Hiking Chamechaude

 

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Hundreds of trails weave through the mountains surrounding Grenoble, several only accessible through villages nearby. But planning a weekday getaway hike can be a challenge without a car, as most of the buses out to these trailheads only run on the weekends outside of the summer holiday and winter ski months. There is one trail, though, that takes you up and away from civilization to the highest peak in the Chartreuse mountain range: the hike up to Chamechaude that starts in Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse.

At 9 miles, hiking Chamechaude is a pretty straightforward day hike for the intermediate or experienced hiker, though the uphill may take you a bit longer if you haven’t hiked in a while and the top might be challenging if steep slopes and sheer edges make you nervous. We took our time and the whole hike took us around 7 hours. We didn’t need any special equipment; just food, a few liters of water, and sunblock. We also picked up a map at the Grenoble Tourism Office (Office de Tourisme Grenoble-Alpes Métropole).

We wake before dawn to catch an early #62 bus to Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and in minutes we have left the city for behind. The bus trundles along on a neatly paved two-lane road and we watch as dawn spills across the swelling hills and forests. Near the end of our ride, we see a steep cliff jut from the landscape to the left. This is Chamechaude, what we’ll be climbing today.

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The bus drops us off in the center of town, less than half a mile from the trailhead. The morning chill has yet to dissipate, so we zip our jackets and start hiking to warm up. The path immediately slants upward, and with few exceptions, will continue uphill for the next several hours.

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The first part of this uphill hike is through thickly wooded forests, and wayfinding is made difficult by the profusion of trails sliced through the forest, a combination of hiking and ski trails marked with heiroglyphic patterns of colors. We imprint on our trail’s symbol of a red and white flag and follow it, learning on the way that an ‘x’ in these colors means don’t go this way, it’s not the same trail. I’d wager in the winter these ‘x’ symbols also mean “Do no enter. Downhill only.”

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An hour into the hike, the forest thins and we break into a broad meadow at the foot of Chamechaude’s steep side. Chamechaude is on this side is a sheer cliff of a massif, a deformation in the Earth’s crust that might be made if someone dropped a cosmic sized bowling ball onto the ground. Climbing it from here is not a hike but an actual climb, and we’re not equipped for that.

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Instead, we follow the trail to the left and around the back of Chamechaude, once again into forest, across small streams and through handmade livestock gates maintained by those who still graze their flocks here. There are even signs asking that we not disturb the cows and sheep.

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Finally, we find ourselves on the other side of Chamechaude, a steep but climbable slope cut with a narrow switchbacked trail. Three hours after we began our uphill hike, we begin to hike uphill in earnest, planting one foot in front of another, plodding up and scrambling over small piles of limestone rock. I pick one up to examine it and find traces of fossilized clam and snail shells. This area is a protected park, so I put them back.

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While in distance summiting Chamechaude should be only a mile, it takes us more than an hour to climb. We’re exposed here, above the treeline, and are thankful for extra sunblock as the noontime sun glares down on us. But we rest only at the top, heaving and sweating. Was the climb worth it?

You decide:

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A view from the cliff’s edge down toward the meadow.

 

 

 

Downhill, while precarious, slips by faster than the uphill and we are back at the foot of the mountain in forty minutes. We take the long way back, savoring the cooling shade of the evergreens and brilliant colors on the deciduous trees in the forest. It’s 5 pm and the day is done by the time we again reach the town center of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and we’re just in time for sunset on the bus ride back to Grenoble.

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The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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The Beautiful Island of Brač

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Brač is gorgeous. The sun hits green shrubs and flowers, turquoise blue water, and white cliffs. It’s far enough away from the mainland that it lives in its own little bubble, and while we were there it almost felt like we were alone on the island. It’s large enough to explore and hike for days, but small enough to be able to see much of it during just one visit – the perfect size for a day trip.

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We woke up early and hit the docks to catch our ferry. It’s fairly inexpensive and the trip lasts an hour or so. We caught the one to Supetar.

