, and that time it had been right on the path, so the chances of finding it were slim… However, I did not want to go back without trying, not because of the camera itself, I could always buy another one, but because the SD card in it contained many of the pictures and videos of our holiday so far.
After catching my breath for a moment, I went on running up until I reached the other spot, but the camera was not there either. Defeated, I started to walk down the mountain, still fast, because Nat thought that I had only gone up the lowest spot and I guessed she might be starting to worry that I was taking so long.

I reached the hut exhausted, having passed people up to three times – on the normal way down, then running up for the camera, then running down again – I don’t know what they might have thought I was doing. All in all, I had climbed 1600m, lost all the time advantage we had gained when we first came down to the hut and now we had to pack things up and ride all the way to Sofia.

With our mood at an absolute minimum, we picked our stuff from the hotel and left Bansko. Nat was feeling very sad about the pictures, and I kept trying to make light of it and telling her not to worry, but between the stifling heat down at the Blagoevgrad valley, my state of exhaustion and the ride ahead of us, I snapped at her when we stopped at a petrol station. I felt miserable about it for the rest of the way into Sofia.

With such a mood, our first impression of the city was not the best one, not helped by the fact that we entered through what I later learned was the ‘gypsy neighbourhood’, where we saw street after street of people carrying waste in donkey carts and cars half dismantled every two corners.

20160820131442Things started to improve a bit by the time we reached, our hotel, saw the room, had a shower and went to see the famous Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the sunset. By the time we had found a nice grill restaurant, had a marvellous meal and two gin and tonics for dessert, we were finally smiling again.

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Lakes, rain and hail

Day 22 – Friday 19th August – From Bansko to Vihren hut and back (32km)

The weather forecast turned out to be accurate and the following morning the sky was overcast and we could not even see the mountains up the valley. Every ten minutes or so there were strong showers, so we had breakfast and sat in the front terrace of the hotel to read a while, write a while and generally kill the time waiting for the weather to improve a bit so that we could at least ride to Vihren hut, 16km up the mountain, and see the lakes.

By midday the rain finally gave us a break and we quickly got on the bike and rode up as some blue patches opened in the sky. We reached the hut through a beautiful mountain road and were surprised to find quite a lot of cars parked there despite the rain.

20160819061127We started walking to see at least the first two lakes, which were an half an hour and an hour and a half away respectively; the mountains looked higher and with a sharper profile there, the park felt more serious than Rila.

20160819063259We reached the first lake, also called Otoko, which was rather small, and went on the second one with clouds closing in around us again. By the time the second lake was in sight we could hear thunder over the mountains, so we just took a couple of pictures and started heading back to the hut.

The rain started before we had even reached the first lake, and we got soaked in five minutes. By the time we reached the hut it was pouring down and there was even some hail. I grabbed the motorbike suit and boots, which were dry, from the panniers and got changed quickly in the hut’s porch, in full view of everyone who had taken shelter there, to avoid getting pneumonia.

20160819074925When the rain finally stopped we got back to our hotel and called it a day, sad not to have seen more of the park. One thing gave us hope, though – the following day we were going to Sofia, which was only about 150km away, and we had seen signs by the hut saying that the climb to Vihren peak took three hours. The weather was supposed to improve, so we decided to wake up really early, see if the sky was clear, and then try to climb the peak before heading to Sofia.

Ghost town

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.

DCIM123GOPROI 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.

20160818033204Fortunately, 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.

20160818032651I 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.

20160818032613After 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?

20160818101929We 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.20160818101935

6th gear

Day 19 – Tuesday 16th August – Skopje to Blagoevgrad (225km)

Today was – maybe for the first time in a while – a rather quiet day regarding visits, excursions and exploration. We rode up the hills on the south of Skopje before leaving the city to see the sights from the Millennium cross, a huge 66-metre high cross built to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity. To our disappointment, the cross could only be reached by cable car, not by road, but there was a good viewpoint from the car park where the road ended and we had a beautiful view of the city that added one more item to the list of places my impressions of Skopje drank from – Barcelona seen from the hills of Collserola.

20160816043255We left the city via the motorway and on the dashboard I saw something I had not seen in quite a while – 6th gear! We covered quite a lot of (boring) distance before running out of motorway, which by the way was not in great condition for what it cost us in tolls. The motorway ended in Kumanovo and from there a regular road, culminating in a really nice stretch of long sweeping corners up a hill, took us to the border with Bulgaria.

Of all the borders we had crossed I was expecting this one to be by far the easiest and fastest – leaving a country usually takes no more than a couple of minutes and then we were re-entering the EU with EU passports and an EU registered vehicle with EU insurance, but for some unknown reason the Macedonians took ages to check each of the few cars on the queue and their occupants paperwork, and it was even worse on the Bulgarian side. I was tempted to do that thing you see in movies, where whenever Americans are abroad they shout ‘I am an American citizen!’ at the first sign of bother, and start shouting ‘I am a EU citizen, let me in!’

Once on the other side we still had quite a way to go before our chosen destination – Blagoevgrad, a small city located between the natural parks of Rila and Pirin. At first this was only a one-stop place before we could find information about the area and decide where to go next, but the hotel turned out to be really nice and cheap, and we saw that the trek we wanted to do the following day was only about an hour away, so we decided to stay a couple of nights.

20160816113552In the afternoon we went to visit the city and get some provisions for the trek, and Nat got another good dose of working-class Eastern European neighbourhoods.