First up this morning was negotiating the six flights of stairs back down to ground level! After this we were nicely warmed up for our cycle south out of Sofia and towards the mountains which can be seen from the city centre. Sofia is almost surrounded by mountains and hills, so we had to go up somewhere along the line – and as our loose plan is to go to Greece next, then south was our direction… towards the biggest and meanest mountains of them all!
Getting out of Sofia proved tricky and even though it was early (ish) on a Saturday morning, the traffic was pretty heavy. We nearly ended up on another proper busy road, but thankfully managed a detour through a park at the last minute, but to be honest it wasn’t very nice cycling. Even when we thought we were out of the city and had started to climb into the foothills, the traffic remained quite heavy. As the road got more windy and a bit narrower, the drivers also became a bit pushier and it was a good hour and a half out of town before it started to calm down – so not our best cycling day so far. On top of that the road just kept on climbing and climbing, etc, you get the gist – for just over 35km!
It was slow progress and at one point I was a bit worried that we might not make it to our destination before it got dark! And at the point that we had finished climbing, we could see our breath in the air as we had actually climbed further than we had going through Shipka Pass! For once the weather was quite cloudy and we only got the odd glimpse of the top of the main mountain that can be seen from the city. Apparently the locals like hiking up there and it looked like there was a monument and lookout area at the top. There was water on the road so it looked like we’d dodged a rain shower which was a bit of luck.
The down hill jaunt was very cold, but it did mean that we’d caught up a bit of time. We stopped in the very uninspiring town of Kovachevitsa for a chilly lunch. We’d both got quite cold by this point but as we left, the sun came out and we warmed up over the next few kilometres and then we were into another climb. Not as long this time, but we did get caught in a short sharp rainshower. We crossed a lower pass into another valley and more great views as we came to the bottom of the hill.
We made it to our destination in Sapareva Banya, famed for its hot thermal springs, and yet more great accommodation at the foot of one of the bigger mountains, by 4pm. We made ourselves at home at which point there were a few rumbles of thunder and a huge hail/rain shower which came off the mountain, looks like we made it just in time!
We didn’t physically get to enjoy the thermal springs in the town, but on our way out in the morning we passed a steaming fountain, which isn’t something you see every Sunday morning! It was a cold and grey start to the day but it was downhill all the way to Dupnica, about 12km away, where we did the obligatory food stock-up! The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful and uninspiring as we headed south along the bottom of the valley floor. We knew that there were hills and mountains out there somewhere, but the murky weather meant that we saw little of them until, that was, the afternoon.
We were bound for Rila Monastery, which is one Bulgaria’s most-visited tourist attractions, up in the Rila Mountains. We knew that there was going to be a serious climb to see it, so we weren’t kidding ourselves that the lovely 36km of down during the morning was the profile for the whole day. We stopped for a coffee and snack in Kocherinovo just before the road started to climb.
The next hour or so was up, but generally manageable and the scenery started to get forested, craggy and very spectacular. The river Rila joined the road and we crossed it on numerous occasions as we continued to climb and as Martina put it “made the place look magical”. As the afternoon wore on, the gradient of the road steadily increased and our speed decreased! Like the turning of a screw it got harder and harder, not quite on a Norway scale, but it was energy-sapping nonetheless, and after another 33km we finally made it to the monastery complex. As luck would have it, our timing was perfect in that were going in the opposite direction to most of the coach tours from Sofia at this time of the day, so we only had a few cars to content with on the climb.
We found our accommodation, settled in, showered and were out to have a look around the monastery itself before it got dark. View from our balcony below…
It’s a beautiful place set in the wooded valley and all the pictures we took just don’t do it justice. We were, however, rather glad that we were there out of season as we expect that it is mobbed during the summer. By the time we’d finished looking around it was incredibly peaceful and we were just about the only people there except a few priests and security guards!
We opted to eat out in a place right next to our hotel and had expected it to be overpriced touristy fare, but were pleasantly surprised that the food was very good and not overly expensive. We were back in our room early, as we were both pretty shattered from the monster climb…dreaming of how easy the way down would be!!
