Hiking Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains

The Pirin Mountains are a hiker’s paradise…

It was time to move on to the Pirin Mountains, and the off-season ski resort of Bansko, where hotel suites went for bargain prices and half the restaurants were closed. The Thracians knew the Pirins as ‘Orbelus’ (‘snowy mountain’). The Slavs associated them with Perun, god of storms and thunder, the most powerful deity in their pantheon. To us, they promised some of the best hiking this side of the Alps.

We set our sights on Mt. Vihren, highest peak in the range, a 2,914 metre marble monolith. But don’t let that reasonable elevation fool you. The trail was almost entirely vertical, a constant uphill slog with no relief. Or rather, the only relief on offer was found on my topographical map, whose tightly bunched contour lines rose as rapidly as my heartbeat.

Our route — from point 21, around the loop, and back again, then down to that campground mark at yellow 7
The trail was a nonstop uphill slog…
The peak of Mt Vihren is in sight…

When we finally reached the summit, the entire range was stretched out before us. The deep black reflection of the Vlahinski lakes dotted a broad cirque scooped out of the rock during the last ice age, a process which left behind the only remaining glacial masses in Europe located south of 42°N. Trails branched off into the distance, threading along nearby ridges to create an endless world of possibilities for the hiker, but we would only have one day, and the light was running out.

On the peak of Mt. Vihren
This is a man who hikes up things and then hikes down again

We descended Vihren’s northern face, where chains had been bolted to the rock for assistance on the many precipitous bits. A 30 minute scramble saw us safely to the bottom, and we sat on the edge of the Vihrenski Preslap — a narrow saddle between two peaks — to ease our legs with views of the Vlahinska River far below.

Descending Vihren’s northern face…
Taking a break on the edge of the Vihrenski Preslap…

The way back was longer from that side of Vihren, where the trail cut down a narrow valley marred by cultural difficulties. A large Italian group ahead of us was like a convention of the hearing impaired, their endless shouting monologue clearly audible a valley away, while the Spanish group behind us, every one armed with a tap-tap-tapping pair of trekking poles, sounded like a convention of the blind. I decided to avoid an international incident through a strategy of deliberate stillness. In other words, I sat on a rock and mocked both groups in my notebook until they passed well out of earshot.

Mocking those noisy Italians and Spanish in scathing prose

We only moved on when we could hear birds again instead of people. The route soon forked and took us around the side of the mountain on a trail that dropped into the void on our left, and with a width more suitable for the cloven feet of mountain goats than weary hikers. Nearby, discoloured patches of snow still lingered in a sunless lee of the marble massif, where the only sound to greet our ears was the gentle scuff of my boots on rock.

So many choices, all of them in Cyrillic…

By the time we descended to the Vihren Hut, and then to the campground where we’d left our car, we had done seven hours of solid hiking, almost none of it across level ground. I didn’t need much convincing to pull up a bench at the campground restaurant beside other tired, sweaty hikers, where cold draft beers vanished as quickly as they arrived.

“Where’s that cold beer…?””
Cold beer in a campground restaurant at trail’s end

Photos © Tomoko Goto 2019

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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