Pirin Wine Trail

Getting There

It was completely silent apart from the rattle of our suitcase wheels on the cobbled pavement of the Ioannina footpath, as we headed off to the bus-stop for a 7am bus to Thessaloniki. Four hours later we arrived at the enormous dome-roofed bus station in this second largest of Greek cities. The timetables were not our friend, as it would be another 4 hours before the bus for Bulgaria arrived. Compared to Thessaloniki bus station, our wait at Heathrow Airport seemed a luxury. Nonetheless, the fair Nello was able to indulge in her favourite pass-time of people watching, as passengers came and went and the rhythm of the bus-station fluctuated between calm and frenetic. A security guard passed by several times, before he could no longer contain himself and harangued us for twenty minutes on the woes of the Greek economy and the evil Angela Merkel who was to blame for it all. We could sympathise with him - with 60% youth unemployment, plummeting wages, evaporating pensions, but I suspect the blame can be more widely apportioned. We were wondering who you call when it is the security guard harassing you, when he finally left. A little later and the bus for Bulgaria also left, with us on board.

Stormy weather over the Pirin Mountains

View across the rooves of Bansko toward the Rila Mountains

We drove across the rolling Greek countryside to cross the border and catch our first glimpse of the Pirin Mountains, snow-streaked and capped with dark thunderous clouds. They looked like the hiking would be good - hopefully the forecast for improving conditions would hold. After passing through a pretty, narrow gorge, we arrived at Blagoevgrad, not high on the tourist radar, but a good point to start from when walking these mountains. We checked into our very comfortable hotel in a leafy street and settled down for a local beer and dinner. It had been a long day of travel and we were glad to be in Bulgaria - the people were very friendly and Blagoevgrad gave us a good vibe.

Church tower with stork nest

Traditional houses in Bansko

The pre-trek Bulgarian feast

The next morning we left our suitcases at the hotel and, carrying only our backpacks and walking gear, headed down to the bus-stop to find the local bus to Bansko. An hour later we arrived at this Bulgarian ski resort, found our guesthouse and checked out the local tourist office. The girl told us the mountain huts were open, which was good news. Tomorrow, we start walking south on the Pirin Wine Trail, the ancient route for mules carrying wine over the mountains from Greece to central Bulgaria. It had been a while since our hikes in Albania and we were keen to head off again.

Day 1 - Bansko to Demyanitsa Hut (14 km - 1010m ascent - 30m descent) + (sidetrip 4 km - 260m ascent - 260m descent)

The sky was a mix of cloud and sunshine as we set out on our first walk in Bulgaria. The first stage wasn't particularly long, as we wandered down Todor Alexandrov St to Ploshtad Nikola Vaptsarov, the main square of Bansko, and stopped at an outdoor cafe for breakfast and to buy a bit of lunch at the market. The first few kilometres of this trail are all through the town and we set off again, passing through Ploshtad Vazrazhdane, where the fair Nello had been serenaded by a quartet of Bulgarian musicians last night as we ate dinner, then up the long thread of Pirin Street, the main drag but now very quiet, as might be expected of a ski resort out-of-season and early on a Saturday.

Heading out of Bansko (2914m Mt Vihren in the background)

Out of town and into the forest

The foaming white torrent of the Demyanitsa River

Finally, we reached the edge of town and entered the forest, though still on an asphalt road that wound its way upwards beside the ski-field cable car posts. It was a steady continuous climb, which was to remain the pattern of the day. Every now and then, we cut out a hairpin in the road, by taking a path beneath the tall pine trees. One one such occasion, our passage was halted by a rain of pine cones from the top of a tree 20m in the air. "Big squirrel", we both thought, but it was in fact a two-legged cone-collector. We called out and passed beneath, and the rain of cones began again behind us - now what was he going to do with them?

