Bridges in the sky in Bansko


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Europe » Bulgaria » Blagoevgrad Province » Bansko
June 23rd 2018
Published: September 20th 2018
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling southwest from Plovdiv to Bansko.

With a long trip to Bansko ahead, and a detour into a bear sanctuary on the way, we opted for an early breakfast in the tiny hotel dining area. I had muesli, yoghurt, prunes, toast, ham, cheese, fresh strawberry jam and tea. We checked out of our very comfortable hotel, threw our packs into the back of a minibus and made our way out of Plovdiv. It wasn’t long before we were driving along a bumpy potholed road that I think was a fairly major highway, with flat agricultural fields stretching to the Rhodope Mountains to the south.

About 20 kilometres before Bansko we detoured up a steep and winding dirt track to the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary, otherwise known as the Dancing Bears Park. This was a difficult sanctuary to visit, because it was hard to envisage it as a sanctuary. Yes, the bears were safe from the streets, where they had been subjected to brutal conditioning to ensure they performed for cold-hearted tourists stupid enough to pay for such a spectacle. Their claws were wrenched out without anaesthetic every year, and they were made to stand on hot surfaces as part of their so-called ‘training’ to give the appearance of dancing. And brainless, callous tourists rewarded this! How could anyone throw money into the hat of a man making a bear dance under such diabolical conditions? How could anyone be so pathetically insensitive? My hatred of humanity ratcheted up a few notches as I walked the narrow path that protected me from these poor bears – all that stood between us was a tall wire fence with an electric cable strung on the inside, which would jolt the bears if they came too close to me – the tourist – who was gawking in at them and taking photos for a blog.

Which brings me back to the question of this place as a sanctuary. The bears are definitely free from their abusers – there’s no doubt about that. But do they need to continue performing? We weren’t watching them dance, but we were watching them all the same. We were watching them eat; we were watching them wander along the fence line; and we were watching their sadness. And why were they so close to the fence for us to watch? Because that’s where the park keeper threw their food – in perfect timing for each group of tourists. Maybe these poor, beautiful creatures should be in an enclosure away from any type of tourist, where they can live out their life with as little human contact as possible. After all, the poor things must have an aversion to all things human. While I completely understand the need for funding, it was a hollow feeling to be told that our entry fee to the park is used to maintain the sanctuary.

I left the sanctuary with an uneasy sadness and a deep hatred for people that see animals as nothing more than a commodity for entertainment and financial gain. I did realise, however, that Charlie, Bobby and all the other bears were in a much safer place than they’d ever been (having been taken from their mothers at an early age), and that they would live out their lives in an environment where abusers could not harm them. If tourists have to file past them day in, day out, I suppose it’s a small price to pay for their protection and wellbeing. The image that churned my soul the most was that of a young child, about four years of age, picking up a rock and throwing it through the fence at one of the poor bears. His father scolded him, but where on earth did he learn that type of behaviour? If it is an innate human response to throw stones at bears in sanctuaries, then there is no hope. There is just no hope. 😞

We made our way back down the steep and winding dirt track to the main road, then turned in the direction of Bansko, which sits under the shadow of the Pirin Mountains. It was a strange experience driving into a ski resort in the off-season, because there was no snow and no people. The place was a ghost town, and as we drove past endless deserted hotels, I couldn’t help but recall scenes from Stephen King’s The Shining, where an aspiring writer accepts a job as the off-season caretaker of an isolated hotel in the Colorado Rockies. It is my all-time favourite horror film, and here I was staying in an empty hotel located on the outskirts of a seasonal ghost town… redrum! 😄

We dropped our packs in a desolate hotel and headed out for an orientation walk of this strange, strange place. As we wandered through Bansko’s abandoned ‘ski zone’, hotels stood empty, lonely and cold. The only sound that rose above our footsteps was the wind from the Pirin Mountains whistling through the deserted streets. The place was as surreal as it was unnerving, and at every corner I expected to see Jack Nicholson’s face behind one of the broken hotel windows, sneering out at us with a lifeless grin.

Things changed completely when we entered Bansko’s Old Town. This place was populated (finally) and very beautiful, with narrow cobblestone streets weaving outwards from the central Holy Trinity Church. Judging by the cars, the place was very affluent, with Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Alpha Romeos everywhere.

