Rila – Our Intro to Bulgaria

Rila meant a few things for us:

  1. Our first day in Bulgaria
  2. Our return to the Balkans
  3. Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s most visited sites
  4. Rila Seven Lakes, a justifiable popular hike

I’d like to add more details to numbers 1 and 2.  Crossing a new border (into the Balkans) and entering a new country (into the Balkans) is not for people looking for a relaxing vacation.  Frustrating situations and uncommon instances unlike Western Europe are what make travel in Eastern Europe appealing anyway…we like to call this adventure!  Within our first several hours of arriving to Bulgaria we learned the following:

  1. If you are required to get a passport stamp, border patrol takes your passport, and you pull over to the side to park your car.  However, passports are not processed in the order received.  They are processed only when border patrol sees your face directly in front of his window amidst everyone else needing a passport stamp.
  2. A toll vignette is required to drive in Bulgaria.  We did not do our research, and no one at the border told us to purchase one, which led to our next several discoveries. We pulled over at a small gas station in Rila to buy a vignette, but the clerk told us to buy one at the post office.  So we went to the post office…
  3. Post offices close whenever they want.  I arrived to the post office at 4:40pm.  It was closed, despite its posted hours saying 8am-5pm.  And I thought government workers in the U.S. were shit.  Then we went to the nearby tourist info center to double confirm whether or not we needed a vignette.
  4. Despite the building being labeled “Tourist Info Center” in English, not all tourist info centers are staffed with people who speak English.  Nor are they staffed with people who give correct information.  Nor do they offer free wifi to tourists.  Every other tourist info center we visited in Europe had all these.  Nope, not here.  We asked the girl if we needed a vignette to drive in Bulgaria. She smiled and said no.  We asked if there was wifi.  She said no.  Not trusting her English, I said to her, “Post office.”  I didn’t even ask a question.  I simply said post office. Her response? No. I repeated, “Post office.” She smiled and shrugged. By then it was late afternoon and we decided to deal with the whole vignette thing the next day.

We then drove to Camping Zodiak (€15/night with electricity, water, and showers), the nearest campground to Bulgaria’s beloved Rila Monastery.  It was early evening by the time we set up camp, and I hurried over to the monastery by foot.

As I approached the monastery, I realized I was dressed in “inappropriate” clothing: a skirt above my knees and a tank top.  Not to worry! I told myself. Every major tourist attraction that requires “proper” clothing always offers cloth to its visitors to wear.  So of course when I arrived, the security guy at the front pointed at their “No inappropriate clothing” sign and waved a finger at me.  There were no cloths for tourists.  I left the entrance, ran down the street to the nearest restaurant which was deserted, grabbed 2 tablecloths from the tables, and ran back to the entrance.  I stupidly tied one around my waist and wrapped the other over my shoulders.  He gave me a thumbs up and I entered the monastery.

Dark shadows had already cast upon the impressive buildings making for poor lighting; however, the typically tourist-filled monastery was deserted at that hour and made up for the lack of light.  Surrounded by lush mountains, the beautifully designed monastery and church were surprisingly beautiful.  Considering the monastery’s popularity in the country, I’m surprised it is free to enter.

At the monastery’s church, there was another sign strictly forbidding inappropriate clothing. Well, that’s dumb, I thought, because you can’t even enter the monastery wearing “inappropriate clothing.”  By the time you read this sign, you’d already be “appropriately” dressed.  And sure enough, upon entering the church, there was a huge pile of cloth for tourists to wrap around themselves.  Naturally, no one entering the church needed them.  It’s like they purposely kept the cloth in the church and not at the monastery entrance to keep all the whores like me out. Nice one, guys.

When I left the monastery I made sure to run by the restaurant to return the borrowed tablecloths. =D

In addition to the monastery, another site to see, or rather do, is the Rila Seven Lakes Trail. These are 7 glacial lakes between 2,100m-2,500m above sea level, and are all connected by streams, cascades, and waterfalls.  We left the campground early the next morning and drove the 2 hours to the chair lift in Rila National Park.  It cost 5 lev ($2.85) to park, and another 18 lev ($10.20) each for a round trip ride on the chair lift.  We didn’t have to ride the chair lift, but we had just summited Mt. Olympus two days before and I wanted to save time and energy for the Seven Lakes hike.  IMG_3934

Once at the top, there were gorgeous views all around.IMG_3941

We even stumbled across wild green onions.  I couldn’t help but pick a few for cooking! IMG_20160706_111126

Each of the lakes have a name:

  • The Tear – the highest one.
  • The Eye – the deepest one.
  • The Kidney – the kidney shaped one.
  • The Twin – the largest one.
  • The Trefoil – the most irregular one.
  • The Fish Lake – the shallowest one.
  • The Lower Lake – the lowest one.

We began our hike with the Lower Lake, clearly not too far from the chair lift (building in the upper left):IMG_3943

Immediately ahead of the Lower Lake was the Fish Lake, the shallowest one:IMG_3951

The Trefoil, the most irregular shaped with low shores:IMG_20160706_112859

Crossing the Trefoil toward the Twin:IMG_3957

The Twin, the largest one by area, and probably the most beautiful:IMG_20160706_113923-PANO

The Kidney:IMG_3981

It is said that the most difficult section of the hike is the trail from the Kidney to Mount Ezeren.  We didn’t think it was grueling because of its short distance; it took us 25 minutes to summit from the Kidney lake.  Crossing over a small waterfall along the trail:IMG_20160706_115932

My favorite lake, the Eye, the deepest lake:IMG_3966IMG_20160706_125243

We actually didn’t take a picture of the Tear, the highest lake, because of how unimpressive it was compared to the rest of the lakes, and to be honest, we were too distracted by the epic views from Mount Ezeren.  Thick clouds came and went, obstructing the views, but after waiting patiently for 20 minutes, the skies cleared up and granted us the award-winning view everyone hiked for.IMG_3969IMG_3973

From there, it was an easy downhill hike all the way back to the chair lift.  IMG_20160706_135657

In total, it took us 3 hours and 20 minutes, including a 20-minute wait at the top waiting for clouds to clear.  That meant only 3 hours of actual hiking.  Compared to the 10-hour hike to Mt. Olympus two days before, this was a piece of cake.  However, unlike the hike to Mt. Olympus, the 7 Lakes Hike was breathtakingly beautiful, even comparable to the famous mountains of Switzerland.  Who would’ve known that Bulgaria had such gorgeous mountains to offer?

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2 Responses to Rila – Our Intro to Bulgaria

  1. risabuzatova says:

    Bulgaria is full of beautiful mountains – Балкан (Balkan) literally means mountain. The Seven Rila Lakes are definitely on my list for my next trip to Bulgaria. Thanks for sharing your experience and your photos.

    • Jean Nguyen says:

      I didn’t know Balkans means mountains! That makes sense now, thank you. The hike was incredible, probably my favorite activity in Bulgaria.

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