Track beneath the pines

The Katerina Hotel - a good spot for coffee

Back on the road, we crossed the bridge over the raging torrent of the Demyanitsa River, whose dull roar had been but a noise in the forest - all that meltwater pouring off the mountains and funnelling down this stream - it was impressive. A little later, we spotted the exit for the wide stony track up to Demyanitsa and the little hotel just 100m further on. We headed for the latter - no need not to be civilised and it was time for a coffee.

Track alongside the Demyanitsa River

Then back to the track and into the forest, heading further and further away from the bitumen road and following the thundering Demyanitsa River up its narrow and steep sided valley. It was warm and humid beneath the tall pine and fir forest and we were soon perspiring freely, as we passed in and out of the shade on this dappled track.

Karkamsa Reka (a rushing side-stream)

Bridge over the Demyanitsa

The steady climb continued - mainly under forest, but passing several small grassy clearings, then past the rocky sides of Gradishteto Mountain and its old abandoned marble quarry, past white foaming waterfalls - but always up, steadily continuously up. A little later, we left the main track to follow a footpath through a grassy meadow known as Glavites, where the local Bulgarians ambushed a band of marauding Turks in 1810 and left their heads on a giant stranded glacial boulder as a warning - the rock is still there, the heads seem to have gone. Now butterflies flit amongst the flowers and the bloody past is long forgotten.

200 years ago the heads of some bandits were displayed on this rock

The grassy clearing at Demyanishka Polyana

From the meadow, we climbed up to what should have been the almost dry stony river bed of Karkamsa Reka. It was in fact a multi-braided fast-flowing stream with no obvious crossing where the track met it. I quickly proved the equation that "unsteady rock + heavy pack = bootful of water", so we headed down into the forest and found a new way across. There is no shortage of water here - it was literally pouring off the mountains and hopefully reducing the snow loads on the high passes. Sloshing on up this steep rocky footpath, we rejoined the main track. Another diversion from the main track took us across the boggy grasslands of Demyanishka Polyana, a large clearing which for the first time gave us good views of the valley walls.

Hizha Demyanitsa

The outdoor laundry machine (ingenious)

Pushing on, we followed the road around to reach a couple of wooden bridges, which gave us a brief foray on the far side, before crossing the foaming Demyanitsa back to our western bank. From here a short sharp climb brought us to our destination - the Demyanitsa Mountain Hut. With accommodation for well over 100 in main building and wooden cabins, we found ourselves with a room of our own. There were a dozen or so others here, hikers and fishermen, and the two caretakers.

Our complete lack of Bulgarian proved only a minor inconvenience, as we sorted out the meal arrangements, had a short rest and then headed off, free of the big packs, to do a little side trip up to Vasilashka Lake, set in a high bowl at the top of the western wall of the valley.

The climb up from Demyanitsa

Sun glinting on the Vasilashka Reka

Marshland in the Vasilashka Basin

A gnarly old pine

Golyam Tipits (2645m)

It was a great detour - steep climb up through pine and fir-covered slopes, rock-hopping (2 poles needed) across the flooding outlet stream of the lake, stroll across a boggy flat where small ponds reflected the surrounding mountains and finally a climb up a ridge covered in dwarf pines to reach the level of Vasilashka Lake and see the snow-streaked peaks of the cirque reflected in its waters. The beer we had on our return (Pirinsko of course) was well-earned.

Reflections in Vasilashka Lake of snow-streaked slopes near the Todorina Pass

We had a pleasant evening in the Mountain hut - a filling soup, meatballs and cucumber and a big bowl of "Greek" sufter salad - in the company of a group of Bulgarian fisherman enjoying the mountain streams. The foray to the tops had whet our appetite for the day to come, when we would attempt to cross the main range of the Pirin Mountains, so we headed to bed early for a good night's sleep. The fisherman partied on till 4 am.

Day 2 - Demyanitsa Hut to Pirin Hut (17 km - 760m ascent - 1020m descent)

I had had a restless night, less from singing fisherman than from planning all the different options for crossing the two passes today, depending on how much snow there was. We had been advised not to try as the snow was too deep, but we wanted to see for ourselves - one option in my dreams was to retreat back to Demyanitsa. Hence, when we set out after our Bulgarian Mountain breakfast of fried toast, cheese and blackberry jam with coffee, it was with some trepidation. The sky however was cloudless, which had to be a good omen, and my boots were dry again courtesy of the hut's wood-fuelled stove.

View towards the head of the Valyavitsa Valley

We quickly crossed the rushing torrent of Vasilashka Reka below the hut and headed up the stony track beneath the forest canopy. The trees were becoming more and more stunted as we followed the track high above the rushing waters of the Valyavitsa River and we soon broke out into the wide open spaces of Dalgata Polyana (the long meadow).

Crossing a side stream ...

... and crossing the Long Meadow

It was a beautiful undulating grassy and stony meadow, scattered with wild-flowers and a myriad of side streams that flowed down off the valley walls to reinforce the Valyavitsa - most we could hop across, while some demanded more technical fording. So much water was pouring off the slopes that at times, it used the track as a stream bed. At one crossing, we met three young Bulgarians descending the trail - they had spent the night at Tevno Refuge, beyond the first pass. So at least that was doable - from this far it had looked to have a fairly heavy snow cover on its north face. Our spirits rose palpably.

Panorama of the upper valley (dominated by 2664m Valyavishki Chukar)

Heading through the dwarf pines

A clear pool on the Valyavitsa River

The views up and down the valley were simply glorious in this cloud free morning and the temperature was warming up, so it was zip off the pants legs and push on. At the head of the meadow, lay a large boulder scree from the days when glaciers carved this valley, but now filled with grasses and dwarf pines.

View back towards the distant Rila Mountains

A boggy area in the upper valley

We worked our way up around it, following the blue and white markers, to reach a boggy flat, through which flowed a beautiful crystal clear stream that drained the lakes above. The streams and ponds on this flat were home to numerous small frogs - out and about now that the snow had melted. Crocuses too were emerging from beneath the melting drifts, splashing the path in purple.

Not too cold for snakes

We now started the steep climb up the boulder scree to the level of the Prevalski Ezera, a set of four glacial lakes at the head of the valley, traversing our first snow drifts on the way. The lakes were in a superb setting - we climbed steadily up past three of them, all gems but the last and largest, Vtoro, was magnificent in a deep bowl below the rugged walls of Valyavishki Chukar.

Traversing the first snowdrift

View back toward 2670m Malak Polezhan

First of the Prevalski Lakes below the dark massif of Valyavishki Chukar

Vtoro Lake in its picturesque bowl

All the time the pass was getting closer and changing its appearance - to steeper and higher. However, the path up was now clear - crossing a big lower snowdrift to pick up a long rib of rocks, then leaving that for a climbing traverse of the higher part of the snowdrift to a second steep rock rib that brought us out at the 2530m saddle of Mosgovishka Porta.

Looking up to the 2530m Mosgovishka Pass

The cornice on the saddle of Mosgovishka Porta

Our first pass was done and the views from it were superb, back down the long length of the Demyanitsa Valley to the hazy Rila Mountains in the north and southwards over the rugged snow-streaked walls of the Belemeto Cirque - a superb alpine panorama.

Nearing the top of the pass

View over the pass to the peaks of the Begovishki Rid

View back down the Valyavitsa Valley towards Demyanitsa

Traversing the southern slopes of the pass

Fortunately, we were now on the south face of the pass and there was less snow on the track as we descended around the steep-walled cliffs of Valyavidshki Chukar, now following red/white trail markers, to climb back up and gain the large snow-filled bowl holding Tevno Ezero. The lake surface was mostly still frozen, with swirling patterns of snow, water and ice.

