Eastern Europe was my little holiday before we went to the Alps for the month of preparation for the xalps. Tough life I know. Spring (May) offered some unstable weather as it usually does and we also were travelling around of course but I had a few really good flights where I got a good look at the countryside. The first was around Musala, the highest peak in Bulgaria (I came back the following day – why not?), the second in Vratsa (the first day we visited a cave but I had to return to fly), and finally the Polish Tatras (an absolutely brilliant day along the high peaks, one of my best ever flights, followed by a quick jaunt before storms rolled in).
Our point of arrival in Eastern Europe was Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. From here it was a couple of hours southeast on a bus to Samokov. This quiet little town is just the right size and the room we booked (Aleks guest house) was just perfect, we have never found anything better. We started with a three day trip into the Rila mountains, wading through up to three metres of snow in a really rewarding loop. Starting from Molyovitsa hut we crossed the range and descended to Rila monastery, then climbed back up to the rather deserted Ivan Vazof hut (a couple of Polish guys turned up later) and back out via Seven lakes. On at least one of the days the clouds looked fantastic but with all the snow I didn’t have a chance to rush off and fly.
We returned to Samokov and the following day I took a bus to Borovets, climbed Musala, and flew back down landing a couple of km from the hotel. That night the “Poles apart” article described my lax attitude towards training for xalps (rather I prefer to just have fun) so with a sliver of guilt I decided to fly Musala again, this time walking directly from Samokov and flying myself up to the summit after some very good practice in light conditions slightly lower than my take off half way up the mountain.
Reaching the summit I decided to barrel on, continuing south until I started to get flushed and I landed in the lee. A lovely walk up to a deserted snowy col and a few short flights pushing back into headwind were really fun. I was trying the new Ozium harness and got a nice helmet photo for Icaro’s web page. The highlight was pushing into the summit of Musala from the lee and then accessing a thermal to fly straight up over the top. After that it was easy with high thermals to 12,000 feet and plenty of wingovers before landing in Samokov. Kamila had tried to meet me at the previous landing but I was right in town this time…
From Samokov we headed east to Plovdiv and then north to Sopot, the most well-known flying area in Bulgaria. We didn’t hang around though as the weather was very unstable – for an hour or so we lit a small fire under a tree to stay warm during our walk before retreating after heavy hail. We continued west, stopping at Koprivshtitsa, and then via Sofia we took a train north to Vratsa to visit Ledenika cave. Hitching up and walking down I regretted not bringing my wing as we walked past a perfect launch on a nice sunny day. Since we’d found a nice place to stay (a 30 leva room above the smoky Rade pub) Kamila suggested why not stay another day and fly tomorrow.
Taking her advice I climbed up to the same launch nice and early and then spent a few hours waiting, climbing the nearby peak while cirrus blocked the sun overhead. I then took off and got up and had a great little cross country, exploring about ten kilometres in each direction and flying slow until the sun came out. It was really scenic and enjoyable with plenty of big cliff features just like in the Alps.
Our next stop was Belogradchik, approaching the Serbian border. I spotted a hopeful launch on a col with google earth and set out to find it. Unfortunately after a hot sweaty day in prickles and snowfall affected undergrowth I was unable to find a way past limestone cliffs and I had to retreat on a great looking day simply because there was nowhere else in the vegetated hilly country where I thought I could launch. You win some you lose some.
We hitched through Serbia, took a train and spent a day exploring Budapest in Hungary, and then hitched directly through Slovakia to Krakow in Poland. Taking a night bus to visit Kamila’s folks in Bydgoszcz (northern Poland) we returned the following week to Zakopane in the Polish Tatras. The Polish are very active travellers and aren’t afraid of the outdoors so this small range of mountains is probably one of the most utilised for human recreation in the world.
Of course I wanted to fly along the high Tatras, and the next day, that’s what I did. Months afterwards the excitement is still fresh in my mind, it was simply incredible. I was flying directly at the highest peaks, huge glacier carved faces of black rock plastered in ice from recent storms. The high Tatras were mostly shaded out by clouds but you’d simply fly at the peaks and thermal over the top. I remember doing just that, gliding in from several hundred metres away directly at a dozen climbers on a summit, arriving low enough to casually say hello and immediately turning to follow a gentle thermal straight up to cloud base. It was cool to reach the end of the range and simply turn around and fly back again.
The following day I knew I couldn’t beat that but still I had an interesting flight in the other direction, pushing into headwind for another out and back before soaring the saddle in strong winds, choosing my time to shoot through back to Zakopane as big storm clouds drifted past. Showers had already wet the ground there but I managed to keep dry and land a short walk from our hostel.
My trip through East Europe was primarily travelling but the few occasions where I could explore by the air more than justified taking the wing. It affirmed my notion that it’s better to have the wing to enhance your travelling or hiking trip rather than to base everything around flying and be subject to the whims of the weather.