Landing at the Sofia airport in the evening, I was greeted by my old flatmate Boyan, whom I had not seen in nearly two years. As with the rest of my old flat (which we generally refer to as C6, our block letter and flat number), it felt like old times immediately. Although I have seen almost all of my old flatmates already this summer, I am anxious to spend time with the whole group together again when I head back to England in October.
Boyan and I took one of Bulgaria’s extremely cheap taxis from the airport to his apartment, and hungry after a long day of travel, we ate the dinner his grandmother had sent for us – stuffed peppers, ripe and juicy tomatoes (Bulgaria has some of the best), beans, olives, feta cheese (another Bulgarian staple) and fresh peaches for dessert. We left his apartment to grab drinks and smoke hookah at a couple of outdoor bars before heading in for the night.
On Thursday morning, a taxi picked us up from the apartment and drove us an hour and a half to a ski lift headed up to the Seven Rila Lakes. As would become a pattern on any transportation in Bulgaria, I slept the entire ride there (regardless of my long legs being consistently cramped). The ski lift went so far up that it took probably 20 minutes to reach the lodge at the top.
Bulgaria’s Seven Rila Lakes are – you guessed it – seven lakes nestled high in the Rila Mountains. Named after their shapes, including “The Eyeglass,” “The Kidney” and “The Eye,” the lakes sit progressively higher in the mountains, connected by creeks and waterfalls. Craggy peaks rise around the lakes and a few flat plains, one of which is surrounded by a semi-circle of inclines on one side and the open sky and clouds on the other. This round field is known for its energies, and a ritualistic religious group called the Great White Brotherhood (not the KKK) holds a ceremony there once a year. The energy field had a pile of white rocks in the middle with more rocks symmetrically circled around it like a dartboard. Boyan and I stood in the middle for a while, arms wide open.
The five-hour hike up and back to the Seven Rila Lakes was exhausting, hiking up past each lake to a peak where we could look over our path and the lakes below, but it was one of the high points of my trip. While traveling, I find myself consistently attracted to natural beauty over anything else – my favorite places are always the most beautiful. Though we were tired, at each stage of the mostly uphill trek I found myself wanting to see more and from a higher viewpoint until we were all the way at the top. Worth it.
We got a little bit lost on our way down, opting to take the more confusing lower path instead of the original path that was considerably steeper at some parts but flat for much of the journey. It turned into a little adventure, with us mistaking a house for the lodge with the ski lifts. Just when we thought we were almost at the end (we were hoping to spend part of the evening at one of Bulgaria’s natural hot spring baths), we saw the real lodge off in the distance. It’s hard to get good vantage points with mountain peaks jutting out all around you.
After a long, well-deserved sit, my rubbery-tired legs stumbled off the lift and onto the ground at the base of the mountain. It was all I could do not to fall off the lift after the intense leg workout and sudden rest, and of course I slept the entire (and probably stunning) taxi ride to a small town where we would spend the night. We sat down for dinner at a nearby restaurant and went to bed early.
We had to get up relatively early on Friday to catch a series of three busses and vans to the Rila Monastery. Most of the busses were extremely old (think communist era), but in a way that gave them and the journey some major character. I slept pretty much the entire way there. Three hours later, we arrived at the beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery, where mountains rose up beyond the walls surrounding the monks’ housing, the church and an ancient tower. Although the Rila Monastery has been around since the 10th century, it was destroyed in the 19th century and mostly rebuilt aside from its stone tower.
We spent two hours exploring the monastery – the scenic paintings on the inside of the church; the all-stone, narrow-staired tower; the courtyard – and the area outside, where we bought mini-donuts with powdered sugar and jam and sat on a drooping creek. Our one-stop trip home would be easier than getting there, and surprise, I slept the whole ride, even thinking that my iPhone was replaying a song when I’d really just slept through the entire album.