Dr. Heather Robinson: Bringing Bulgaria To Light
Just over a month ago, friends in the States were asking us where we were headed for the next few months. We told them our plans of climbing in Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
“Bulgaria? Huh…(long pause)… Interesting.” being the most common response.
I honestly had my doubts about Bulgaria, too. I knew nothing about the country, the people, the food, the culture, or the climbing except a few tidbits I had researched online. I had visions of a dark, damp, grey and solemn Balkan country.
But our friend and renowned climber Heidi Wirtz had presented the idea of exploring the sport climbing in Bulgaria. She was planning on writing an article for Climbing Magazine about the trip, and had connections with a local climber and photographer. With a little persuasion (it didn’t take much- we were excited about the adventure) Chris and I agreed to incorporate it into our European climbing plans.
And so we left the dreamy climbing destination of Rodellar, Spain, to head to the region of the unknown- Bulgaria.
On the plane of Bulgarian Air, Chris and I received our veggie meal option of a sandwich with white bread and cheese with one droopy slice of bell pepper smashed in between. We envisioned the local diet consisting of lots of meat, and maybe an occasional dish of stewed cabbage.
As vegetarians, we might be losing some weight real soon.
Arriving in Sofia, the capital and home to two million people, among the masses we were relieved to see the familiar smiling face of Heidi, and we were introduced to Rus Vakrilov, our local guide and photographer.
Rus’s soft spoken English was immaculate, and as we drove away from the big city we began shooting questions at him about the culture, the history, the climbing, the people, about himself, and the food. Regarding the food, Rus explained that yes, as we expected, the locals eat a lot of meat, but he is a vegetarian.
How did we get so lucky to have met a vegetarian Bulgarian that would be our guide for the entirety of our stay?
Rus quickly became known as “the man.” He did everything for us. He rented us a van from his friend in which he drove us everywhere, arranged our housing, planned our climbing schedule, took us to delicious local restaurants, communicated for us, and even showed us the best cheese, bread, and yogurt to buy from the market. Rus basically was like a dad to three American toddlers.
It was raining when we left the city but between the fog clouds I saw glimpses of deciduous trees in brilliant colors of autumn. The red, orange and gold-spattered hills surrounded us, with towering limestone cliff bands in between.
Our first destination was the small town of Vratsa, located about 100 km from Sofia in the Northwest region of Bulgaria. We arrived at our home for the next week: a cute little yellow rental house nestled between a sheep corral and homes with backyard chickens, donkeys and horses.
Our first climbing day was spent at Malkata Dupka, ”The Small Cave.” It’s a limestone sport area just a five-minute drive from our home with a ten-minute approach. The crag had about 40 routes, the best being the steep and juggy ones (in my opinion).
But there were also vertical, technical climbs. This was one of my favorite places, not just because of the four star climbs but for the whole package. Between the accessibility, the natural spring where you could fill up your water bottles, and the view of the village below us, The Small Cave was hard to beat.
To our surprise the weather turned unseasonably warm, and many of the crags in Vratsa were in the sun most of the day and would be too hot to climb. We spent a very warm day in Lakatnik, where the first sport climbing was established in Bulgaria, and half a day baking at Sinite Stegi, where a number of new routes have been recently established. Both are more vertical limestone crags with unique features like huecos and tufas respectively, and worth a trip on cooler days.
So to escape the heat (who would have thought we’d be too hot in Bulgaria in October?) we retreated to yet another cave — one that would immediately become my favorite: Karlukovo.
Karlukovo is nothing short of AMAZING! Approaching the cave it seems you are about to entire a cathedral. The blue and grey-streaked limestone rises on either side of the cave about a hundred feet until it forms a perfect arch seemingly man-made, with a ceiling complete with two “sky lights” which were circular cutouts in the rock to let light in to the cave. The climbing was spectacular, with perfect edges, flakes, and tufas just made to be climbed. Adding to the uniqueness of the climbing, you could hear the squeaking of bats behind the flakes you would grab. This definitely challenged my bat phobia, but luckily they were happy to sleep and not fly into my face or bite my fingers. We spent a few days here and each time the landscape left me in awe of its otherworldliness.
