Vitosha Mountain offers a respite and that "wild outdoors" feeling in spite of the fact that it’s only a stone’s throw from the capital. The national park, the first in the Balkan peninsula, has an enormous potential for year round sports and recreation with its beautiful mixture of alpine and continental flora and fauna as well as its remoteness, beauty and tranquility.
You don’t have to be an expert in climbing to enjoy the riches of the mountain. You just need a fair dose of common sense and suitable equipment. You should also come prepared for any eventuality because you should never take your surroundings and the mountain in particular for granted. The weather up there changes constantly, so never rely fully on TV weather forecasts. Winter or thick clothing in the summer is absolutely essential.
You would be very foolish to think "hell, it’s a sunny warm day, I’m only taking a shirt up there". Solid and comfortable shoes, spare t-shirts and socks, a survival knife and a survival kit as well as a first aid kit go a long way. Some climbers think they are superfluous. I personally would rather carry 10kg extra kit in my Bergen but know that I’m prepared should things turn hairy.
The routes up and around Vitosha are countless. One way to traverse the entire range would be to take tram number five to Kniazhevo borough. Then head into the thick pine and fir forest and push yourself up the mountain. An average hike would take you along the yellow-white marking path up to White Water (Bialata Voda) and to Zlatnite Mostove (Golden Bridges) – a mesmerising stone river of epic proportions).
The hike should take two hours and 20 minutes. You can recharge your batteries at the Elenite (the Deers) lodge and then carry on to Momina Skala (Maiden’s Rock), another 35 minutes’ hiking.
Momina Skala lies on an expansive meadow, surrounded by thick forest, flanked on either side by the Momina Skala lodge and restaurant where you can find a cheap room or enjoy a drink and sample some hot and fresh home-made mountaineering food. You will be greeted by Bobby, the lady running the lodge – a strong, cheerful, no-nonsense Bulgarian woman, born in Sofia, who has made Vitosha her home.*
From Momina Skala, the trail leading to the summit of Kamen Del (Stone Divide) entails one hour and 45 minutes of climbing at a reasonable pace. The scenery is beautiful, the path twisting through the pine forest, crossing small rivers and meadows and snaking itself all the way along the ridge. About 400m below the summit the forest gives way to windswept grasslands and scattered rock formations and stone rivers where the sub-alpine line retreats. Keep following the winter marking - three-metre tall poles painted in black and yellow - until you reach the mountain’s col. There you will see the two twin summits, Ushite (The Ears to the right, and Kemendel to the left).
Climb to the top of Kamendel, nearly 1900m above sea level, and you will find an eye-watering sight. The entire city of Sofia, most of the Sofia valley, Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountain range) as well as the Rila Mountain range and Musala summit - the highest mountain in southeastern Europe - are all visible from there. The summit itself requires a little more caution and, at times, technical climbing because it’s showered with massive boulders, some of them the size of a delivery van.
Another route to the Kamendel summit, and the most arduous one, is from Dragalevtsi, a mountain path that would require the scaling of the peak through the entire stone river. The climb is technical but not impossible. Should you attempt that route in the summer, however, beware of Pepelianka (a poisonous snake in Bulgaria) as they seem to love that particular region of Vitosha.
From Kamendel, proceed to the Plateau (Platoto), a reservation with rare plants and birds. Traversing through the Plateau requires two hours’ walking, while the towering summits of Kamendel and Ushite behind, Skopernik, Laleto and, of course, Cherni Vruh (Black Peak), Vitosha’s pride at 2290m elevation, surround you everywhere.
Vitosha has made history in Southeastern Europe.
At a time when nature conservation ideas were unheard of, some enlightened noblemen took the first step in 1934 by declaring 66 sq km of Vitosha a national park, hence Vitosha became the first park of its kind in the Balkans. The following year, some of the early Bulgarian reserves, Bistrishko Branishte (subsequently expanded to 10.61 sq km) and Torfeno Branishte 7.84 sq km respectively, were defined within its boundaries. The park boundaries fluctuated over many years and today it encompasses the entire mountain, an area of 266.06 sq m.
Torfeno Branishte was created in 1935 to preserve the pristine turf communities in the sub-alpine zone of Vitosha, with hundreds of moss and algae species. The turf surface is 0.6 to 2m thick, increasing by one mm annually. The territory is virtually treeless, with some scrub communities such as sallow, juniper and blueberry, and occasional mountain pine.
For hikers and mountain climbers, however, access to the reserve is strictly forbidden because, along with its conservation status, Torfeno Branishte is a reserve for fresh drinking water. In fact, some years ago I was told by mountain climbers that there were signs along the fences that read "Strelia se pez predoprejdenie", meaning "trespassers will be shot without warning". I haven’t seen seen such signs, but I have seen "trespassing is strictly forbidden".
Due to great differences in elevation, a rich diversity of climates and flora and fauna can be found within the park. Research has revealed that on the comparatively small area of the mountain lie 1500 species of higher plants, 500 species of fungi, 500 of algae, 326 different mosses and 200 of lichens. Among these, 31 species are Balkan endemics and 52 species are included in the Red Book of Bulgaria.