We settled at a small table outside Todera House for lunch. It was just off the main town square, and it had a beautiful aspect of the Pirin Mountains over the rooftops of the stone houses in front of us. I opted for the breaded cheese, having seen it on so many menus over the past few weeks, while Ren ordered a warm salad (potatoes, onions, bacon, cheese and mushrooms). Both were very tasty, although I had to make a conscious decision to save my arteries and not order breaded cheese again. A simple and stodgy dish, it comprised two thick slabs of cheese that had been rolled in bread crumbs and then deep fried. YUMMO!!!

Needing some fresh air after such a stodgy snack, we slowly wandered back to our hotel, which was quite a distance from the Old Town area. We barely had time for a shower before making the long walk back into the Old Town, as we were dining at Dedo Pene Inn, a recommended restaurant from our Lonely Planet guide. The restaurant certainly lived up to its reputation. We shared a kapama (simmered meat with rice and sauerkraut) and a roast aubergine dip with peppers, tomatoes and garlic, and both were sensational.

After farewelling our incredibly friendly hosts at Dedo Pene Inn, we began our long journey back to the hotel, but we hadn’t walked far before we found ourselves at Franco, a small bar run by a very affable young couple. The guy lined up a row of complimentary Jäger Bombs on the bar, which we quickly downed before ordering a whisky (for me) and a hot chocolate and rum (for Ren). Our female host told us that she hated snow and hated winter, yet she lived and worked in a ski town. We were bewildered. She must have noticed the look on our faces, because she smiled and told us that her husband always said that only snakes crave the sun. Our bewilderment suddenly turned to horror – was her husband implying she was a snake? Before we could respond, she concurred by saying: ‘And he is right.’ 😊

She was really nice, so I didn’t agree with her husband at all. However, she was dressed in black and she was wearing black makeup (including black lipstick), which did make her look like Morticia from the Addams Family. But a snake? I thought her husband’s description was a little harsh, especially as he was no oil painting himself.

Having warmed sufficiently with whisky and rum, we continued our journey home through the dark and deserted streets of this strange seasonal ghost town. In the winter months, the ski zone hotels operate at 70% occupancy (according to our slightly mad lunch host from Todera House), but this all changes outside the winter months. We love new experiences, and this was such a new experience for us both. Yet there was something unsettling about being surrounded by empty buildings, empty supermarkets, empty playgrounds and empty streets. We were the only people in a place built for so many people. It was as if the buildings had lost all meaning… their purpose stripped bare. They were just standing in an existential void as we walked in their empty shadows. The place had started to get to me…

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

It was late when we arrived at our outlying hotel, and we were trekking in the Pirin Mountains the following morning, so we prepared our packs and crashed around midnight.

We woke early and headed down to the dining area. An upside of staying in an empty hotel is having the place to yourself, so breakfast was a breeze. I helped myself to corn flakes with cold yoghurt and hot milk (there was no cold milk), toast, fried eggs, cheese, salami, jam, orange cordial and incredibly weak tea. Feeling suitably refreshed and fuelled up, we headed off towards the Pirin Mountains with Boris at the wheel – he’d been our minibus driver since Plovdiv, and he was a character (or a bit of a rum’un, as Dad would have called him).

We wound our way up through thick pencil pine forest until we arrived at the base of a chairlift. A heavy mist shrouded the mountains above us, and the chairlift cable disappeared into clouds, with no visible end point or destination. Where were we heading, and would we be able to see when we reached the mist? Not to be deterred, we stood on the landing and waited for the chairlift to swing around and sweep us off our feet. Before we knew it we fell into plastic bucket seats and lurched upwards, hanging from a cable 10 metres above the ground with legs dangling over the pencil pines below. As we were hauled up the slopes, the icy mountain air bit into our hands and feet, and we realised too late that a pair of gloves and warm socks would have been a good addition to our packs.

As we slipped into the mist, our vision was significantly hampered, and it was hard to know what lay over the next ridge. It mattered little, however, because loud music was blaring from speakers at the top of the chairlift, so we knew we were about to dismount. Sure enough, a large concrete structure emerged from the mist in front of us, and a man was signalling to lift the safety rail and prepare to dismount. We’d arrived!

