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Phespirit goes to Bulgaria
Bansko     September 2006

It all costs money, of course. In 2006, tours of Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan cut a larger-than-usual hole in Phespirit's finite annual budget. His travels for the remainder of that year would have to be cheap; any cheerfulness would be a bonus. The Bulgarian mountains, for two weeks at the tail-end of their summer season, appeared to fit the bill. Phespirit booked in haste, and only then gave thought to how he might occupy his time. Indeed, he was still making plans right up to the last moment. The result was a holiday in three parts:

  1. Part the first - hiking in the Pirin Mountains.

    Phespirit stayed in the town of Bansko, 900m above sea-level in the Pirin Mountains. It is the leading venue for winter skiing and summer hiking in Bulgaria. The ski lifts were not operating in mid-September so, as the best hiking trails are several kilometres outside Bansko, Phespirit started each hike with a minibus ride to Vihren Hut (1950m). He followed three hiking trails over three consecutive days, back-tracking to Vihren Hut on each occasion. Three is not a significant number but given Phespirit's annually deteriorating fitness, coupled with the lumpy rock-strewn footpaths that made for some uncomfortable going underfoot, three was ample. Plus, the minibus summer timetable expiring on the Friday of Phespirit's first week was a bit of a show-stopper.

  2. Part the second - towns and monasteries in southwest Bulgaria.

    Transport limitations and tricky terrain make Bulgaria a tediously time-consuming place to travel around. Nonetheless, there are sufficiently interesting places to make the effort worthwhile. Phespirit travelled to two high-profile monasteries in the area: Rila, a large and beautiful complex that retains a measure of serenity despite tourists passing through by the bus-load; and Rozhen, which is less ostentatious but no less picturesque. The towns of Blagoevgrad (near Rila), Melnik (near Rozhen) and Sandanski (also near Rozhen) are worth visiting as secular counterbalances. Heading east, Phespirit took a four-hour scenic narrow-gauge rail trip from Bansko to Velingrad for the novelty of the journey rather than the destination. His only regret was not having the time to venture further eastwards to Plovdiv. This remains his 'thing not done' that will bring him back to Bulgaria some sunny day.

  3. Part the third - to F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Serbia via Sofia.

    Cross-border sorties were not on the agenda when Phespirit arranged to stay in Bulgaria. Taking subsequent inspiration from his atlas, however, he began looking at the options. By consulting the web - Bulgarian Bus sites: Interurban Buses, Central Bus Station Sofia and Matpu-96 Buses, plus Serbian Rail - he came up a plan as follows:

    1. travel by bus from Bansko to Sofia and from Sofia to Skopje in F.Y.R. of Macedonia;
    2. travel by train from Skopje to Niš in Serbia;
    3. travel by bus from Niš to Sofia in Bulgaria;

    ..... and after spending the night in Sofia, he could then sightsee around the capital before catching the last bus back to Bansko at two in the afternoon. Against considerable odds, given the poor standard of the roads and railways, all of these journeys came together with no catastrophic delays. Phespirit was able to enjoy a full day and a bit in Skopje, and four to five hours in Niš.

Topping and tailing his holiday-in-three-parts, Phespirit ambled around Bansko itself. It is a Bulgarian boomtown with cranes scratching at the skylines on all corners. Between a dozen and two dozen property agencies jostle to provide their services, primarily to the British market. It is unimaginable that any bargains remain here. The local wolves are wiser these days and they lay in wait for naïve amateur speculators. When Phespirit visited Bulgaria in 2001, it seemed to be at the start of an economic transition towards the west. In 2006, that transition is operating at full speed with a goal of European Union integration in 2007. It will be interesting to see what has become of the place in a few years' time.

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