“I am going to Bulgaria,” I announced to any climber who would listen.
“What? Why?” was the common response.
For some reason, Bulgaria, tucked away in Eastern Europe, has escaped the imagination and hype of the global climbing community, but I was intrigued by an extensive online guidebook and hundreds of inspiring photos. The fact that it was relatively secret made it all the more tempting. I love delving into the unknown.
Bulgarians believe that when God created the world, he gave different elements to each country. Some received mountains and pastures. Others took the coasts and seas. When it came to Bulgaria, there was nothing left, so God took the best pieces from all of the other countries to build a paradise. While some might debate this lofty legend, I can certainly vouch for the country’s rock climbing—it’s in a class all its own. There aren’t huge crags, but rather a smattering all over the countryside—and it’s seriously good. They have amazing quality and every type of climbing you could ever want, from deep water soloing and sport climbing to bouldering and trad—even alpine rock.
As soon as I emerged from customs, I was greeted by Ruslan “Rus” Vakrilov. For the next couple of weeks, he would be our photographer, guidebook, translator, planner, and occasional cook—essentially a lifesaver as far as making our trip amazing. Rus, a local hardman and professional photographer, was part of the original crew that developed bouldering in Bulgaria, and he’s put up a number of sport routes in the past five years. Despite his extreme modesty, he is a complete badass. He also showed us unparalleled hospitality, always making sure everything was perfect. Every time we so much as bought a loaf of bread, Rus was there to make sure it was “the good one.”
Over the next couple of weeks, we took only a few rest days as Rus took us to a new crag nearly every day. Each was unique and spectacular in its own way. The variety was astounding: high-quality slab climbing, overhangs, technical faces, tufas, crimpers, pockets, limestone, sandstone, and giant caves. The only thing that stayed consistent were the incredible views, colorful trees, wild apples and walnuts growing everywhere, and stiff grades.
Bulgaria exceeded our expectations. What we found was that despite being one of the poorest countries in the European Union, Bulgaria is rich with scenery, culture, people—and rock. We all left with pumped forearms, an aching to stay, and a promise to return. The following is what convinced us.
1. Prohodna Cave
As a climber of 35 years, I have traveled extensively around the world exploring remote areas, and this is the coolest crag I’ve ever seen. Period. I’ve been to Tonsai Beach in Thailand, Wadi Rum in Jordan, Yangshuo in China, and everywhere in between. This one takes the cake. It feels like you’re walking on the moon in this massive vault. Two entrances form a tunnel through the rock, which is ordained with two large skylights in the roof, locally known as the “Eyes of God.” Giant stalagmites loom around every turn, and the sound of footsteps echoes against the walls. It’s surreal beyond words. Best of all, it features every kind of climbing, from balancey face moves to severe ceilings. Not much for beginners, though: The classics are all in the range of 5.12 or harder. And there’s still plenty of potential waiting to be developed.
2. Good, Cheap (Sometimes Free) Food
One of our biggest concerns was food. We thought Bulgaria would be a gruel-and-boiled-cabbage kind of place, but we found that you can eat well and healthy for cheap. The cuisine is similar to Mediterranean; some dishes differ by name only. Even pricier restaurants cost less than €10 for three courses with more than enough wine. We loved the shopska salad, a staple consisting of tomato, cucumber, onion, parsley, and cheese. Farmers markets are plentiful and offer another option for great, cheap food. In fall, you can find walnuts along the trails and apples in the trees. We even found wild mushrooms the size of a Frisbee that the locals assured us were edible and a delicacy. Thankfully, they were right. We sautéed them in butter and garlic from the farmers market, ate them on fresh bread with veggie soup made from more market offerings, and fed six for less than €5.