The chairlift had taken us part of the way towards our destination – Lake Bezbozhko. A rough track led the rest of the way, which was quite steep in sections, and despite the heavy mist, the walk was thoroughly enjoyable. On reaching our destination, we slipped inside a huge concrete chalet on the edge of the small lake to warm up, but we didn’t stay long, as it was full of young kids and reeked of cooked fish. Escaping the fishy stench into the fresh and crisp mountain air, we wandered the banks of diminutive Lake Bezbozhko before starting our descent back to the chairlift, taking a few alternative (scenic) walking tracks with Boris the bus driver on the way.

By the time we reached the chairlift the mist had lifted slightly, so we could see the entire cable span down to the base. The slow descent on the chairlift was heaps of fun, and it gave a sense of what the view would have been like from the lake in clear weather. Cold and hungry, we jumped awkwardly from the chairlift and bee-lined for the only restaurant operating at the site, which luckily was operated by Boris’ friends, although it has to be said that everyone in the region seemed to be Boris’ friends. We started the meal with a large rakia (Bulgarian brandy), which certainly made inroads into warming us up. Ren also ordered a hot chocolate, which arrived at the table in a deconstructed format – a cup of hot milk with a sachet of hot chocolate powder on top. Once constructed, it was delicious.

With lakes of various sizes dotted throughout the Pirin Mountains, there is an abundance of trout, so I decided to order the grilled trout with fried potatoes. After being scooped from a pool in front of the restaurant, the trout was on my plate within minutes. It couldn’t have been fresher, and it was amazing – really amazing! Ren opted for the bean soup, which was also very tasty. This was a travel experience I’ll remember for a long time – walking for hours in cold mountain mist; not being able to see more than a few hundred metres (at best); not being able to take in the panoramic views that are such a feature of this part of Bulgaria; not being able to see Mt Vihren (the range’s highest peak); and yet loving every minute of it. And to top it all off, warming up with rakia and feasting on fresh mountain trout at the end of the journey. It just doesn’t get any better.

Boris accompanied us on the trek and shared the meal with us, then drove us back to our hotel in Bansko. With no other guests checked in, and none expected, there was no deadline for our check out, so we were able to use the shower in our hotel room. This was a major bonus, because we’d been walking for hours and needed to freshen up before our short trip to Gorno Draglishte. Feeling warm and invigorated, we prepared our packs, jumped into Boris’ minibus and headed to our final homestay accommodation in the tiny village of Gorno Draglishte.



SHE SAID...
Today was a travel day from Plovdiv to Bansko, by minibus.

We woke feeling very relaxed and rested after what had been an excellent but long day of exploring Plovdiv. Our bodies thanked us for having a quiet evening and for skipping dinner the night before. We’d been eating three big meals a day on this trip, which is much more than we eat at home… and our clothes were starting to protest. 😊

We enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the little breakfast room at the hotel, which was run very efficiently by an amiable young girl. We also packed some of the hotel’s very tasty banitsa pastries (filo pastry with egg and white sirene cheese filling) as snacks, as we wouldn’t be reaching Bansko until about 3pm.

We piled into a small minibus at 9am and drove through the outer suburban scrubland and industrialised zones of Plovdiv. We eventually reached agricultural flatlands full of greenhouses, farms and sunflower fields. We were constantly overseen by the Rhodope Mountain range on one side, and the Rila Mountain range in the distance on the other.

The weather turned rainy and misty as the road started twisting its way upward along densely conifer-covered hills. We were travelling towards Bulgaria's ski resort areas, evidenced by the little chalet villages we passed. There were also many small roadside stalls selling a variety of jams stacked high, which made me deduce that they grew a lot of fruit and berries in the area.

We detoured through Belitsa to visit a Brown Bear Sanctuary in the Rila Mountain range. When we got out of the minibus we realised that we’d left the heat of Plovdiv well and truly behind us, and luckily we had our packs with us to access warmer tops and shoes. I thought nothing of getting changed inside the minibus as we were parked in an isolated corner of the carpark, and the rest of the group had already walked away. When I finished dressing and turned around, one of the group was standing quietly at the open minibus door, visibly uncomfortable and staring down at the ground. I didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, and was truly startled that he hadn’t walked away when he saw that I was getting dressed, or at least announced his presence. It was seriously awkward! Andrew was talking to the minibus driver nearby, but hadn’t seen him walking back either. Oh well, if he copped an eyeful, he’s now scarred for life. 😄

Belista Bear Sanctuary is home to 20 rescued dancing bears and five rescued circus bears. The sanctuary is run by Four Paws (a British based international animal welfare organisation) and is the largest of its type in Europe. We were a bit early for our tour of the facility, so after watching a video about the horrendous lives of the bears before they came to the sanctuary, we walked up to the roof of the visitor’s centre.

