Skakavitza Waterfall Hike

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With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

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Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

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A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.

Map:

A photographic taste of the trail:

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Trail information at the trailhead.
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Follow the red trail markers.
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Other hikers along the trail.
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A wild allium flower.
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A waterfall along the trail.
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Dewspun spider web along the trail.
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The forest along the trail.
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An abandoned electrical building along the trail.
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The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.
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Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.
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An odd flower or bud.
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If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.
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The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!
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Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.
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Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.
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Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.
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Wild violet.

 

Fossicking at the White Cliffs

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To the north of Burgas are the White Cliffs. They’re a spectacular natural site, towering over the Black Sea and contrasting the dark water with their bright white rock. I want to say limestone or mudstone is what they’re made of – they’re white and beige up close, densely layered, and quite flaky.

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Getting to the beach is actually pretty hard. First, there are the cliffs. They stand several stories over the beach and don’t usually offer any sort of path down. The ramps to the beach are all a little bit closer to the nearby town than to the actual google map point for ‘White Cliffs’. We wound up parking the car near some condo/apartment construction and walking the rest of the way down. The part of town we were in was almost entirely Russian. In fact, we encountered some Russian tourists looking to find a way down to the beach just like we were! We chatted for a bit, but they left before we found our route down.

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This was one of the ramps we found that would take us to the shore.

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And the wide open beach! We were not alone, but there were very few people in September – it’s rather cold and the swimming season is pretty much over.

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The beautiful cliffs themselves. The weather down here changes pretty rapidly. When it was sunny it was very hot and we were under threat of burning, having lost our awesome South America tans. When it got cloudy, which was often and rapid, the weather turned cold and windy. It looked and felt a lot like the Del Mar cliffs in San Diego, except that those are sandstone.

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So why did we decide to go through all the trouble of going there? Well, first we expected getting down to the beach would be easier and it would be really nice to go out on a nature walk. But really, we went for fossils. The White Cliffs region, and the area around it, was once underwater. There are a large amount of fossils to be found in the rubble and beach rocks on the shore. We brought a little shovel, a bucket, and a sieve.

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This is the cliff wall up close. Some of the looser bits fall right out, but actually finding the fossil layer is a task left to those better learned than us. It turns out we didn’t really need any of our tools – we don’t know enough about where to look for fossils, other than to poke through the rubble piles and hope. Our best luck was actually combing the beach for rocks.

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Here you can see part of a spiral shaped shell. It’s not the fantastic fossils we have seen online while searching for good locations, but it’s still pretty cool! It took us a while to figure out where we actually needed to go around the coast to get to fossils – there are a surprising number of mineral and fossil hunters in Bulgaria, and it was my job to hunt those down and translate their maps and hunting tips. The whole of the coast “has fossils”, but getting down to a specific location turned out to be quite hard. Next time we visit we might try and go with one of their hobby groups out on a hunting hike!

 

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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.

Exploring an abandoned building.

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Bulgaria has a bit of a reputation for abandoned buildings – it makes sense when so much was built by different regimes and left to rot when the next one took over, or built during a precocious boom and abandoned for the bust, or just left to the elements due to a declining population.

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Our up close encountered was in Stara Zagora – it’s where my mom is from and also the city I’ve spent the most time in and know the best. One of my favorite sites in the city is The Ayazmo – a large hill on the north end of town that’s mostly for recreation and exercise, a retreat to nature. At the top of this park used to be a little shop and a picnic area – it’s probably still there, but we didn’t get all the way there. Instead, we spent our time exploring this old decaying building near-ish to the top. It was apparently a restaurant, and a very fancy one. It wasn’t particularly well run from what our hotel friends told us, and after it went under the owners just.. left it.

IMG_1718 This was our first clue that something interesting might be up here – what’s behind this fence? IMG_2071
Clearly an entrance for the local teenagers.. and us!
IMG_1719 All we knew so far was one, this place was clearly abandoned, and two, it was very round from the outside. IMG_1721
Peeking into the main structure now..
IMG_1724 We were thinking an old hotel? IMG_1742
Just wandering around.
IMG_1743 Piles of bricks? Was this place ever even finished? IMG_1754
IMG_1727 Very creepy dark holes. IMG_1730
This is an area lower than the rest of the building, a round room.
IMG_1734 Looking into one of the holes. IMG_1736
Even deeper.
IMG_1739 Ceiling decay. Probably wasn’t super safe. IMG_1740
IMG_1750 It reads “Ne” – ‘no’. IMG_1757
A bathroom?
IMG_1763 More no’s. We’re heading up the stairs now to the second floor. IMG_1767
The upstairs. Lovely patch of mold growing right in the middle.
IMG_1773 Lots of curves in this building. IMG_1785
I’m not entirely sure those round holes in the walls are natural decay.
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Plenty of sunlight for mold and plants.
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A patio outside.
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This whole place felt like a video game level.
IMG_1865 Up the ladder she went. IMG_1860
To no reward. Not much of interest on the roof.
IMG_1916 And now we go to the basement.
IMG_1930 One of those holes from upstairs. IMG_1933
And the other one too.
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Bathrooms? Or storage rooms maybe?
IMG_1948 The hallway was very dark and very creepy. IMG_1967
Finally, fresh air.
IMG_1970 And lots of beautiful nature. IMG_1979
IMG_1991 Really cool curved architecture. IMG_2005
We were definitely not the first visitors here.
IMG_2011 Peeking into the bathroom from outside. IMG_2020
Round where we entered.
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The water’s still running even.
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And a last shot of the building materials.

We never did figure out if this was once completed and now decayed, or never even finished in the first place. The materials lying around and the exposed rebar made it seem like it was never even in business. The hotel staff told us it was just a bad business? Either way it was fun to explore. It’s also a local hangout spot for kids to drink and smoke from the trash we found. At night this place would be downright scary and dangerous to explore, so that’s probably someone’s idea of a good time too.

As a disclaimer – we felt ok poking around in this abandoned building, if you get a chance to explore a similar one trust your gut and stay safe.