Bulgaria with the highest mountains in the Balkans

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Bulgaria with the highest mountains in the Balkans

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Bulgaria with the highest mountains in the Balkans

On the way: Bulgaria
The highest mountains of the Balkans as a travel destination

Bulgaria does not only mean a transit country or cheap bathing holidays on the Black Sea. The young EU member has much more to offer, such as the highest mountains in the Balkans with exciting trails and the fairytale Rila monastery.

Markus Biebricher, Joachim Deleker


Photos can be powerful, dangerous, yet enticing. Those infected with wanderlust know it: when leafing through a magazine you come across a captivating picture completely unprepared and you know immediately – no matter where it is, I want to go. It was the same with Bulgaria as a travel destination, as I have never felt the urge to go there. But then, while browsing through a MOTORRAD from 1997, I was surprised by a Josef Seitz picture of the Rila monastery: mysterious, fairytale-like, tempting. I immediately put this monastery on my “must-go-list”. 13 years later I’m finally here.

But one after anonther. Robert and I come from the south, swapping our Greek illiteracy for Bulgarian. In Greece we mostly found bilingual signs, and occasionally we were even able to communicate in English or German. That is now over on this side of the border. We only understand the train station and can no longer read anything. Cyrillic. After all, we manage to order, coffee and in a cafe
Cola are understandable internationally. Surprisingly, the pretty waitress – the opposite of the masculine, whiskered Bulgarian weightlifters of the 80s – brings us each a glass filled with a lukewarm mix of coffee and cola. Yuck!

So doped we look for the distance and find it at the exit of Simitli. We leave the truck-contaminated E 79, and immediately calm returns. The 19 climbs in wide radii up to the 1140 meter high Predenpass and straight back down into the Mestatal. There is hardly any traffic, now and then an old Lada hisses by, Wartburgs and Trabbis are reminiscent of the socialist times. We encounter horse and donkey carts much more often. People hunched over to work in fields, others hammer flat white stones and pile them on the side of the road, friendly old women sell homemade jam and honey. The EU’s windfall has not yet arrived. Nevertheless, none of this seems poor, rather original and genuine.

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The places like Razlog, Dobrinište or Goce Dolčev have hardly any attractions to offer, mostly consist of sober functional buildings and a mosque, but are clean and tidy. But the landscape trumps big. The snow-covered mountains of the Pirin Mountains rise up to 2915 meters.

We let ourselves drift on this wonderful spring and television day. The single-cylinder chug along the still flawless road at a comfortable speed. But that changes after Dospat, where we turn north on 37. A tar tape repaired 1000 times, holes in refrigerator format, sand, stones, a single slalom course. Fun at first, but annoying over time. It goes higher and higher through dense spruce and pine forests, past countless lakes and ponds. Looks like in central Sweden. And it’s just as cold as there, we’re moving beyond the 1200 meter mark.

But there is still more. After Jundola we take the single-lane road up to the Belmeken reservoir in our sights. The dense coniferous forest prevents any prospect until it suddenly releases us onto a barren plateau that appears subarctic. Another world. The first crocuses are sprouting on the gray-brown meadows, and meter-high walls of snow narrow the road. It’s mid-May, but the winters in Bulgaria’s mountains are long and harsh. Far to the south rise the white Pirin Mountains, a sublime, deserted and wild landscape. If only it wasn’t so cold, here at an altitude of 2000 meters.

Fortunately, it is only 20 kilometers to the warm spring of the Marica Valley. The young river, which is still very much alive here, has a long journey to Turkey, where it flows into the Aegean Sea. The Marica rises on the highest mountain in Bulgaria, the 2925 meter high Musala in the Rila Mountains.

Bulgaria with the highest mountains in the Balkans


Typical: women on the side of the road selling homemade honey and jam for sale.

The road from Sapareva Banja to Govedarci promises promising encounters with these rugged, almost three-thousand-meter peaks. What looks simple on the map turns into a borderline enduro adventure. First the harmless tar road climbs uphill in endless curves in the beech forest, then ends at a ski station. In response to our question “Govedarci?”, A friendly man clearly points to a good slope. All right, the direction is right. It goes further up. The puddles, initially funny, gradually grow into a lake plateau, fed by melting snow residue.

Another ski station. “Govedarci?” This way. The first snowfields want to be crossed. The slope forks, there are no signs. A Lada Niva with two rangers from the national park comes towards us. “Govedarci?” “No problem, right and then straight ahead.”

