I recently enjoyed a family holiday in Sveti Vlas, Bulgaria, and came across the phenomenon of the ‘Free Hiking Tour’ for the first time, when we took the opportunity to take part in a Balkan mountain trek with ‘Free Hiking Tour Sveti Vlas.’
We spotted a poster on the noticeboard in the foyer of our apartment advertising a weekly free hiking tour in the hills overlooking the resort, and then researched it ourselves on Trip Advisor, to see if it was worth giving a go!
Whilst sunbathing by the pool, you couldn’t help but notice the dense green forests on the hills overlooking the town, and a fellow holidaymaker said that he’d ventured up there and had a walk round, but he hadn’t got much further than a car park….not very exciting.
We were a bit wary of going into the woods on our own, as we feared snakes, bears, wolves – and probably more realistically – getting lost! The Trip Advisor reviews were excellent -“A must do in Sveti Vlas” so we thought we’d go for it – despite the searing 35 degrees plus heat – we were determined to get up off our sunbeds and do something active for the morning.
I wondered how many others would be joining us at the post office rendezvous point, bright and early at 8.30am, and whether we might even be the lone guests on the trek. I needn’t have worried on that score as this tour broke the record for the most people that had taken part on an individual hike, with 25 people taking part, of a variety of ages, from 6 different countries. We were pleased that, despite this, the tour was primarily conducted in English, so we could easily take in the information that was passed on.
Madlena, the guide on our tour, was extremely welcoming and friendly, and after a brief health and safety talk to let us know that we should stick with her, and that we were basically responsible for our own wellbeing – and that of our children – we struck off in a determined fashion up the hill, out of town, and into the wilds!
Although it was a challenging hike onwards and upwards, towards the promised summit, it was broken down into manageable chunks, where we paused at intervals to look at things of interest – and for a brief chance to rest and recover our breathing….
The hike takes roughly 4 hours, depending on the pace being set, the number of people on the tour, and how many things are spotted of interest en route. It covers 9km of pretty hilly terrain, through forest and grassland – and sun cream, plenty of water, a bite to eat, and comfortable walking shoes or trainers, are definitely recommended.
My children aged 11 and 7 coped really well with the challenge, and there are no set age limits at either end of the spectrum – but you should consider your fitness, stamina and how used you are to walking, when considering whether this is the activity for you. What was lovely on our tour, was that there was a four year old little boy with his Mum, and people were happy to wait for them to catch up at times, and Madlena made him feel very special by walking with him at the front of the group, and calling him ‘the tour guide of the future!’ Madlena has subsequently told me that the youngest member of a tour, to date, is a 9 month-old baby from Siberia, who no doubt, enjoyed the fresh air and gorgeous views.
Our first stop involved a challenge to look around us at the fairly innocuous-looking plantlife in the vicinity, to see if we could spot any herbs. This was a great chance for both kids and adults to get down to ground-level – and touch, and smell promising foliage to see if it was indeed a herb – and what it could be used for.
It turned out that we were pretty clueless in this regard, but it was interesting to hear the thoughts of other people in the group, and to eventually hear from Madlena – about what they actually were, how they could be collected and made into tea, and the health benefits of doing so. People hundreds of years ago, who couldn’t pop to the supermarket, would obviously have foraged for natural resources in this way, so it’s inspiring that plants that are growing freely and plentifully, are still being collected in this way by some people – and they are great adverts for it!
Madlena advised us to talk less, and listen and look more – and we were rewarded by colourful butterflies dancing round wildflowers, grasshoppers doing what they do best and a rather large toad hiding unsuccessfully behind the spring-water trough.
Apparently, there are wild boar, wolves and even jackals living out in the forest – but they are elusive and reclusive as a rule, and tend to come out when the sun has gone down. It was still a great adventure collaborating together as a group to share what we saw, tasted and smelt, and it was amazing that the trees remained so green and vibrant despite the searing sun and lack of rainfall in the Summer months. We even sampled blackberries, proving that they are a very hardy plant, at both home and away. Nature is very resilient and works with what is available, to impressive effect.
Apart from being inspired by Madlena’s wisdom, energy and love of nature, it was enjoyable to talk to others as we ate a snack at picnic benches or walked together, hearing about where they come from, where they are staying in the resort, what they have been doing on their holiday and why they wanted to come on the hike.
The highlight (in all senses) was undoubtedly the magnificent panoramic view from the summit, which gave a great view of the forest below, along with the surrounding countryside, and the beautiful coastline and the bustling resorts that have grown up around it.
This afforded many a sharp intake of breath upon first view, and provided a great photo opportunity to see the resorts of Svetis Vlas, Sunny Beach and Nessebar from another perspective, as well as take several photos and videos. Sunny Beach in particular, is renowned for being a frenetic hub of decadent holiday exploits, and a trek into the forest was a welcome breather for many on the tour, who embraced the chance to spend a bit of time in a more tranquil and natural environment.
Overall, we were hot, sweaty and a bit achy after our walk (following several days of relative inactivity around the pool), but we were glad that we took the time to see more of Sveti Vlas, beyond the shops, restaurants and bars that proliferate the town centre, and we felt a great sense of achievement at the end, that we had ventured outside our comfort-zone and got a bit closer to nature.
The beauty of this type of tour is that you are led by someone local and knowledgeable who can steer you in the direction of the best things to experience – whilst at the same time, celebrating the uniqueness of every hike and the people taking part. Madlena Kuleva has been running the tours since 2014, and her ultimate goal is to inspire people to love and protect nature as well as to promote Bulgaria’s wilderness and ecotourism. The tours have grown from a small acorn of an idea into the popular tours that they are today, with great reviews on Trip Advisor (the tour was recently awarded a Trip Advisor 2017 Certificate of Excellence for consistently good feedback) and also a Facebook page to share related news and photos.
Even if you’re not heading to this part of the world, why not have a look online to see if there are any similar tours available – free city tours led by knowledgeable locals are very popular, as well as those in more rural locations. The usual format is that you meet up at a pre-arranged spot for the tour (or book if necessary), enjoy the sights and knowledge that are shared during your chosen excursion, and then you tip your guide what you feel is fair for the time and effort that they have put in, to make the experience enjoyable and informative. Individuals may set the tours up themselves, or they may be organised by an organisation that advertise them (and may well take a cut of their earnings). It’s always best to check out Trip Advisor or Facebook reviews to see what experiences other travellers have had – you don’t want to squander your precious holiday time on a tour that doesn’t inspire or educate, and help you to really get to know somewhere better. But the best ones can really showcase the hidden gems of your chosen destination, and give an enthusiastic local the chance to share their enthusiasm and knowledge in a way that is mutually beneficial.
From small acorns, impressively large oak trees can grow!
A video overlooking Sveti Vlas, the neighbouring Sunny Beach and round to the Unesco Heritage Site Nessebar