Monthly Archives: September 2013

Off the beaten track: Rila and Pirin Mountains

The statistics says that 95% of the foreign tourists in Bulgaria visit the Black Sea resorts in the summer and the ski resorts during the winter. However Bulgaria has a lot more to offer in terms of history, culture and nature. Most of the tourist sites which are worth visiting are not known to the foreign tourists.
Bulgaria is rich in mountains, natural reserves, river gorges, monasteries, ancient ruins, crafts and customs sites. In this and in the next issues articles we will tell you about some of the most interesting routes and sites.
Bulgaria’s landscape varies from low lands in the valleys and plains to high mountains of Alpine type. Mountains have been thoroughly explored and the most scenic tourist routes are well marked for tourists. There are many huts where one can find inexpensive but very basic accommodation. If you go to the most visited huts in August bring your own sleeping bags. In the smaller huts you will also have to bring your own food.
The main mountain ranges are Rila and Pirin in the South-West Bulgaria, Stara Planina (the Balkan) mountains which spreads from western border to the Black Sea, Rodopi Mountains in the south and Vitosha just outside Sofia. Should you decide to go to the mountains you should know that you need warm clothes and shoes for the summer as well as for the winter.
Rila is the highest Bulgarian mountain with the highest peak Musala (2,925 m altitude). The most picturesque is the range of Malyovitsa and the routes which are worth visiting are:

  • Pionerska hut – Scakavitsa – the Seven Rila Lakes
  • Pionerska hut – the Seven Rila Lakes – Ivan Vazov hut – Malyovitsa peak – Malyovitsa hut
  • Malyovitsa hut – Malyovitsa peak – Ivan Vazov hut – Rila monastery

Around Scakavitsa you can visit the Scakavitsa waterfall and climb the Kabul peak with the magnificent views over lakes and ranges. The Seven Rila lakes are probably the most visited and picturesque mountain site in Bulgaria. The views are fantastic and you will enjoy them most if you climb them from the lowest to the highest lake.
The peak of Malyovitsa is known for the outstanding views but also for the changeable weather. You should not be surprised if you are reached by thick fog or snow in August so be prepared.
Rila Monastery is one of the oldest and the most famous Bulgarian monasteries. It is worth visiting for the beautiful scenery, the fine wood carvings and frescoes. The monastery can be included in a mountain excursion as well as in a car journey from Sofia towards the south-western part of the country.

In the Musala range the most popular are the routes to the peak of Musala which can be climbed from Borovets or from Granchar hut. The Ribni (Fish) lakes are also picturesque and can be visited on the way from Granchar hut to the Rila Monastery.
Many fans of the Bulgarian mountains will tell you that Pirin is the most beautiful Bulgarian mountain. Its peaks are nearly as high (highest Vihren 2914 m altitude) as the Rila ones and the lakes and ranges are dramatic and breathtaking. The routes there are also longer and more difficult than the Rila ones. Some of the routes you can take are:

  • Yavorov hut – through Koncheto range – Vihren peak – Banderitsa or Vihren hut – Bansko
  • Bansko – Banderitsa or Vihren hut – Bezbog hut – Dobrinishte
  • Bansko – Banderitsa or Vihren hut – Bezbog hut – Pirin hut – Pirin village

The Koncheto range is the most dramatic and probably most dangerous rock range in Bulgaria. It requires a dose of courage and a very good mountain guide in order to pass it. The ranges around the peaks of Vihren and Bezbog and the lakes are outstanding with their beauty. In the lower parts the century old forests are welcoming. Near the Banderitsa hut one can see the oldest tree found in Bulgaria – Baikushevata Mura (the Baikusheva White Fir).
In the foothills of Pirin there are a number of small towns and villages which might be of interest for those interested in traditional crafts and architecture. Bansko is one of these places and although it has lost some of its charm due to the mass construction in the last few years, there is still the old part of the town with its traditional houses, pubs, churches and cobbled-stone streets. Melnik to the south is less known but is also worth a visit for its white rock formations, old houses and the famous wine cellars. Sandanski is a resort town with mineral water springs. It may be also a good starting point if you decide to visit Greece and the White Sea.

English-language TV in Bulgaria

British TV
Due to the licensing arrangements between Sky TV and the various
broadcasting companies, Sky TV can only officially be subscribed to by residents of the UK and the ROI. This means that you cannot directly apply for a box and subscription from Sky for use in Bulgaria. What you can do however is take an existing Box and subscription package from the UK/ROI to Bulgaria and have it installed locally. You will need to use a dish of at least 1.5 meters. If the box you have been using was attached to the telephone line then the box will not work since Sky will be able to detect that you have stopped using the service locally (UK). An alternative solution is to use the services of companies that can supply you with a Sky Box and subscription that can be used overseas. These companies offer the same service as Sky but at a higher cost. Please note that not all of the channels are available in Bulgaria due to the weaker signal.

