Sofia is perhaps an exception to the unwritten rule that every great city should be located either at sea or near a major river. Bulgaria's capital has a rare advantage, though: within an hour you can leave behind the noise and bustle of downtown and be climbing up a mountain. With its 2,290-metre-high peak of Cherni Vrah, Vitosha is Bulgaria's fourth highest mountain. It is in the southern part of the Sofia Plain, and a mountain view or a house on its slopes command higher real estate prices in some parts of the capital.
Fortunately, Cherni Vrah can be "conquered" even by inexperienced tourists – asphalt roads lead to the lower slopes of Vitosha, while the higher ones are reachable by cable car services or by using signposted paths.
The easy access explains why, during the summer, hundreds of Sofianites flock to the peak and enjoy a range of activities, from updating their Facebook status while posing for photographs on the boulders, to playing Frisbee in the meadows. Family groups are talking, queueing up for the lifts and gulping down hot bean soup at the strategically located café below the peak. The more adventurous head off on a trek which, depending on the chosen route, the difficulty and the starting point, can take from 90 minutes to five hours.
Today Cherni Vrah, whose name means Black Peak, is taken for granted as a leisure destination, but about a century ago, the only people who wandered over Vitosha were shepherds and woodcutters from the surrounding villages.
That changed for good in the summer of 1895. On 22 August, one of Bulgaria’s greatest writers and an enthusiastic traveller, Aleko Konstantinov, published an invitation in one of Bulgaria’s leading newspapers. It read: "Bulgarian nature lovers from Sofia are invited to attend the launch of the Bulgarian Tourist Association. The event will take place on 27 August at Cherni Vrah, at noon sharp. All amateurs aged above 20 are welcome."
At that time Konstantinov's idea for an organised trek was unheard of in Bulgaria. Visitors to the country were few and they mostly preferred romantic wanderings in solitude or merry walking with a bunch of friends ending with a picnic. Konstantinov, however, knew how to convince people. His invitation was followed by a long appendix extolling the beauty of untamed Bulgarian nature and predicting a bright future for the yet unborn organised tourism in Bulgaria. Promising that the future tourism organisation would be organised just like the ones in Europe, Konstantinov provided advice for inexperienced trekkers who wanted to participate but knew neither where nor when to start climbing, and the names of the guides in the mountain villages who could be trusted. Konstantinov also indulged in some name dropping, addressing famous personalities with a soft spot for nature, like the poet Ivan Vazov, suggesting that they might like to participate.
His idea was simple: get out of the dirty towns with their soul-destroying vices for at least a day, and enjoy raw nature for the sake of it. At noon on 27 August 1895, 300 enthusiasts met on the peak, and Ivan Vazov was indeed one of them. Today, the events of August 1895 are considered the start of organised tourism in Bulgaria.
Within a couple of years Vitosha and Cherni Vrah became what Konstantinov had always wanted – a favourite place for an easy escape from the big city. In 1924 the first mountain hut was built, in the Maslovitsa area. It was called Aleko, after Konstantinov's nickname. Ten years later the mountain was pronounced a national park, the first in Bulgaria and across the Balkans. A weather station was constructed on the peak in 1935. It is still functioning. Nowadays, with an area of 66,000 acres, Vitosha contains two nature reserves, one of which, Torfeno Branishte, is just below Cherni Vrah. More than 300 species of lichen and about 500 species of duckweed flourish there.
The peak has another peculiarity. With a maximum speed of 9.3 metres per second, the winds sweeping Cherni Vrah make it the second most windy peak in Bulgaria. First place goes to Murgash in the Stara Planina.
In spite of the special place that Vitosha and Cherni Vrah hold in the history of organised tourism in Bulgaria, and in the hearts of Sofianites, in 2011 and 2012 they became practically inaccessible to anyone unable or unwilling to climb on foot.
In the winter of 2011, just before the start of the ski season, Vitosha Ski, a private company that operated the cable cars and lifts on the mountain, shut down the facilities. The company explained that its drastic move was a protest against the strict regulations forbidding construction of new lifts in the national park. While the ski lovers of Sofia protested, Vitosha Ski demanded that the government ease the regulations of the Forestry Act. The cable cars and lifts remained stopped for the whole winter, effectively ruining the ski season. In spite of popular protests, in June 2012 Boyko Borisov's government made the changes demanded to the Forestry Act. Mass rallies followed, however, and Borisov withdrew his support for the amendments while President Rosen Plevneliev vetoed the act.
The lifts and the cable cars were down for eight months. After a meeting with the Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, however, the Vitosha Ski opened two of the crucial lines, the Dragalevtsi and Simeonovski cable cars, in August. Still, consider trekking to reach Cherni Vrah. This make it easier to recreate that enthusiastic August 1895, when a single writer turned (some) lazy Sofianites into tourists.
Several routes will take you to Cherni Vrah. One option is to leave your car at the Zlatnite Mostove area and to walk up to Humata hut and then to the summit. This trek will take you about 3.5 to 4 hours one way. Some prefer the route from the village of Yarlovo, on the southern slopes of Vitosha. This trek takes you to the Siva Gramada peak and then to Cherni Vrah. Prepare to walk for a good five hours. Driving to Aleko, leaving the car and walking will take you to Cherni Vrah in an hour and a half. Bear in mind that this route is somewhat difficult due to the significant altitude changes. On the other hand, Konstantinov himself stated that a person incapable of climbing the Vitosha does not deserve to be called a proper tourist. It's your call, really.
Another car-and-hut option is the Edelweiss hut, which marks the beginning of about 2.5 hours walking to the summit. Vitosha's biggest village, Chuypetlyovo, is also used as a starting point, although from there expect a 4.5 hour hike. While trekking, be very careful as the path markings are sometimes nonexistent or are not easily visible.