“I am 60 km from Sofia in ‘Stara Planina’ mountain at 1400 m altitude. If you wish to guests and me to show you the area of the mountain type. You have to catch a train to Karlovo or Pirdop and get off at the village Bunovo.The train station is in central Sofia. Depart at 08.20, 11.00, 13.00, 17.41, 19.50. You go 6 km walk along to my hut. When you arrive in Bunovo from the train, see if you can ask someone in the village for either me, Ivo Iordanov, or the mountain hut ‘Chavdar’. Hopefully someone will be able to point you in the right direction, the hut is maybe six kilometers from the village. The trail leads from under the big railway bridge with a stream on the left hand side. The path will take you all the way to the hut, but you can take a little shortcut by following the blue and white markings. You do not need special skills. I think it will meet with difficulties get to me. If there are any questions, I am ready to answer. Just keep in mind that if I engaged you will need to get yourself to me, I can take you away. Also late at around 2:00 should be in Bunovo because after 18 already dark. Expect an answer.”
These were the directions Aaron and I received, the only response to our open couchsurf request upon arriving in Sofia. The sender was a middle-aged man named Ivo who lived in a cabin in this region of the Balkan mountain range, or Stara Planina (translated as Old Mountain). Normally, an invitation of this nature, consisting of a little less than coherent directions, written in dodgy English, to an isolated house located on a mountaintop in the middle of Bulgaria..should set off some alarm bells. However, judging by the few positive reviews on Ivo’s profile, it seemed reasonably safe, and Aaron and I decided to check it out.
The following afternoon, we set off.
The train ride was very scenic, passing through a beautiful, green countryside. The train chugged along at a comfortable pace, covering the 60 kilometers in just over 90 minutes. Many of the stops were along unmarked parts of the railway, with no stations in sight. Some had very old, rusted signs with the already complicated cyrillic script barely legible, and others only a railway attendant sitting by the side of the tracks. Fortunately, the conductor remembered that we wanted to get off at Bunovo and gave us a heads-up a few minutes before our stop.
It was almost 3.30 pm, so we had plenty of time to find the trail and hike up before the sun would set. This was the perfect opportunity to explore a bit before beginning our trek.
As we walked into town, we came across a stream about 100 meters from the train station. The stream led through a tunnel underneath the tracks, and sure enough it was on the left side. For some reason, we had forgotten to save both the directions that Ivo had sent us and other information that would have been useful, such as maps, so upon finding a small dirt path past the tunnel that led up into the hills, we thought we would give the path a shot. Fifteen minutes of walking later, the path ended somewhere in the woods, and we backtracked to the railway.
After a few fruitless attempts to find said bridge and stream in the area, we decided to head into the village and ask around.
Eventually, a few helpful locals who seemed to be familiar with Çavdar cabin directed us in fluent Bulgarian and rapid, vague gestures towards the general westward direction. But thats all we needed, as a few hundred meters later the village ended, and what appeared to be a ‘big railway bridge’ appeared in the distance.
The path along the stream stretched through this valley for about two kilometers, eventually opening up to a rocky plain.
The mountain we would have to scale was directly across the open expanse. Our options were either following the dirt path that circled around the peak, slowly winding a long 8 kilometers up to the cabin, or following the blue and white striped path up a much steeper, 4 kilometer climb. Judging by the rapidly setting sun, we wouldn’t have too much sunlight left and chose the latter, hoping to finish the hike before it got dark.
Although light, the weight of our bags combined with the slippery surface, resulting from a thick sheet of moist leaves that covered the whole mountain, made the hike very tiring. But with the warm vibrancy of the late afternoon colors, we took our time, admiring autumn’s ornate decoration of the Bulgarian countryside.
About two and a half hours after passing under the big railway bridge, Çavdar cabin finally appeared within the thickly forested mountain.
Walking up the stairs to the outdoor patio, we were first greeted by Ivo. Dressed comfortably in a thick green jacket, he was accompanied by two friends from the village, both in their late forties, sitting around a large table upon which were laying four sizeable hunting knives. After shaking hands, one of his friends, who was dressed in a red mechanic suit, firmly grabbed the largest knife and raised it slowly. Then, from under the table, he revealed a plastic box. While trying to process what was going on, I continued standing there and watching as this well-built, large Bulgarian man smiled, opened the box, pulled out a few dry-cured sausages and began cutting large chunks with his unnecessarily large knife into a bowl.
“Just water please, we are very thirsty from the hike up.”
“No. No water. Beer or rakija?”
“Ok I bring both!”
This conversation very accurately depicts how the rest of the evening evolved. We got a first hand taste of Bulgarian hospitality in its purest, or most insistent, form, as the table filled with grilled peppers stuffed with Bulgarian feta, countless servings of tasty sausage, and homemade rakija that just wouldn’t deplete. We were constantly handed glasses, forks and bread, and urged by Ivo’s two friends with the only English word they knew..”eat” (a word Ivo taught them upon our arrival).
During the summers, Çavdar hut served as a quiet getaway for Sofia residents and other locals who knew about it and were willing to make the arduous climb up the mountain. At other times, Ivo happily hosted similarly committed couchsurfers for free. Apart from delicious meals and a relaxing atmosphere, the mountain hut’s location was conveniently situated at the crossing point of several appealing hiking trails. The following morning, after having some coffee with Ivo, Aaron and I took off on one of the trails that led to the closest peak in the area.
As we approached the hut upon our return, the noise of crackling coals and a heavy aroma of sizzling marinated meat rushed to greet us, soon followed by several voices and the clinking of silverware. When the hut appeared in the distance, the full picture started filling in, first with the patio table. Ivo was busily moving about with two women, laying plate after plate of salads, fruits, and assortments of cheese, cured meat, olives and freshly picked vegetables. Glasses were being filled with homemade ayran and rakija, ashtrays were positioned strategically in a triangular fashion in the middle of the table, and jars filled with pickles, pork scratchings and helva materialized every minute. Then came the yard. Two middle-aged men with large coats and even larger knives were slicing cuts of chicken and various sausages as they meticulously arranged them on a simmering bed of coals.
As it was a Sunday, Ivo’s very good friends, couples Plamen and Silva & Ivan and Reni, had come up from Bunovo to have a feast…and we were fortunate enough to be invited.
While the meat was slowly cooking and the pork scratchings were added to the mix, the light pink plum-flavored liqueur filled our glasses and everyone took a seat. The next few hours were overwhelmed with such warm and joyful stories, occasionally accompanied by translations from Ivo. Plamen dominated the conversation, always beginning with a deep, collected voice that was greeted by a respectful and sincere silence by the rest of the table, which then escalated to an excited pace, large gestures, raising of shoulders and eyebrows, and grabbing of nearby arms for emphasis. And finally, the table would burst into a painful laughter, coming mostly from Aaron and me, stimulated by the energy and general mood of the environment. The feast continued with more laughter, hugging, photographs and stories.
As the sun was setting, we admired the vibrant colors that danced and silhouetted against the distant mountaintop.
But the fun continued for hours after moving the whole table inside, fleeing from the bone-chilling night air.
Leaving the following morning was difficult, to say the least, especially due to Ivo’s insistent “No…you stay 10 days.” But with a great distance to cover over the coming days, we unwillingly packed our bags and warm memories, said our goodbyes and took off.
This short stay with Ivo will remain as one of my fondest stories from my travels. I sincerely thank Ivo and his wonderful friends for their hospitality and friendship. Until next time.