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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Sunrise and Sunset at Grenoble’s Bastille

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Dawn over Grenoble, as seen from the Bastille.

Located on a hill in the north, the Bastille affords some of the best views of Grenoble and is an ideal place to watch the sun rise and set over the city. Though the entrances through the parks at the Bastille’s base are locked and inaccessible outside of business hours (rendering them unusable for hikes up to see sunrise and sunset), there are several routes and trails up the hill to the Bastille. You just have to know where to look.

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The winding multitude of paths down the Bastille to the Isere River (top).

 

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The Bastille at dawn.
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A view of Grenoble just below the Bastille.

Should you plan on doing a sunset or sunrise hike, bring a light, since there are few lights along the Bastille trails. Second, bring water. The Bastille hill isn’t that tall but some of the trails up can be steep, and the only source of water I saw were fountains at the top where the “bubble” gondolas depart. Third, bring a windproof jacket. Even when the air in the city below is still, it whips and chills at the top of the Bastille walls.

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There are no lights along the trail to the Bastille, so bring your own.
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Some of the stairs and paths are pretty steep, so bring water.
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The wind can be pretty rough at the top, so bring a jacket to stay warm.

If you’re coming from the part of the city just south of the Isere River, the easiest route up to the Bastille is at the southwest end of Rue Saint Laurent. Look for the Fontaine du Lion, a massive fountain depicting a lion battling a snake; there are stairs just south or a bit north of this fountain that will take you to a trail that leads up to the Bastille.

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The Fontaine du Lion; there are entrances up the hill to the Bastille to the right and left of this statue.
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One of the entrances up to the Bastille. Just keep heading up.

I’ll try to get an actual trail route up here later, but for now the best instructions I can give are to stay to the left to avoid the road, and keep looking for stairs or switchback trails leading up. After 10-20 minutes you should reach the first Bastille walls with stairs leading up into the ruins. Walk up the stairs and continue climbing, but any tree-free outlook after this point should provide a good view of the city.

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One of the many stairs up/down.
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The gravel paths around the Bastille are favored by walkers and joggers in the morning, so once the sun rises you’re unlikely to be alone.

At the top of the Bastille you’ll find a lookout point and the “bubble” gondola that can take you back down to the city (11 AM – 6 PM). Enjoy the views, and then climb or take the gondola back into town.

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A view of Grenoble at night.
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Spare gondolas in storage.
Gondolas come into the station at the top of the Bastille, overlooking Grenoble.

Sunrise over Grenoble

IMG_6246 I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and I’ve never mixed a drink in my life (unless you count a rare shot of Bailey’s into hot cocoa), but if there was ever a name for a drink, it would be Sunrise over Grenoble. And you would make it with layered peach juice and grenadine and whatever alcohol goes well with those two things, maybe a dark spiced rum. It’s true I don’t know what I’m doing behind the bar here in my mind but it’s my hypothetical drink. Get your own.

Anyway, the point of all of this is if you ever find yourself in Grenoble, wake up predawn and hike up to the Bastille for sunrise. It’s picture (and mixed drink) worthy: IMG_6193

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After sunrise, head back down to the city just in time for breakfast at a local café. Maybe even get a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee.

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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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Postcards from Split

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Outside of the castle, the most visible aspect of Split is the harbor. There are promenades and paths that run along the water, and a short hike that heads up to the top of Marjan hill, a park on the west side of the old town. There is only one caveat to the beauty of the harbor. It smells. It’s a strong, unpleasant smell, and it’s present all along the old-town promenade. It fades pretty quickly away from the central promenade, and once inside the castle, up on the hill, or even just around to the other side of the harbor, there is no more smell.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re in a rowboat, a sailboat, or a cruiseliner – everyone shares the water.

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One evening we walked out along the water to the west. We thought there might be a way up into the park, but there wasn’t really.

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We had gotten fairly far down the way, when this man with a motorcycle tried climbing up the stairs towards us. He was pretty experienced at riding up stairs apparently, but this last bit was too much.

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Why was he trying to ride up the stairs? Up a ways ahead, we were told to stop. Police had cordoned off the area up ahead due to reports of a potentially dangerous man running around. We decided it was probably a good idea to turn around too.

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The way back offered some of the best views of the old city. It’s really hard to beat the skies of Split.

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Sunset continued as we walked around and watched the water.

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One of the massive Jadrolinia ships went by. They’re the main ferry between Italy and Croatia, and also between split and the nearby Brac Island.

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There came a point during sunset when the clouds cleared and the mountains behind Split lit up. Split truly is a beautiful location.

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The next day we decided to actually hike the hill.

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We got a little lost and found this very cool statue on the north side of the castle.

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Eventually we found our way west and headed up into the hill. It starts out as a fairly narrow path but it gets pretty broad up ahead.

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For a large part of the way there are steps that are wide enough to be a street. The houses here are pretty dense and well maintained. I can only imagine that it’s more expensive to live here than in other parts of the city.

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Eventually we hit the nature-trail portion of the hill. As is traditional in many cities, the local hill is a favorite for kids, families, and pretty much everyone else, to get some exercise and be in nature for a while.

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The path forks and winds a bit, but the main trail is pretty easy to tell apart. We got up most of the way and took a break near an unusually large collection of cats.

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Then this man arrived, and the cats got up in a hurry. What’s the secret? He feeds them from his house nearby, probably every day. Truly herding cats.

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As with any good high point near a city, this one has an oversized flag. Not nearly as large as the ones in South America – like Arica or Cartagena – but still large enough.

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From the top you can’t really see Split proper, instead the western arm of the harbor and the neighborhood beneath the park are visible.

Facing sunset and a chilly wind, we headed back down.

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The dog on Hum Hill

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On our way down Hum Hill, we ran into a dog! He was super cute and very friendly. I pet him, of course.

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As we walked down, the dog came with us. Uh oh. At one point I walked him all the way back up to where we thought his car and owner would be, but no such luck. Doggo walked right back down with us.

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Now we were in a bit of a quandary. Doggo had clearly decided he would be following us, but he also clearly had a collar. We didn’t want to accidentally lead someone’s dog down the hill. It was getting cold so Natalie wrapped him in her jacket while we decided what to do. We checked for a dog rescue in Mostar – there was one! But we had no real way to contact them. We settled on the next best thing – flagging down cars to ask a local for help. Most passed right by us, but a few stopped.

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The general consensus seemed to be that sometimes – fairly often – people will leave their dog up on the hill when they don’t want it anymore. This seemed unbelievably cruel, so we asked about a shelter. This was admittedly naive but hey, the dog was quiet, apparently well behaved, and adorable. As we expected though, Bosnia is not at the stage of having animal shelters, and one of the people who helpfully stopped told us he calls the rescue people once in a while but they never seem to come. The thought on whether to bring him down into the city with us, or leave him on the mountain, was that in the city, he’d be competing with some very rough street dogs. Up here at least, even though it was cold, there would be less violence. Neither option seemed great to us, and it was pretty clear doggo would follow us right down the car-laden road.

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We finally met someone coming down who was taking pictures with a drone and seemed fairly well off. We chatted for a bit – a surprising number of people spoke great English. He promised he would at least stop the dog from following us into the road, and also ask anyone else he saw if they knew the owner. We left with a heavy heart. With any luck someone took pity and took doggo in – our only solace is that the guy we left him with seemed like a good person and maybe in need of a pet? Despite what we’re used to in first world countries – that shelters aren’t great and adoption is hit and miss – there are at least mechanisms in place to prevent total abandonment. In many countries around the world, there isn’t even that. We want to believe everything turned out ok for doggo as we made our way down into the city.