The forests are composed mainly of Norway Spruce and Bulgarian Fir, with some Macedonian Pine, Scots Pine, and at the tree-line, Mountain Pine, and mixed deciduous forest at lower altitudes, mainly beech, birch, aspen and alder.
While on the Plateau, or the Torfeno branishte, make sure to follow the tourist path and the vertical marking. Straying away from the path is strictly forbidden so as to protect the rare plant and animal life. Merely walking along a vast, levelled meadow, at 1800m elevation, however, is simply breathtaking.
Once you leave most of the Plateau behind, you will find yourself before a junction. You can either decide to turn right and attempt summiting Cherni Vruh, or, if completely exhausted, you may want to descend to Aleko complex to recuperate and spend the night in the Aleko Hotel.
Summiting Cherni Vruh from Aleko requires two hours via a tourist path that is well maintained with vertical and horizontal markings in Bulgarian and English. Once at the summit, you will see the meteorological stations, the Mountain Rescue Service and Mountain Red Cross base, as well as the lodge where you can sample hot tea and food. The descent from the top can take a climber in several directions.
Heading south/southwest, three-and-a-half hours on the descent is a cave complex called the Zhivata Voda (Living Water) and a further one hour to the south, Duhlata, a significantly larger cave complex with an expansive labyrinth. Only venture in there if you are well kitted out, you know your onions and/or you are with a guide. As a person who has only marginal caving experience, I am in no position to offer any incisive advise, apart from the obvious: always leave marking on the forks. Take ropes, head torches, spare boots, waterproof clothing and food and water.
Above all, never attempt to enter a cave during, after or before rainfall – flash floods can kill you. Only attempt to do so if you know it hasn’t rained for a week and it’s unlikely to do so while you’re inside.
When on any mountain it’s essential to have a map, compass and a GPS because although the paths are well maintained, in the summer thick fog can often descend without warning. In any case, good preparation can’t go amiss, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. If a thick fog descends and catches you up in the mountain the best alternative is to dig in, huddle up and wait for it to pass. Avoid walking around blind. Apart from adequate food supply, peanuts and chocolate are essential because they are an instant energy bomb.
Taking a transistor is also fun because there is radio coverage everywhere and you may want to listen to music while climbing. Alternatively, just immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the mountain. Remember to hydrate; always carry sufficient amount of water, although with a little knowledge you can easily find water in the Bulgarian mountains. In any case, the more time you spend up on a mountain, the more comfortable you will be.
You will soon learn how to forage for food and gather water should you find yourself in an extreme situation. You would do well to invest 12 euro in buying the Art of Survival book, written by a former SAS soldier. Always carry it with you in your Bergen. Whenever you sit by the midnight camp fire, drinking with friends and immersing yourself in the pleasure of the night sky at 2000m, it’s always good to spend half an hour reading and collecting useful tips from trained and experienced professionals.
The descent from Cherni Vruh to Dragalevtsi borough would require up to six hours at a regular pace. You may head east, past the NSA base (National Sports Academy), two hours from the summit and head down to Zheleznitsa village on the eastern side of the range towards Pancharevo lake. To reach Zheleznitsa, you will need more than five hours.
One popular and relatively accessible location (visible from Sofia as a silver streak) is the Boyana waterfall.
A secluded spot, enveloped in thick pine and fir vegetation and flanked by 60m vertical cliffs, the waterfall on the slope of Vitosha Mountain above the borough of Boyana is particularly beautiful. It’s an excellent place for a day’s walk or picnic with your girlfriend, wife, family and kids, with the water falling vertically from 30 or so metres. It’s at its most dramatic in late April when the snow is melting and the rivers swell, making the waterfall thunderous and audible for miles.
However, the Boyana River flows year-round, so whenever you decide to visit the location, you are bound to see it. You could have a refreshing dip in the pond immediately before the fall and just soak in the atmosphere. It’s accessible either from Momina Skala, which would necessitate a 35-minute descent, (make sure your footwear is up to the task because the descent is steep and at times slippery), or you may want to climb it from the borough of Boyana. This would entail a hike of about 90 minutes. Once again, be careful because the path is narrow and the slope steep.
Whatever starting point you take, Zheleznitsa, Kniajevo, Dragalevtsi, Simeonovo, Boyana or elsewhere, you are bound to experience a day of relaxation, fitness, clean air and beauty.
* For Momina Skala, you may dial 02/975 12 25 or mobile 088630 54 24.
Clean rooms, with external hot shower and toilets, will set you back 14 leva. Ask for Grisha or Bobby. Facilities are not the most modern, but excellent for the mountain and the hospitality is up to scratch. Alternatively, try Kopitoto hotel (the large hotel visible from Sofia beside the TV Tower situated on the mountain), substantially more luxurious, tel: 02/857 00 00, or Tihiat Kut (Tranquility) at Zlatni Mostove,
tel: 02/857 33 63, 0888 813 429