Belmeken Dam to the Kartala Ski Area - Rila Mountains, Bulgaria
Part of the fun of running long distances is the research it takes to find good trails and the logistics that make it practical to do the run in a weekend. However, it’s also nice to get local input since internet searches skew to the most popular tracks, not necessarily the best ones. On my recent trip to Bulgaria I left the trip planning to Emil and Veneta at BgHike. They spend a lot of their free time in the mountains around Bulgaria, but especially in the Rila Mountains within a 2 hour drive of Sofia.
I found the BgHike site while looking for running tracks in Bulgaria. I reached out to them and let them know I wanted to have a 2 day run with around 50k on day 1 and 20k on day 2 along with 2000-2500m of elevation gain. They let me know they could find me a proper hike, so I booked the Self-Guided Pack on their website. This Self-Guided pack provides the planning, hotel/hut booking and transfer reservations (the hotel and transfer fees are separate). What I didn’t know at the time is how much research they did looking into a good route. Given the steep terrain in the Rila Mountains, it’s difficult to find a 50k run without too much elevation gain. They figured out a great route for me given their experiences and also talking to one of Bulgaria’s best women ultra-runners.
They picked me up Saturday morning at the Ibis Sofia Airport hotel. I’d arrived late the night before on Air Bulgaria traveling from Berlin, so was very tired to start the day. The hotel had a proper breakfast with plenty of coffee. On the approximately two-hour drive to the start Veneta shared with me some chocolate balls made with dates and we also stopped at a gas station so I could pick up my standard running food, Twix bars and Gummi Bears. During the drive they gave me background on the mountains and also reviewed the very detailed plan they prepared for me (which included two options depending on how I felt mid-run). They also mentioned I might want to consider carrying a stick because of dogs, but since I’d never had a problem on a run before with a dog I didn’t think it was very necessary.
We arrived at the starting point, the Belmeken Dam, about 9am. They dropped me off and agreed that I’d meet them at the end point the next day at 1pm, over 70k away. The first several 100 yards was on asphalt, but the path turned into a dirt road that made up most of the trail over the two days.
During my 70+ k of running on the two days I saw lots of interesting things. The mountains of course are beautiful, with peaks in the distance for much of the run. There are also many valley views where you can see the distant mountain peaks of the range. The other interesting things I saw were:
Semi-wild horses (in the winter they go into stables)
Herds of sheep and cattle
Shepard tending their flocks
Abandoned buildings from the dam construction projects
Many of what I believe to be small hydropower stations that don’t look to be maintained any longer
Road maintenance workers taking a midday nap in the road
Water fountains (fed by mountain springs) - I drank most of my water from the springs
A secluded alpine lake
And, also dogs.
I remember fairly early in the day the tip about carrying a stick when I encountered the first of my 8 groups of dogs. I figured out after the 3rd or 4th encounter that the dogs were just protecting their flocks (mainly sheep but also cattle), but that didn’t make many of the encounters any less scary since I’d see the dogs well before their owners. The dogs barked a lot, and I didn’t think I could get past them on the trail since they were standing their ground. When I ran past a house in a very remote area I didn’t notice the dogs until I was right alongside the house. The dogs started to bark wildly, but I could see they were all staked to the ground, so no problem. Except, one dog pulled up its stake and chased me while barking and growling for about 15-20 minutes. In all cases, these dogs stood and stared at me for a long time to make sure I was leaving the area before they’d turn around and leave. All this being said, the owners had good control over them and each time the owner whistled the dogs would move along or let me pass.
I did some research on the dogs and found a wikipedia page on the Karakachan breed. This is a very old dog breed that’s been used as a working dog in Bulgaria for years and has also been brought to the US for the same purpose. The article points out a couple things about their behavior that matches what I observed.
The Karakachan dog is strictly territorial. It accepts the flock as its territory, wherever it is. Being close to the flock, they become visibly aggressive if the flock is threatened. … There is another reason for the lack of accidents: the tradition of guarding livestock with big, aggressive dogs has always existed in Bulgaria. Everyone knows about them and people simply avoid the flocks, so conflicts do not occur.
The end of the day 1 run portion ended at Semkovo which was a good place to stop for the night. I had a filling meal at the Hotel Bor made up of fried potatoes, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, large meatballs and a couple local beers. Given the time of year, I think it was just one another couple and me there that night. Thankfully, the other couple could speak some English otherwise I would have had to use google translate to try to order dinner.
Day two was another beautiful early fall day with crisp air and bright sun all day. The run was similar terrain to day one except for the extremely steep section in the middle. At the peak is the Makedonia Hut having food and drinks. I would have stopped for a snack but I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to the finish by 1pm since the run (mostly hike since it was all uphill) took me longer than I expected. However, the run was downhill after that with good footing so I made up a lot of time and arrived to see Emil and Veneta at 12:45 in the area of the Kartala Ski Resort. They had a table and chairs out in a shaded spot and were enjoying some coffee and dates. I was thankful for a seat and some dates and a banana. A fantastic way to finish that day’s run.
I’m looking forward to going back to the Rila Mountains some day to seek more elevation to explore the peaks and ridges in the area. There are also famous views such as the Seven Rila Lakes and many other points of interest. There is also a very famous monastery, the Rila Monastery, that can be incorporated into a run. I highly recommend using BgHike given their amazing knowledge of the area and for their excellent hospitality. It’s also nice to see a friendly face at the end of a long run!
Sofia is easily accessible from most major European cities for very reasonable fares on the low-cost and also national carriers. The proximity of the Rila Mountains to Sofia also makes an ultrarunning destination weekend very easy logistically. If you have more time, there are other mountain ranges in Bulgaria and plenty of hikes to keep you busy. I hope you enjoy your ultrarunning destination trip as much as I did mine!