As my semester abroad comes to a close, I realize how many things have happened in the span of just three and a half short months. I have traveled to five different countries, and have recently seen more of Bulgaria itself. The first half of the semester was spent traveling every weekend, mostly to other parts of Europe. I spent the second half of the semester exploring Bulgaria. It is truly a beautiful country, with mountains, the Black Sea and a rich history and ancient architecture.
Last weekend, I took a day trip to the nearby city of Sandanski, about an hour south of Blagoevgrad. I took a bus for just five leva (Bulgarian currency) each way. Interestingly, Sandanski is the birthplace of Spartacus! I went spontaneously and didn’t really know how much there was to do there. The beauty of much of Bulgaria is that even if you think that the town you are going has nothing to see, you will inevitably find some ancient ruins, a beautiful church or breathtaking nature. We found out about a waterfall on Google and, when we arrived in the city, asked at the bus station for the waterfall, called Popina Laka, and got a taxi out there. It was about a 10-minute drive out of the city into what is part of Pirin National Park. It is a beautiful waterfall in the woods, and it was really nice to get out into nature.
After the waterfall, we didn’t know what else to see, so we had the taxi drop us off at a large park. We spent some time exploring the park, as it had many unique structures and fountains. Then we walked through the city and stumbled upon Christian ruins that were very old. We also visited a white Orthodox church as well as the pedestrian walking square, a feature which every town or city in Bulgaria seems to share. For not knowing what to expect, it was a pretty successful day of sightseeing.
On Saturday, I ventured out to the Seven Rila Lakes, arguably the most famous hiking location in Bulgaria and one that tourists in Bulgaria must experience. This is located in the Rila Mountains in Rila National Park, and is about an hour drive from Blagoevgrad. As there is not much transportation to there, we took a taxi, and were surprised at how long the drive up the winding mountain pass took. We drove very high up, and got dropped off at ski chairlift. We had to take this up for another 30 minutes because it was very old and slow. All I could think about during the entire ride was how I was riding an old Eastern European chairlift that I was sure would break at any minute.
Once at the top, the hiking finally began. There was so much snow at the top, as the ideal hiking time is summer into early fall, because the snow doesn’t melt until June due to how high up the mountain range is. We were able to see the first and second lake, and after this, we did not think we could make it any further. There are no trees at that high of an altitude, so it is just hiking out in the open sun. The snow was very deep, and if it was not packed down, it was easy to fall in, which I did about 15 times. The lakes were frozen over but still beautiful. I had never seen mountains that looked like these on the East Coast, and they were breathtaking. I am so happy that I can finally say I saw the Rila Lakes, even if I was not able to hike the entire thing, which I have been told takes about six hours. I crossed more off of my Bulgaria bucket list!
In the final three weeks, I plan to visit Varna, a city on the Black Sea coast, as well as Romania during the long weekend that we have for Orthodox Easter on May 1. The last destination I hope to visit is Macedonia. In three weeks, I will be home, which feels surreal. Despite the many challenges I have faced this semester, including a broken laptop, a stolen phone, travel issues and illnesses, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and encourage anyone to wholeheartedly jump at the chance to study abroad.