Visiting the Balkans for the first time always leaves a strong impression on people. Caught between the East and the West, between the centuries of history and the impressive adaptability to new trends which catch on like wildfire… Visitors who had not known anything about the region and about Bulgaria in particular, suddenly get hit by its charm, history, atmosphere, people, food and of course: its nature.
For lovers of hiking and outdoors experiences, Bulgaria is the lend of plenty. Seaside, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, valleys, ridges, caves, unusually pretty rock formations…you name it. But if I have to pick only one region to visit, I would probably recommend the Rila Mountain.
The standard answer to the question “What is special about it?”, would be that it is the highest mountain range in Bulgaria and in the Balkans and 6th in Europe: it’s highest point is 2925 m (9597 feet) above the sea level.Good Job, Musala Summit!
But there’s more to it than just hiking: there are also the Seven Rila Lakes: gorgeous glacier formations clustered close to one another and boasting poetic names like The Tear or The Eye and less poetic ones like The Kidney, The Twin, The Trefoil, Fish lake and The Lower lake.
Тhe Good and the Beautiful
The Seven Lakes have this mystical beauty: especially if you visit them in late autumn, when fogs are hovering above the water and hiding the hilltops. Science will tell you that there used to be glaciers in this area and that is how the lakes were shaped.
Local folklore has another version about their origin. People tell the tragic story of two giants in the Ancient Ages, who deeply loved each other. They were so happy, that malevolent spirits got envious and decided to tear them apart. After a long battle between good and evil, there was a tragic outcome and the tears of the female giant who lost her lover were so bitter and so endless that they filled the valleys and turned them into lakes.
You can see from the photos (mixture of recent and old shots I have made during several visits to the area) that even without fairy tales: the place can be quite breathtaking and out of this world.
Maybe that is why a local cult uses it every year for a circular dance called Paneurhytmia in honor of nature, the sun and the mystical teachings of Petar Dunov. However, I am too much of a rational person to go into this topic but it is considered by many locals as a major cultural aspect of the place so outside visitors interested in such topics might be interested in researching it.
The Bad and the Ugly
But apart from all these great things, there is an ugly side to the story.
The truth is that this amazing place is deteriorating year after year. Glacier lakes are ecosystems with a very fragile balance. Even mild interaction with outside bacteria can be damaging. And since the lift started operating in 2009 the situation is getting worse by the year because thousands and thousands of visitors walk the route to the highest lake (The Tear) every summer. Many of them are responsible: they pick their own trash, they avoid damaging the flora and fauna of the area, but there are also those who simply don’t care.
Even worse: SUVs are offering easy and fun rides up to the mountain, adding exhaust gases, noise and diesel/benzene leaks along the way. And Rila is not just any mountain: it is also Bulgaria’s biggest national park area, covering about 810.46 km² . In other words: it is not just a beautiful place but one of the most precious natural areas on the continent and one of the largest protected areas in Europe.
Please think about this if you decide to come and visit this great natural landmark. Some tips I would give as a person who cares about preserving such places as much as possible are: Pick a time outside the peak season (I don’t have data to support this, but my guess would be August, especially weekends during August). Don’t ride the SUVs. Avoid washing your hands or cooling your feet inside the lakes. Talk to your local hosts or the tourist office, or the hotel staff: if you also think that hiking is not about going to a huge open air theme park full of other visitors, but about enjoying and preserving the serene beauty of barely touched places: let them know and maybe the demand will create more supply of responsible and sustainable travel offers.
I believe people have the power to change things and keeping beautiful places around for the next generations is worth a few inconveniences now. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating. Recent research has shown that there are already irreversible changes taking places inside the glacier lakes. You can read more about them here, if you are interested.
Other great sides of Rila | Musala and Beyond
If you have more time in the area and you are into longer, more challenging hikes, I absolutely recommend you to climb the Musala peak and go beyond it. There are several other peaks along the mountain range after Musala and the scenery is worth all the blisters and all the where- the- hell -are- we-s on the way to Zavratchitsa hut (more than 20km across the mountains).
Read more about it here and don’t forget to bring an extra bed sheet: the owners of Zavrathitsa are a kind couple who can offer you some nice soups and local food but it is not the cleanest place to be in. Rest assured.
Other great sides of Rila | The Rila Monastery
One of Bulgaria’s most popular historical and architectural landmarks, the Rila Monastery is place worth visiting. It is right in the middle of the beaten path but it bears major cultural importance and it’s a part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.
It was founded in the X century by St. John of Rila, its patron hermit saint and has survived several fires and has been modified during the centuries by occupation forces so some parts of it are completely new or partially restored. During the centuries its monks have contributed to the preservation of knowledge, Bulgarian literacy and education.
You will absolutely love it, if you are into Art History. The XIX century frescoes are absolutely amazing: filled with a mixture of local lore, stories about the lives of saints, historical events, metaphors,etc. Reading the symbols hidden in the murals is like reading a book if you know more about these topics and if you are not so acquainted with them: there are many tour guides around who can help you out.
The Seven Rila Lakes
✓ Start at Panichishte and follow the markings on the trees to use the old path through the woods: the dirt road is full of SUVs and jeeps and it wouldn’t be an enjoyable hike: only stressful walking among a strange mixture of trees and noisy motor vehicles
✓Don’t get the jeeps/SUVs! Respect the nature: even if many people are putting their comfort and the easy ride before her. This is a Natural Park which has to be a protected territory and only specialized, environmentally approved supply vehicles should be allowed on the way up.
✓Don’t throw anything around the lakes: even organic trash like apple stems, etc and please avoid touching the water. There will be people washing their hands, feet, etc in the lake but the more people do this, the quicker it will destroy the ecosystem inside these ancient glacier lakes. If we can’t be part of the solution, we can at least try not to be part of the problem.
✓Late autumn is a good time to visit: on summer weekends the area is getting more and more crowded
✓Bring in snacks with you: unlike most mountain huts The Seven Lakes hut (right next to the lift stop) doesn’t offer good soup and they’ve been quite liberal about their pricing: local mountaineers and hikers can tell you that it isn’t their favourite place at all- the old hut is much more run down but much more genuine. In general, Bulgarian chalets and mountain huts can be quite run down and it is sad that there usually aren’t enough funds to keep them clean and well maintained. But at least the people who usually run them are locals who truly love and care about the mountain.
How to get there?