It’s time for another crazy travel tale! My tales are usually travel fails! This one is a bit of both I guess. This past September I enjoyed a visit to lovely Bulgaria. After spending a few days in the beautiful chill capital, Sofia, I rented a car and planned to drive to see the Rila Monastery, hike the Rila Lakes and then go on to Plovdiv, the 2nd largest city in Bulgaria. I also wanted to see a few other places but I had to adjust my plans when I found myself lost in the mountains of Bulgaria.
Read More: Itinerary for 7 Day Road Trip in Bulgaria
Table of Contents
Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria. It was founded in the 10th century and is named after it’s founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila. The monastery is in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km (73 miles) south of Sofia about 1147 m (3763 feet) above sea level.
Getting here wasn’t too difficult. It took about 2 hours from Sofia, using my trusty google map navigation. I was kind of stressed when I rented the car (got lost on the metro prior) and was kind of hangry so I didn’t notice when I wasn’t given a map. Since I was using my phone, I didn’t really worry too much. It was an easy drive and I arrived just before nightfall and in time for dinner. Dinner was fantastic by the way! Loved all this hearty monastery food. Clearly those monks build up an appetite with all that chanting. Here’s a pic to drool over of some chicken, peppers and onions baked with cheese all over it in some sort of magic baking dish.
The next morning I woke up feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had successfully rented a car and driven myself into the mountains, got a great hotel right next to the monastery, had been well fed, went to bed early, and was up before the crowds to see one of the most visited places in Bulgaria. I only had to walk a few minutes to visit the monastery. It was on a Sunday when the monks were chanting and it was delightfully uncrowded. The crisp mountain air, the chanting, the lack of crowds; I was feeling very zen. At one with the universe. Mindfulness…inner peace…oh F@$%!
I dropped my phone. The screen shattered and some dark purple virus seemed to spread across the screen rendering it unusable. I kind of psychotically looked around, thinking that magic phone repair guy would somehow appear. Of course that didn’t happen. I started to panic when the reality hit me that I was alone in the mountains with no map and no phone.
I immediately went to the front desk of the hotel and asked for help. The nice lady spoke very little English but spoke enough to tell me that the wifi didn’t work and that there may be a map for sale at the monastery gift shop. Oh…I also missed breakfast.
I wasn’t even caffeinated yet! How was I supposed to deal with this nonsense?
After stomping around my room like a bratty child, shedding a few tears and pouting, I realized these actions weren’t helping. Why couldn’t someone else just fix this for me? Oh yeah, one of the joys of solo travel is solving your own problems. Sigh. I sort of knew the way back to Sofia and surely there would be many signs, since it’s the capital. I knew I could find a cell phone store there and either fix mine or buy a new one. That was the surefire solution, but did I want to give up all the other plans I had made? I had driven all the way here and it would be a shame to not do the hike. Am I really THAT person…the one who can’t go a day without their phone?
I didn’t want to be that person. Sure, I had no camera (my lens had broken the month before in Greece, thanks to wind and a cheap tripod), and now no phone, but I still had my GoPro…and my memories! Does every bit of travel have to be recorded? No! I was all fired up, changed into hiking gear and left. I marched over to the monastery, ate some fresh deep-fried donuts from a kiosk (only food I could find) and found some sort of map. It was only of the Rila mountain and mostly in Cyrillic. but I was able to ascertain the general direction of the entrance to the Rila Lakes.
I got in my car and drove, praying to God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Justin Trudeau, The Flying Spaghetti Monster and baby Jesus too. Just for good measure.
This didn’t go as badly as one may think. There aren’t that many roads in the mountains, which is a blessing. I remembered the way to the highway from the Monastery and had memorized the names of the villages I was to pass through before arriving at the lift for the Rila Lakes. I got lost in small villages here and there but ultimately made it. It was much further than I thought and after factoring in the time needed to get back before the sun went down, I only had a couple hours at the Lakes.
There is a ski lift that takes you up and this trip takes 30 minutes. The mountains were gorgeous and being in nature was exactly what I needed at this point to get back some zen-ness. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see 3 out of the 7 Rila Lakes. Thinking about the drive home was ruining my zen. I hoped I would remember the way. I did and made it back before dark, had another great dinner and went to bed.
I made the decision to skip a few things on my list and not risk getting more lost or eating up more time. Having more time to get to Plovdiv seemed like a good idea. I was fairly sure I’d be able to deal with my phone issue there and I was also pretty sure I’d get lost on the way. I knew the first 3rd of the drive pretty well, since I had driven it the day before.
The hotel wifi decided to work for a few miraculous moments and I studied the map. I took notes. I even wrote down what Plovdiv looks like in Cyrillic so I’d recognize it. It looks like this: Пловдив. In case anyone thought it wasn’t that different! I also looked up the address of my hostel in Plovdiv, The Funky Monkey, and drew a map of the area in my notes, just so I’d have a clue. I was desperate for any help at this point.
There was little choice at this point but to just go. I figured I’d find a gas station and buy a map along the way. The first part of the drive went well and I saw plenty of signs. Then I didn’t for about an hour. I was deep in some forested mountain area and only saw a tiny village every 15 minutes or so. Was I headed west? I looked at the sun’s position in the sky wishing I hadn’t dropped out of girl scouts. The engine light on my rental car went on. Omg, omg, OMG! What if the car has trouble? I can’t call anyone. There is nobody around! I’m going to end up walking for miles. I may never leave the mountains. I’m going to have to become a goat herder!
Eventually, I saw a gas station and stopped. They didn’t have a map. The attendant didn’t speak English. Luckily, a random patron overheard me and told me that the highway was only ten minutes away and he would lead me there. Which he did. Following a strange man through tiny woodsy roads was not exactly calming to me, but I decided to have some trust. The people of Bulgaria had all been extremely kind to me thus far.
As he lead me to increasingly smaller and more remote woodsy roads, I began to plot my defense, should he turn into a homicidal maniac. My GoPro stick would serve as a weapon if I couldn’t whip this snazzy rental car (made by a manufacturer I’ve never heard of) around fast enough. Finally, I saw the highway. Aw, that sweet man WASN”T a maniac and just wanted to help. Thanks Merica for poisoning my brain and making it hard to trust anyone. I waved good-bye to him and was on my merry way.
I saw Plovdiv signs, found a gas station that sold maps and made it to Plovdiv. Plovdiv ancient city is kind of a maze, so of course I was lost there, even with the map. I couldn’t read the street signs. I stopped someone on the street and was like, show me where I am on this map! What street is this? Where am I? Somehow, I made it to the hostel, where I practically cried with relief, before drinking lots of wine. And buying a new phone.
I want to thank all the kind people of Bulgaria who were unfortunate enough to have to deal with a crazy American redhead in September.
Hope you enjoyed the story! What would you have done in this situation?
Put a pin in it!