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On the island, the options are walking, biking, or driving. Biking would have been fun but we wanted to see a village on the other side of the island, so car it was. There’s exactly one rental agency so it’s a good thing the owner is a nice guy.

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Our first hike was a pretty short one – just a few minutes’ drive to the east of town. There wasn’t really a place to park so we pulled off on the side of the road in a gravel patch and walked up.

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The goal of this trek is to see an ancient Roman carving of Hercules that was found in an abandoned quarry on the island.

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And there his is! Hercules himself. The carving shows signs of aging but it’s remarkably well preserved for something so old. The other cool part about this quarry is the abundance of tiny fossils in the rocks. It’s not a good idea to take any, but hunting them down is a treat.

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And while we were hunting we saw an old friend! Jumping spiders are cute, and live literally all over the planet.

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Our next stop, sort of unintentionally, was in Splitska. We hadn’t planned on it, but there were signs for a winery that caught our eye and we stopped by. There’s a whole post coming on that tomorrow!

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Next up, a drive across the short axis of the island. This took about 45 minutes and had some nice stretches of curvy road. The speed limit is pretty slow on the island, and there are slow vehicles on the roads. Still, our car zipped around in a fun drive.

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We arrived in the town of Bol seeking a monastery that supposedly made delicious dessert wine. It still might, but when we went it was pretty closed. To make up for it, the beach nearby was clean and relatively warm.

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The town is a standard touristy beach town, but it is very pretty. Everything is fairly expensive so we ate a small pizza – acceptable but not great. Don’t come to Brac for the food. The drinks however, are great.

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We ordered a glass of prosecco from the major winery in town. I enjoyed the dryness of it, but Natalie wished it were sweeter. By the winery is a dock, and we watched the fish swim around in the placid waters.

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These are pipe fish – skinny, long, and quite elegant. There was a big school of them right next to the shore, probably attracted by all the food waste from the town.

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It was getting late and we still wanted to see the peak of the island, so away we went.

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Along the way we stopped at a lookout to take in the ocean.

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Sailboats!

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Our camera doesn’t have a great zoom, but it can still make out the detail.

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In the middle of the island away from the cliffs and beaches, we drove down a forest road.

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All the way at the top of the road was this massive comm tower. This is not quite the peak of Brac, that was up a few minutes walk.

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We gazed on the landscape as sunset came.

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That stub of land is the famous Zlanti Rat, the premier beach near Bol.

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Away from the ocean was the wide span of cliffs we had just come up.

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At last the sky began its orange glow.

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Around us were some buildings, probably an old watchtower.

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One of the more beautiful sunsets on our trip. We stayed until the sun went down, then drove back to the ferry. We were lucky we made it when we did – apparently we caught the last one back for the evening!

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Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride

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Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.

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The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.

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It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.

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Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.

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They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.

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At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.

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Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.

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The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.

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Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.

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Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.

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Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.

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The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.

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It’s time to get off the bus!

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Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.

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One last look at our bus..

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Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.

Hiking in Skopje, Mount Vodno

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Mount Vodno girds the southwest side of Skopje and towers over the city. It’s not a giant mountain by any means, thought it is nearly 3500 feet at the highest peak. Incidentally, that’s where this hike really starts. The first task is to get from the city up to the mountain. It may be possible to drive all the way to the starting point at the cross, but we found the road to be blocked. Instead our taxi dropped us off at a picnic area by the start of the gondola which takes people up to the cross. Since we were way, way early, we chose to walk up the switchbacks to the peak.

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We hiked up the road, taking shortcuts as we found them. For most of the larger switchbacks, there is a small dirt path that leads up the middle, cutting out most of the switchback in exchange for a slightly steeper climb. It’s well worth it.

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By the time we reached the peak and the famous cross, the gondola was nearly ready to start ferrying people up. We helped a group of runners take some photos, and off we went.

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Past the cross, things get easier. It’s really mostly downhill from here, though the trail is hard to keep track of at times.

