Upon arrival in Sofia, our friendly hostel workers gave us a map with suggestions of things to do. Top on the list: enjoy Vitosha Natural Park. Similarly, when we went on our walking tour of Sofia, one of the first things the guide said to us is that Vitosha is not to be missed–having a mountain peak that reaches 2290 meters just 30 minutes outside of the city makes Sofia unique to other Eastern European capitals. So we figured, this is a must do. A can’t miss. Today was the day we would hike Vitosha.
In our research, we discovered that Vitosha is a very popular weekend destination for both visitors and locals. There is actually a chair lift that takes guests part of the way to the top. There, ambitious visitors can hike to the top, or less adventurous types can connect to another chairlift which takes them to the peak. There is also a gondola that leaves from a separate town at the base and takes people all the way to the peak without any switching. We were so excited for all of these options–this way we could ride up and hike down (I know, we’re taking the easy way). Sadly, we learned that the chairlifts and gondola only run Friday to Sunday. Our stay in Sofia is Monday-Wednesday, so chairlifts are not an option for us. Damn.
Okay, we are young. We are healthy. We climbed Mt. Fuji, for god’s sake! We can hike up to the top, right? Of course. We set out on Tram #5 to the end of the line where “it’s very clear” how to hike up the mountain. When we arrived at our stop, we exited the train and were surrounded by a run-down park with stray dogs (of course), some locals hanging around, and a rickety set of steps which led further into the woods. After stopping for directions in a hotel whose stairs tried to permanently injure Phil, we trekked up the steps to begin our journey. These led to a set of paths up the mountain. Awesome. We were there. Except, there were at least 4 different paths. Time for a map. What? No maps in English, only Cyrillic, an alphabet we can’t read. Okay, that wasn’t going to stop us. Nobody really speaks English, but everyone we spoke to pointed up, smiled and said, “Vitosha”. So, we looked at each path and decided to follow the one that actually had another person on it.
So, here’s the thing: it was quiet. I mean, we didn’t see a single other hiker anywhere. And, we didn’t have a map. Though the trails were clearly laid out paths, they weren’t marked so we couldn’t be sure we were headed in the right direction, and more importantly, getting back down the same way might be tricky. And then there are the bears. In my reading before arrival in Bulgaria, I read that one of the wonderful things about this country is that its forests are still filled with natural elements like bears, lynxes and rare birds which other European countries are losing. Rare birds–awesome. Lynxes–uh, okay. Bears–no way! I’ve heard enough horror stories and been warned enough times about these dangerous creatures that I am really scared of bears. What are the odds we would run into one on this hike? I don’t honestly know–we weren’t exactly going into this exactly “well-researched”.
If there had been lots of other hikers around, I would have been fine. If we would have had a map, I would have been okay. If there were park rangers hanging about, I’d have felt confident. But we had none of these things, and pretty soon the random noises in the forest started to freak me out. So, I bailed. I told Phil that I really wasn’t comfortable doing this. For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I said I thought we should turn around and try something different. I felt kind of bad, but being the wonderful partner he is, Phil agreed instantly and understood my concerns. Great. Now, for plan B.
Coming up with a plan B required we find a little help either from friendly locals or from the internet. We spotted a hostel and figured they would be able and willing to help us on our journey. We climbed the stairs, found the receptionist and asked our usual first question, “Do you speak English?” She replied, “Deutsch.” Hmmm, we don’t speak German. We don’t really know any German at all (except for “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and we already had an answer for that). We were really wishing we had our German-speaking friend Drew to help us out at this moment. Luckily, she was nice enough to give us their WiFi password and let us sit on their steps and do a little research. After quite a bit of looking, we discovered there is a bus that takes people to the top of Vitosha! Awesome. All we had to do was go back into Sofia, catch the bus and the rest was a breeze.
Of course, things are never easy. We finally worked our way to the spot where the bus terminal was supposed to be only to find it wasn’t a bus terminal at all. It looked like it maybe used to be a bus terminal, but at this point it was just some bus stops and a turnaround that didn’t look to be in use any longer. When we asked the proprietor of a nearby pizza stand, he was able to point us in the right direction. After a little hunting (and asking for a little more help), we were able to find bus #64 heading to Vitosha. Awesome. This is the bus 3 different people (plus our online research) told us would take us to the top. We were on our way now. Nothing could stop us. But, just to be sure, when we got on the bus we asked the driver, “Vitosha?” He looked puzzled and shook his head. I tried again, but this time I also traced the shape of a mountain in the air with my finger and he said, “Da.” Great, two tickets please.
At this point, all we had to do was get off once we got to the top. We started picking up passengers and slowly climbing through the neighborhoods at the base of the forest. We didn’t really look like we were headed into the forest, more just an outer neighborhood of Sofia, but we figured as long as we were heading uphill, we were good to go. We passed some movie studios and a monastery. Soon thereafter, we definitely felt a shift in momentum as the bus started heading downhill. He was picking up speed by the second and it seemed forever until the next stop. At that point, we knew. Almost immediately we knew we weren’t going to make it. We would not see the top of Vitosha. Defeated and weary, we rode the bus back down to the last stop, got out in a neighborhood we did not recognize, and ate the lunch we had packed for our hike. It was over. It’s important to know when to call it quits. This was it for us. It was only 4pm, the day was not completely lost, but we were not going to spend any more time trying to reach the top of the elusive Vitosha.
The rest of the afternoon shaped up nicely with a few drinks to help ease our frustration, lots of productive planning and a lovely dinner of traditional Bulgarian food at Divaka. We felt a little better when we overheard a girl who is staying at our hostel tell someone on the phone that she, too, tried to get to the top of Vitosha today but after hours of walking, gave up. That’s something, I guess. As you can see, sometimes the attempt at a destination makes for a pretty good story alone. Besides, we win more than we lose, so days like these don’t really bother us when we have a comfortable bed, a delicious meal and an exciting tomorrow planned.