Rather shockingly, given its long history, Brits of a certain age mostly first came across Bulgaria as the name of the wise old patriarch in Elizabeth Beresford’s 1970’s children’s stories about those early pioneers of recycling, the Wombles of Wimbledon Common. That’s not why we’re here though! I could pretend it’s part of this year’s theme of holidaying a little off the beaten track but, actually, it’s because Bulgaria is one of the two EU countries Martyn hadn’t yet visited. We settled on a balance of town and mountains and, although it’s late in the year for plants, there is still plenty of interest to see. We started off in the Rila mountains, a couple of hours south of the capital, Sofia, in a guest house just down the road from the famous Rila (or Rilski) monastery, established in the 10th Century by St Ivan of Rila but rebuilt in its current incarnation in the mid 19th Century as, part of the ‘National Revival’.
Rila monastery – Church of the Nativity and a fresco from one of the porch domes
Over the centuries Rila functioned as a centre for the Orthodox Church and sponsored and supported many other, smaller, monasteries and taught those who went on to be important leaders and teachers. Our main reason for being in Rila, though, was to explore a little of the beautiful National Park. The lower levels of the Rila monastery forest reserve consist largely of mixed beech and conifer woodland – an unusual combination in the UK, which makes for pleasant, shady walking conditions in the late August heat.
Our route up the Rilska river to the Kirilova meadow took us though this woodland, as well as through more open meadow land, dotted with apricot and plum trees for tasty snacks. It was good to see the hay cut in patches, leaving plenty of flowers still setting seed. I’m not sure whether this is being ‘managed in the traditional style for biodiversity reasons’ or just being managed the way it always has been.
Whatever the reason, the results are good, with abundant butterflies and other insects.
We are glad to see no sign of the bears which signs warn about, though, especially when scrabbling around on an area of old rockfall which looks to have plenty of suitable nooks and crannies.
The mountains themselves are made of the oldest rocks in the region – mainly granite and metamorphic schists and gneiss – which were shaped by glaciation after being uplifted much later. The result is jagged peaks, deep valleys and scattered lakes of glacial origin. The scenery around the Kirilova meadows reminded me a lot of the scenery around Sonamarg in Kashmir (see Thajiwas revisited).
The way-marking of trails is a little haphazard and not helped by our inability to read the Cyrillic on maps so we followed a track up onto the mountainside hoping it would lead us to the chapel sited where St Ivan, the founder of Rila monastery, spent much of his life as a hermit. We found a chapel (though not the one we’d been looking for!) but also more interesting woodland plants – purple Allium carinatum, beautiful, blue Willow gentian, Gentiana asclepiade and my first wild Autumn crocus.
Left to right: Allium carinatum, Autumn crocus and Gentiana asclepiade
On our way back down through the woods we saw a sponge-like coral fungus growing on the woodland floor on fallen needles – another first for me.
Next we are off to the Pirin mountains, a little further south….