The track becomes more difficult, mud, branches, stones, gullies, heels, not exactly the dream terrain for a fully loaded Tourance-tyred Tenere. Not funny anymore.

We slide and dig further and are rewarded, reach a high plateau, covered with yellow grass and blessed with a great view of the mighty, white Rila Mountains, the highest mountains in the Balkans. Simply terrific. 

Our slope quadruples, ends three times as a dead end. Suddenly we hear single-cylinder thumping. A mirage? Not at all, two local enduro riders storm the plateau with the WR 450 and EXC 525 and stop in astonishment. Compared to their potent off-road speedsters, our so-called enduros look like a moving company. “Govedarci?” “No problem, just follow us.” Which is where the problems begin. Traces in the grass, a piece of piste through a muddy ravine, then a greasy steep descent, for us the point of no return. So what else? It gets more and more violent, steep, grooved, deepest grooves, where both aluminum boxes scratch furrows in the side walls, the tires usually struggle in vain for grip. We sweat, swear, doubt and hope for a sensible forest path. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, we plop down one last steep descent directly onto a real existing slope. Done! Take a deep breath and sincerely thank the two colleagues, who grin meaningfully, turn around and lightly pound up the steep slope again.

Govedarci? Oh yes, there are only a few relaxed kilometers to the luxury of a 25-euro hotel, where we are welcomed in a friendly manner despite our dubious aardvark appearance.

The sun throws us out of bed early. We circle the Rila Mountains, sniff the summery 26 degrees in the Struma valley and then climb back into the mountains to the Rila Monastery. From the outside inconspicuous, forbidding and defiant, another world, another age opens up after the brightly painted entrance gate. The chin folds down in amazement. What a mystical and quiet atmosphere, especially when the tourists are gone later.

In the center of the large inner courtyard, surrounded by three-story arcades, is the monastery church, striped across black, white and red, with five colorful towers, decorated with masterful carvings, frescoes and paintings. A black-clad, bearded monk leaves the church and appears to be floating over the pavement. If he didn’t have his cell phone to his ear, the picture could be centuries old. The Rila Monastery still looks like the photo in the old MOTORRAD: tempting, magical, mysterious. It’s good we’re finally here.


Bulgaria with the highest mountains in the Balkans


Travel time: 5 days, distance covered: 1200 km.

Bulgaria is not exactly one of the top destinations for motorcyclists. Why actually? Anyone who likes mountains, solitude and pristine life and is curious about new horizons will find everything in the southwest of the small country.

Getting there:
From Cologne to the Rila monastery there is a total of 2000 kilometers. The direct south-east course goes via Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Graz, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia. It is less stressful and more convenient to cover part of the route with the DB Autozug, which runs weekly from various German train stations to Villach or Trieste. That saves about 1000 kilometers of traveling on your own two wheels. For example, a one-way trip from Dusseldorf costs 186, 266 or 306 euros per person and motorcycle, depending on the season. Information by phone 0 18 05/99 66 33 or at www.dbautozug.de.

Travel time:
In the mountains of the Balkans, the winters are long and harsh. Spring does not come until May and the mountain roads are cleared. In midsummer it can get 35 to 40 degrees inland. The best months to travel are therefore May, June, September and October.

The situation has noticeably improved since joining the EU on January 1, 2007. There are pensions and hotels in almost every town, and good double rooms are available for as little as 20 euros. Spontaneous room searches are usually unproblematic, except in the high season. Campsites are very rare. If you want to camp, just look for a place outside.

The currency of Bulgaria is the Lev, plural Leva (1 Lev = 0.51 Euro). The easiest way to exchange money is with an EC or credit card at machines that are available in all major towns. If there is any money left over, it is best to exchange it on site. In this country, hardly any bank exchanges leva back into euros. The price level in the country is well below that of Western Europe. An identity card and German vehicle documents are sufficient for entry.

The best travel guide for individualists is the “Bulgaria Handbook” from the Reise-Know-how publisher for 19.90 euros. The travel guide from Dorling Kindersley is also good for 20.90 euros. Much less informative are the small travel guides by Marco Polo (9.95 euros) and DuMont (12 euros). Also from the Verlag Reise-Know-how is the map of Bulgaria (8.90 euros) on a scale of 1: 400,000. Freytag’s map is not error-free on the same scale, but with a different map image & Berndt for 9.95 euros. To get in the mood at home, the DuMont Travel Guide Bulgaria is suitable for 8.50 euros.

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