The route that day took me out of Rsovci and along a path that led above a steep gorge that twisted back and forth in horseshoe loops towards a huge lake, three miles long, that I could walk alongside for the remainder of the day. First, as I left the village, which lay close by the river, I admired the stone streets and grassed yards, ancient cars kept carefully undercover at barn edges. This was a living village, thanks to being on a direct road towards Pirot, with full time inhabitants and many others who came to their inherited homes on the weekends from their main base in the town. I passed barns where sheep baa’d and rustled inside them, only one more month until they and their shepherds would head up to higher ground for the summer, live in the mountains, with careful dogs, spiked collars to guard their necks against fatal wolf attack. It was a day for planting potatoes, the shopkeeper had a tractor outside the door when I went to drop the key in, loading sacks of seed potatoes onto a trailer. Then, as I left the village, there were two older couples planting together, the men working with hoes to pull ploughed soil into furrows, the women bent at the waist, picking potatoes from boxes. So this is what idyllic means, I thought.
It was a beautiful sunny day, clouds passing over to give occasional shade and stopping the heat from becoming overwhelming. There was a marked trail here, which would lead me all the way through the gorge, all I had to do was watch for red and white flashes of paint and follow them upwards on the yellow earth and rocky hillside, climbing away from the river and through forest, occasional flashes of deer springing away from me and then barking a loud cough of defiance once they were safely hidden from view.
The lake was less beautiful, a strange place, the water shrunk down from the sides almost 30m lower than normal, leaving steep yellow slopes where nothing grew and boats dangled, adrift on dry land at the end of long mooring lines. I could also see what looked like cabins on the dry shore, before I realised that the Serbs build floating sheds for their fishing pleasure, taking the entire man cave out with them for a day on the water. The way to the lake from the beautiful gorge started with a long boring road leading up a hillside then a steep descent to a bridge before another steep ascent of 200m. I took steady small paces up the hill, telling myself I’d rest when I got to the top, that I’d eat something. I visualised the snack I’d have, two handfuls of peanuts and a small chunk of halva. I’d sit and eat them at the place where the road levelled out and began following the contour around the side of the lake, high above the water. I had enough food for 7 small meals, I reckoned. There were villages marked on the route I’d chosen but none of them looked big enough to maintain shops, judging by my experiences so far. If I kept to two meals a day, I could last until way out of the mountains and safely to a big town, where I’d also have a day off and my first shower in a week.
On the way towards the place, halfway along the lake, where the road turned north east and I would continue on a path around the lakeside, I stopped, struck by an interesting sign. Vrtibog plateau, it said, with a picture of a walker. I looked at the map and saw that this was the beginning of an incredible route that rose from me at 800m to 1500m before curving around in a semicircle, following all the mountains that formed the highest point of the area, the border between Bulgaria and Serbia, culminating in Midžor at 2167m, before dropping down again to a road that led out of the mountains. I was stunned, wished I had enough food to go up there but it didn’t feel like enough, to go up there with a single loaf of bread that I was rationing by the slice. I’d need to be properly prepared to do that. I made an intention to return to Serbia one day and walk it, perhaps walk the whole mountain trail that I knew led across all the Bulgarian Stara Planina from the Black Sea.
When I reached my turnoff, there didn’t seem to be any onward path at first glance, just a sheer wall of rock with the clear lines of ancient layers, rippled by tectonic pressure into zigzags, up and down from the water. I could see a track high up, leading away from me towards the peninsula, but there was only a faint line of a path leading up the hillside, it seemed to climb the rocks and end in a gravel scramble. Surely this wasn’t the path. I sat for a while and considered it, before saying the word ‘perspective’ to myself and heaving my aching body up from sitting, always a tender task before free flowing movement begins. Perhaps the path would be wider when I was on it. I tracked down to the small river that ran into the lake, found a suitable crossing point and began trailing my way upwards, about a 20m climb. It wasn’t so bad after all, just the gravel part was a bit dicey, at the top of course, with the worst of the drop beneath me. I kicked steps carefully into the shale, only having to resort to dropping to my knees and crawling for the few final steps. Then I was on a lovely path, wide enough for a 4×4 but obviously hardly used. I was thrilled to be here, walking on an easy to navigate, quiet path, probably something for hunter’s access. There were plenty of signs of boar here, prints in mud and scuffed up pieces of earth where snouts had been rooting. So much more satisfying than road walking, even when it’s physically harder and takes longer to traverse.
