The Vitosha Mountains With a Dog – Bulgaria
I know this might come to you as a surprise but, when you travel you can actually get something called “sensory overload”. Too many beautiful sites, monuments, churches and breathtaking monasteries can end up giving you a sort of fatigue resulting in a need to take a break. That can mean spending a day or two on a beach and just relaxing in the sun (as we did when on the black sea coast), or in the mountains enjoying a good hike and some fresh air.
And we did just that – twice – while near Sofia. We went hiking once at the beginning of our trip and once at the tail end, when we ended up leaving a day later than originally thought. That’s right folks! Mom had remembered our return flight date a whole day EARLY! So we ended up with what we called a “bonus day”. I’ll include both experiences in one blog post. Because it’s the same wonderful location. The Vitosha Mountains. But first, let me tell you a little about them.
At a time when nature conservation wasn’t a part of day-to-day language an enlightened noblemen took the first step in protecting the Vitosha Mountains in 1934. He took it upon himself for reasons unknown, to declare 66 km² of Vitosha a Nature Park. This is how “Vitosha” became the first park of its kind in the Balkans. During the following year, others joined in and the Nature Park grew, first with Bistrishko Branishte (10.61 km²) and Torfeno Branishte (7.84 km²). The park boundaries have fluctuated over the years but today it encompasses the ENTIRE MOUNTAIN; an area of 266.06 km². That is just too cool for words IMHO.
Vitosha Mountain’s gorgeous silhouette is visible from almost anywhere in Sofia and as a result it is a big part of the cities image. People judge the weather by the way the clouds move around its peak. I loved watching people, including our hosts do just that.
On our hikes I was stunned by the variety of flora. You can find a huge selection Balkan endemics, and the globular yellow blossoms of the Vitosha tulip (Trollius europaeus) can be seen on the open high-mountain parts. A huge surprise was learning that there are 30 species of orchids found on The Vitosha territory. Mom tried to find some but sadly didn’t (she is a huge fan). The mountain is also home to a large diversity of big and small mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians and depending on the season up to about 200 species of birds can be observed. 120 species nest within the park borders. That’s pretty amazing and great news for bird watchers!
And although we saw neither, I do want to mention that Sofia is the single European capital situated near brown bear habitat. Did you know that? I didn’t either but a visit to the bear museum will teach you a lot of interesting things! And since 2002 the park’s administration has successfully carried out a project to revive the Balkan wild goat population, a species that perished in the mountain over a 100 years ago. I love success stories don’t you?
My visits to the park were simply amazing. I enjoyed the hikes on the well-established paths, the fresh water springs here and there were always welcome. The round boulder rivers known as the Golden Bridges (I have no idea why; they are neither golden nor … bridges…) are an amazing phenomenon. This stone river consists of a ribbon of huge boulders running down the mountainside. This scenic spot we visited is located along the Vladayska River in an area of mixed deciduous and evergreen forest. These boulders are what was left behind on the path of moving glaciers. I did not understand the full science behind them but they basically continued to roll downstream and as a result became round thanks to gravity and moving water. Either way the phenomenon is incredible and you can’t help but imagine the large hand of a giant having had something to do with it.
The other thing that was a completely new experience was taking the ski lift up to a hiking point… in the summer. Yes, the ski lift runs all year! In the winter obviously it is used mostly for skiers and by other winter sport lovers. But the rest of the year you can find folks using it to carry up their mountain bikes for some hard core runs, and also for campers (with a LOT of gear) and hikers. Dogs are welcome on the lift as long as you can figure out a way to get on and off the open T-ski lift and keep them safe! Of course for me that meant being harnessed inside Mom’s bag and simply getting on with her. I did sit on Dad’s lap the entire way up with him holding my leash and harness firmly! It was exhilarating!!
Once we got off at the top, we made our way past the large engine room, and behind it was the start of a lovely path. Our hosts Radmila, Slavcko and Pepi lead the way and what a treat! I really can’t tell you enough how wonderful this walk was. Dogs can go off leash, but when another dog is seen it is recommended you put them on leash. Yes “just” recommended. In my case I just ran free as a bird. Speaking of birds … The bipeds did keep a close eye on me because there are some birds of prey in the mountains. Although they would never go after me under the large dense trees it was a different story when out in open spaces. I stayed very close like a good boy, and our combined mass made me “too big a target”. So if you have a truly tiny dog (rabbit size) that doesn’t listen well to “heal” commands… a leash may not be a bad idea.
OH the fun!! I went over rustic branch bridges, I jumped across rock pathways, I dug my paws into dirt paths and muddied my fur. The flowers were blooming, the moss dense, the mushrooms everywhere, the butterflies danced and the woodpeckers in the distance kept an staccato beat. It was simply heaven. Even when thunder rumbed in the distance it couldn’t damped our fun.
I absolutely recommend this hike to anyone. You don’t need special hiking boots. Just some smart shoes. Mom even managed it in her Pumas and Dad simply had his running shoes. Obviously hiking shoes may be better but don’t feel you have to pack them if only going for one hike. There are easier paths to follow that you could even do in sandals. So don’t worry! In fact, I heard someone say that they have even opened a trail for folks with mobility problems in the Iglikina Polyana area. How awesome is that?
So if you are ever in Sofia or anywhere near the Vitosha Mountains do go. Yes, the Boyana Church is there as well and worth the visit (a must in fact) but the mountain itself is worthy of your undivided attention. I can’t tell you how many dogs I saw … from XXL to XXS… canines were a part of the experience and it was nice to see that no one was going to challenge a person for wanting to bring their pet along on a hike. In fact even the restaurant serving “hardy” hiking food allowed pets… so just … go!
Do note that near the parking areas you may come across some wild/stray dogs. Most of them sleeping in the sun. They never really bothered us. Not even a growl. One cute fellow did follow us for a bit, tail wagging … broke our hearts.
In review: Today the park is furnished with a well-built tourist infrastructure of paths over 300 km total in length. The mountain provides excellent conditions for trekking all year round, skiing (there are 6 ski-run of 13.6 km total length), rock and ice climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, horse back riding, and also environment-friendly activities. Not to mention snow-shoeing and even kite-winging! There are a lot of mountain chalets and hotels in the northern part if your looking for accomodations.
The park is the preferred place for carrying out “Green” education for schools, so expect to see lots of children. In recent years many information centers and new paths have been built including: The nature conservation center in Dragalevtsi, the Museum of Bear in the Dendrarium area, the Museum of the Dragon Fly and the House of Owlets in Belite Brezi, the information pathway in the peat areas in Ofeliyte and most impressive, the dendrological alley arranged specifically for the visually impaired.
So you see Dear Reader, the Vitosha Mountains have something for absolutely everyone.