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We thought we could see a path in the rocks, and went with it.

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The view of the city is the best from here, though we were still early enough that the morning fog had not burned off. For great city shots, later in the day would be better. Later in the day unfortunately comes with more sun and baking heat. The Mt. Vodno hike is hot. Not blistering desert hot, but definitely sunscreen, wide hat, and water hot. I forgot my hat on this of all days, and suffered for it.

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At this point we continued up what we thought was the trail – in the early parts of the hike there really is only one path, and it’s pretty easy to keep straight. It follows the curvy mountain topography pretty well though, so there are plenty of ups and downs.

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We found this amazingly unhelpful map. Maybe in Macedonia all maps are like this and locals can read it just fine. It took us forever to figure out what was going on though – you can see the start of our hike at the end of the yellow line, and then a strange sort of perspective leading forwards towards the famed Matka lake.

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We found this campsite, so we were probably on the right path. GPS at this point showed we were on the main trail, so all was well.

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Shortly after, we stumbled on this thing. The camo paintjob says military, but the vibe was entirely X-files.

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While we were exploring, we’d hear melodic bells from time to time. Initially this was alarming, but it turned out to be just cows grazing on the mountainside. Each one has a bell tuned to a different note, either for a feeling of peace and tranquility, or to tell the cows apart. Either way, much nicer than a standard cowbell.

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This was one of the stranger parts of the complex. It looked like a former office or apartment of some sort. There was once definitely a heavy door here when it was operational.

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This is inside the door. It looked vaguely recently inhabited so we decided not to probe much further. Whether it’s the cow herder who lives here or someone else, the structure is definitely occupied at least periodically. The graffiti was not super interesting – pretty typical name and slur scrawl.

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After the base we kept walking, and got pretty well lost. Not lost in terms of location or direction, but lost in terms of the path. It branched, unbeknownst to us, and we had taken the upwards route. Unfortunately, we didn’t think this would connect with the trail we knew we wanted to take down to Lake Matka. What to do? We went off-trail, into the dusty, spiny-tree filled hillside. There were no clear paths and the sun was baking at this point. It took us a good half hour to come to this sign surrounded by trees in an otherwise dusty red expanse. We actually went the wrong way here as well, and it took a bit to realize before we turned back. The correct path to get to Matka is behind the sign, not past it with the sign on your right. This really is the only indicator in the area and it’s pretty tough to see from the trail we came in on.

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The trail from here until the next peak was this reddish dirt, scrubland. It’s somewhat easy to follow after the sign, though we did come on some further difficulty up ahead.

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We came upon this sign telling us we were still going the right way. These are invaluable on the trail as the trail markers are fairly well worn and sometimes mislead.  Be warned, the hours and minutes on these things are totally off. The top one says 3.5 hours to Vodno, and the bottom says 25 minutes to Matka. Both of these were off by at least a factor of 1.5 or 2.

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We crested our current trail and found a sign pointing to our destination!

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From this little grassy outcrop we found what we thought was the trail, leading pretty steeply down the mountainside. It was doable – Natalie went down a ways to check, but ultimately not the right direction. That was a little off to the side.

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While we were there, we got this amazing view of the river Treska way down below. We didn’t have very far left to go and we would have to descend all the way down.

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Here started out descent. We first came basically right up to this rocky peak, and then the downhill started in earnest.

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The footing here is pretty bad – mostly loose gravel so it’s entirely possible to pick up a little speed and slide right off the sharply angled switchbacks. Caution is highly recommended.

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This part of the mountain had burned in a recent fire. Much like Bulgaria, Macedonia was suffering its own drought. The mountain was dry and dusty the whole way here, and now we saw what looked like pretty extensive burns on the river facing side.

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After some scrabbling and sliding down the mountain, we came to a shady, forested path along the river. We continued down it for a bit until we got to a makeshift bridge that got us to the river itself. Sweet frigid relief!