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Hiking Hum Hill in Mostar

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Hum – pronounced ‘Hoom’- hill dominates the south-west portion of the city. It’s not a mountain, definitely a hill, but it’s large and extremely up close. We decided our outdoor activity for the area would be to climb it. Luckily for us, we had run in to a local who chatted with us for a bit in the marketplace. His salient warning was to not climb the city-facing side of the hill. There’s a road that runs around the back and is the only safe trail to get to the top of the mountain. The rest of it is still mined.

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To get there, we crossed the bridge to the west side of the river. We then passed through some of the more typical residential areas – medium sized soviet style apartment buildings and their associated markets and restaurants. The prices here are much, much lower than in the old town.

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After the residential area, the road started heading up into the hills and the the houses started becoming a bit more decrepit. Not every house was like this, but a fair number were.

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The top of the hill is marked by a giant cross. In a Muslim majority country, this was something of a big deal when it went up. Many people were quite unhappy, and it doesn’t seem to foster good relations.

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The road winds up and up, here we looked back at the city. There’s not much of a space for pedestrians to walk. It’s much more common for people to drive up and then walk around after the highway ends, but the locals are used to pedestrians hiking up the mountain. It’s still very important to be aware and careful though, especially around the curves.

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At some point near the top the road ends and the hill-road begins. It’s a fairly long hike all told, and the split is roughly halfway.

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Along the side of the mountain road are these stone settings – they each show Christ or another religious figure. The whole mountain was apparently decorated with religious symbols around the time the cross went up.

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One of these comes around every hundred meters or so.

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From the back of the hill you can look down on to the edge of the city and the green hills and mountains surrounding it.

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In the other direction, the majority of Mostar. Even during the hike up there’s a fantastic view.

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Along the way we spotted some amazingly vibrant blue flowers.

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At the top the cross looms large. It’s a fairly minimalist, concrete structure, fairly similar to the one in Skopje, but less Eiffel-tower like.

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On the other side of the cross is the part of the hill facing the city – the mined part. There are some clearly marked trails that people have been through, and the view is very nice.

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We took some time to soak in the view. It seemed fairly important to not go off trail, despite the fact that there had been clear human presence in some of the ‘off-limits’ areas.

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The only other people we had seen go off the road were a family picking up cans and foraging herbs. We ran into another family on the way up who talked with us for a bit, lamenting the downfall of Mostar and the rampant inequality.

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The famed bridge was not quite visible from the safe areas. To get a view of it we would have had to walk out onto the face of the hill we had been warned against.

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Having seen the landscape and the city sprawl, we headed back down the mountain. It was starting to get near sunset and the temperature was dropping.

 

Macro shots on Mt.Vodno

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Our hike at the edge of Skopje took a while not just because of the distance, but also because we spent a lot of time taking close up shots of beautiful flowers and animals along the trail. This guy is probably an Erhard’s Wall Lizard.

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A lovely Crimson Scabious. They were everywhere at the start of the hike.

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This looks like it might be the same as the Crimson, but dry and ready to send out seeds.

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What would have been a delicious Chicken-of-the-Woods, but had been already eaten. We found and cooked one of these once, they really do taste and feel just like chicken. (Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely confident you can properly identify them)

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This is a type of Cyclamen. They are beautiful and absolutely everywhere wherever there is shade. We found an entire tree tunnel lined with them near the end of the hike – a carpet of pink and purple.

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This is the leaf of the Cyclamen. Interestingly, they’re usually a good distance from the flower clusters.

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Unknown, possibly Armeria vulgaris?


After this start the insects!
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This reminds me very much of the weta. It’s actually a type of saddleback bush cricket.

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Possibly a type of locust? Nope. It’s a Predatory Bush Cricket. It’s also known as the spiked magician and it eats other crickets, among many other things.

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It was huge. This is a 6.5 inch phone for reference. This bug is a fairly uncommon sighting.

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A lovely brown grasshopper of some sort.

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And a very similar looking one in bright green. Maybe female and male of the same species?

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And the latest in our unending search for jumping spiders. This little guy has a meal in his mouth.

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The natural beauty of Macedonia!

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

Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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