A little-known town in the hills outside of Sofia, only accessible by a winding single-lane paved road that carves its way up through the hills in a series of switchbacks, or by hiking up a similar type of trail through the forest, Milanovo is one of those little places you only uncover by going off the beaten path. I was reminded the other day when I was reading some posts from over at Wandering Earl’s website of the beauty of Bulgaria, and some of the little things I miss after being away for a few years. Read More
A group of glacial lakes situated in the northwestern Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, situated between 2,100 and 2,500 meters elevation above sea level, The Seven Rila Lakes are a popular day hike for Bulgarians as well as travelers coming to the country to visit. With spectacular views as well as the Rila Monastery to consider, there’s plenty of reasons to go…although planning your time of year can be crucial since the weather is subject to rapid changes.
Each lake carries a name associated with its most characteristic feature. The highest one is called Salzata (“The Tear”) due to its clear waters that allow visibility in depth. The next one in height carries the name Okoto (“The Eye”) after its almost perfectly oval form. Babreka (“The Kidney”) is the lake with the steepest shores. Bliznaka (“The Twin”) is the largest one by area. Trilistnika (“The Trefoil”) has an irregular shape and low shores. The shallowest lake is Ribnoto Ezero (“The Fish Lake”) and the lowest one is Dolnoto Ezero (“The Lower Lake”), where the waters that flow out of the other lakes are gathered to form the Dzherman River.
June, July and August make up the primary hiking months, right in the prime of summer. The rest of the time the elevations, rising from 7,000 to around 8,200 feet, mean that snow and freezing temperatures are a possibility just about every night of the week, and the storms are legendary throughout Bulgaria for coming up on you completely unannounced. Clear skies one minute, pitch black and whirling winds 15 minutes later.
It’s a bit of a hike if you want to see the whole circuit; 4 to 6 hours is the general time it takes if you want to walk the entire trail to see all seven of the lakes, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There are a few stark, steep passages where you are nearly climbing ladder-like up clefts in the rocks, and that combined with the altitude can make for a difficult climb. The views, however, are well worth it.
Getting up to the start of the trail is fairly easy. You can either hike the 10 kilometers up to the beginning of the main trail, or you can take the Pionerska chair lift, which takes people up from the base parking area all the way up to the top of the first plateau…which from there leads up to the rest of the lakes themselves.
One you hit the top of the chair lift, there’s a bit of a climb up to the next level of plateau, and then from there another bit of a hike before you reach the first of the lakes. But the views are spectacular, the landscape is untainted, undeveloped, and you can see for literal miles in all directions the higher you go.
And it’s not just the tourists that the mountains cater to. The plateau around the lower lakes is holy ground for the White Brotherhood, or Danovites, who show up once a year to celebrate their New Year. The celebration takes place near Kidney Lake and consists of ritual rhythmic unison while dancing in a large circle along lines of white stones that are set permanently to map out their location. For the Danovites, the Rila Mountains are a holy place where thousands of devotees gather every year to greet the dawn.
And while the vast majority of people choose to hike their way up the paths, you can always rent a horse for the day and ride up with the local guides and their pack horses.
By the time you get back down to the bottom of the trail where you started off, at the top of the chair lift, there’s a restaurant with plenty of beer on tap, wash rooms and places to sit down and relax and just enjoy a bit of a break before the final lift back down to the parking area.
As far as accommodations go, you can either sleep at one of the resorts in Panichishte and Sapareva Banya, or you can day-trip it with a rental car out of Sofia. There’s also plenty of guided tours out of Sofia which include transportation and a guide, so there’s always that option if you desire (I went with Bulgarian friends, so was spoiled in that regard; I also lived in Sofia for 2.5 years and made it up regularly).
Great day hike if you can handle the altitude and a good six hour hike. Four hours if you are in top condition and a regular hiker. Don’t forget to wear your hiking boots (no sandals/etc.), pants, and bring along a raincoat or a windbreaker of some kind, because the winds can get nippy really fast and the rain can literally be on you in 15 to 20 minutes. Sunblock and a bottle of water or two are also recommended.
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90% softcore porn and 10% musical talent, chalga pop/folk music is empirical evidence that sex sells. Lyrically nonsensical, it is the answer to Bulgaria’s non-existent porn industry (while prostitution is completely legal in Bulgaria, pornography is not, which is why you don’t see any Bulgarian porn stars), and if you spend any time in this Balkan country than chances are you will be out with your local friends at least a couple of times a week in one of the many chalga clubs that can be found on almost every street corner in all the major cities throughout Bulgaria.