There were a few unexpected problems the next day, after a completely silent and still night, just the half moon lighting the sky through the tent material, the clear night making for a heavy dew and a cold nose. I sat at the hydro power dam and had breakfast, counting out my allotted slices of bread and salami, two jaffa cakes to finish with, from a packet that M had pressed on me back in Rsovci. Bread is an unsatisfactory base for a meal, in my view. I was going to alternate between two bread meals and one potato meal until I was finished with this section of the journey and safely back in the lowlands again.
Not all went to plan though, first, following the track down from the dam, where the main road curved away around to the other side of the lake, I found a river but no bridge. Bridge on the map, ford in real life. Oh damm. This river was wide and knee deep. I sat down for a while, contemplated. My way of putting my head in the sand, avoiding the issue, but eventually, “fortitude” I said to myself, and sighed, bent over to unlace my boots and roll my leggings up. Boots around neck, feeling my way carefully on the stones, fortunately nicely settled by the pressure of vehicles and water. My feet felt great afterwards, pulsing softly, as I sat in the sun for a while to dry, catching a glimpse of a large green lizard scuttling across the road behind me.
The third challenge forced a reroute though. Once I’d crossed the river I was supposed to climb again, and this time it was high, a full 700m of ascent up one hillside, the hills lay steep either side of this river. I looked up, rocks and trees above me. It would have been tough anyway but when I reached the curve where a path was marked, from the road there simply was no path. This was one of the smaller markings, a bridle path, rather than an uncleared road, but there was nothing there, just a small stream, trees growing and a great wall of rock on one side where the path should have led. I sat for a while, contemplated, looked at the map. There weren’t any alternative paths, plenty that wriggled around on this side of the mountain but none that went up and over. The alternative was to take the road down, almost out of the mountains and then go back on myself, a horseshoe loop to get north again. ‘Well you might as well try it’ I said, and swung on my rucksack, walked a short way into the trees, but there was nothing there, it felt wrong and I was not about to go bushwhacking for a solid mile up an extremely steep slope. Road then, and I walked the 7 miles out to a town, which had a shop!
I hadn’t got the hang of Serbian shops yet, didn’t know what produce was on offer. The style of shopping in small villages in Eastern Europe means that most tiny shops consist of a person behind a counter with well stocked shelves behind them, rather than a supermarket style pick your own. Bit of a nightmare for me, the tourist, who doesn’t even know what kind of products are stocked and what they might consist of – jar of red stuff in Cyrillic script, tomato, pepper or chilli, who knows! Tin of what is probably processed meat, but what kind! All I can do is hover and stare awkwardly, trying to work out whether they’ve got anything that I can rehydrate, or if there are any handy tinned meals; then I have to run the gauntlet of not knowing the names of anything and playing the pointing game where they run their hands along the shelves until I say Yes, and get my prize. Unfortunately I was already full of provisions, my bread and tuna stuffed the rucksack full. But I bought a yoghurt and a cucumber for supplementary taste. That’s what I like about regular small shops, is buying small squashable things like yoghurt or tomatoes, things that I can carry for half a day and add flavour to my usual salami and carb diet.
Out of the town, 2 miles up into a dead end valley there was the final village of the day before I’d climb my final hills and then down to Ćuštica, a village I’d picked at random as my target for this section, mainly because it was at the top left corner of my detailed map, meaning I’d walked from bottom right to top left and covered as many of these interesting mountain paths as possible. I made the mistake of walking into the village too close to sunset though, and as a couple of guys walked alongside me, one heading home from the shop down in the town and one come up to him to cadge a cigarette, I got paranoid that they’d know I was due to camp somewhere. Cigarette cadger, a big gruff pot bellied man, was saying something to the other one, a smaller, older, more worn fellow with kind eyes, something about a lot of euros in the bank and I fancied that it was about me, with my bright coloured, expensive clothing, newer than anything either of them were wearing; even if I’m unwashed and wearing my clothing to holes, it’s still technical outdoor kit that would cost a few hundred pounds to replace, from headband to waterproof to merino leggings to boots.
I said good bye to them at a junction and walked ahead, worried, only 20 minutes until I wanted to stop and camp and it was a single track ahead, obvious where I was going. It’s a shame that I pushed on quickly because it was a beautiful village, very poor and simple, but well populated and nicely lived in, houses either side of a stream, with flat ground between them and a nice track running through the centre, goat and ewe prints pattering the ground, ducks in the water. A couple of women, chatting over an open fire stopped and stared as I walked past, said hello as I hailed them. An elderly man, stick in hand and flat cap, turned to look at me as he climbed the steps into his house, we raised a hand to each other.