In addition there are a number of internet websites/services that you can use to give you UK TV such as Film On TV. If you are able to use a proxy VPN you can access UK TV through the iplayer services of BBC, ITV and so forth.

Terrestrial TV (through the aerial)

The 3 main national channels BTV, BNT1 and Nova TV are all available free using your TV aerial. The reception is not great and the content is mainly in Bulgarian although some films are aired in English. This year you will be able to access more digital channels through the internal tuner of your TV (only recent models).

Bulgarian Cable and Satellite Services

Most people opt to watch TV in Bulgaria using one of these options. Cable comes into the property, as the name implies, through a cable but is not widely available outside urban areas. Satellite is available in almost every location. The content they air is broadly similar however the cable channels tend to be mainly aired in Bulgarian whilst the satellite channels are often aired in English. The content of both is extensive including knowledge based programming (ie Discovery), films and the excellent Diema sports channels which air many Premiership games (in Bulgarian). The costs of both cable and satellite are low (in comparison to the UK) with monthly subscriptions averaging at 20 BGN. Picture quality on the cable broadcasts is generally lower but tends to suffer less from adverse weather conditions that can effect satellite reception.

Living Costs in Bulgaria

Many of those who are planning to travel to Bulgaria would be interested to read something about the cost of living. Since 1989 Bulgaria has been going through transition from state controlled economy to an open-market economy. During the early years there were fluctuations in the development but during the last 10 years the economy has stabilised. The incomes of the local people and prices gradually are increasing but they are still considerably lower compared to Western Europe. The local currency is the Bulgarian Lev (the plural is ‘Leva’) or BGN. The Lev is pegged to the Euro since 1997 at a rate of 1.95583 leva to 1 Euro. So how much you can expect to spend for some of the most common goods and services?

Some costs of food bought from supermarkets and shops are: loaf of bread (0.7 kg) – 0.5 euros, pork – 5-6 euros/kg , chicken – about 3 euros/kg, traditional Bulgarian white cheese – about 4 euros/kg, yellow cheese – 6 euros/kg, fresh milk – 0.9 euro/litre, 12 eggs – 1.6 euros, bottle of beer (0.5 l) – 0.5-1 euro, potatoes – 1-1,5 euro/kg.

Fresh organic fruits and vegetables which are produced in Bulgaria are normally very delicious and cheap but are only seasonally supplied. For example fresh tomatoes cost about 1 euro per kilo during the summer. During the winter many of the fruits are imported and the prices are higher.

The white goods and electrical products if they are the most up to date tend to be about the same price elsewhere but older models tend to be significantly cheaper.

The biggest differences in prices can be found in the hospitality services. A breakfast in an ordinary restaurant costs about 2-3 euros, dinner about 5-8 euros, and supper – 10-15 euros. There are more expensive luxury establishments where the prices are several times higher but rarely you would pay as much as in Western Europe.

Tap water in Bulgaria is usually good to drink. In addition mineral water of excellent quality is sold everywhere bottled and sealed for a cost of approximately 0.40 euros for 1.5 litres. Domestic natural factory-packed juices cost about 1.5 euro per litre.

Tea and coffee is offered everywhere in the country. Coffee is more popular amongst Bulgarians and strong espresso is usually served costing between 0.8 and 1.5 euro depending on the brand and establishment. The local habit is to drink herb infusion instead of proper tea but the later is also available. The costs are similar to the coffee costs.

Wine and alcoholic drinks are on sale in many restaurants and specialised pubs. The price of a 0.75 l bottle of good dry wine varies between 8 and 15 euros. For about 25 euros per bottle you can enjoy some of the best Bulgarian produced wines. In the shops wines are sold between 3 and 10 euros for normal quality and 15-30 euros for high quality Bulgarian wine. The price of a 0.5-litre bottle of rakiya (traditional Bulgarian spirit drink) normally is about 4-5 euros and if you wish to purchase something of better quality then you have to spend 10-15 euros.

Some of the other living costs are less cheaper compared to the western standards. There are no standing charges for electricity and water. Normally a household of four pays less than 15 euros for water and less than 25 euros for electricity during the summer. During the coldest winter months one household would usually pay up to 150-200 euros bills if electricity is used for heating. Gas is used only in few Bulgarian cities although the gas infrastructure is being developed currently.

Council tax and garbage collection fees are very low. The council tax of an average centrally located apartment in the bigger cities would not exceed 50 euros and for a rural property would not be more than 10 euros per year! The municipal garbage collection fees would also depend on the location and would not be more than 100 euros per year for an average centrally located apartment in the bigger cities and 30 euros per year in the villages.

Property insurance costs are based on the property value. Typically rates vary between 0,1% and 1% of the value to cover all risks apart from robbery. The rate is at the lower end if the building is new.

Taxis are quite cheap with costs of 0.5 euros per kilometre with costs in Sofia and some resort areas being higher.

In summary it is fair to say that costs are lower in Bulgaria and generally speaking visitors to the country have a greater spending power than the locals so in practise can enjoy a higher standard of living.