Where is Belovo and how to visit
At 90 kilometres from Sofia, on the way to Plovdiv, is the small city of Belovo. What makes Belovo a good destination is its very central location; it sits directly at the foot of the Rila, Rhodope and nearby Sredna Gora mountains. Right east of the town, the Thracian plain stretches out far into Bulgaria. Moreover, Belovo lies close to Pazardzhik, Plovdiv, Velingrad, Kostenets, Panagyurishte and Koprivshtitsa. It enjoys a relatively mild climate and can therefore be visited through all seasons. As the old main road Belgrade - Sofia - Istanbul runs through Belovo and the surroundings have dense forests, Belovo is an important center for wood and paper production. The country's largest paper mill is in Belovo. Nowadays, the main road is the Trakiya highway. The old road is still there and so is the railway line, on which trains run very frequently. You can hop on any train between Sofia and Plovdiv, as they all stop at Belovo. This makes the town very easy to reach. Belovo itself has a couple of guesthouses that can be found on www.bgstay.com, where you can find many guesthouses all over Bulgaria.
Impressions of my stay in Gabrovitsa village
The Belovo municipality has many surprises awaiting curious travelers, such as the town of Gabrovitsa. A quiet town with a central square, two shops and a the Tandov Guesthouse. A comfortable guesthouse where you are surrounded by nature.
I arrived in Gabrovitsa by minibus from Belovo, on a sunny Friday afternoon. The minibus had about six children whom returned from school. The joyful driver with his heavy, loud voice, was continuously making jokes with them. All passengers were in good spirits as the weekend began. The minibus stopped at the central square and as I got off, I faced the shop with a small terrace outside. The shop was housed in a large building, of which the upper floor was crumbling apart. The building had once been pink but the paint has seen its best years. As time had intervened, the bright layer of pink had turned dark and moldy. The concrete walls, holding window frames with broken glass, displayed many shades of colours. None of these shades pointed out what the building had been like, a brightly coloured 'sladkarnitsa', a pastry shop on the first floor with tables overlooking the square. Even though the first floor was clearly neglected, life on the ground floor seemed to continue as it had always had. The shop was frequented by villagers buying a loaf of bread, all walking slowly, reminding of the pace of life here. Next to the shop were three unsteady tables, each having four different chairs. Some of them were stools but regardless, they could all be described as 'vintage'. Six men with stubbled facial hair, sturdy shoes and thick jackets surrounded a table. They were enjoying a cold Pirinsko beer, obviously bought from the shop and drank right outside. Two men put down their bottles and lifted their arms, friendly waving a welcome towards me. The unsteady table loudly bumped as the two lifted their arms.
I bought a large bottle of water and some beer from the village shop. The short, friendly lady with an oversized jacket and nice, golden earrings followed me through the store with her eye movements. This was accompanied with an unending smile. As I wanted to pay by card, I handed it to her. The machine was behind a rack filled with bags of crisps. As I could not reach the machine with my arm, she loudly said: 'Kazhi mi koda', tell me the code. As there were three other people sipping coffee next to me and in general I was surprised by this proposal, I kindly asked if I could enter it myself. With a loud sigh, the lady pulled the cord and held the machine over the counter. As I was entering the code, she looked at me as if I was from another planet. All the while carrying the same friendly smile. I walked out of the store and wondered where I could find the Tandov Guesthouse. I asked a mother with two children; a boy and a girl of at most six year old, where I could find the place. The mother with half long, dark brown hair and a matching brown jacket, told her children: 'Show this gentleman where the guesthouse is.' The children ran up the hill and I could do nothing but follow their pace, with the heavy bottle of water and my backpack. The children saw I could not keep up, they started laughing and stopped. I asked the children if they went to school today, they said 'Yes, but now it's weekend!' They showed me the house, I thanked them and they ran back down. As I rang the bell of the guesthouse, a man came outside from the house next door. He wore a black and yellow jacket, a race cap and again sturdy shoes. He introduced himself as Ivan Andonov, the owner of the house. Of course, he asked me where I was from and what I was doing in such a remote place without a car. After our introduction and me answering friendly, curious questions, I was welcomed into the home. It was all fine. As Mr. Andonov had left, I enjoyed a nice sunset and the rest of my evening, with a cold bottle of Pirinsko from the shop.
Steep mountains, forests and creeks just outside Gabrovitsa
As I woke up to birds singing on a sunny morning, the hilly surroundings invited me for a walk. I will describe the walk I took. As you descend to the central square, you cannot miss the sad sight of an abandoned school on your right side. All children from the municipality now go to school in Belovo, getting there by using the mininbus. As you walk straight ahead, passing the school, a church rises above the village on your right. Fortunately, it is well-maintained and remains very pretty. If you continue, the street leads you out of the village on the southwest side. Then, the unpaved part begins. It leads you past some fields that are maintained by the villagers. The path then guides you into the dense woods. This is where the Rila Mountains start. From the guesthouse, you can actually see the snowy tops. From this path, you are not at a high enough altitude to see them. You cross the creek, which varies in size as each season passes. I had trouble crossing it in March as melting snow turns it into a wider river.
Be extremely careful on this walk as it is not a marked path. Gabrovitsa does not have these yet. This means that it is not frequented by visitors. In case you see a pile of chopped wood, be aware that lumberjacks might be working on the steep hills, far out of sight. If they chop wood, they roll it down as hikers are generally not expected. This leads to extremely dangerous situations, as big chunks of wood come down at high speed. If you expect or see this happening, either return right away or make your presence known by yelling or blowing a whistle. You should not walk past taking any risk. Hospitals are far away and as you leave Gabrovitsa, soon you are out of mobile network coverage. This general advice counts for anywhere in the world, not just Gabrovitsa.
Technically, the path leads you in the direction of Lake Belmeken (1923m). It is the highest dam lake on the Balkan peninsula. I cannot verify whether this path gets you there as I did not make it to the lake and the path is not marked on maps. From the village of Sestrimo, next to Gabrovitsa, there is a path to the lake. The path can even be seen on Google Maps.
The Andonov family showing me the area
I returned to the village, packed my bag and handed over the keys to Mr. Ivan Andonov, the home owner. He invited me inside his own house and I got to meet his wife and daughter. His friendly wife with blonde, curly hair, went out of her way to make me feel welcome. 'Are you hungry?' she said, as she put a bowl with at least a kilo of peeled walnuts in front of me. She was very curious why I chose to come work in Bulgaria, as 'so many of us go abroad to work'. My reply that I like Bulgaria, was also met with curiosity but the lady admitted that it is a very pretty country. Izabel, the couple's daughter, is a friendly girl with a ponytail and glasses. As Ivan Andonov invited me to take a ride by car and see the surroundings, Izabel wanted to come along. I said goodbye to the lady of the house and she asked me to please return in summer, when everything is green and pretty. I definitely will return. Ivan turned around the van and his daughter Izabel and I got in. Izabel directly asked if she could add me on Facebook. I took my phone and she said: 'My name is Izabel Kostowa on Facebook. My real last name is Andonova, but on Facebook, I named myself after a boy on xFactor Bulgaria'.
We headed for Belovo and I was explained about the long history of this region, its many natural assets and of course the paper factory. We drove past the school of Izabel in Belovo, which she proudly showed me. It was indeed a beautiful school. Behind the school, the large, pink building close to the main square, a road leads uphill. A monument overlooking the town depicts Aleksandar Ivanov Piponkov, best known as 'Chapai'. He was a tireless revolutionist representing the working class of Belovo, fighting against fascist Germany. He lived to be only 24 years old (1920 - 1944) and is forever in the hearts of the Belovo residents and honoured in the very wide area around. We then had a drink near Belovo and they dropped me off at the train station and said I was always welcome to return. I really enjoyed my stay, what a weekend so close to Sofia.
Getting to Gabrovitsa village
Gabrovitsa can be reached by train or by minibus from Belovo, both in 20 minutes. The schedule lies printed in the guesthouse. Minibuses do not drive on Saturday and Sunday. The slower пътнишки влак - putnishki vlak train from Sofia gets you to the stop Бойка - Boika. From there, it is one kilometre uphill to the guesthouse. As you get to Gabrovitsa's central square, go right after the shop and walk uphill. You cannot miss the modern house with its green fence on your right side. It is best to make a reservation. The property is on Booking.com and can be found by searching for the name or simply Gabrovitsa. It also has a website. The village shop accepts cards but the machine does not always work. There is no ATM, the nearest one is in Belovo.
The village Vetren
An interesting village north of Belovo is Vetren. Buses leave only a couple of times a day and at latest leave Vetren at 16:40. Inform at the bus station. Vetren is one of Bulgaria's newest villages, gaining its status as a town in 2005. The buildings are much older, however. Vetren has a pretty church north of the main street, named after Sveti Nikolai. Behind the church, a small path leads uphill, through dense bushes. Shepherds walk with their cattle and you will surely come across a few. In spring, the walk is beautiful as all trees are full of blossom. In summer, the path is lined with flowers. A bit further is a chappel that was nicely being painted when I visited. If you continue, after crossing some creeks, you get to the wide fields where horses and sheep are held. You can freely walk around most fields. Take the main road back to the village or the same path you came from.
Walking from Vetren to Golak village
Another possible walk from Vetren leads to the village of Golak, that is quite remote and cannot be reached by paved road. It is very quiet there but an interesting walk through nature. Many large birds will fly around and most probably some shepherds will be met along the way as well. It is highly unlikely that you could buy water there, be sure to buy some before leaving Vetren. In case you fancy a longer walk, you can get all the way to Kostenets by continuing from Golak. It is wise to use a good map. The path is again unpaved but very scenic, through a relatively flat landscape. Kostenets has train connections to Sofia, Pazardzhik and Plovdiv.
This eastern part of the Rila mountains remains relatively unknown and it is a truly untouched part of nature. Combined with the sense of adventure and helpful people with their local knowledge, the Belovo area is a good base to explore this interesting region.
The open-air pool outside Belovo
At 5 kilometres east of Belovo is the open-air pool that is just perfect to visit on a hot day. Prices are, as of July 2017, 7 levas for adults and 4 levas for entrance after 17:00. The complex is open until 20:00. There's a children's pool as well as a deeper pool. There's possibility to dive and jump and lie around in the sun on beach chairs. Pictures of the pool are at the bottom of this page, right after the general pictures of Belovo.
Cob Camp Hotel
Really loved this place. Visited in summer 2018 and added it to this post. It opened in 2014 but I only found out about it recently. Quite affordable and can be visited by single people as well as couples. There's cabins with single beds and couples can opt for the more comfortable and romantic rooms. Dinner and breakfast, both homemade, are provided on-sight. In summer it's just fantastic to enjoy the view from the terrace. This is absolutely one of the top places I have stayed at. Pictures right below.
Here's the roadtrip I made through Southeastern Bulgaria, where I also spent the night in Cob Camp near Belovo.
In this clip, you see a short shot of the view over Belovo and the pool. I visited with my brother and his girlfriend.