But I just wanted to get as far as I could before darkness fell, just in case hoarse pot bellied man had a couple of shots of rakia and got an idea in his head. It’s something I avoid as much as possible, walking through a village close to sunset, advertising the idea that I am a woman who is clearly going to camp somewhere. I should have stopped before the village, I berated myself. Too late now. And the road wound onwards, plenty of nice flat spots but all within view. Eventually the track split and a side valley opened up, I went up there, thinking that nobody would expect me to take this path, and then doubled back on myself into a cleared field above the road. It wasn’t perfect, but perhaps slightly unexpected, if someone was looking for me. My paranoia didn’t last long. Once darkness fell, as I listened to the owls hooting for each other, I knew that I was safe. Sleep was easing me anyway, lulling me down into tired unconsciousness, muscle rest and gather strength for the next day, to go again and again and again.
It was very cold that night, I’d allowed myself to chill down outside of the sleeping bag, resting with my legs outside the tent and writing my diary so I struggled to warm up once I was in bed. There was frost in the morning, a cold start! I shook it off the tent, jumped around to warm up and set about climbing upwards, seeking a sunny spot to have breakfast. It took a full hour before the sun reached even halfway down towards the valley floor, as I wound back and forth over the stream, but eventually the track climbed away from the water and up into the sunshine. I breakfasted in the ruins of a shepherd’s hut, with a view of a dozen hills, just one small building in sight, another summer shelter, once used for transhumance, holes in the roof showing its slow disintegration. A cuckoo call echoed nearby, getting gradually closer until it sounded from the apple tree whose branches gently rustled against the top of the stone remains which sheltered me. I gloried in my surroundings, red rock and dry grass, so happy to be here, wandering in these mountains, not worrying about time and targets.
One more rise and fall, up to the top where a track ran left to right, going up into the higher places or down to the lowlands, but I went across it and down into another valley, following the final track to Ćuštica.
There I had one final treat in store. It was a spread out village, many houses up on the valley sides, along a kilometre of road. I came towards a man and a woman chatting. The man was older, holding a huge cow, taller than him, tethered by a length of chain, he whipped his stick across its nose with a quick smack whenever it occasionally stepped forward. The woman was in her fifties, with a sparkle to her. I could see her watching me as I came closer, with a what the hell are you kind of look in her eyes. I like that look, it means I can smile and greet them and they’re likely to be interested enough to start a conversation. Sure enough we had a quick chat about where the shops were and how long to the road then we said goodbye to the older man and the cow and walked along the road together. She was Jasmina and she was on her way to visit a friend. We chatted, about children and bravery and walking alone, the usual things, and when we grew close to her destination she asked if I wanted a coffee. Yes, I said, always say yes to a coffee. We went up to Slovenka’s house, I was introduced with much hilarity, the very strange unexpected guest, and I found myself in a warm kitchen that smelt of fresh bread, being served coffee, and then an array of lamb, potatoes, cheese, freshly baked bread and burek (yeasted dough with filling rolled and baked inside it – cheese, egg and spinach this time). I ate and drank with great pleasure, my first hot food and drink in two and a half days. Everything was homemade, the cheese, the lamb, the potatoes. Slovenka (which I may not be spelling right) was a full time resident here, with her father, her husband and their son. Subsistence agriculture, alive and well. We talked about knitting and growing, she described all the animals they have. A hard life but a happy one. It wasn’t a clear conversation, my basic Bulgarian is only very slightly translating to Serbian and there was plenty of repeating words, of staring in attempted comprehension. Jasmina could better understand me, she speaks Pirotski, a very local dialect to the town of Pirot, which is a mixture of Bulgarian, Serbian and Turkish. Slovenka only spoke Serbian. Jasmina asked what the food was like in Bulgaria, how it compared. I had to tell her that I hadn’t really been invited into houses in Bulgarian villages, that people would say hello on the street but not really take it any further. She mimed for me, that Serbian people had big hearts, took a small piece of cheese from the plate and demonstrated that if it was all she had she would give me half. I understood it. Bulgaria felt weary, ground down by systemic neglect. Serbia is different, in ways I am still to discover.
We parted with hugs and kisses, the second time in four days that I had received such kindness and made easy connections. I headed downwards tired and happy, ready for a hotel, a shower and a visit to a shop for some fresh fruit.
I was done with the Stara Planina, or perhaps not. That unwalked route is still niggling at me, a piece of mountain beauty missed.
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and British charity Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope