MEET THE MOUNTAIN GUIDE

MEET THE MOUNTAIN GUIDE: BULGARIA

In this week’s Meet The Guide session we meet Stoyan Shirov Bulgaria – a mountain guide in Bulgaria who is running trekking trips in the country.

Here, he reveals details about Bulgaria’s beautiful landscapes, his favourite spots on the mountain trails and the incredible culture inside one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

Why is Bulgaria so special for trekking?
One of the main things is it’s pretty much undiscovered, whereas most of the traditional destinations for trekking in Europe are in the hugely popular French, Swiss and Austrian Alps. Bulgaria can offer just as appealing mountain scenery and picturesque landscapes with some of the highest waterfalls and hundreds of glacial lakes, but because it is undiscovered, it has a totally different feel. You can go for days and days without seeing any people or buildings. There are also plenty of different trek routes for every experience level.

Why has Bulgaria been overlooked as a trekking country?
Mainly for political reasons. Bulgaria was a part of the communist bloc until the end of the 1980s, which is why it is not as popular as our southern neighbour Greece, for example. I mean, just 25 years ago it was relatively difficult for western Europeans to get to and it takes time for these things to change.

What would be the first thing you’d tell someone about Bulgaria who didn’t know it?

The country has an incredible mixture of cultural and historical interests. For example, it is ranked No.3 in Europe for valuable and historical monuments – after just Greece and Italy. These include prehistoric finds, Thracian tombs, sites from the Greek Age, Roman fortresses, historical monuments from the time of the First and the Second Bulgarian Kingdoms… the mix of culture, architecture and art from all of the different groups of people that have passed through the place.

On the mountain trekking holidays, you stay in various local villages – what is so special about them?
Much like the nature around them, culture in those villages has remained untouched – time has stopped. People live the same way that they did more than 100 years ago. Not only is the architecture the same, but people dress like their grandmothers and grandfathers, the food is exactly the same – it is like a living museum. Also, while these people have no internet, TV or electricity, they are some of the happiest people. On these adventure trails we always try to use the local guesthouses, albeit very comfortable ones, so that people can really experience the traditional way of life.

What kind of food would you expect to eat?
You can’t get more organic than the food that is grown in those mountains! But the style of food is very similar to the cuisine of Balkan peninsula, so lots of vegetables and cheese, then pork or lamb. Yoghurt is also very important to our cuisine. For some reason, the bacteria that produces it can only live in the air of Bulgaria and it produces a very thick, rich taste.

With no internet or TV, what do these people do for entertainment?
For their livelihood, most of them are farmers but in the evening, they meet in the centre of the villages to sing folk songs, share stories, go to church or to the mosque. The population is a mixture of Christian and Muslim people and they all live happily side by side.

What traditional drinks do you have in Bulgaria?
The most traditional drink is the red wine – we are a big producer of heavy, dry red wine. Then there is a centuries-old fruit brandy called rakia that is made from grapes, plums or apples.
There are three rules to drinking it – first it should be drunk in good company, secondly, it should be drunk slowly and thirdly, it should be drunk with salad, not with fish or a hot meal.

What is your favourite spot on the treks you do?
On the summer trek, one of the spots that tourists really enjoy is when we sleep overnight in a mountain hut next to The Dark Lake that is 2520m above sea level. The scenery is incredible from there – you can see the overhanging north face of Mount Kamenitza from the window of the hut.
On winter tour, one of the highlights is the climb of Mount Malyovista. There’s nothing dangerous about it but it seems like a really challenging climb when you are looking at it from the ground and most people think it is impossible. So they get a really great feeling when they reach the summit.

What has been your best guiding moment?
One of my proudest moments was when I had a very experienced group from England who had been climbing in Asia, Africa and South America. We were doing this ridge walk that crosses all of the mountains from the north west to the south east, and if you follow the route for about four hours you see around 50 lakes of the darkest blue colour. At the end, they said that it was the best ridge walk they had ever done and I felt very pleased.