Bulgaria is quite well known for its monasteries, but I had failed to visit many of the well-known ones through my visit. So I was glad when I learned that near the town of Melnik was the historic Rozhen Monastery. Doing some interest research, I found out that while there was a road that joined the two, there was supposed to be a hiking trail as well.
The information about the trail was extremely vague, but I was quite keen to visit the monastery so I decided to try to make it there anyway. What follows is my attempt to hike to Rozhen Monastery from Melnik in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria.
First of all, Rozhen Monastery is only about 3km as the crow flies from the town of Melnik. To take the road, is 7km. Setting out from my hotel in Melnik, my map app on my phone indicated a vague trail leading out of town heading towards Rozhen Monastery. I wandered through town until I reached the start of the trail which turned out to be the dry riverbed that ran through the heart of Melnik. It appeared to be the right way, so I left town and headed up hill along the barren riverbed.
After a few short turns, I had already left the town behind and was nearing some of the region’s famed sand pyramids. Either side of the dry river, there was some low scrub but not particularly dense vegetation. I continued to follow the riverbed until I came across my first obstacle – a big stone wall across the river. It was at this point that my phone decided to have a fit, losing the use of my map and left to my own devices.
Not wanting to bail so soon, I veered off to the left of the riverbed and walked through the grass until I had passed the wall. Returning to the riverbed, I ventured further into the hills that separated Melnik from Rozhen. The low scrub made way for forest that grew denser and denser. At one point, I saw people behind me following the riverbed but after a few corners I didn’t see them again. I was clinging to the hope that I was on the right path and I would come across some sort of sign to show me the way. Part of that doubt is from how quiet it gets in the valley, with only the occasional sound of cowbells breaking up the chorus of birds and cicadas.
And then I hit the big wall. Unlike the earlier wall, this wall was 3-4 metres high. Thankfully, there was an obvious little path to the right that led awkwardly up and over. Again, I stayed faithful to the river bed and followed it along. It made me wonder whether the riverbed was dry year round or whether I would have encountered great difficulty had I not come in summer. Just over the top I finally found my first, and only, sign for Rozhen. I had probably been walking 20 to 30 minutes at that stage so it was a great relief to know I was on the right track.
As I went deeper, the forest begins to grow over the riverbed and I lost sight of the hills around me. A little further up, there were some fallen trees lying across the riverbed. You can either climb through them or find a small path around. At some point you’ll come across a fork in the riverbed which was my first major moment of uncertainty. Trust me, take the right path which has a small pyramid of rocks resting by it. This path follows the riverbed for a while but once you see a bench on the left bank, turn off towards it into the forest.
This path was narrow, a little overgrown but it did in fact take me up the mountainside. It was at this point that I started to grow concerned that there might be snakes in the long grass and regretted not telling the people at the hotel my plans. Anyway, the only turnoffs along the path are to panoramic view points, so no worries.
From here, you just keep climbing up and you will eventually reach a crest with a sign pointing back to Melnik. It felt great to have made it to the ridge and to find some sort of confirmation that I was on the right track. At the top were was another fork, with right taking me to a narrow but wonderful viewpoint, the left to the monastery. My favourite views of the Sand Pyramids was from up here.
After taking in the view, I took the path to the monastery which became a narrow trail that weaved up and down the hillside. This part had some precarious patches and the occasional flimsy hand rail. Thankfully it did broaden after not too long. Rather soon, I encountered a small hut, with the monastery on the path down to the left. The path to the right does offer a view of the monastery though. Heading down, don’t mind the cows and follow the path until you reach a small road, take it to the right and you will soon be at the monastery.
All told, with all the double backs and photo stops, the hike took me a little under 2 hours. While much of it was fairly simple to walk, climbing up the hill to the ridge was a bit tougher. I probably wouldn’t recommend the hike if you have mobility issues, or for that matter a bad fear of heights or snakes. I decided that I would take the main road home, given how long and uncertain the path had been.
It turned out that the hike to Rozhen Monastery was more eventful and overshadowed my visit to the monastery. The monastery is really out of the way and rather modest in what it has to show. Rozhen Monastery is one of the few medieval monasteries still preserved in Bulgaria, dating from the 13th century. The monastery’s church is from the 15th century and is decorated with some gorgeous frescos, both inside and out. Aside from the church, the monastery is rather plain but you can imagine it hasn’t changed much in look over the centuries. Sadly, you can’t take photos inside so I can only show the building’s exterior.
Once I had seen the monastery, I made a quick stop in the village of Rozhen. The village is just below the monastery in another small valley. Here you can see more of the pyramids, not to mention some rustic houses. You can also get a drink or grab a bit to eat in the village, but it really is a small place. From the town, I simply took the main road and headed back for Melnik.
Walking back along the road may not be very adventurous, but it has its advantages too. As it is very straightforward, you have the opportunity to take in the sights without watching your step or making sure you’re on the right trail. The road also passes by some rivers, making for some lovely background noise as you walk the quiet road back.
I think taking both ways is a great chance to see more of Melnik, Rozhen and their surrounds but you do need to set aside half a day. Make sure to bring water and wear good shoes as you will be walking a fair bit. I would also suggest long pants as I got some incredibly itchy legs from various nettles. Still, no regrets.
Basic Hiking Directions
- From the Wine Museum of Melnik, follow the riverbed out of town
- Continue along the riverbed, passing over the walls
- At the major fork, take the riverbed to the right
- When you see the bench off the path, take the trail on your left
- Follow the path up to the ridge
- At the top, right is viewpoint, left is the monastery
- When you reach the hut, take the track to the left
Have you ever hiked somewhere without a clear idea of where you were going? Please share in the comments below.
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