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After about six hours of hiking this was the best feeling – our feet went numb pretty quickly and the pain relief followed. The drop in body temperature was a welcome thing – up until now we had been sweating profusely.

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The section of river we were in was mostly shallows, fairly slow moving. The rocks underfoot were pretty painful, round and knobbly. Despite this, we walked around, explored, and skipped some stones for a bit before we continued on. Though we had reached the river, this was not our final destination.

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We continued our path along the river, looking for a chance to cross.

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That came some way down, where there were a series of steel bridges going from one side to the other. They also went to a man-made concrete divider in the middle of the river, which we chose to explore. Not much there, except for another chance to finish crossing, so thankfully we weren’t forced to turn around.

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The river looked ok – not super healthy but also not entirely choked out by algae and seaweed.

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A fair walk from where we descended was the first true sign of tourist activity – this dam. There’s a little parking lot just before it, and this is where most visitors to Matka come.

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Past the dam is a dock and a restaurant, and past that is a cliff-side walkway that continues on for a very, very long way. We’re not sure where it ends but we walked for about 20 minutes before turning around to try and catch a boat to the famous caves.

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To get to the caves, you can go by canoe. This takes about an hour one way and we were exhausted and running short on time.

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We chose instead option number B – the motor boat. This came with a guide and a somewhat hefty fee – one or two thousand denar for two people. It wasn’t unaffordable, but it first blush it was quite a bit for an hourlong tour.

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We had to wait a bit for the boat to fill up, so I sat and petted the local semi-stray dog. He was super friendly, but extremely dirty. Well fed, but not often washed it seems.

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Our guide took us down the river with expert skill and speed. We couldn’t really hear much over the motor but he was pretty funny.

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Some people apparently live right on the river and get to and from home by boat.

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About 20 minutes in we started rounding the bend of the river. Shortly after, we came to our first caves.

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This was the first set, and the only one that we could walk in since the water was lower than the cave entrance. Our guide spun up a diesel motor which ran the lights in the cave, and in we went!

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Down a few flights of stairs we got to see where the water level was. This is part of a huge underwater cave system, and the locals speculate it’s probably the largest underwater cave in the world. That’s currently held by the Sac Actun in the Yucatan, but with further exploration, who knows?

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I got a chance to talk with our guide quite a bit. His English was ok but his Bulgarian was better. We chatted about the difference between our countries. He turns out to be from Albania – he and his parents moved to Macedonia for the stronger economy, or perhaps fleeing as refugees. He said that he wants to go visit Bulgaria one day. His friends go fairly regularly he said, and they really love everywhere they’ve seen. In their eyes Bulgaria is a model for what Macedonia might become one day if things continue to improve. This was a new perspective for me. Comparing Bulgaria to the rest of the western world would never yield such a high opinion, but here we were in Macedonia where they thought my home country was fantastic. He said he hoped that Macedonia would receive EU funding just like we had, and that the next election would determine the course of the future – if the old guard (and corruption) won, the EU would abandon them. If the new guard (and probably less corruption) won, then the EU would gladly provide funding for infrastructure and other improvements.

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Our tour of the first cave being over, we got back on the boat and went to look at the second. This was only visible from the river, for obvious reasons we couldn’t go inside. Our guide told us that spelunkers came every year to map out further and further depths in the cave, and that they hadn’t yet reached an end.

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Sunset hit right around this time and we headed back to the dock. I talked more with our guide about his hopes for the country and himself, and which parts of Bulgaria he would like to visit. Apparently Varna is pretty popular. From the dock we had to walk back to where we thought the bus would be. We were wrong about that. The bus was actually near the Be-Ka Market at Glumovo, a 40 minute walk away. The next #12 was coming in in only 40 minutes, so we walked at a pretty fast clip to catch it. The walk is along a fairly quiet but large road, so cars were always an issue. Once nearby, we got some snacks at a local grocery store and hopped on the bus. My Macedonian failed me and instead of taking us to the city center where we should have hopped off, we stayed on the bus until it went straight into the boonies. We had to wait until it turned around and brought us near-ish to the hostel area before getting off again – many thanks to the young lady who helped us figure out where we needed to be!