Crossing the big snow bowl near Tevno

Ice-covered Tevno Lake and Momini Dvori (2714m)

At its end, the bright red roof of the Tevno Refuge begged our attention and behind the peaks of the cirque - breathtaking. Cloud had begun to form above the peaks as we climbed, but the sun was back out as we crossed the long snow-filled bowl next to the lake to reach the refuge. It had been a tough climb and this was the perfect place for lunch.

The red roof of Zaslo Tevno Ezero (Tevno Lake Refuge)

Patterns of ice and water

Kralev Dor (2680m) and the Kralevdvorska Dyasna Pass

Crocus in bloom

As we ate, four more hikers appeared - they had come over the second pass from the direction of Pirin Hut - so that one was open as well. When I enquired about the snow conditions on the pass, the one who spoke a little English just said "much snow" with a wry smile. We set out to see what he meant, climbing steadily through the snow up a relatively easy slope, all the time turning to admire the incredible views back down the cirque to the valley beyond.

Climbing up from the refuge to Kralevdvorska Dyasna Pass (view of the Belemeto Cirque)

View east from the pass of snow-covered Demirkapski Cirque backed by the peaks of Debeli Rid

Finally we reached the saddle of Kraledvorska Dyasna Porta, at 2590m the second and higher of the two passes. We looked over to the other side and my heart stopped a beat. The snow-covered slope dropped off very sharply to fall away like a giant slide to the base of the drift, several hundred metres below - this was no the place to slip!

Looking down the big drift from the pass

Descending the east side of the pass

However, it was the only way to reach Pirin - thus began a very careful series of descending traverses across the steep face of the drift, one step at a time, cutting a foot-step into the slope, anchoring the pole above, cutting the next step and so on - I was producing so much adrenalin, I could smell it. We crossed the drift from rock island to rock island, gradually losing elevation and reducing the angle of the slope. The trail markers here were all buried by snow so navigation was an issue. At first we tried to follow the footprints of the four hikers, but they seemed to be staying way too high, as a rocky spur below seemed to be the natural route down. At one stage, we saw tracks below us and headed towards them, only to discover they were made by a chamois. This led us a bit off the track, but my GPS picked up this overshoot and took us back to the long rocky ridge. We then followed this down to a find a short section of exposed track and a red/white trail marker - never has a bit of paint on a rock looked so good.

The fair Nello contemplates the route ahead

Mitrovo Ezero

We were now below the worst of the snow-work and above the dark blue waters of Mitrovo Ezero and we now had time to appreciate the monochromic beauty of the Demirkapski Cirque that we were descending into. The fair Nello was now so relaxed that she spotted a trio of chamois a few hundred metres ahead. They also spotted us and left fairly promptly.

Malka Kamenitsa (2679m)

Zooming in on a chamois (one of three)

The upper Demirkapiyska Valley

After a break above the lake, we continued our descent into the Demirkapiyska Valley. It was much broader and more open then the Demanyitsa Valley and seemed to drop in a series of tiers - first the higher spongy meadow, a land of braided streams and braided paths. When we reached the point where the track crossed the outflow from Mitrovo Lake, it was meltwater full and thundering down - we climbed up to a more sedate set of braids, took off our boots and waded across - my that meltwater is cold!

Crossing an icy melt-water stream

The river in the Upper Valley

Middle Valley landscape

A waterfall threads its way off the ridge

Dropping to a second tier, we threaded our way across a myriad of streams flowing on and beneath the boulder-studded meadow as the outflow from another high lake flowed down the valley walls. In fact, all along silvery threads of falls were finding their way into the Demirkapiyska River, now becoming a raging torrent that sped down its pine-lined course towards the next tier in a series of roaring cascades.

About to descend from the middle Demirkapiyska Valley

The lower-valley with its pine-clad walls was now opening out and we descended towards it through the long meadow, speckled with the wildflowers of these mountainous parts. Once we reached the lower terrace, the track approached the river to follow a series of rapids and cascades down through the corridor of pines.

