The dramatic scenery played its own part in the distraction process too. As well as being the biggest mountain, Musala is also considered the most majestic and, backed by the rest of the Rila mountains, littered with lakes, flora and fauna, it’s quite a picture, even on the drizzling day we took it on.

Sotit sums up how beautiful the area is: “If someone said I could go anywhere else in the world, I would say no.”
The name Rila, Sotit explains, means ‘well-watered mountains’, owing to the amount of lakes and hot springs around.

“You should come back up here, though on a clearer day,” he says apologetically as we reached the top.

Feeling completely spent after the sharp rocks of the last stretch (thank God for the walking stick) I could cope with the cloudy vista – it would be quite a while before I attempted the climb again.

Despite this, getting to the top was a great feeling – one of those ‘I can do anything’ moments.

Apart from the odd slip and slide, the way down was a breeze and upon reaching the resort with darkness closing in, we headed for the spa complex and stayed put until we were as wrinkled as Shar Pei dogs.

The country’s oldest winter resort, Borovets was established in the 19th century as a hunting place for the Bulgarian kings. It’s now a modern ski resort, but it’s not just the winter slopes people are running here for. As well as hiking, there’s horse riding, hunting, mountain biking (some of the best downhill tracks in the region, make sure you’re well versed on the brakes), kayaking and white-water rafting – if you’re looking for action, there’s no shortage here. There’s also a lively party scene. The town is full of bars, cafés and discos. That is, if you have the stamina after a hard day in the hills.

» Kim Smith travelled to Borovets with The Riding Company (; 020-7846 0033) and stayed at The Lodge Hotel ( Trips can be tailored to your needs, which will determine costs.

Rila Monastery

On first glance the monastery, engulfed by sturdy walls, looks more like a fortress.

Located in the north-western Rila Mountains (117km from Sofia), the World Heritage Site is one of Bulgaria’s most visited tourist destinations.

Its history belongs to a medieval hermit called St John of Rila, who in the 9th century retreated to the tucked-away valley to live in a cave, his desire for seclusion driven by the moral decline suffered during the reign of the Bulgarian Tsar Peter. The many disciples who visited his cave to hear his humble preachings are thought to have built the monastery, which nowadays is a thumping pile: 300 monks’ cells, four chapels (with amazing frescos), an abbot’s room, library and kitchen with cooking pots so big you could swim in them.

Be sure to check out the museum, which hosts the unique Raphael’s Cross (81cm x 43cm), which has 104 biblical scenes and 650 small figures carved into it.

You can even kip the night out here in the guest cells if you fancy it.

Capital pleasures

However you get to Borovets, you will probably fly into Sofia, which isn’t always portrayed in a rosy light. But give it a chance (one or two nights will suffice), and you might be pleasantly surprised, or at least appreciate how far it has come from its muddy past.

Conquered by Romans, ruled by Turks and occupied by the Soviet Union (it remained communist until the dissolution of the USSR in 1989), the road has been rocky.

While it’s not the most fetching of cities, it has a relaxed charm and welcoming feel. From coffee to cigarettes, everything is very cheap, so be sure to feed up at the many cafés and restaurants in between sticking your nose in these historical treasures:

» The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The tight relationship Bulgaria has with Russia is evident all about town, but nowhere more than this robust golden domed cathedral named after Russian Tsar Alexander II, whose army liberated Bulgaria from Turkish rule. There are also plenty of souvenir stalls making the most of the crowds. Look out for Nazi memorabilia, which appears to
be the real deal.

» Rotunda of St George

The round red brick church set among the cavities of ancient Roman ruins is the city’s oldest church. Frescoes of 22 prophets over 2m tall crown the dome.

» National History Museum

Housed in a former government palace, the museum is endowed with more than 22,000 exhibits, which go a long way in illustrating the country’s colourful past.

» The Party House
One of the most arresting buildings in the city was built in the 1950s for the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
By 1990 the red star on the rooftop had been ripped down and a couple of years later it assumed its current function,
as office space for Bulgaria’s parliament poppits.