September 6 - September 17
Russian Church, Sofia
Leaving Tirana, the capital of Albania, I embarked on a bus journey that led to Skopje (Macedonia) and I quickly transitioned onto another bus, whisking me away to Sofia, Bulgaria's dynamic capital.
The initial three days of my stay were dedicated to immersing myself in this cool cosmopolitan city. As I wandered through its streets, I was impressed at the mix of aging communist-era structures against the backdrop of globally recognized icons like Starbucks and McDonald's. Young, artistic souls roamed the streets, sharing space with enthusiastic university students, creating an atmosphere full of youthful energy. At the same time, elderly locals sold traditional medicinal herbs, serving as a reminder of Bulgaria's difficult past.
What made Sofia even more enchanting was the gradual shift in weather. The summer heat began to ease, paving the way for a more temperate autumn climate. Cloudy skies and refreshing rain showers offered a respite from the scorching sun that had accompanied me the last two months. In this blend of culture, architecture, and climate, Sofia left a positive mark on this trip, making it a memorable stop in my Balkan adventure.
Taking a train to Plovdiv was a birthday adventure I hadn't initially anticipated, but the recommendations from fellow travelers, online blogs, and guidebooks ultimately swayed my decision. The city has been habited for over 8 millennia and the Romans built an entire city where coliseums, forums, theaters and more can still be seen today. Again, the mix of Roman, communist and modern buildings was very impressive.
There are many things that I really enjoyed when travelling, but epic train journeys covering off the beaten path destinations are one of my favourites. Add to this some world class (and strenuous) hiking to remote national parks and you have the combination of a perfect trip! I took the train from Plovdiv to Septiembri and the narrow gauge train from Septiembri to Bansko where I went hiking for 3 days in Pirin National Park.
Pirin National Park is a rugged, untamed wilderness. Its towering peaks (2500m to 2950m), crystal-clear lakes, and age-old forests were simply amazing. The park boasts an array of plant and animal species (I was able to see the Chamois mountain goat). It was mid September, so there were very few trekkers navigating the park's trails.
I stayed in mountain huts and they were very conformable.
Peaks conquered on this hike: Vazela (2620m), Opreno (2655m), Golyam Tipik (2654m), Tipik (2655m), Prevalski chukar (2608m) and Momini dvori (2722m)
From Bansko I took several buses to get to Rila Monastery where I spent a night. The monastery has basic rooms (inside the monastery) and the doors to the outside world close at 7pm, giving you an authentic monastery life experience. This is one of the most visited tourist sites in Bulgaria, so sleeping there allows you to have the entire monastery to yourself and you can avoid big tour groups visiting the site. After Rila monastery, I came back to Sofia for a few nights and took a plane to Yerevan, Armenia.