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Since this hike was fairly poorly laid out in the middle section, we made a photo map of it. We didn’t take any pictures in the section where we were lost – the middle from the end of the mapped trail to the next sign, but this gives a sense of direction for that portion. The starting parking lot (where the gondola is) is the blue marker to the right.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1Qx1r8rxOFp4otqTKSaMyeyIHOAxqNeOW

Zmeyovo Trip

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We’re back on the road and headed only half an hour southwest to the town of Zmeyovo. Stoytcho’s great-aunt Nadia, great-uncle Vesko, and their massive guard dog Herc greet us at their tidy two-story house  near the town’s center. We’re here for only one night before moving on, but it’s good to talk with them. Stoytcho plays translator again, shifting between Bulgarian and English.

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We take a walk in the afternoon to the nearby Zmeyovo Hill, carrying a wooden bat in one hand that great-aunt Nadia insisted we take to ward off stray dogs. We see some at the edge of town, but they ignore us and we continue on to the hill, an extinct volcano and the town’s namesake. Nadia also warned us there aren’t really trails up the hill, but that we’re welcome to try and hike it. We trudge up the forested slope and quickly find out she’s right.

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The tree’s are far enough apart that it’s not hard to see where we’re going, but our path is interrupted by steep rocky outcrops, dense brush, and the occasional thorny rosebush. The leaf litter here is also dense, probably undisturbed for years. With each step we sink a few inches, hearing the rush-rush noise of our shoes kicking the dry leaves on the surface. We climb and stumble onward, navigating by incline. Here and there we find the remnants of what was once a path or even a dirt road up to the top, but all have been washed out or overgrown by trees.

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We use Google Maps to navigate near the summit. Glancing over the topography before we left, we noticed there was a lower ‘false’ summit to the southwest of the actual summit, followed by a steep increase in altitude that we think might be a cliff, so we’re keen to avoid that. It takes us another thirty minutes of circling, when through the stand of trees we spot a dull, worn trail marker. When we approach, we find the skeleton of a makeshift shelter and a concrete post that probably once held a sign marking the summit. These are all that remain of the trail to the summit, the rest swallowed by the woods.

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While kicking at the leaf litter at a small depression in the ground, I overturn a small pile of rocks. I pick one up, surprised at how light it feels, and turn it over. A patchwork of holes peppers the other side, and a glossy rainbow sheen is spread across the surface. This is a volcanic rock, and the depression I’m standing in is probably an ancient volcanic vent. I wave Stoytcho over excitedly and we break off a few pieces of rock to send to a geologist friend. There may be no Thracean gold here, but there are still treasures.

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Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.

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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.

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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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A Smelly Investigation

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“Let’s go for a walk.”

It’s a hot, sunny day in Nikolaevo the day after we arrive. There’s not a cloud in the sky, excepting a haze in the northwest. Lela Stanka has mentioned walking trails and Roman ruins on the hill nearby and I have no interest in staying inside. The three of us pull on our shoes and head out into the afternoon sun.

We walk northeast to the river at the edge of town, where men are sluicing for gold flecks. The air stings slightly and smells vaguely of burning milk jugs and we can see smoke in the distance. “What is that smell?” I ask. Stoytcho translates as Lela Stanka replies, “The next town over, Gurkovo. The terrible smell has been drifting from their town into Nikolaevo all summer. We complained about it, but the mayor there says they’re just burning lavender husks, but who knows what they’re actually burning.”

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This definitely does not smell like lavender husks. “Let’s go find out what it is!” I reply. It’s time for us to do some investigative journalism in this small-town dispute.

We turn north and walk the dirt footpath along the river toward Gurkovo, passing alternating dense, tangled summer underbrush and neatly-planted rows of grapevines. We stop to admire the flowers and gather rose hips, which Lela Stanka says we can make into jam or tea.

