Braving 700 km of Balkan Mountain Range
Bulgaria has plenty of mountains and peaks that challenge even experienced mountaineers, yet one of its greatest outdoor adventures is not just conquering some 2,900-metre-high summit. It is trekking along the ridge of the Stara Planina, the mountain range that divides Bulgaria from west to east, known also by its more poetic name, the Balkans.
You will scarcely come across a Bulgarian outdoor aficionado who does not dream about making or who is not proud of having made the 700 km trek that starts at the 2,016-metre Kom Peak by Bulgaria's border with Serbia and continues to the 60-metre-high Cape Emine that drops into the Black Sea. Completing Bulgaria's longest mountain route calls for experience, stamina, physical and mental fitness and serious planning, as it takes between 18 and 30 days. The trek includes a combined ascent of 20,500 metres and a descent of 21,500 metres, taking in 23 passes and 17 peaks higher than 2,000 metres above see level. The path is not always clearly marked and there is no food available at some of the stopping places, so planning well in advance and having good maps to rely on is a must.
The attraction of the trek goes beyond its difficulty. The Stara Planina holds a unique place in the Bulgarian national consciousness. It may be rather narrow but, as it stretches for hundreds of kilometres, the mountain range was an obstacle for ancient and medieval invaders for millennia, along with 19th century armies and modern road builders. Crucial battles were fought for its passes and countless travellers complained of its rugged, dangerous terrain. Its long tradition of acting as a refuge for both brigands and those who sought safety from raiders turned it into a symbol of freedom and, ultimately, of Bulgaria itself.
It was understandable, then, that the Stara Planina's sublime mountainscapes of thick forests, deep gorges, pristine meadows and forbidding peaks attracted the attention of the first proper tourists in Bulgaria, in the late 19th century.
The first to come up with the idea of trekking the Stara Planina ridge from end to end was the founder of organised tourism in Bulgaria himself, the writer Aleko Konstantinov (1863-1897). It seems he used to tell his friends that if he never realised his dream of circumnavigating the world, walking the Stara Planina from west to east would be his second best option, "a joyful and beneficial vagabonding."
Konstantinov made neither of these journeys, and it was another man, 54-year-old mountaineer Pavel Deliradev, who fulfilled his dream of trekking along the Stara Planina as late as 1933. Deliradev took 30 days to achieve this.
Located at an altitude of 866 metres above sea level, Krastets Railway Station is the highest stop on the Ruse-Podkova line that crosses Bulgaria north to south. A number of mountain routes meet in it, the Kom-Emine included
Gradually, as tourism and outdoor activities became more popular in Bulgaria, more people took up the challenge. A path was laid out and marked, and huts were built along the mountain ridge. In the 1990s, the path became a part of the Pan-European E-3 pedestrian route that links the Atlantic with the Black Sea. Later, in the 2010s, an informal competition began to see who could cover the route the fastest, resulting in several records. The current one belongs to Bozhidar Antonov who, in 2018, ran from Kom Peak to Cape Emine in four days, eight hours and 27 minutes.
The Kom-Emine route has also created its own subculture. There are dedicated websites, blogs and guides, and even a song called "Going to the Seaside on Foot." There is also a rather charming tradition, according to which you should take two pebbles from Kom Peak when you start, and when you reach Cape Emine you should throw one of the pebbles into the sea, and preserve the second one as a keepsake.
For most of the way, the Kom-Emine route passes through wilderness, but it also goes by some of Bulgaria's most interesting natural and historical sites. Starting from the west, the first are the majestic Iskar Gorge and the Lakatnik Cliffs. Then the route goes through the Central Balkan National Park, a haven of wildlife and mountaineering, with such places of interest as the 2,376-metre Botev Peak, the Stara Planina's highest summit, the 124-metre Rayskoto Praskalo Waterfall, which is the highest in the Balkans, and the menacing wilderness of the two Dzhendema reserves. Further east in the Uzana area, which is Bulgaria's geographical centre, there are the Shipka Pass and the monument to the Bulgarian and Russian soldiers who held the pass in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, and also the crumbling remains of the Bulgarian Communist Party house on Mount Buzludzha. The most spectacular part of the eastern Kom-Emine route is at its very end. Rising above the Black Sea, Cape Emine is a stunning sight in its own right. Reaching it after days of hardship and tossing a pebble from its edge into the sea beneath is an experience that, we are sure, is almost as satisfying as circumnavigating the world.
The beginning! Rising for up to 2,016 metres above sea level Kom Peak is the highest in the Berkovska part of the Stara Planina. Several clearly marked paths lead to it: Kom Hut (2 hours), Petrohan Pass (3,30 hours), Komshtitsa village (3 hours), Gintsi village (3 hours). The peak is rounded and covered in grass, and the vistas that open from it are nothing short of marvellous. Latterday tourists are hardly the first visitors to be stunned by them. Bulgarian poet and outdoors enthusiast Ivan Vazov dedicated a whole poem to the peak, extolling the sublime mountainscapes around and the sense of spiritual freedom the mountain inspired. A small monument to Vazov now stands on Kom Peak.
This is the place to take the two pebbles you are supposed to carry on your trek to the Black Sea.
Known also as Beklemeto, the pass reaches an altitude of 1,525 metres above sea level and is Stara Planina's highest. Trekkers on the Kom-Emine cross it perpendicularly, but the pass has been a vital route through the mountain for millennia – traces of a Roman road are preserved nearby. The area's popularity with tourists is why it offers more diverse accommodation than the usual basic chalet.