We had a few rest days in Vratsa and spent one day hiking to the Skaklya waterfall just a 90-minute hike out our front door.
The views were magnificent and the stair trails and bridges were pretty extreme. This would definitely never exist in the US (it’s not your grandma’s hiking trail) as it was super steep and slick in parts- quite the adventure hike!
After a week in Vratsa we moved to Teteven, a beautiful village where many Bulgarians come to enjoy the outdoors. Rus and his good friend Yavka (one of the nicest men on the planet), had arranged we all stay in an “adventure house.” We didn’t quite know what to expect, but we were all super impressed with our eclectic little home.
The house had electricity, but just a log burning stove for heat. We even had to heat water for a shower using a small, wood-fired stove under the water tank. There was an indoor and outdoor kitchen, and the owner had even left us apples and pears from her trees to eat during our stay. Heidi and I made a dish we called “Apple Awesomeness” a vegan apple crumble with oatmeal, cinnamon and honey- a delicious dessert and breakfast!
As for the climbing we spent one day at a crag called The Blue Wheel due to the circular nature of the limestone surrounding it, and another day at Ribaritsa, also limestone. Ribaritsa is home to one of the best 13bs I’ve ever been on, called King Kong. A beautiful tufa line, the climbing was incredibly sustained with an interesting crimpy boulder problem in between. We tried the route for the day and came close to sending, but the sun was out and our forearms were jelly. We’ll just have to go back!
After our week in Ribaritsa was up, we just weren’t ready to leave. We ended up staying in Bulgaria an extra two days to go bouldering in Rila Monastery with Rus and his friend Isel. Rila is the highest mountain range in the Balkans, with its granite cliffs towering over us in the boulder field below. The quality of the bouldering is incredible, and the problems are diverse in nature.
We even attempted a V7 crack system that was a little too high to top out for comfort, but a blast to try nonetheless.
Often the most memorable times of a climbing trip are not about the climbing at all. Apres climbing each evening we would all make shopska salad, one of the most popular dishes in Bulgaria consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and parsley drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. One night Rus surprised us with home made Tarator, a cold soup of cucumbers, dill, and yogurt which was refreshing and delicious. Another night we spent with Rus’ girlfriend, Neli, at her parent’s house in a tiny village where we feasted on lyunenitsa (a red pepper and spice spread) made by her brother, banitsa (a phyllo pastry with white cheese), shopska salad, and best of all- home made Rakia (a strong alcohol made with fermented quince – a fruit that looks a bit like a large pear). I may not remember the moves and the qualities of the routes I’ve done but I will always remember the down time in between climbing spent with good company.
From a rock climber’s perspective, our view inside Bulgaria was through a small window. The landscape is beautiful, the climbing is quality and picturesque, and the Bulgarian climbers were just like us- happy to be outdoors, environmentally-conscious, and obsessed about climbing.
In the big picture, however, it is said Bulgaria is the poorest country in the E.U. I couldn’t help looking out the car window and seeing the small towns of Bulgaria spattered with old abandoned and decomposing buildings, the residual effects of the post-Communist regime. Bulgaria had a tough time through the transition of Communism to capitalism, and to this day many of the people – particularly the elderly – feel Bulgaria was better off under Communist rule. Bulgaria’s government is one of the most corrupt, and the younger generation is fed up with its outright neglect, the economic decline, and rampant crime. The new generation has been protesting the government rule, and in fact there was even a riot at the university in Sofia while we were there, combating the mafia-like leaders. Interestingly, we saw very few young people, particularly in the small village regions. They are virtually all in Sofia or emigrating in search of a better life.
Bulgaria may be poor in terms of finances, but it is rich in its beauty and filled with kindness in the people that we met. Rus became so much more than “our dad” or “the man.” He became our dear friend and we can’t wait to repay him for his time and generosity by giving him the best tour of climbing in the US. Thank you to Rus and all our new friends for showing us around your incredible country!
Thanks for reading! Next adventure is Kalymnos, Greece!
Please check out Rus Vakrilov’s website. He is an amazing photographer and will get you psyched!
~ Dr. Heather Robinson, prAna Ambassador
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