Chalga (or Чалга in Bulgarian), is the most popular form of music in Bulgaria. At it’s very core it’s nothing more than bump-and-grind clubbing music. And while salsa clubs dot the landscape across Colombia in every city you visit, chalga clubs in Bulgaria are the same way; you can’t walk more than a city block or two without running into some form of a club that is either showing the music videos on large-screen TVs or has a stage where there are nightly performances by the pop queens (and kings) of Bulgaria.
The underground culture in Bulgaria revolves around a certain social responsibility by both sexes which is played out in the music videos and chalga clubs. Men are expected to have shaved heads, bulky arms, massive chests and wear plenty of gold jewelry with unbuttoned shirts and slick, modern suits. Known as “mutra”, or “mutri” for plural, they are gangsters/mafiosos in the modern sense of the word, many of them with ties to organized crime (which still exists in Bulgaria, but for the most part will never affect the average expat or traveler, as they are only interested in politics and multi-million dollar real-estate deals and investments), although many of them simply dress that way as it’s part of the culture and it’s expected (the wannabe gangsters who just dress that way to get girls). They are the core of the male population that frequents the chalga clubs and the reason the clubs exist in the first place.
Women, on the other hand, have the same social responsibility in the club setting they have in most other parts of the world: look sexy. The men in Bulgaria like their women looking like they are ready for a three-way in a porno movie any time they leave the house. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chalga culture that makes up the underbelly of Bulgarian society. And, for the most part, it’s a tried-and-true system that’s been going on for countless millenia. After all, sex sells, and if you got it, flaunt it. How else is a girl going to get free drinks, paid-for vacations and plush, 5-star accommodations around the world with a rich man, and what better way for a well-endowed (financially) man to find amiable companionship?
Where the Latinos love their salsa and their tango, Bulgarians love their chalga. But it’s certainly not the lyrics that bring people into the chalga clubs, considering most of the them are complete nonsense and revolve around drunk people dancing around shouting “opa!” at the top of their lungs or “oi oi oi oi” or things like “take off your sailor’s shirt and I’ll show you my blue thong” or “wet blowjob” repeated over and over. It all comes down to a pound of flesh. Sex sells, and women with massive tits dancing around in skimpy clothing makes for an entertaining social outing…not to mention ample amounts (pun intended) of eye candy that brings cash-flush mutri who are eager to spend their money on plenty of T&A. It’s strip-club basics 101, and in a country where porn is illegal this is as close as the vast majority of people can get.
But it’s not just straight men that chalga targets. Although not as popular as the female variety, there are also several male performers. The most famous of these is Azis, a gypsy who transformed himself into one of the top performers in Bulgaria. He is very openly gay, and you can’t walk more than a few city blocks in Sofia without seeing a billboard with him in one of his various states of undress…usually surrounded by plenty of half-naked, well-built men. So to say that chalga is sexist and somehow mistreats or targets women would be a farce; chalga is about one thing, and one thing only: making money. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter. Sex sells. Period. There’s no exploitation of women going on here. It’s all about the cash, and both sexes are manipulating the basic, carnal nature of humanity to their advantage.
A more international and mainstream variant that audiences might be popular with is Inna, a Romanian pop princess who is currently enjoying international appeal (she was just here in Cancun a couple of months back) in clubs around the world. While her lyrics are far more mainstream than the typical nonsensical chalga tunes of the Balkan region, the style of music is still the same and it just goes to show you that even though chalga-style music might be more prevalent in Eastern Europe, it has a global appeal in the form of scantily-clad women prancing around on stage or in a video. It’s an age-old formula that has worked for centuries; from the ancient days of Pompei when penis symbols and naked women were carved into the street stones to mark the way to the nearest whorehouse, to the modern era of YouTube, sex sells.
If you plan on spending any time in Bulgaria or Eastern Europe you will become intimately familiar with the chalga scene if you opt for the immersion travel route. Sure, you can play the tourist and only visit the touristy places such as the Rhodope Mountains or the Black Sea coastal resorts, but if you want to get to the core of who Bulgarians really are and really live like a local…you’ll be spending plenty of time with your Bulgarian friends in one of the many chalga clubs that are spread out across the country through all the major cities.