I have a lot of state pride, a fact which my fellow YES Abroad Bulgaria students have learned over the past two weeks as I’ve drunk excessive amounts of water from my purple (Oregon-made) HydroFlask with the Oregon-shaped sticker that says HOME on it while waxing poetic about Oregon’s water or Oregon’s people or Oregon’s culture…sorry girls.
Anyway, a large part of being an Oregonian is loving to get out in nature, be it hiking, swimming, camping, or sailing. As such, I was a little bit nervous when I learned that I would be living in Sofia, Bulgaria’s largest and capital city, for the year! Was I destined to spend 10 months in a concrete jungle, devoid of trees or hills? Would I go a full scholastic year without a single hike?! Luckily for me, this is not the case. Not only do I live 30 minutes outside of Sofia in a beautiful village surrounded by Bulgarian countryside, but the city (and Bulgaria in general) is an incredibly green place filled with countless natural wonders. I got my first taste of these last weekend when the YES Abroad Bulgaria team, Jelena and Rumi, took Makana, Lily, Delaney, and me on an overnight trip to Rila Mountain!
For context, Rila is a mountain range in southwestern Bulgaria and is the highest mountain range of both Bulgaria and the Balkans. Its most famous sights are the Seven Rila Lakes, which is what we went to see, and Rila Monastery, which we are going to see on Thursday (check back for that post soon). The hija (a type of traditional mountain cabin) we stayed in was about a 2-hour drive plus a 40-minute hike from the center of Sofia, so not right nearby but not too far either!
We left Sofia a little after 4 pm, following an epic battle with the car alarm which was convinced we were burglars despite having unlocked the car with the key. Finally victorious, the six of us loaded in and set off on our adventure. The drive there was intermittently silent, as we perpetually exhausted exchange students napped, and near-raucous with laughter, as we swapped stories from our lives in the States. Fortunately for everyone involved, the four of us Americans get along great. We tease each other relentlessly (knowing it’s all in good fun), but are also able to be truly supportive of each other without condescension or comparison of our individual exchange experiences. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better group.
We arrived at the hija sometime around 7, I think, and I immediately fell in love with the place. To get there, you walk through the woods for about 40 minutes before the path opens up on a clearing. In center of the clearing are several wooden tables, with benches and stools made from tree trunks and stumps, around which are about 4 different structures. The central building is the hija itself which contains a dining room, kitchen, and several guest rooms. The other buildings are a mix between additional rooms and smaller structures that I don’t think a human being should enter without a hard hat. Maybe I’m wrong, but they looked quite unsteady. To the right of the hija is an open field with tall grass, surrounded by gorgeous evergreens. See the photos below to understand all of the beauty my meagre words can’t describe.
Along with the breathtaking sights, the hija had another thing going for it — “Markovi”! Meaning “Carrots” we gave this name to an adorable little dog, no more than a month and a half old, who had wandered to the hija with some travelers a few weeks earlier and decided to move in! I hate to rely on stereotypes, but upon seeing him we responded exactly as you would expect from four teenage girls. Lots of squealing. Lots of pictures. Like the one you see to the left of me falling in love for the first time. Technically his name is Мече, which means “little bear”, but Makana saw him and exclaimed “Markovi!” and, for us at least, it stuck. He made an already magical experience about 100000x better and we all miss him dearly.
Our evening at the hija was basically my idea of perfection. After a wonderful dinner of salad, spaghetti Bolognese, and insanely delicious Bulgarian meatballs (not served with the pasta as one might expect in the U.S. but as a separate course), plus lots of homemade herbal tea served from a huge metal kettle on the iron stove in the corner, we moved outside to sit under the stars. Jelena found out that I (kind of) play guitar and managed to borrow one! I hadn’t played in probably a year or more, but I managed to strum out some Taylor Swift classics as well as, at Makana’s request, All Star by Smash Mouth. It felt so incredibly good to play again. I hadn’t just sat down and made music solely for the joy of doing it in longer than I would like to admit. It felt really good.
We sat around the fire, laughing and singing, for the rest of the night. Around 11-ish we retreated into our cozy room — which fit all six of us comfortably with room for two more! The bulk of the room was taken up by bunk beds topped with thick green woolen blankets which could fit three people on each level. Against another wall was a second, typically sized set of bunk beds with a table at one end and against a third wall was the stove that kept us warm. The fourth wall held a huge window with lace curtains. Though the beds were only slightly softer than bare planks of wood, I slept like a baby. Must have been that fresh mountain air :)
The morning consisted of banitsa and tea for breakfast, more photo-taking (check back here soon for a Gallery page!), and walking the 40 minutes back to the parking lot to put our bags in the car before catching the ski lift to the top of the mountain. It was at least a 20 minute ride to the top which was great on the way up and less great on the way down, for reasons that will become clear. The views from the lift and from the top were…well there’s a photo right there. See for yourself. In many ways the scenery actually reminded me of home, but with a distinctly European charm. What could be better?
This is where the story becomes somewhat less than ideal: It started raining. Now you may be thinking, “Margaret you were bragging about being a true Oregonian earlier, what’s a little rain?” Normally, I would agree with you. In fact, that was indeed the attitude I took at first. But then it kept raining. And raining harder. And it had been a bright, sunny day when we got on the lift, so I was wearing only a not remotely waterproof sweatshirt for warmth and was carrying only my not remotely waterproof camera. So like I said. Less than ideal.
By the time we reached the bottom of the lift, my sweatshirt was about 10 pounds heavier and I looked like a drowned cat, but my camera was safe. We all rushed to the car as fast as possible to begin peeling off our wet clothes and trading them for whatever clean, dry stuff we had left in our bags.
Now, do you remember the legendary car alarm battle from the beginning of this story? Well, having had a full night to rest and recover, Mr. Alarm was back and stronger than ever! That’s right, as soon as we opened the door it started honking and wailing with all its might, and this time it wasn’t stopping. Desperate to get to food and a bathroom, so we could properly clean up, we decided that the other drivers could deal with it and proceeded down the mountain with more fanfare than a royal parade.
Eventually we found a restaurant for lunch (at approximately 4:30 pm) and the car got tired or something and decided to shut up, so we made it the rest of the way home without issue. Our host families met us at the American Councils office in Sofia and we each headed off to our respective showers and beds.
Because of the rain we only managed to see one of the Seven Rila Lakes, but all in all it was an absolutely wonderful trip. I got to spend time with some marvelous people in one of the most exquisite settings I’ve ever seen. 10/10: Would recommend.
While this trip is a highlight of my exchange so far, each day has been uniquely great. Bulgaria has this remarkable ability to feel more and more like home while also surprising me more and more each day. There’s so much I wish I could share with you all, but I would never stop writing. There is definitely a post about the struggles of learning Bulgarian coming your way, as well as a recap of my first week of school (next week!!), plus whatever else my overloaded brain thinks of. Until next time, довижане!