Some of the bear enclosures could be accessed directly from the onsite hospital underneath the visitors centre, and the bears needing most attention and care were kept in these. From the rooftop we first saw Serda (a Serbian bear) who didn’t move very much. For the entire time we were at the sanctuary she only moved about a metre radius from a small bush, under which she had an apple and some other snacks that she would occasionally sniff out and munch on. Also close to the hospital were an Albanian bear who had an amputated paw, a bear who kept manically pacing around a tree, and an elderly 37 year old bear who was impossibly skinny.😞

We eventually started our tour of the sanctuary, which is set in a beautiful wooded forest. The volunteer guide told us the bears aren’t allowed to breed, and are segregated accordingly. Each enclosure held either solitary or multiple bears with compatible personalities, and all the enclosures had access to a river and/or a pool. The bears had plenty of space to hide away from us during our tour, but only two walked away from us into the vegetation. Most were already at the fence or came to the fence when we approached.

Very sadly the rescue and rehabilitation process doesn’t lead to eventually reintroducing the bears into the wild. The guide explained that this was for their own safety – they were so used to being around humans, it was possible they could put themselves in danger by seeking out towns and villages. The bears were also taken from their mothers at too young an age to have developed natural survival instincts. They had to be gradually taught intrinsic bear behaviour such as foraging and hibernation (they were never allowed to hibernate in captivity). So basically, they have been deemed to be too traumatised by their cruel experiences to ever function as ‘normal’ bears again. On a happier note though, they will all live out their days at the sanctuary.

Just along from the enclosures surrounding the hospital, we came to an enclosure which held Charlie. He was a large sad looking bear with a disfigured face (from a piercing where a metal ring with a chain had been attached). He just lay on the ground with his face resting on his paws. He didn’t make eye contact, but his ears twitched towards our guide’s voice whenever she spoke. I so so so wanted to bundle him up and bring him home! Sharing this enclosure was Bobby who was rescued as a three year old and was one of the youngest and healthiest of the bears in the sanctuary. Bobby had his nose and all his claws and teeth intact, unlike many of the other bears who had their claws and teeth periodically ripped out while in captivity, along with permanent scaring from mangled face piercings.

It was really sad seeing the disfigured and stressed bears, especially when one blind bear started ‘dancing’ when she heard us approaching. Even after all these years she associated humans with having to perform. It totally broke my heart. At the time I felt that she shouldn’t have been on display for the tourists – she had suffered enough at the hands of humans and deserved to be protected from us now. But on reflection, I know very little about bear social behaviour, and it could be that roaming freely with the other bears was the best option for her.

Further into the sanctuary, the enclosures were in hilly wooded forest. In one of these larger enclosures, a sleuth of four or five bears walked towards the fence and stood around together. The setting was beautifully picturesque with a misty silhouette of trees. But then out of nowhere, one bear got too close to another bear and there was instant aggression. It was nothing more than a show of standing on hind paws and a few warning growls, but there was no denying how strong these bears were.

A few minutes later the ranger drove along the enclosures and fed them their afternoon meal. And I realised that the bears had started gathering in anticipation of lunch, and the aggression was probably some sort of pre-emptive resource guarding behaviour. It wasn’t a coincidence they were fed at the fence at the same time the 1pm tour was walking around… I had an issue with this, but I suppose they need to make their money through tourist tickets, and this ensured bears would be sighted.

We were all surprised to discover that their lunch consisted of sliced bread, so I checked with the guide if it was bread that had been specially fortified for bears – it wasn’t. It was stale human bread donated from local bakeries. I think she saw my raised eyebrows (i.e. at the bears being fed processed human food), so she was quick to say that they got fruit in the morning and night feeds of fish, nuts and honey. When the bread was thrown into the enclosures, it was quite cute to see them settle down like dogs with big pieces of bread between their clawed paws. We witnessed one bear blatantly trying to steal another bear’s bread, and this time the aggression was totally warranted! 😊

