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Walking in the national parks of Bulgaria

For those visiting their holiday home in Bulgaria, those who own a property or even if you are simply visiting the country on holiday, there are some fabulous walks to be had through Bulgaria's National Parks.

The following is a small extract from Walk Number 8, The Ibar Reserve, taken from Walking in Bulgaria’s National Parks, written by Julian Perry and published by Cicerone.

Julian was born and raised on the southeast coast of England, but for the last 20 years has spent most of hist time in the Bulgarian mountains, where he now runs a specialist eco-tourism company, Balkan Trek, organising walking and wildlife-watching holidays. Our thanks to Julian and Cicerone for allowing us to reproduce part of this walk and for the use of the map. We will also be publishing a review of the entire book in the next few days.

The Ibar Reserve

This interesting circular walk is located in the far northeastern corner of the Rila National Park, above the town of Kostenets. The walk is fairly demanding, and involves an ascent of Belmeken (2626m), one of the highest peaks in the region. As well as some steep sections, there are also places where route-finding can be difficult, especially in poor weather. For much of the way, the trail skirts round the fringes of the Ibar Reserve. This was established to preserve typical sub-alpine biotopes, characterised by thickets of dwarf pine, extensive areas of high mountain pasture, and in several places, cliffs and rock outcrops. There are also some patches of ancient coniferous forest. Although only a relatively small reserve, it has a rich flora and fauna, with over 400 species of higher plant, and more than 50 breeding species of bird. The reserve also provides an important refuge for rare mammals such as the brown bear, wolf and Balkan chamois.

Getting to the Start

The starting point for this walk is the Kostenets resort at the northeastern foot of the Rila Mountains. Be aware that there is a town, a village and a villa zone all bearing the same name! To get to the trail-head you first need to travel to the town of Kostenets. This is currently served by 13 trains each day from the sentralna gara in Sofia, the first departing at 6.38am and the last 11.40pm. On arrival at Kostenets town, the easiest way to reach the actual starting point of the walk is to take one of the taxis that congregate outside the front of the station. Ask the driver to take you to vili Kostenets, the resort district where the walk begins. It is about 9km up the road beyond the village of Kostenets. You need to be set down in the centre of the resort, by a large drinking fountain decorated with a statue of a chamois.

Day 1 - Kostenets to Hizha Belmeken

From the ‘chamois fountain’ in the centre of vili Kostenets (840m), set off along the asphalt lane just to the right of a yellow-painted forestry building. There is a sign indicating that this is the starting point for a red-blazed trail to hizha Gerginitsa and hizha Venetitsa. After a few minutes, leave the latter trail and fork left over a bridge on a stony forestry track. This curls up and passes above the waterfall, before running on steadily upstream along the rocky, gorge-like valley of the Stara Reka.

The track crosses back and forth between both banks of the river, and after about 30mins brings you to some buildings at the entrance to the national park. Then, 5mins beyond, you arrive at an important junction at Dvete Reki (‘the two rivers’). Here, ignore the track straight on south up the valley of the Krayna Reka, and instead keep on the main track, which cuts back right upstream along the rocky valley of the Chavcha Reka.

After about 15mins you pass some benches and a place for making open fires, as the track makes a big hairpin left. Then, less than 10mins later, you reach another junction. Ignore the newly blasted track that drops down towards the river, and instead fork up left on the main track, which runs on through a rock cutting and past a little cascade. After about 20mins you pass a ruined building and enter the boundaries of the Ibar Reserve, then 25mins later reach another key point at Adzhivalitsa, the confluence of the Odzhovitsa (Ravnivrashka Reka) with the river Chavcha.

Here, just before the track bends across a bridge, is a small glade where you break off left, climbing into the trees on a green-blazed path. After 5mins the path splits and you bend left, then 10mins later it splits again, and this time you fork right, following both green and yellow blazes as you climb steeply up a stony, hollowed-out path. Eventually the trail starts to level off slightly, and after 20mins you emerge at Pochivaloto, where there is a large glade and a junction with an old grassy forestry track, along which is blazed a trail to hizha Venetitsa.
Continue straight on up the right-hand side of the glade, and when the path splits on re-entering the trees, fork right, although both branches do in fact quickly re-unite. A few minutes later, ignore the faint path that breaks off right past a small memorial, and keep straight on along the main trail. The forest now starts to thin, and you pass through a succession of pretty glades studded with clumps of whortleberry before entering the dwarf pine zone. Eventually, after about 30mins, you reach Golyamoto (Dalgoto) Torishte, where you meet up with the first of the pole-markers leading to the mountain hut.

About 5mins beyond the first pole, just before the trail crosses a brook, you will see a rock bearing just the stump of a metal pole. This is an almost indistinguishable junction where a faint red-blazed path comes in on the left from Kostenets via the valley of the Krayna Reka. However, for hizha Belmeken it is not a critical point, for the main trail is obvious, climbing steadily on up through the dwarf pine.

Eventually you catch a first glimpse of the hut’s metal roof, poking up directly ahead above the tops of the dwarf pine. The path snakes on up towards it, crossing a stream, and then passing a pretty cascade formed by the Odzhovitsa. Finally, having passed a small memorial, you emerge after 35mins onto the retaining wall at the outflow of Ravnivrashko Ezero (2222m). Tucked in at the northern foot of Ravni Chal (2637m; Ravni Vrah), this is the most easterly glacial lake in the Rila Mountains. Our goal, hizha Belmeken (2224m), lies just a short distance away to the right.