Monday morning, we had one final look around the monastery before the other tourists arrived, filled up with water from one of the abundant springs and set off. I’m guessing that the temperature when we left was about 3-4 degrees, and with our fast descent it was really cold, even wrapped up as we were. We stopped in the village of Rila for a coffee to warm up, but to be honest it didn’t work. We even resorted to running warm water on our hands to defrost them, but that was short-lived. So we headed off again, this time towards Stob’s Pyramids. We’d seen the sign to these on the way up and decided to check them out and were glad that we did. We were dreaming of a climb (doesn’t happen very often) to warm us up and miraculously there was a short one through the village of Stob itself. So so when we got to the start of the walk to the Pyramids we were warm again!
Stob’s Pyramids are rock and sand formations created by wind, rain and snow and where the rock has been eroded, pyramids are left behind, some with rock ‘hats’ perched on the top. There are many myths surrounding these particular pyramids most of which centre on a wedding and the guests being turned to stone. For us it was a really nice diversion and we enjoyed not only the pyramids but also the views across the valley from the walk up and back.
We were then back on our bikes to Blagoevgrad where we stopped for lunch – not the most inspiring place, but we did find a nice spot near the river to eat. We then had the afternoon cycle on the road of doom….! It’s obvious from the map that there is one main route from Sofia to Thessaloniki and at some point we would have to go on it. We managed to stay off it until the last possible moment, but that still left us about 20km to Kresna which was our destination for the night. The traffic was quite heavy, but mainly the drivers were courteous. But it really wasn’t a particularly nice experience, which is a shame as the scenery was really spectacular. The Sturma River has carved out its path through the mountains with stunning results, but it’s just annoying that we couldn’t concentrate on the mountains when there was all that traffic around us.
One thing that did make us laugh out loud was that we met a guy on a horse and cart coming in the opposite direction…waving and shouting to us in a friendly way, completely oblivious to the chaos he was causing behind him with traffic building up. And it made us feel slightly better that we weren’t the only non-motorised vehicles on the road!!
We made it to destination in one piece! Kresna is basically a town that has probably sprung up because of the traffic going through it. Sounds bad, but actually it’s very nice as it’s surrouded by mountains and hills, and our accommodation is quite possibly the best value for money we have had yet. And a real bonus was that we were invited by Stoyan, our host, and his parents for a homemade dinner with the most amazing Bulgarian Mousakka (made with potatoes in Bulgaria rather than aubergine), homemade raikia and local wine.
Of course we embarrassed ourselves with the amount of food we ate, but we think Maria (who is actually a chef by profession) was very pleased that we enjoyed it so much!
We were also treated to freshly-baked banitsa for breakfast, which is a typical Bulgarian breakfast of delicious cheesy filo pastry. So fuelled up, we said goodbye to our amazing hosts and took a backroad out of Kresna to keep off the main road. This worked really well as we had nice cycling on almost empty roads all morning through rural villages. Spot the man in the distance leading his donkey along the middle of the road…
The view of the mountains was very murky, which was a shame, and at one point we thought it might rain, but we were lucky and managed to stay dry. The last 15km was a hilly grind up to Melnik, our stop for the day. There has been a definite change in the landscape and flora over the past few days. Gone are the lush forested hills we saw as far south as Rila and now the hills and mountains are covered with summer-baked grass and scrubby bushes; we’re definitely getting near to the Mediterranean.
Melnik is another very old Bulgarian town and another of their well-visited sites as it is of architecture and natural interest. It’s actually the size of a large village at best, but that doesn’t detract from its appeal as many of the buildings here are beautiful. The town is surrounded by more pyramids, a bit like the ones we saw in Stob only much bigger. After finding our accommodation and chilling for a bit we ventured out to have a look around. This took us to the top of the town where a path and 300 very steep steps took us to the top of one of the big pyramids right next to the back of the houses.
The view from the top is amazing! We looked out over loads of the pyramids which were half covered in trees, which in turn were all changing colour. In the background were enormous mountains giving the whole thing a stunning backdrop. We found a great spot to sit for about an hour to take it all in. Just amazing!
The pyramids are formed in the same ways as those at Stob, but they are much bigger. If I lived in the town I think that I’d be worried that any rainstorm could cause one of the pyramids to wash away and crush my house as they are that close.
By the time we’d come back down into the town …all 300 steps later…
and had a bit of a wander around it was dinner time, so we found a suitable restaurant and had yet another great Bulgarian meal. Being out of season we had the place almost to ourselves and apparently had the choice of 20 different restaurants – well it is quite touristy here!
The one thing that we would say about Melnik is that it is promoted mainly on the town, but from what we saw we think that the marketing focus should be on the pyramids, as they really are amazing to see from the top of the hill – not in the town.