It was so fabulous seeing the bears in safe surrounds, being able to go about their daily bear business. This was a far cry from their former lives where as young cubs they were trained ‘to dance’ by being forced to walk on sheets of glowing hot metal while music was played… in pain, the bears would alternately lift up their hind paws. The process was repeated regularly until the animals were so physically and psychologically traumatised that on hearing the music, they would raise their paws in anticipation of pain… and thus a ‘dancing bear’ was produced. As they got larger, they were controlled by pulling on a chain attached to their highly sensitive noses. Their living conditions were usually small metal cages that weren’t much bigger than they were. 😡

As is usually the case when I encounter abused animals, I got quite upset and embarrassingly, a wee bit teary. It makes me so angry that some humans can be so evil, but I’m also so grateful that other humans dedicate their lives to ensuring these sorts of sanctuaries exist. While dancing bears have been declared illegal in Bulgaria, a few other European countries still allow it. Four Paws runs three other bear sanctuaries in Germany, Austria and Kosovo, and also does lots of other animal protection work across the world. As far as I know, they receive no government funding, so I was extremely happy we were able to support them financially.

I was freezing by the time we left the sanctuary, and I was glad to get back into the warm minibus. Bansko is billed as Bulgaria’s premier ski resort and sits at 925m, literally at the base of the majestic Pirin Mountains. As we approached the small town, the views of the towering mountain were superb. We arrived in the afternoon, and while driving to our hotel we started wondering if there’d been a zombie apocalypse… there was an eerie quietness, all the shops were shut up and we only saw two people on our way to the hotel. We soon realised that our hotel was in the vast ski zone area which was deserted in summer.

Hotel Bariakov was a very ordinary hotel with poky rooms and a wet bathroom. Thankfully we were only staying one night. Given our short stay, we regrouped very quickly and started our explorations of the town. As we left our hotel I stopped to pat a very friendly dog, and we named her Happy when she decided to chaperone our walk. But after a few blocks she got distracted when one of the locals called her over for a pat.

It took us ages to walk through the desolate ghost town full of empty giant ski resorts. Some were in various states of disrepair and others had knee high grass and rubbish strewn around. It was totally bizarre being there, and really did feel like something out of a post-apocalyptic film.

After about 20 minutes, we saw signs of life as we approached the Old Town area. The main street to the town square was being dug up and had working machinery on it… but was oddly still open to pedestrians. It felt weird walking into the main part of a town while dodging a giant Excavator and Grader at work! However, I can understand why they need to do maintenance work in the quieter summer months.

The town square (pl. Vazrazhdane) was bordered by the Sveta Troitsa Church on one corner and a prominent monument to Neofit Rilski on the other side. Neofit Rilski was a local artist and monk, and one of the painters of the famous Rila Monastery we were visiting soon. He then went on to dedicate his life to science and education, and was the founder of secular education in Bulgaria. The Sveta Troitsa Church was contained within a fortress-like stone wall, inside of which was a beautiful garden and the church’s bell tower (the town’s iconic landmark). Unfortunately, there was a lavish wedding taking place in the church, and we didn’t really want to crash it to have a look at the interior. I felt sorry for the wedding guests who had to walk through the muddy dug-up road in dress shoes and heels!

We walked around the many twisting cobblestone streets of the Old Town, admiring the stone and timber houses with their impeccable wood stacks. Most of the houses were in the traditional style of Bansko’s fortified houses with a large yard surrounded by stone walls and a wooden gate. We also noted that all the cars in the area were high-end luxury models.

Some of the historic stone houses had been converted into small hotels and charming mehanas (taverns). We picked Todeva House at random and sat outside. The afternoon light was beautiful and the view of the mountains was truly stunning. We shared a late lunch of breaded cheese (basically a crumbed and deep fried slab of cheese) and a warm potato salad with bacon and onion. It was pure comfort food and we loved it. As an added bonus the tavern’s fat ginger cat sat with us, and within minutes a scrawny stray cat joined him. We were rather surprised that they were clearly friends. The stray cat got most of our bacon and potato salad. 😊

It was so lovely sitting in a quiet cobblestone street watching village life go past. The slightly eccentric tavern owner decided to join us too, and when we talked about the ski zone area, he made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the ‘not local’ rich owners of the ski resorts who closed their shops and hotels and went back to the Black Sea for the summer. I gathered there was resentment that the money made from the ski businesses wasn’t staying in the town.

