Introducing Rila Mountains
‘Mountains of Water’ was the ancient Thracian name for this compact, majestic set of peaks covering 2629 sq km – a reference to the 180 lakes, streams and springs gushing with pure alpine aqua. These waters give the range famous attractions such as the small but stunning Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes), and entice hikers and day-tripping travellers from Sofia. A hiking trail from the lakes also leads to Bulgaria’s most important religious shrine, the captivating Rila Monastery, which draws throngs of devout Bulgarians and curious foreigners to gaze upon its dramatic architecture and vivid, wall-to-wall frescos and icons.
The Rila Mountains also include Bulgaria’s biggest ski resorts, Bansko and Borovets, and new access roads that will substantially reduce the driving time to Sofia are sure to expedite their expansion. Now increasingly popular for skiing (and partying) with groups from Britain, Israel, Russia and beyond, these resorts are growing at the expense of the natural environment; lovers of untouched natural beauty are encouraged to come before Bulgaria catches up with more developed winter resort countries.
Despite the inevitable incursions of modern development, the permanently open Rila National Park remains a sanctuary for wildlife and flora, comprising 144 sq km of forest and 130 sq km of alpine pastures. Its fir trees, beechwoods and other conifers provide a peaceful habitat for deer, wild goats, eagles, falcons and more. Mt Musala (2925m), near Borovets, is Bulgaria’s (and the Balkans’) highest peak, and offers excellent hiking. Mountain huts (hizhas) provide simple accommodation (from about 10 lv per person), sometimes serving meals (but do bring extra food).
Invaluable for hikers is Julian Perry’s Mountains of Bulgaria, which details an extensive north–south trek (part of the trans-European E4 trek) across the Rila Mountains. It starts at Klisura and finishes at Hizha Predel, near Razlog, and takes from seven to 10 days. For serious hiking, you’ll need Kartografia’s Rila map (1:55,000), with place names in Cyrillic.