Bus to Panichiste
Ski lift up
lots of people
lots of rain
hotel in Doubnitsa
We had vaguely found out that there was a bus up to the Panichiste ski lift around 9am, so we made our way to the main square, past the interesting fountain that they call a geyser. It only exists because they drilled 70m down to hit the water, and is not natural. (Well, the water is naturally hot and under pressure, but if they hadn’t drilled into it, it would not be coming up.) Now there is the tall weird fountain built around it. There are also plans for a massive complex to be constructed near it. Then past the EU fountain (nearly every town we have been in has a fountain paid for with mostly EU money) which is almost a reconstruction of the geyser, and at a few mini buses. None of these have destination signs, so we asked. There was one, and it ended up going about twenty minutes later. There are signs for Panichiste everywhere, the only problem is they all say it is 10km away. Yesterday we passed a few walking around town, and according to them, we had gone nowhere! It is roughly 10km from town, but probably closer to 15km to the ski lift. This is along a very narrow road that winds itself up the side of the mountain. Along the way we passed a few walking tracks, just glad we were not on them. After having our ears pop a few times, we passed through the village of Panichiste. We have no idea what it looks like, as the only thing you can see from the road is the church!! Everything else is hidden by the trees. Apparently there are many hotels and places to stay for the winter skiing, but it is a town where you need a car. Even the ski lift is a few kilometres away from here.
Being dropped off at the ticket office we got a return ticket. If we want to walk down, we don’t need to use it, but it would be handy in any case. Now we needed to find a place for our bags. There is no accommodation in Separeva Banya tonight, so we have taken them with us. If all else fails we will get a place here. Although there is nothing near the lift other than a cocktail bar and a few tourist shops. Asking at the ticket office we were told we could take them up the hill. That would be interesting – doing a six hour walk with our broken down trolley bags! Getting a coffee at the cocktail bar, we asked there. No problem. We can dump them with all the excess stock. Perfect. They close at 20:30, so even if we walk down after the ski lift closes at 18:30 we can still get them in time.
Passing lines of cars both on the bus and by foot, we expected a massive cue at the start of the lift, however there were only a few people in front. This was good, as we got to watch them getting onto the open seat. A bit nerve racking as it has been so long since either one of us has done this. Basically, when it hits the back of your legs you sit down. Just don’t forget to lower the safety bar. There is nothing that is holding you to the thick cable other than a small clamp, swinging backwards and forwards until it stabilises was a bit of fun for me, but Anna was a little worried. It was not long before we settle in to enjoy the ride. It is about 2km long going up over 500 metres, and goes only slightly faster than a brisk walking pace on flat land. So it took at least twenty minutes to get up to the top. Here we had another vision of not being able to get off and going all the way back down! We got out ok though and as we exited the area we got a look around. Already above the tree line, and a good ten degrees cooler than at the base of the mountain, it was packed with people. There is a chateau here that is massive and a camp ground behind it that is already a small tent city. Any more and you could be forgiven in thinking it was a refugee camp! Mobs of horses ready to take unfit or unwilling people around the lakes and a line of people walking up the first ridge.
Following the crowd we set off. A quick look at the confusing map, and just as quickly forgetting it, we made our way up. There is a loop path. You can go up steep first and gradually down, or gradually up and steep down. We took the hard way up. The view is fantastic though. From the first break point you can see two of the lakes and another chateau. This had an even bigger tent city, that at this distance looks to be garbage strews all over the side of the mountain. Going on, the people started spreading out according to walking speed. This was better, and when we diverted away from the main walking path to check out a different section of the mountain there was nobody. We did see a couple of other walkers further down the hill from us, and with a friendly wave they disappeared around a corner.
At the moment there is a cult group called the White Brotherhood, set up by Peter Deunov in 1895 on the mountain. Clothed all in White, playing drums and doing whatever it is that they do. They are celebrating their new years on the 19th. We only got to see them from a distance as when we got closer they had finished their prayers and were playing around in the water of one lake. People were everywhere, and as we went up the last steep section, we got good views back down over the lakes. From here we could see four of them at once. The path continued upwards to one of the peaks, but by now the clouds were gathering in force. It had not been the clearest of days since the start, but that was nice. Not burning from the sun too much, and watching whips of clouds clear different sections. But now there was thunder and dark clouds. Thinking it was time to head back to the ski lift. As soon as we started walking the clouds opened up. The rain was comprised of very large drops that were being pelted down upon us. Before too long it turned into hail. These stung a bit when they hit, but bounced off not getting you too wet. So now we had to walk along the most picturesque section of the hike with heads bowed and camera stowed. Praying that at some stage it would stop raining. A lot of other people had the same idea, causing traffic jams of walkers trying to do the now muddy and slippery paths. Most of these people were very slow. They had their rain jackets or ponchos, and didn’t care. We had to power on. Overtaking where we could, and trudging along behind lines of people when we couldn’t. The typical Bulgarian walking style was in full effect. If there were three people in a group, and the path split three ways, one would take each path! Every Bloody Time!
As we got closer to the ski lift, we were amazed to see people just starting out on the walk. Some of these must be planning to camp here, or were not willing to miss their chance on the walk itself, just a bit different for us to see this. Just before we reached the ski lift the rain stopped. Typical. We were only about 100 metres from the chateau when it cleared up. If we had found shelter further up and tried to wait it out, it would probably be still raining.
Catching the ski lift back down the hill we saw even more people going up the other way. This was not much fun. We were cold and wet. At least walking you are burning some energy to keep warm, but sitting on the lift the chill set in, and it was with great relief that we got to the bottom and could get a cup of hot coffee to warm up.
Asking around for when the bus would come, we were met with total apathy and ignorance. The ticket office where the bus drops you have no idea, the police said the only way down was with taxi, and even though we knew there was a bus, we could not get any information at all.
The helpful man at the cocktail bar called a taxi for us, and five minutes later the bus arrived. OK, we could have cancelled the taxi, but he was already driving up from town to pick us up. The police then tried to be helpful and tell us it was here! This attitude is starting to get to us a bit and it is not just with the buses.
The taxi arrived and we had a good trip down the hill too be dropped at the bus station, just before the bus to Doubnitsa arrived. Great timing, and we took it. At Doubnitsa we were unsure on if to head to Sofia or not, but still cold and wet we decided to stay here. The rain started up again, and we could not find a hotel anywhere near the bus station, so putting our trust in a Taxi driver we set off. He was good. I have to say I am surprised, as he even wanted to give me change from the 1.70Lev trip! This is a first, and the hotel is OK. A hot shower, some hot food and we started feeling better.