The Old Town was very cute and we really wished we were staying in one of the many charming traditional stone hotels, instead of our basic hotel on the other side of the deserted ski zone. We eventually trekked back to the hotel, had a quick shower and walked all the way back to the Old Town to meet the group for dinner at Mehana Dedo Pene. The place was highly recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, but because we’d had a late lunch, we just shared kyopoolu (roasted eggplant with peppers) and the famous local Banska kapama (layers of baked rice, chicken, pork, bacon and sauerkraut). The food was really good, and I wished we’d been hungrier to taste more of their dishes.

On the long walk back to the hotel that night, we passed people watching the Soccer World Cup outside a restaurant bar called Franco. We started chatting to them, and decided to have some post dinner drinks. Before we’d even sat down, the owner poured us all a complimentary jäger bomb! Very mindful that we didn’t want to have a late night, we agreed that we’d only have one round of drinks. Andrew had a whisky and I ordered my new favourite drink – a hot chocolate with rum. 😊

We continued walking to the hotel in the cold breeze, and as we neared our hotel Cheryl realised that a dog was running full speed at us – it was Happy from earlier that day! We were so glad to see her again, but then noticed a timid dog with a withered back leg was shadowing her. I really didn’t want to leave them alone in the cold, but it was getting late and we eventually had to enter our hotel. 😞

Breakfast the next morning wasn’t brilliant. The buffet items were quite average, and it was set out so awkwardly that only one person could access the buffet at one time. Not really ideal when a whole group is trying to have breakfast at the same time, but luckily we were the only guests in the hotel.

We were hiking in the Pirin Mountains that morning, so we piled into our minibus to be driven to the chairlift. The weather was supposed to be cold and wet, so we wore all the warm clothes we’d carried for this part of the trip. The fog steadily increased as we ascended the mountain, and by the time we reached the chairlift at the Pirin foothills, visibility was down to about a hundred metres. Grateful that it wasn’t raining, we caught the very basic chairlift up the mountain to the mid-level. It was freezing, but the fresh mountain air and fragrant pine trees made it an amazing ride.

The mid-level was very foggy, but crossing our fingers that it would clear, we started our hike into the eastern slopes of Pirin Mountain. Our destination was Lake Bezbozhko, one of the many glacial lakes in the area. Our driver Boris (who had driven us from Plovdiv the day before, and was also driving us around for another two days) had decided to join us on the walk. His English was very limited, but that didn’t stop him from attempting to communicate with us – we loved his enthusiasm and humour.

We walked uphill for about 45 minutes. There were a few steep climbs, but it was mostly a meandering amble along a zigzagging gravel road. The only animal life we came across were a few cows grazing in the thick fog. We were surprised that even the bird life was quite sparse. Regardless, the walk was delightful and we really loved the tumble of wild flowers and the density of pine trees. A mildly annoying part of the walk was that we had to share the road with a few zooming four-wheel-drive vehicles taking people up to a chalet at the lake. It was warm enough while we were walking but as soon as we stopped, it would get quite cold.

We finally arrived at the chalet at Lake Bezbozhko. As some of the group were quite chilled, it was decided that we’d enter the chalet for a toilet stop and to warm up with hot drinks. But as soon as we entered the chalet, we were hit with the pungent smell of fried fish. Obviously it was a popular lunch dish as the lake was supposedly teaming with trout, but after the gorgeous mountain air we’d been breathing, this wasn’t a welcome odour. We used the very very horrible toilets and exited the building as soon as we could!

Lake Bezbozhko (2250m) was a picturesque little mountain tarn that would have been truly spectacular on a bright summer day. Boris rock-hopped a couple of metres into the cold lake and stood on a marker rock with a plaque for photo opportunities. He invited us to join him, but I was the only foolhardy one who did. My sneakers didn’t have much grip on the wet rocks, so when I eventually made it to the marker rock, I had to hang onto Boris for dear life. And after all that effort, I realised that my foot was covering the information plaque in all the photos! 😊

While walking around the lake’s edge, the rain and fog kept rolling over us in waves. Visibility would change from clear to very low in a matter of minutes. Bezbozhko translates as ‘godforsaken’, but even in the frosty weather we were experiencing, it really didn’t reflect its name. However, I’m sure it’s a different story in the depths of winter. We walked along one side of the lake and then started our return trip back to the chairlifts.

