I have a confession to make.
Before this trip, I had never really seriously considered a standalone trip to Bulgaria.
I added the destination to my EuroTrip, however, purely because I was going to be in the general area anyway, and it was relatively cheap to get to. I can honestly say it was the best decision I've made in a long, long time. Though the trip was not without drama... the country itself absolutely blew my mind.
Bulgaria, as it turns out, is intensely beautiful. I first realised this on a day trip to Rila Monastery, high up in the Bulgarian countryside. The religious site itself is a wonder to behold, as is the little village which surrounds it, but I was most struck by the natural surroundings - the mountains and hills and towering trees.
I enjoyed my day trip to Rila so much that I decided to take a solo trip into the wild. Setting off from my hotel in Sofia the next day, I took the underground towards Mount Vitosha. You can't go all the way, so I got off at the end of the line and walked the remaining miles. Arriving at the foot of the mountain, I queued for the chairlift which takes people up past the halfway point. So far so good.
Out of the lift and onto the mountain, keeping an eye out for brown bears, I made good time to the top. It was a tough hike, and it took far longer than I expected. It also took far logger than Google maps expected. But I made it eventually.
The view was breathtaking. A dusting of snow on the summit belies just how high the mountain is - more than 2,200m.
I wanted to stay there forever. On top of the world.
But, after quite a few selfies on the summit, and the creation of a jolly looking snowman, I began to get a bit paranoid about getting down before dark. Unfortunately, not paranoid enough.
I made my way back down the mountain... Only to find that the chairlift had ceased operations half an hour beforehand.
A quick check of Google maps revealed it would take me at least three hours to descend on foot... but it would be dark in less than one hour.
Bears were a concern, of course, but after dark so were wolves and boars.
Panicking, I caught up to a couple walking down the mountain, about to leave the path and delve into the forest.
In broken English, the man told me I shouldn't attempt to walk down myself - he and his wife had torches and provisions and had walked the route many times... And were only going to a village on the side of the mountain, not the whole way to the base.
He said I should see about a bus, and pointed down the road. He said the stop was near the hotel.
Hopeful, I practically ran in the direction he suggested, thinking that if I couldn't get a bus I could at least stay at the hotel. Whatever the price, I would pay it.
Ten minutes later, I arrived at the "hotel". A dilapidated shack, it had closed down years ago.
The claws of panic resuming an ever-tightening grip on my throat, I waited at the deserted bus stop.
The sign said buses had stopped running two hours ago.
Then a woman arrived and stood at the stop. Hallelujah! A local has arrived and she knows there's a bus and all is right with the world!
Five minutes later, a car pulled up. The woman got in. I was alone again.
Ten minutes after this, I spotted a taxi coming up the road. I flagged him down. He stopped. Hallelujah! I can get this taxi back to Sofia! It will cost me a bomb but I couldn't care less.
The driver didn't speak English, but I tried to ask if he would take me to Sofia. He didn't understand. I tried again. I said I would pay whatever the fare, or maybe if you can't take me you could get another taxi from the company to come? He still didn't understand. And actually got quite angry at me for some reason. While I was mid sentence, he rolled the window back up and drove away.
My hope was ripped away.
Not long after this, a man arrived and stood beside me at the bus stop. Hope sprang up again. Surely this man knew what he was doing. Surely he was a local who knew the bus times. Why else would he be waiting here?
But, after a few sideways looks from him, I started to get a bad vibe from the guy. He attempted to talk to me a few times, but he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Bulgarian.
I tried to ask of he was waiting for a bus. He nodded.
"To Sofia?" I asked.
More nodding. More sideways looks.
After a few minutes of this, I started to walk a little bit further away from him. He followed. He asked me something in Bulgarian. I said no.
He began to gesture to the dilapidated hotel, saying something about whiskey, and trying to get me to follow him.
I most certainly would not.
And here, dear reader, is where I lost all hope. I was sure I was minutes from being raped and murdered, my body left for the bears and wolves, on this godforsaken mountain in the middle of nowhere.
I was, I'll admit, fairly close to tears.
Thankfully, however, the man accepted my refusals and retreated into the run down building where, I gather, he was probably living.
By now it was getting dark and I had been waiting around for salvation for about an hour. I was getting frantic.
I spotted three people in the distance, a man, a woman, and a child. They had been on the mountain and were walking to their car which was nearby.
I ran to them.
Just as they got to their car, I arrived red faced and emotional, asking if they spoke English.
The man said that he spoke a little and asked if I was OK.
I said a wasn't, that maybe I could phone a taxi from their phone? He could do me one better - they could bring me to Sofia themselves.
And yes, I have always known not to take lifts from strangers, to never get into a car with anyone I don't know, but I was desperate. And I needed off that mountain. So I agreed.
My faith in their kindness paid off. We made small talk for the half hour journey, they dropped me at a subway station, and point blank refused to take the money I offered them.
They were incredibly kind to me and wanted absolutely nothing in return.
Thanks to them, I was safe and sound, though a little shaken, and back in Sofia ready to continue my adventures.
They restored my faith in mankind that day, and I will never forget it.
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