• Leon de Leeuw

Hiking trails in Bulgaria - What makes it the thing I love most?


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Ever since I came to Bulgaria, I’ve been exploring its trails. There are many leading into the hills and onto steep mountains. All over the country I stumbled upon trails, some marked but many more with no signs whatsoever. When you come to think of it – and most people rarely do – trails are fascinating. For me personally, the marked as well as the unmarked. Yet, the unmarked trails give an even bigger sense of adventure. Bulgaria is a country of adventure, especially when you truly dive into it. If you have the time and are up for some adventure, you have no idea where you’ll end up. Take up a random trail and it will surely guide you past some interesting places.

Each trail was made with a purpose. It leads someplace. It could be a home, maybe a forest, or a mountain top. It could be developed just for hiking purposes, or to transport goods from one place to another. Maybe it was made by big animals, such as wild horses, that made their way to a field with fresh grass. When we are in nature, especially when feeling disoriented, the trail is actually all we have. Sure, we could navigate by determining a direction from the sun, but that would be all. The trail is your certainty in this case. You know that other people have walked it – even though nobody’s there now. You see traces of animals having walked here, maybe even fresh traces.

Trails move over time. No matter the purpose the trail serves, it tends to move. Trails made by humans get followed by animals as well, in a densely forested area, and why would they bother struggling past branches and leaves? So, animals and humans on one trail. We all want the quickest way for the least effort. So, we make shortcuts. And, unless the builder of a trail maintains its direction, the shortcut can actually become the new trail. The old, longer path can even become overgrown. It’s how trails evolve over time, they even tend to become straighter because of such shortcuts.

Hiking mountain trails or through valleys, there’s something intriguing about trails. They are what you hold onto – just try for yourself how you feel if you get off the trail. You’d be on high alert, no idea where you are exactly. You have no more path to follow, suddenly you could go any direction without even knowing if you’d get home by the end of the day. A trail at least allows you to turn around and walk back. So, you’d be relieved once you’d be back on the trail. What few people think about is that trails are actually maintained. At least the hiking trails for tourists. If there’d be no other people or animals, the trail would fade away over the years. The trails are everyone’s property and us walking there all carry the responsibility to keep the trail cultivated and, above all, keep it clean. It’s not necessarily bad to create a shortcut, it often just happens because of people’s curiosity. If they see a nice hilltop not too far away, people would cross bushes to get there. Then others follow, and eventually, a new path is formed.

Actual developed trails for tourists are made with this in mind. They should already pass these places, otherwise people will go there themselves. And it can lead to unsafe situations, especially in the case of heights or presence of water. When a trail leads to such places initially and is cultivated, at least safety measures can be taken. And even though each hiker carries responsibility for personal safety and safety of others, people’s curiosity tends to take over now and then. A good trail allows for adventure and is above all safe.

The Bulgarian trails are quite varied. Bulgaria has all kinds of landscapes. I mostly go on unmarked trails, because of the extra sense of adventure I get. I mostly stay on these trails and the goal is to get back home by the end of the day, or at least in some mountain hut if I plan to stay the night. Either way, I have a daypack so that I could spend the night even if I didn’t plan to. I prefer to stay on new trails I haven’t been to and am not a big fan of hiking all the way back, just to get to the same place. If I can make a nice round trip or get to another place and back home with transport possibilities, I am most satisfied with my hike. Yet, I try to keep my desires at lowest. As I am in nature just to appreciate the way it is, even if a trail is muddy or there’s trees fallen over it. It’s all part of one being you find yourself in, a small bird is just as much part of the landscape as a large pool of water you have to cross. Why not appreciate both the way they are, everything unfolding around you seems to be in harmony if you walk long enough.. The good thing about hiking is that you really slow down. People should do it more. If you wizz by in a car, you’ve seen nothing of the forest you just passed. You haven’t seen the bees, you haven’t heard the birds sing and you know nothing of the place you could have chosen to spend some time at.

If you hike, you become part of the landscape. You are back in nature, like we all at one point were. Nowadays, we are in nature very little. Especially when we live in cities. We forget what it’s like to be surrounded by nature and to be lost in thoughts on a good hike, preferably alone. It gives time to reflect on one’s life and the surroundings. It is, for me, the most relaxing thing I can do. Nothing quite soothes the mind as a good hike does. The longest I’ve been is a couple of days and I can only think of how good it is to go for weeks on end.

Hiking on trails has not always been a leisure activity. At one point, before we had cars and trains, people walked there to get water or to get to places. Walking on trails was not considered to be a thing to do for fun – at least not for the majority of people. But it has certainly become so. People nowadays go hike for the experience itself, not necessarily because they must be at a certain place. Transport has allowed us to do so, first of all we get to the starting point. Then, if we turn out at another place, we can take a train back or have someone pick us up by car. It’s become so easy – and this allowed us to get out and take long hikes. Ironically, cars help us undetake hikes yet they also drive us away from cities. We get tired of the noise and sick of the air pollution and exactly because of busy traffic, we feel so much better in nature. Yet it’s cars and other forms of transport that allow us to a starting point in the first place. Unless you’re so fortunate to live in a place like Bulgaria, where nature is at everyone’s doorstep. It’s a wealth we should all treasure. Just like we should wonder about trails – how old could they be and how many people would have passed? How has the trail evolved over the years? Was it developed for transportation of goods or are there people living along the trail?

In Bulgaria, many trails lead to little villages or solitary houses. These trails are often unmarked and unpaved so you can see how people lived hundreds of years ago. Some of these houses are now abandoned and if you pass them, you feel as if you’ve been thrown back into time. The houses that are still inhabited are interesting as well, as you can see how people adapt to their natural surroundings. Humans are very adaptive beings and if they are dropped in nature, their instincts still work as they did tens of thousands of years ago. It’s why you see a snake instead of a branch in a split second reaction, only to see it’s indeed just a wooden branch. It’s fascinating to be in nature and especially on trails, heading for adventure. We should get out more as nature is our home and trails are there for us to explore it all. Whether they are marked or unmarked, adventure is calling and we should do ourselves a favour and get back to our natural surroundings more often. It will calm the mind and the soul, we just have to go.

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