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Cravings for Nature - Rila National Park

Besides, being homesick, all this Covid-19 situation gives me a major desire to spend as much time outdoors as possible. And while we are already gradually finding our way to the "new normal" kind of life, traveling still seems a bit far away. So, in order for me to feel back home for a minute, even if it's only virtually, here I am, sharing with you a dreamy weekend I spent in Bulgaria (back in September), surrounded by the magnificent scenery of Rila National Park, in the Southern part of the country.

Rila National Park is the largest one in Bulgaria and Rila Mountain is the highest one in the Eastern Balkans (with its highest peak Mount Musalá). The name Rila comes from the Thracian word "rula", which means "abundance of water", as the mountain is a source of several Balkan rivers. It is also home to more than 57 endemic plants and its dense forests are home to bears, wolves, boars and Balkan chamois to name a few.

We rented a car and drove from Sofia to Sapareva Banya (around 1h drive), that we used as a base to explore around. The city is quite small (around 5000 people) and is a famous destination within Bulgarians for its hot mineral springs (103 C*). As we arrived quite early in the morning, after an express check into the hotel and a short power nap, we went up in the mountain. The main reason for this short getaway was to hike around the Seven RIla Lakes - a group of glacier lakes, located at ascending levels high in the mountain - between 2095 m and 2535 m. Luckily, unlike what I've read on the net, the lift from the parking lot to the hut where the hiking trail starts was working. The trail is circular, so there is not much of a difference which way you will start. Though we opted to start going down by the hut and then slowly start climbing around the lakes.

Each lake has its name, associated with its most characteristic feature - the one located the lowest, by the hut is the "Lower Lake", while the shallowest one is the "Fish Lake". Follows the "Trefoil" with its irregular shape and low shore and next comes the largest one in the area - the "Twin". The "Kidney" has the steepest shores, the "Eye" is the deepest (37.5m) and the "Tear" has the most crystal clear water. The last one is also the highest one at 2535 meters.

In order to have a panoramic view of all the lakes together, we went even higher. The hike from the "Tear" lake to the summit was around half an hour up the hill and believe me, the view is so rewarding. The total duration of our walk around the lakes, starting at the hut and getting back there was around 6 hours, so start as early as possible and make it an all-day activity. Time passes so fast when we're surrounded by such a beautiful and peaceful scenery. 

The best time to visit the Seven RIla Lakes is usually in the summer - from late June to mid September, as the lakes usually freeze in winter and due to the altitude, weather conditions may change fast and unexpected. We were very lucky with the weather, as we went already in the second half of September and had a very short window to visit the lakes.

Our second day in the area was cold and rainy, so we decided to stay in and enjoy the hotel and its facilities (the Spa center was amazing and food in the restaurant was so delicious). Prices in Bulgaria are much more cost friendly than in other European countries, so it is always a good idea to invest in experiences here.

Before heading back to Sofia we chose to visit two more amazing sites in the area - the Stob Earth Pyramids and the Rila Monastery. Both are located very close to each other, which is very convenient. 

First, we stopped at the less known Stob Earth Pyramids, located near by Stob village at an altitude between 600 m and 750 m. These are rock formations, created by the erosion due to rainfall. Their shape varies from sharp to mushroom-like and can reach up to 12 m height. Some groups of these formations have been named and it is always fun trying to recognise them - the Wedding Couple, the Hammers, the Brothers, the Towers, etc. The entrance fee was just 1 euro and the hike to the highest viewpoint was not more than 20 minutes. 

The Rila Monastery is for sure one of Bulgarian tourism trademarks. It is nestled in the lush mountain forest at 1300 meters altitude, protected by fortress-like 20 m high walls. Established in the 10th century, by hermit St. Ivan of Rila, it is a great example of Bulgarian Revival architecture. Devastated by a fire in 1833, the monastery was rebuilt with fundings from wealthy Bulgarians - during the Ottoman rule the Orthodox church paid a crucial role in cultivating national pride and maintaining the hope of liberation.

In the middle of the courtyard is the largest monastery church in Bulgaria - the Church of Nativity. Both inside and outside, at the arcades, its extraordinary murals represent characters and episodes from the Bible. The iconostasis is 10 meters wide, created between 1839 and 1842 by masters woodcarvers. It is covered in gold leaf and elaborately decorated with complex carvings of symbolic human and animal images and floral elements.

Go around and experience the energy of this place, so special to all Bulgarians. You can visit the Treasury Museum, the Old Kitchen and Hrelyo's Tower - the oldest standing building in the monastery complex (built in 1334). A mandatory thing to do while here is to eat a "mekitsa" - a traditional fried dough, usually eaten with either Bulgarian white cheese or jam for breakfast. Here it is served with just sugar, but is still so so good. Yumm! (If you've ever been to the Azores or Hawaii and have tried "malassada" - this is strangely very similar).

On our way back to Sofia we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant by the road, called "Gorhim". If you're hungry for some traditional Bulgarian dishes, highly recommend it.

To me, as a Bulgarian, is always an amazing experience to explore more of my homeland when I go back. And as I said, I can't wait until we're able to travel again, so I can hop on a plane and revisit more places I haven't been to in years. And check some new ones, of course. As we Bulgarians say "Get to know your motherland, so you can fall in love with it". So far, I've seen quite a lot of it and do love it, but is that love ever enough...? 


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