The Demirkapiyska River in the lower valley

At last the mountain hut appears

Rapids in the pine forest

By now we were starting to ask "are we there yet?". It had been a long day and after crossing a dense, rumex covered herb-field, we entered a section of tall pine, fir and beech forest. At any other time, it would have been a delight to walk along the soft brown leafy track beneath these superb trees, but we had been on the track for almost 10 hours.

Hizha Pirin

A leafy path through the beech forest

Afternoon light on the fir tree

The sight of three-storied Pirin Mountain Hut appearing at the edge of a clearing was what we really needed. Pirin has 78 beds and we took two, which made three for the night with the caretaker - very different from our stay at Demyanitsa. He was a pleasant chap, but lack of common language was a bit limiting. Still, I had learnt one important phrase in Bulgarian "dva byra, molya" - he produced two ice-cold Pirinsko beers, so good after this very hard but incredibly rewarding day in the Pirin Mountains.

Day 3 - Pirin Hut to Melnik (21 km - 310m ascent - 1560m descent)

Yet another perfect mountain day greeted us, as we packed up and set out on the last day of this crossing - there would be much less climbing, but still it was going to be the longest stage. The track took us quickly down a dirt road leading away from the hut, but after a short while we left it to start following green/white trail markers into the forest and upwards. The gradient was mostly a gentle one and the leafy path in the shade of pine and beech a pleasant one. It brought us up to an open meadow on the ridge with views back towards the mountains behind us.

Crossing the Kelyova Reka

A clearing in the conifer forest

Climbing up through the beech forest

The tranquility of the "Walk of Peace"

It was still early, but the day was already warming up, so it was time to zip off pants legs and push on, down the meadow and once more into the forest on its far side. This section of the path has been named the "Walk of Peace" and peaceful it certainly was, as we walked along in silence beneath the bright-green leaves of new beech foliage or the darker green of conifers, the only sounds the songs of the forest birds, the babbling of the occasional stream and the soft rustle of dry leaves beneath our feet.

The meadows of Staro Lopovo

It was a pleasant undulating and meandering traverse of the head of a valley, but the peace was suddenly broken when we entered a sunlit clearing, where the beech were infested by swarms of tiny sap-sucking bugs. These took to the air in clouds as we passed, getting into nostrils, eyes and down shirts. It was a relief to reach another section of forest and escape them.

Ridge clearing on Vlachkiya Pat (Vlach's Trail)

We had now reached a long spur running off the south side of the Pirin Mountains and for the next hour or two, this spur was our path, gently taking us down from the heights. The path fluctuated between open, grassy ridge-top with scattered pines and taller, denser forest on the slopes of the spur.

The open areas were thick with the yellow flowers of broom and mullein and many other wildflowers. The sweet nectar-rich scent wafting up from the broom was a magnet to butterflies, fluttering across our path. The forest sections were filled with the joyful songs of unseen birds. What a complement - sunshine with butterflies, hawkwing moths, bumble bees and iridescent beetles alternating with shade and birdsong and glimpses out over the tree-clad slopes to distant ranges beyond.

Views from the Vlachkiya Pat

Path through the forest near Vlach's Spring

Lovely day in the south of Bulgaria

Beneath the shady oak trees beneath Kiselets

Topping up with water at Vlach's Spring, we continued the long walk down this ridge along a broad and even track, now passing beneath resin-scented pine or scrubby oaks as we gradually got lower. Finally, we reached a large clearing that overlooked the plains and sandstone ridges beyond. We were about to undergo a major change of habitat.

A grove of oak

The grassy, flower-speckled flat looked like a good place for a rest, but for the first time, March flies appeared and hurried us on, along a single file footpath that dropped quickly through oak, then pine, then open-meadow to reach one of the long sandstone / conglomerate ridges that we had seen from above.

