Stoytcho and I have been invited to go visit my uncle and his wife in the countryside outside of Eymoutiers, a town in the province of Limousin. My cousin has apparently purchased a house there, where we’re welcome to spend a couple of days. But of course, trains (and buses) lead to Paris, making direct public transit nonexistent between Grenoble (in the south-east) to Limoges (the nearest city, in the south-west of France). So we rented a car and got this:
Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.
When we picked up the car, we asked the rental agency what roads to take and they emphasized that most highways in France are toll roads. And French toll fees make U.S. tolls look like spare change–the rental agency staff estimated our trip might cost 30+ euros! We opted for the scenic route instead.
Our route took us ~6 hours and through two national parks (Livradois-Forez and Volcans d’Auvergne), past dozens of adorable towns scattered on plains and nestled in the hills, across forests clothed in warm autumn colors. (P.S. if you do the same drive, stop in Livradois-Forez National Park at the signs advertising fresh local cheese and tell me how it is! We did not stop and I forever regret it.)
The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…
We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.
Dawn was slow over the misty landscape, and it wasn’t until we stopped for a break that we realized that the thin veil of white across the fields was more than mist. It was our first frost in nearly two years:
Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.
P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today in weird things that normal people don’t notice but I totally do: Linz has a lot of slugs hanging around. Well, not really hanging around as much as oozing their way around in the parks, hunting for delectable patches of veg to nosh on. It’s slow living to the max here for Linz’s slug population, so today I bring you a slug, savoring her lunch in slow-motion:
And here are gifs, BECAUSE I CAN!
This is just a little reminder to all of us that like a slug, we should all slow down and savor life a little bit more.
In our brief time in Budapest, I’ve somehow found a nearby hike and gotten us on a bus to an area nearby where we can supposedly pick up the trail. We’re dropped off by the side of the road, where the whirlwind from passing cars buffets us every few seconds as we hike up to the trailhead. Then it’s through the woods, into the village of Pilisborosjenő, and up the hill to the summit Nagy-Kevély. It’s a gorgeous, hot day at the end of summer and we’re not letting it go to waste.
Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.
We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.
That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.
A few tips for when you go:
You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.
We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.
If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:
Now, motivation for you to go:
And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge: