I was riding my mountain bike down a steep path into a wooded gorge. Niki Titev, a member of the Bulgarian national mountain biking team, was, predictably, far ahead of me when a woman emerged from the woods at the side of the trail. I stopped and smiled. Clad in a head scarf, her hands stained purple from picking blueberries, Nedjibe was a Pomak—a part of the Bulgarian Muslim minority. When I asked whether I could take her picture, she shook her head back and forth in the charmingly confusing Bulgarian gesture for yes.
While Titev comes to Rila to bomb down the ski runs at Borovets, Nedjibe comes to gather berries and fatten her sheep in the high summer meadows. Across a gulf of centuries, they have these mountains in common.
The pocket-sized Rila mountain range forms the southwestern boundary of the Bulgarian heartland. Its foothills rise from pastoral and bountiful fields just an hour south of Sofia, the nation's capital. At Musala peak, the highest point in the Balkans, the range's sharp granite pinnacles assert an ancient ruggedness before falling off to the south, toward the drier areas along the Greek border.
I visited in August, joining a group of American and Bulgarian mountain bikers for a week spent riding around villages and chalets scattered throughout the range. While our ride was strenuous—miles of rough climbing were rewarded with monumental descents that challenged the abilities of even the most experienced riders—the small size of the range makes many of the places we visited accessible to those less inclined to suffer.
The snug village of Govedartsi, under steep pine-cloaked hillsides along the Iskar River, is one such place. In the stone-and-wood gazebo behind the family-run House Djambazki—alfresco dining is a delightful warm-weather custom in Bulgaria—we ate the bounty of the mountains. Sheep's-milk yogurt, heaped into stoneware bowls and topped with wild honey and alpine blueberries, tasted of the summer pasture we had ridden through earlier in the day.
In many ways, Bulgaria represents the classic Eastern European mix of modernity, Socialist hangover, and tradition. Cell phones jostle with donkey carts, global capitalism jostles with strange economic practices—why, 15 years after the fall of Communism, and with its manufacturer under international ownership, does a small bottle of the light and pleasingly hoppy Zagorka beer cost the same as a large one?
In Bulgaria you get the sense that everything has happened before. This was the home of the Thracians, whose mysterious Bronze Age religion gave rise to the ancient Greek cult of Dionysus. The Romans, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottomans each ruled here for as long as half a millennium, followed by more-short-lived visits by the Nazis and Eastern-bloc Communists. With only a few glimpses of independence during their long history, Bulgarians have nonetheless maintained their own identity and language.
The high alpine meadows, craggy granite peaks, and ancient evergreen forests within the boundaries of Rila National Park make this area unique in Eastern Europe. The park is surrounded by monastery land, Ministry of Forests and Agriculture land, and pastures belonging to villages and towns. All together nearly the size of Yosemite National Park, this is a primeval Europe long forgotten elsewhere. These mountains have always been a sanctuary where outlaws and prophets could escape imperial authorities and keep Bulgarian culture alive.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Saint Ivan Rilski fled the secular world in 927 for a drafty cave deep in the mountains' beech forests. Pilgrims still visit the cave to attempt to pass through its narrow outlet; those who are able to are said to be free of sin. Certainly the narrow opening, its rocky lips worn smooth by generations of pilgrims, is a good measure of one's resistance to banitsa, a rich local pastry made with phyllo, leeks, and salty sirene—a sheep's-milk cheese similar to its Greek counterpart, feta.
The Rila Monastery, an outgrowth of Saint Ivan's retreat, has been in its present location, an easy hike from the cave, since 1335. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most important seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, in addition to being the most visited place in the nation. Its domes sit like ripe figs atop a fanciful mille-feuille in the heart of the Rila Mountains. As dictated by the region's millennia-old tradition of hospitality, visitors can stay at the monastery in converted (and surprisingly comfortable) monks' cells.
One cool morning there, I was awakened by a monk's rhythmic tapping on a carved plank—a medieval alarm clock signaling the start of the dawn service. In the crepuscular light of the shaded valley, swallows began to swarm about the stone courtyard, their cries mingling with the sounds of the river outside the monastery walls and with the soft gurgling of the sacred fountains along the cloisters.
I made my way down the wide stairs, the old wood creaking beneath my feet and echoing through the empty galleries.