Hot day at the end of the long spur down from Pirin

Views out over the plains

In the sandstone country

The day was now heating up rapidly, so we followed the track out along the pine-covered ridge to reach the little chapel of Elijah the Prophet. Perched on the edge of the cliff, beneath the shade of the resin-scented pines, it was a good place to take a long break and have some lunch.

The chapel of St Prophet Elijah (built in 1856)

Views out over the sandstone country from the chapel

Sharp ridges of sandstone rising from the forested valleys

The dry creek bed that served as our path

The only direction from the top of a cliff is down and, having refilled our water bottles from the spring at the chapel, we quickly descended a zig-zagging track down the eroded walls, passing a view point over this fascinating carved landscape, then picking up a sandy stream bed. This proved a good route out into the valley, which was a veritable heat-trap. The temperatures in this still air had now passed the 30°C mark and our shirts were saturated with perspiration.

The dry bed of the Rozhenska Reka

Leaving the creek bed to rejoin a dirt track, we finally found ourselves at a junction with an asphalt road. Time to turn left and follow it into the picturesque village of Rozhen, tucked in amongst the sandstone formations - the cafe was open and we stopped for a cold drink, a plate of chilled mulberries and a break from the heat. It was hard to believe that this time yesterday we had been walking through deep snow.

Sandstone pinnacle at the back of Rozhen

The superb setting of Rozhen

Houses in the village of Rozhen

The heat was fast sapping our energy, so it was a far from pleasant surprise to head off from Rozhen village and see that we had a steep climb up the hill behind it to continue. A set of steps and a cobbled path led us slowly past the postcard view over the red roofs of the village, past the old St Cyril and Methodius Church and on to the tranquil oasis of the Rozhen Monastery. I zipped my pants legs back on, as requested by the signs, and we wandered into the vine-covered cobbled cloisters of this old monastery, home to some magnificent icons, murals and stained glass. We sat in the shady cloister and soaked up the atmosphere and the relative coolness.

The church of St Cyril and St Methodius

Courtyard of Rozhen Monastery (founded in the 13th century)

Looking back over Rozhen monastery

Unfortunately, our clothes were also soaking up the perspiration, as the climb continued from the monastery up to the deeply eroded sandstone ridge of the Melnik Pyramids. From here, the views over the knife-edged and jagged sandstone formations to the valleys and hills beyond was simply superb. However, this last climb in the 30+°C heat, after eight hours of walking had taken its toll and we were physically spent.

Razor-back sandstone ridges south of Rozhen

The Melnik Pyramids

A particularly sharp-edged formation

The zig-zagging descent down the steep wall of the eroded ridge, and long winding walk along the sandy river bed that served as the route into Melnik were done in automaton mode. I took photos of the superb formations along the way mainly to look at later and enjoy in retrospect - pity I didn't notice the small spot of sunscreen that had fixed itself to the camera lens.

The lone oak tree at the end of a ridge

Hoodoo-like sandstone formations

Dry bed of the Rozhensko Dere - the road to Melnik

An isoloated sandstone mesa

At last the streets of Melnik

A quiet Melnik street

The good point was that the creek was well-shaded, which provided some relief from the intensity of the sun, and we finally turned one last bend in the creek bed to reach the beautiful old houses of Melnik - our walk for the day was over, 21 km after and 1260m lower than when we had set out from Pirin Hut.

The centuries old plane in front of our hotel

The setting of Melnik

Fig icecream and a Melnik red

Melnik is a superb place to finish the Pirin Wine Trail, steeped in the traditions of this trade route and still a region famed for its wine. That night, restored somewhat after a long cold shower, we sat beneath the centuries old plane trees in front of our hotel and toasted our walk with a glass of Melnik red, an appropriate way to finish this trail - it was an excellent drop and it had been an excellent trek.

Footnote: If we could do this walk again, we would plan to spend an extra night - staying at Rozhen. This would have given us more time to explore and appreciate the beauty of the sandstone formations in this area before finishing off the walk with a leisurely afternoon and night in Melnik.