3. Unique, Affordable Lodging
The two main villages we stayed in were Zgorigrad and Teteven. Zgorigrad, surrounded by towers and cliffs, sits just above Vratsa, a picturesque town—the largest in the region—at the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. You can find big grocery stores and plenty of restaurants here. Ninety percent of the crags in Bulgaria are within an hour of Vratsa- (many within 15 minutes), such as Malkata Dupka (Little Cave), which has a short approach, a mountain spring, beautiful streaked limestone, and exceptional sport routes. Teteven has less but is closer to Prohodna. In Zgorigrad, we stayed in a cute and modern two-bedroom cottage at the end of a dirt road. It was only €35 a night. The second half of the trip, we stayed in an “adventure cabin” in Teteven. It was located on a river in a small canyon outside of town. It was beautiful, but far from modern. We had to make a fire to heat the hot water tank each day, but I fell in love with its rustic appeal, big garden, and apple and pear trees.
Bulgarians take the “make yourself at home” idea to a whole new level. The landlords of the rental properties we stayed at treated us more like dear old friends than tenants. They’ll offer you almost anything to make you feel welcome. One person even baked us a pie before bringing us to her place. And all the climbers we met really went out of their way to show us around and give us great beta. The level of hospitality we encountered simply doesn’t exist in the U.S.
5. Easy And Accessible
You don’t need a visa to visit Bulgaria, and you can stay for up to 30 days in one trip. Plus, it doesn’t count toward your EU time, in case you are trying to make an extended trip on the continent, which would otherwise be limited to 90 days in a 180-day period. Many younger Bulgarians speak English, though carrying a phrasebook (we like the Lonely Planet Bulgarian phrasebook, $10) will come in handy at local restaurants, while renting cottages, and on public transportation. The people are friendly and willing to help, so don’t be afraid to ask.
6. First Ascent Potential
This place has some seriously untapped crags! If you’re inspired to put up sweet limestone sport routes, pack a drill and get on over there. The locals are excited to have visitors at their crags, and they’ll happily direct you toward beautiful rock that’s just begging to be cleaned and bolted. Just be sure to include them in your plans. You wouldn’t go and dig a pool in a stranger’s backyard without discussing it with him first, right? Nikolay Petkov (firstname.lastname@example.org), a prominent developer in the area, can point you in the right direction.
7. Amazing Rest Days
While I wish I could climb every day, my body simply won’t allow it, and fortunately, Bulgaria provides plenty of alternatives. The country has incredible hiking, like Switzerland without the crowds. The Rila mountain range is one of the highest in Europe, full of waterfalls, alpine lakes, and wooden ladders that zigzag up hillsides and rock faces. Every town has its own interesting local market with much more than produce. For a culture fix, hang out with monks at one of the many monasteries. Or if you just want to relax, you can visit one of Bulgaria’s Black Sea beaches. From Sofia, you can get anywhere in the country within a few hours. Even just going for a drive to explore is a viable and rewarding option.
8. Local Color
Bulgaria is a land of trees, and the fall colors are the best I’ve seen around the globe, putting even New England to shame. Visit in spring and summer to see the hillsides turn golden with an abundance of sunflowers.
9. Old World Flavor
This place is a magical one. It’s one of the most impressively beautiful and charming places I have visited in all of Europe. The quaint houses feature rust-colored rooftops, white-washed walls, trellises filled with vines drooping with plump black grapes, teepees of hay, wood waiting to be cut in the yard, gardens fading into the fall, cabbage in excess, and livestock roaming the fields. There is not an espresso shop on every corner, but rather beat-up coffee vending machines placed strategically in key locations. In one anachronistic moment, a horse-drawn carriage meandered past right before a BMW raced by. It was really a treat to be in a place that still holds some of the Old World lifestyle. People live off of the land. Sheepherders march their flocks down the roads. Elderly locals converse on street benches. Sometimes it feels timeless, yet you can still get a latte at a modern petrol station or fancy restaurant if you so desire.
Fly into Sofia, the primary international airport and main hub of the country. A rental car is a must for climbers. They go from €15 a day, and gas is around €1.30 a liter. Street signs seem to disappear (people steal them for the scrap metal), thus a good map (sold at most gas stations) is very helpful, and a GPS is a lifesaver. Potholes, animals, and bad drivers are all big issues here, so be careful.
Many cottages, such as those mentioned here, require a Bulgarian speaker to book, but booking.com has good local options.
Intimate details of the burgeoning scene are best accessed through climbingguidebg.com.
Important Cultural Oddity
Shaking your head means yes, and nodding means no. This can be confusing.