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Most of the time the air smells of humid greens and plant matter, but when the wind shifts we catch whiffs of bitter chemicals. As we close in on Gurkovo, our trail breaks away from the river and onto the edge of a barren field. Here, we can clearly see waves of blue-gray smoke drifting toward us, the source obscured by a low hill of brush.

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The trail around the field is long, but the ‘electric fence’ strung up along its edge presents us with no other choice. We hike to its eastward corner and continue north into increasingly frequent plumes of smoke. The smell is stifling and oppressive, and not breathing is the only way to keep from gagging. The fields on either side of us are strewn with refuse, from torn-apart shoes to empty cigarette packets.

We round the final corner to behold the smoldering source of the stench and it is most certainly not lavender husks.

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There’s discarded food, broken children’s toys, torn clothes, plastic wrappers, rags, and a variety of chemicals of questionable origin that probably burn quite noxiously. And burning the are.

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It appears that the Gurkovo dump caught fire sometime this summer and is now in a slow, continuous process of burning, fed by an ever-present stream of waste. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that summer of 2017 in Bulgaria has been unseasonably hot and dry. The trees both in cities and in the countryside break scorch marks and browning leaves, and people talk of drought. Gurkovo’s burning rubbish heaps are merely one more sign of the times.   We beat a hasty retreat back from Gurkovo’s dump, eager to escape the noxious fumes and probable carcinogens floating freely about us.

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Back at the apartment, my hair and clothes reek and it takes two showers and washes to clear everything of the burnt plastic smell. Part of me wants to write an angry letter to Gurkovo’s mayor over the health hazard he created that’s now drifting through Nikolaevo. But I also only know about fifteen words in Bulgarian, and most of them relate to food. For now all I can do is publish this article and hope someone can do something about it.

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Bulgaria: Day trip to Chudnite Mostove

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Staring up at the Chudnite Mostove (Marvelous Bridges), massive holes worn into the karst.

Day trip! We’re driving south of Plovdiv to see the Chudnite Mostove (Wondrous Bridges/Marvelous Bridges), Bachkovo Monastery, and Assen’s Fortress, all nestled in the mountains south of Asenovgrad. Here in Bulgaria summer still lingers and sunlight spills over the landscape, sneaking through the trees and dappling the trails. The hot midday air smells like pine sap and cut grass. And the afternoon stretches the shadows long between the steep mountain peaks, bathing us in shade and cool winds. Though it’s the cheapest (and poorest) member in the E.U., Bulgaria has natural beauty to rival any other country.

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The Chudnite Mostove from above.

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Climbing into the valley below the Chudnite Mostove is steep and difficult, but worth it.

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This Martenitsa has somehow survived 5+ months tied to a tree branch.

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Exploring the karst hollows of the valley.

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The cave below one of the Chudnite Mostove (to the East); this climb had some steep drop offs that I wouldn’t recommend you tackle unless you have water shoes and there hasn’t been recent rain.

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A blue fuzzy mushroom.

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An unusual way of dispersing seeds.

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The valley as seen from inside the Chudnite Mostove to the West. Though it hasn’t rained in the last couple of days, a stream still flows through it.

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The entrance to Bachkovo Monastery, of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

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Murals painted here date back to 1604 (or earlier). The monastery has been in continuous operation since that date, though it was founded in 1083.

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An ornate chandelier reflects light on the golden foil used in the monastery’s ancient murals.

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This trail leads to a small shrine built several kilometers away in the mountains. It also says something about a waterfall on the sign, but hah, we found none. 

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The trail into the mountains.

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A square-spotted blue butterfly drinks nectar from a dandelion.

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A small shack in the woods.

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I think we’ve found the shrine-in-the-rock.

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The iconography of the shrine, clean and bright thanks to the shelter in the rock.

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A catapult on display at Assen’s Fortress.

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The church at Assen’s Fortress, overlooking the valley below.

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At the very top of Assen’s fortress.