After an approximately ten-hour journey (thanks to Ryanair’s complimentary 3-hour pre-flight lock-in) I arrived in Bulgaria. Having never been before, and not really knowing much at all about the country or the culture, I was somewhat apprehensive. It was late at night, I still had to get to my Airbnb and loaded up as I was with camping gear, I didn’t exactly fit in. Almost immediately, a friendly Bulgarian lady who joined me at the taxi rank made me welcome. She told me about the local invention of ‘sideways queueing’ (which I’m still trying to work out), and that I was best off callously bagging the first cab I set my eyes on…which I promptly did. I like the way Bulgarians do things. There’s no faffing around like there is in the UK. In the morning the bus driver sorted out my ticket and closed the doors whilst bombing down the busiest road in Sofia, and I’ve never seen drivers make such good use of space before.
By 1130, I was out of the city and climbing up the steep slope into the forest. Within minutes I was sweating out, but if felt so good to be on the trail, and alone at last. Despite the many beautiful interactions you have with people either hiking or just in travel mode, there is nothing quite like the solitude of the mountain, especially in the shade of a forest on a sunny, silent day. As the hours crawled by, I made my way slowly up the side of Vitosha Mountain, which constitutes the majority of Torfeno Branishte National Park, a forest reserve to the south of the city. It was easy to forget I was just a few miles from the country’s capital. Despite the good weather, there was no-one around and very few signs of the human touch. I could have been way out.
The path wound ever upwards, at times steep, at others snaking along a contour line, always beautiful. I would get glimpses of the city or surrounding mountain range through the tree line, and streams frequently undercut the path. Butterflies, bees, beetles and birds filled the air with their various sounds, and the wind dragged itself through the canopy above. I wandered through dense forest, open meadows bursting with a variety of flowers, along wide paths and through heavily overgrown tracks. A constant feature of the ascent (that I later learnt is an ancient Bulgarian tradition) was piles of rocks balanced expertly on top of each other, at seemingly impossible angles. A small, pointed boulder would be resting on its sharp end on top of a flat slab, itself supported by smaller pebbles and another layer of stones beneath. I actually came across the man responsible for many of the structures: a topless, tanned 60-something year-old who had sped past me a couple of hours further down the trail. He spoke a little English and we managed to chat about the tranquillity of the mountain and how he had been looking after the balancing stones for many years.
Throughout the whole day of walking, only about five or six people crossed my path, but all of them were very friendly locals who were enthused at my visiting their mountain. Their excitement at sharing the abundant beauty was touching, and it confirmed my previous suspicions that most people that love mountains tend to do a better job of loving other people too. At last, with a view over and beyond Sofia and the brooding ridges, I found a place to sleep for the night. Striking directly into the woods away from the path was tricky given the steepness of the slope upon which I found myself, and there was plenty of thick pine forest to wriggle through. Eventually I found a flat spot near a stream with a big rock that would serve as a fireplace, and made camp.
At this point I felt so settled into the trip that I wished it to be longer. Being on a mountain, sat next to a fire, submerged in the sounds of birds, running water and wind…I don’t know about anyone else but that sounds like a good life to me. I spent that night huddled in front of the fire in a virtually meditative state, before collapsing into my bed, made soft by the wet, peaty ground beneath the tent.
The next day brought me up to the 2,200 meters of Vitosha Mountain’s highest peak, known as Cherni Vrah (the Black Top). Blinded by clouds and at a crossroads near to the top, I met a guy from Sofia called Peter who climbs the mountain every single day! He guided me to Cherni Vrah over a field of ice and huge boulders. Beneath, rivers of meltwater coursed their way to the valley, but apart from this sound, it was wonderfully silent.
Keen to show me the local features, Peter lead me on to Kamen Del, the next highest peak (which stands at around 1,900 meters). This one was totally covered in boulders and loose rock, but the view of Sofia was exceptional. It was a clear afternoon, and the city lay spread directly below us. Peter showed me the main attractions in the city, where he lived, the point at which I had entered the forest, and some of the mountains to the north, which brooded mysteriously in the distance.
At this point, he left me to go home, and I continued westwards towards the river and the waterfall. I went considerably off-road, which was a bit of a double-edged sword. The hectic variety of plants increased massively, and the feeling of striking out was rewarding, but it was extremely slow-going. After an hour so of clambering up an overgrown hill and down into the woods on the other side (which was breathtakingly green and untouched), I popped out onto the old road I had been making for and started following it down to the river.
That night my perch was on an even steeper incline than the previous one, but I had the soothing sound of rushing water over rocks to lull me quickly to sleep. Being nestled into the side of a mountain, almost clinging to the flat patch was weirdly comforting, and I felt protected, hidden.
In the morning, instead of re-joining the path and shortcutting it to the main falls (Boyana Waterfall), I decided to stick with the off-roading, and simply followed the river down the mountain. Edging over rocks, crossing the water countless time, ducking under trees and refilling my reservoirs directly from the flow dragged me back to some imagined, prehistoric times when all humans were ultra-capable survival machines, forever equipped with the knowledge and skills for the infinite tasks at hand. It was a good feeling, however imagined.
It is an interesting trait of humans to revert to the past in order to discover some trove of meaning, that can then be used to reinvigorate their own lives. I think this definitely what I am doing when I go into Nature for any period of time. Personally, it seems that the hunter-gathering, pre-agricultural human was the apogee, the fullest iteration of what a human can be. The work-play balance appears to have been refined, communities were no larger than each individual’s brain could handle, and there would have always been something to do. I’m under no illusion that life was perfect, but there seems to be some core aspect to our idea of the hunter-gatherer that is firmer, more energised, and freer in some indefinable way. No one has ever known the freedoms enjoyed by members of a rich, modern society such as our own, and yet there is something subtly restricting about these freedoms and the expectations they bring along with them.