On the walk back down Boris was keen to take us on what he called ‘extreme’ paths. These were haphazardly marked bush paths that wound through the pine trees and wild flowers. Only Andrew, Cheryl and I took him up on the offer, and it was a beautiful walk on soft pine needles. We lost some time trying to figure out the path markers, but we caught up with the group before they reached the chairlifts as it was a more direct path downhill (as opposed to the zigzag road they’d following). The fog eventually started lifting and we caught glimpses of the spectacular vista of lakes in the valleys and mountains around us. We should have had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountain ridges and a direct view of Mt Vihren (the range’s highest peak at almost 3000m), but the fog wasn’t playing nice.

The chairlift back down was much colder than our ascent a few hours earlier, so it was lovely to walk into a warm restaurant at the bottom of the chairlift and order a hot chocolate. Andrew also ordered us two shots of rakia (fruit brandy). The Bulgarian rakia tasted very similar to the palinka in Hungary and Romania, and warmed us up in no time.

The restaurant’s main speciality was trout from the lake. Andrew and many others ordered grilled trout and fried potatoes, which they all heartily raved about. I had a warming bean soup with pickled chilli peppers, which was also delicious. Boris was sitting next to us and tried to share parts of his meal with us, so we could taste things we hadn’t ordered. He had turned out to be much more than just our driver… he was now our Bulgarian interpreter, explainer of the menu and sorter of the bill. He seemed to want us to have the best experience possible. 😊

Despite the foggy and cold weather, our day in the Pirin Mountains had left me feeling amazingly exhilarated! We arrived back at the hotel in Bansko just before our late check-out time. After getting out of our muddy clothes and having a quick hot shower, we piled back into the minibus. We’d started falling behind on our travel notes, so I settled into some writing on our short drive to the small village we were staying overnight in.

Next we travel north to Gorno Dragliste, for a Bulgarian homestay.

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20th September 2018

Bears
A very difficult situation ...rescued animals but still on show.. I can understand your ambivalent feelings. Food seems to have been pretty good and hearty - I’d like to try the breaded cheese!
20th September 2018

Re: Bears
We acknowledge that the charity does amazing work in a very difficult area... but even in hindsight, we are both still ambivalent about the bear sanctuary experience. That breaded cheese was a hefty meal! :)
20th September 2018
charlie, belitsa bear sanctuary

Charlie
I can see why he won your heart! A beautiful creature. I didn't know bears ears were so small ;-)
20th September 2018
charlie, belitsa bear sanctuary

Re: Charlie
He really pulls on the heartstrings doesn't he? There's a reason they use his image for their PR material! :)
20th September 2018

Bansko and surrounds
I will add this to the list for our Bulgaria trip Thank you.
20th September 2018

Re: Bansko and surrounds
You are welcome. Hope the trip planning is going well :)
21st September 2018
belitsa bear sanctuary

Sanctuary
How peaceful and beautiful. Living the life. Travel is full of these amazing moments. I get hungry every time I read your blog.
21st September 2018
belitsa bear sanctuary

Re: Sanctuary
The sanctuary was set in a beautiful forest... and the bears were safe. The food in Bulgaria was quite delicious :)
27th September 2018

It's So Sad
Reading your comments about the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary and seeing photos of the bears there made me so very sad, and yet I did feel some hope that these poor animals will feel some kind of peace, love there but the scars of cruelty will probably never go away. At least some one has recognized the cruelty endured by the bears and tried to do something about it. And I hope the fees paid by guests keep coming because that may enable the caregivers to keep the bears safe indefinitely. I've decided not to visit several countries based on their cruelty to animals. But on a brighter note, I am definitely enjoying reading about your ongoing trip adventures and your photos are all wonderful.
27th September 2018

Re: It's So Sad
Hi Sylvia, yes it was extremely sad seeing how scarred and distressed some of the bears were. These charities do such awesome work, but have to also walk multiple political and cultural tightropes in order to exist. We try to support a few of these charities in each country we travel to... Thanks for your lovely compliment :)
12th October 2018

Bear Sanctuary
Oh, this is just heartbreaking, but hopeful at the same time. I have heard of the "dancing bears" and I find it beyond comprehension how people are so, well, evil really, to treat animals this way. It continually baffles me. It's hard to have any hope for humanity, until you think about all the people on the other side, fighting to rescue and rehabilitate these bears, and other abused animals. They are real heroes.
13th October 2018

Re: Bear Sanctuary
It was so heartbreaking :( I get so frustrated when governments are too scared to ban these sorts of evil activities because they fear a voter backlash! And yes, the people who dedicate their lives to working in this area are total heroes :)

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