Bulgaria - natural history of the mountainous southwest
Exploring the mountains of southwestern Bulgaria, home to endemic plants, abundant butterflies and peaceful monasteries.
We will start our holiday in the western Rhodopes, where the rounded, pine-covered hills are occasionally cut by streams and rivers running through deep gorges. Heading west, the Rhodope mountains reach their highest point with the massifs of Rila and Pirin, cloaked in ancient conifer forests, leading on to alpine meadows and rock screes higher up.
The mountains are home to many local specialities: with a little searching, flowers such as Lilium jankae, Aquilegia aurea, Geum coccineum, Primula deorum, Pinguicula balcanica and the beautiful Orpheus flower Haberlea rhodopensis could all be expected, along with beautiful pine forests including trees as old as 1,000 years.
The butterfly fauna is equally rich, and we will be hoping to find the impressive Apollo, Balkan copper, Balkan Clouded Yellow, and the rare Cynthia’s Fritillary (only found here and in the Alpes Maritimes in France), along with a mind-boggling variety of ringlets and graylings, blues and skippers.
For the bird enthusiast, the highlight will no doubt be time spent in the stunning Trigrad Gorge, looking for the beautiful Wallcreeper that nests in cracks on the rock face here. We will also keep our eyes open for Balkan Chamois grazing on the high mountain slopes, Common Rosefinch, Black Woodpecker and Nutcracker.
Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.
Day 1 Our flight takes us to Sofia, from where we travel eastwards to the Western Rhodopes, stopping along the way for our first taster of the Bulgarian countryside.
Days 2-3 We will spend two days exploring the Western Rhodopes, with its meadows and woodlands. More than 2,000 species of plants have been recorded here, of which more than 90 are endemic to the Balkans, including Viola rhodopaea and Geum rhodopaeum and a bewildering variety of saxifrages and campanulas, dianthuses and astragaluses. Chief amongst the area’s attractions is the fantastic Trigrad Gorge – in places the two sides of the gorge are just 100 metres apart. For the birders amongst us, Trigrad Gorge is famous as the home to nesting Wallcreeper, and we will pay particular attention to finding this amazing bird as it feeds across the rock faces. The same habitat is home to the equally impressive Haberlea rhodopensis, a locally-endemic relative of ramonda and the more familiar African violets, which grows on the damp, shaded cliffs, alongside Saxifraga sempervivum and Trachelium rumelianum.
Higher up, above Trigrad village, we explore the flower-rich meadows, home to orchids including Anacamptis coriophora, Dactylorhiza cordigera and Orchis ustulata. We also hope to find Sideritis scardica, more familiar as the key ingredient in ‘mountain tea’ throughout the Balkans.
Lower down we will spend some time in the pine forests, where we hope to find Crested Tit, Black Woodpecker, Honey Buzzard and Firecrest. Black Redstart nest in the villages, Dipper will be bobbing on the streams while Corncrake will be singing their strange rasping song from the meadows nearby.
Day 4 Today we bid farewell to Trigrad and drive west towards the high mountains of Rila and Pirin. Our home for the next three nights is a lodge in the countryside on the saddle between the two mountains. We will spend the afternoon exploring the meadows and woodland edge in the vicinity of the lodge, home to Common Rosefinch, Red-backed Shrike and plenty of flowers and butterflies.
Days 5-6 We spend two days exploring the two massifs of Pirin and Rila, the latter the highest mountain in the Balkans. This is a beautiful landscape of high peaks, alpine meadows dotted with glacial lakes, spectacular rocky gorges, precipitous cliffs and dense forests. Some of the Macedonian pines here are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. The summer flowers should include many local specialities – amongst them bright red Geum coccineum, dark pink Primula deorum, stunning yellow Lilium jankae and the creamy Aquilegia aurea.
The butterfly fauna here features the Clouded Apollo, Balkan Copper, Higgin’s Anomalous Blue, Balkan Fritillary, Bulgarian Ringlet and many others. The birds of the mountains include Alpine Chough, Nutcracker, Hazel Grouse and various woodpeckers. Red Squirrels hide amongst the trees, while Balkan Chamois may be picked up as they graze on the mountain slopes.
Day 7 We will visit the Rila monastery, the largest monastery in Bulgaria founded by St Ivan in the 10th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We will also visit more mountain meadows.
Day 8 Today we head back to Sofia airport and our flights home.
Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders.
We will be staying at three hotels during the holiday – Trigrad for three nights, Pirin for three nights and Rila for one night. Exact hotels used will depend on the final group size. All rooms have en-suite facilities with bath and/or shower.
Meals provided during the stay will have an emphasis on local cuisine. Lunches will be a mixture of picnics and café/restaurants. Requests for special diets can be accommodated.
Transport will be by small bus or smaller ‘people carrier’-type vehicles if necessary.
The group flights are with Easyjet from London Gatwick to Sofia.
Bulgaria is two hours ahead of UK time.
If you hold a British passport, from 1 January 2021 you will be able to travel to Bulgaria for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. You must have at least six months left on your passport to travel to most countries in Europe
The weather should be warm, although cooler in the mountains. We hope for dry weather, but rain, wind or cold weather and even snow are always a possibility at this time of year. We are unlikely to be going above 2,000m.
On most days, we are out and about for much of the day, albeit walking a relatively slow pace and making several stops each day. We will spending our time out in the mountains, where it is necessary to walk on rougher ground and up some slopes, although none of the walking is strenuous. Walking boots are essential. The highest altitude we go to is about 2,200-2,400 metres, but our accommodation is only at 1,100m. There are likely to be steps at our hotels, with no lift, as well as up/down into the vehicle.