The pass amazes with its stunning vistas, winding roads and the gigantic Arch of Freedom monument. It is 35 metres tall and was built under Communism to celebrate the crossing of the Stara Planina by the Russian imperial army during the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Bulgarian-Soviet friendship and the centenary of the liberation from Ottoman rule. Locals jokingly refer to it as the "Tights."
Nearby is Kozyata Stena, or Goat's Wall, reserve with rocks rising vertically over thick forests.
Stara Planina's highest peak, Botev (2,376 metres above sea level) stands among some of the most challenging parts of the trek. The mountain's slopes here are steep and menacing. The locals have dubbed them Dzhendemite, or the Hells. The South Dzhendem and the North Dzhendem are nature reserves and make a labyrinthine mosaic of deep gorges, thick forests and waterfalls that are a challenge even to experienced trekkers. Thankfully, their most stunning site, Rayskoto Praskalo, or Heaven's Sprinkle, waterfall, is easier to visit. The thin strip of water gushing from 124 metres is the Balkan's highest waterfall.
Botev Peak is named after Hristo Botev, born in nearby Kalofer, but it was not always so. The peak's oldest known name is Yumrukchal, or Fist Peak, due to its distinctive shape. Between 1942 and 1946, this Turkish name was replaced with a more... patriotic one: Ferdinand Peak. Yes, the name was still foreign, but it belonged to King Ferdinand, the father of King Boris III.
Botev Peak's environs can be a pleasure even for unprepared tourists who would never dream of covering the Kom-Emine route. To the south are sublime spots of nature like Panitsite area and Byala Reka eco trail, and to the north an eco trail offers a glimpse from a distance to the almost inaccessible 80-metre Vidimsko Praskalo waterfall.
The Stara Planina around Shipka Peak (1,329 metres above sea level) is a chain of peaks intercepted by steep river valleys particularly on the southern slope.
However, Shipka Peak has a place in Bulgarian history, national consciousness and tourism that transcends its natural beauties. During the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Shipka Pass was a place of a crucial stalemate between the warring sides. The Russian imperial army stood its ground on the pass and repeatedly withstood many Ottoman attacks from the south.
Most importantly there were not only Russians who valiantly fought at Shipka. They were helped by Bulgarian volunteers. Together, they held on, in scorching heat and freezing winter, thwarting the attempts of the outnumbering Ottomans to cross. The defenders of Shipka prevailed, sealing the end of the war and, ultimately, the restoration of Bulgarian independence.
A monument, built in the 1920s-1930s, now crowns Shipka Peak. All Bulgarians visit at least once in their lifetime.
The most imposing monument on the Kom-Emine trek awaits on the 1,441-metre above sea level Buzludzha Peak. Windswept and hostile, it has witnessed two historical events. In 1868, Ottoman forces crushed a group of Bulgarian rebels. In 1891, at a nearby meadow, another group of Bulgarians met to establish the nation's first Socialist party.
In the 1970s, the Bulgarian Communist Party, which had ruled over the country for a couple of decades by then, decided to erect a larger-than-life monument-cum-congress-centre on Mount Buzludzha, to celebrate the 1891 meeting. The result was unveiled in 1981 and still stuns: a flying saucer-shaped building with a diameter of 42 metres and a pillar of concrete that rises up to 70 m. The Buzludzha House Memorial to the Bulgarian Communist Party was - and still is - visible from afar, outshining the nearby Shipka monument. The message was clear: Communism in Bulgaria was here to stay.
Communism in Bulgaria collapsed in 1989, and soon afterwards the abandoned Buzludzha memorial began to disintegrate. It is now a ghostly ruin with its own Internet fame as one of the most impressive abandoned places in the world.
Springs of the River Kamchiya
After all the demanding peaks, passes and gorges on the Kom-Emine trek, the springs of the River Kamchiya offer a pleasant respite. Hidden by tall trees, the spring of the Luda Kamchiya branch of the river is not sublime. It feels almost as if from a fairy tale: surrounded by the columns of the trees, with frequent mists and prevailing quiet.
The spring is east of the now little-used Vratnik Pass (1,097 metres above sea level) and is fed into a water fountain with a grandiose inscription: "To those fallen for freedom. Glorify their sacred feat you, unendingly flowing Kamchiya."
There is some justification for this. Only 2 kilometres west of the spring is Aglikina Polyana, or Aglika's Meadow, where Bulgarian 19th century rebels used to meet. They lived in the mountains as far away from the Ottoman authorities as possible, except for when they attacked and plundered Ottoman convoys at the pass.
Aglikina Polyana is heavily represented in Bulgarian heroic folklore, has a protected area status and hosts a regular folklore meeting.
The end! The Stara Planina ends spectacularly: with an almost vertical rock that falls for 60 metres before it meets the waters of the Black Sea. The lighthouse on it is here to help ships navigate the treacherous waters around.
This makes the perfect place for the tourists who have covered the Kom-Emine to pocket out one of the pebbles they have brought all the way and to toss it into the sea.
The nearby Emona village is almost deserted, and so is its old church and the remains of a medieval fortress and monastery. To the north of the cape, however, is one of Bulgaria's best beaches, Irakli. The beaches south of Emine are also outstanding, but as soon as the mountain slopes subside, a string of overdeveloped, crowded resorts begins. Their noise and concrete are the last thing a traveller who has trekked along the Stara Planina with all of its wilderness, dangers and beauty, wants to experience