13th Century Asen Fortress
Beauty of Bulgaria:
Sofia is a history lover's city, and if you are someone who enjoys burying your nose in various cathedrals, subways, ruins and tunnels that honeycomb the streets and below, you'll certainly be set for months - if not years - of discovery. With Thracian, Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman to choose from, there's certainly a wealth of historical layers to peel off.
But if you are someone who enjoys the outdoors, Sofia offers you plenty of alternate routes into what really sets the beauty of Bulgaria apart from the numerous other European countries you could choose from: the natural environment. Bulgarians are proud of their country's natural beauty, and most people are out of the city and into the surrounding countryside on the weekends, exploring the beauty of their country and enjoying picnics, hikes, camping treks and beyond.
A vastly untouched and undeveloped countryside surrounds Sofia, offering you the perfect opportunity to explore to your heart's content. If you enjoy hiking, you don't have to go far; the national park that makes up Vitosha, the volcanic mountain that looms above the capital city, is just minutes away. It also transforms into a ski slope in the wintertime, making it the perfect environment for seasonal enjoyment.
If you are in decent shape and don't mind a good 20 kilometer hike up into the heights, the Seven Rila Lakes round in the Rila Mountains is one of the best hiking trails you can explore outside of Sofia, and take in the beauty of the glacier lakes and the monastery while you are at it. While you can rent a car or find a tour operator offering treks directly from Sofia, you can also camp out up on the slopes or stay in one of the nearby hotels and get an early morning's start.
Another easy day trip from Sofia is the trail up to Milanovo, a small town that can be reached by train or by car just north of the capital. The cliffs offer spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and depending on how vigorous you are, you can choose between the path up the cliffs, with sheer drops on the one side, or, the cut up through the middle of the forest, which offers less shocking views in exchange for a shadowed and more relaxed passage.
The Rhodope Mountains, or the Mountains of Orpheus, stretch out across the southern section of Bulgaria and into northern Greece, and offer some of the most spectacular hiking paths, camping areas and drives in the country. The Trigrad Gorge is one of the more well-known sections of the mountains, but you can also find a number of ancient Thracian sites, such as Tatul and Perperikon. However, the cultural and historical sites take a back seat to the sheer beauty of the mountains, which are almost completely undeveloped with the exception of several hycryo-cascades as part of the hydropower system but it does little to detract from the beauty of Bulgaria.
You'll need a car to properly scour the Thodopes if you want to go beyond just the northern sections south of Sofia where they meet up with the Rila Mountains and the Pirin Mountains, but if you have a week or two to explore there is much more to see. The key is remembering that the natural beauty of Bulgaria is respected by the locals as much as it is enjoyed, and the country is very keen on keeping any camping and hiking down to the eco level.
For more information about Tim Anderson and his travels, visit Marginal Boundaries
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