Friday, July 07, 2006

Mountain Top, Sea Hop

New Travellers Tips Discovered:

* Better shoes are needed before attempting to climb over high mountains. Mud and snow soak through easily. Boots for next time.

* Wet muddy shoes take a long time to dry .. and they stink.

* Bulgarians will not stop trying to speak Bulgarian, even after you have clearly tried to explain you cannot even say thank you correctly. Blah-goh-dah-reeya!

* Always check how much a taxi in Sofia will cost. When they say "I have meter", check their rates.

* Doing a runner on a scary looking Bulgarian taxi driver should not be undertaken, even after most expensive ride in history.

* Travelling without a guidebook is hard work. It makes "easy" countries more adventurous.

* Bus stops are great sources for local maps.

* Big book shops should be visited to have that quick squint at that English guidebook. Handy for knowing where to catch the next bus out of town.

And so it is another country, another day. Off and around and across. I am making tracks after stalling in Bulgaria for over a week. And a great week it was.

I ended it by having a bit of a hike. And it turned out to be a mini adventure, and I am all into those. I partnered up with Luke, the crazy Aussie, cycling from Thailand to London, and we caught an early bus out of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. We were on our way to the Rila Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the Balkans.

To get there though we needed, to catch two buses and then hope for another one going up to the start of the national park. The first two were easily achieved, in fact almost too easy, we were on and off without any waiting around. The third though just so happen to stitch us up. No buses up to the mountains on a Sunday. Bloody weekends, they can screw around with your travel plans.

Not too fazed we decided, to walk and grab a lift with a kind stranger. I kept remembering the last time I did this .. in East Timor .. and ended up having to walk 20k's in the hot sun. Luckily this time, it was overcast and after the fourth car we got a lift from a couple of guys and a young girl. We squeezed in the back with her and we had fun looking at her Bulgarian gossip mag, complete with pictures of Nicole Kidman getting married. I hope she was impressed when I told her she comes from the same place as me.

We started the hike. We were on the north side of the mountains and we were crossing them to get to the famous Rila Monastery. It was only an overnight walk, but we were planning to stretch it out over a few days to see some of this countryside. No tent was needed, as their were plenty of huts, but Luke bought his along anyway.

To the first hut took about 3 hours straight up. By the time we were getting close the weather closed in and we were in the middle of thick fog. More than 15 metres in front of us was total whiteout. So it was a surreal experience, to hear voices first, then see a light up on high above us, and then to see the outline of a gigantic building loom out in front of us. This was not a hut, it was a palace. Inside we went. A hotel it turned out to be. Complete with restaurant, bar and lounge area. The weather was really shite outside, so we decided to have some soup, as you do, up in the mountains, and wait out for it to clear.

Monster hut

It did clear up and so we headed off to the older hut listed on the maps nearby. Somewhere hopefully with a bit more atmosphere and not as soulless. It turned out to be a laugh with an old woman caretaker, looking after the place, and some young Bulgarian kids sleeping in the dorm room. It was cheap too and the old woman even dried out my wet shoes in her oven. They must have stunk up her little room in the process though.

We filled in the evening by the cooking ritual, and then a few games of chess. One of the other Bulgarian guys sussed out our playing standard and challenged me to a game later. I was completely trounced. He had a skillful defence with his knights. I will have to remember it.

Next day the weather was still closed in, so the beautiful views we came all the way to see were nonexistent. Instead of poking around for an extra night, we decided to high tail it all the way across the tops to the Monastery. In the process we walked through snow and over 2600m mountains. My shoes were almost had it but after 6 hours we reached the Monastery. Just as the last bus back to Sofia was leaving. Nice timing, but we were keen to see something of this place, so we passed on the bus and hoped something would work out.

On top

End of the track

Turns out a nice little French man with a rented car and on business was heading back half way to Sofia. We politely asked if we could get a ride and he was more than happy to help. We kept him entertained with stories to pay our way. After dropping us off it was a bus and a tram back to the hostel, Luckily the days are long here, still light at around 9, so getting in late is no big deal.

I had a couple of options from Sofia. The first was my original plan was to go through Macedonia, but this required getting a visa in advance and I was only planning to go for a few days. The second option was through Serbia and then Kosovo, but this meant I had to do a lot of back tracking from where I wanted to see. The third option was taken, through Northern Greece.

I discovered a bus leaving at a reasonable hour and I jumped in the first cab to the bus station. Of course this is where I got hit up by the exorbitant rate. Bastard. I should have realised when I saw the TV attached to the dash that this guy was a shark.

Across the border into Greece to Thessaloniki, to get a tad lost. No guidebook makes it all the more interesting. Managed to find a cheap .. very cheap hotel .. to rest up. Next day and I was out on another bus heading west. For someone who loves train travel so much, all I have caught so far on this trip are buses.

The bus deposited me at the port town of Igoumenitas, and before I knew it I was off on a ferry to Corfu. Another party place. Beaches and bars again. And it is not really my scene. But I want to get the sense of this culture before plunging back into the place I was really trying to get to all along. Albania. Soon I will be on a ferry heading over there. Should be an adventure, at least I have a guidebook for there though.

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