MOUNTAIN OF (NO) GOD

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Pirin, a UNESCO World Heritage site, welcomes treks, winter sports

pirin mountains.jpg

Gods and mountains go together. Zeus resided on the Olympus and a Tibetan Buddhist goddess – on the Everest, while God notoriously chose Mount Sinai as the place to give Moses the Ten Commandments.

One of Bulgaria's most spectacular mountains is also connected to a god – or to the lack of him. Pirin, in the southwest, was named after the Slavic thunder god, Perun, yet one of its summits is called Bezbog, or Godless.

When hiking the Pirin, you will see that there is some logic to this contradiction. The mountain range feels simultaneously divine and abandoned, filled with existential dread; an example for the sublime. The maze of 2,000-metre high peaks, the barren slopes, the steep ravines and the glacial lakes evoke awe and reverence to the powers of nature; the realisation that often you are far from other people, without mobile connection, brings in tangible fear.

The stunningly beautiful Bezbog, or Godless, lake is easy to reach

On the map the mountain range appears too small for this – about 650,000 acres squeezed between the Rila and the Slavyanka ranges to the north and south, and the valleys of the Struma and Mesta rivers to west and east. However, Pirin's topography compensates with steep elevation. The mountain's average height is 1,033 metres above sea level. Its highest summit, the Vihren, rises up to 2,914 metres, just a little less than the highest peak in the Balkans, the 2,925 metre Musala in the Rila. About 100 peaks in the Pirin are higher than 2,000 m.

Curiously, until 1920 the Pirin was perceived as a lot bigger – the mountains all the way to the Aegean were thought of as a part of it, making it one of the most prominent ridges on the Balkans.

The Pirin was born just before the beginning of the last Ice Age at a place where two faults pulled in opposite directions, forcing the underlying crust to rise into sharp peaks of granite and marble. When the global freeze hit this part of Europe, thick layers of ice covered the slopes of the young mountain.

The ski slopes above Bansko are arguably the best in the Balkans

Once warming forced the ice to retreat, it carved the peaks underneath into the spectacular ridges that Pirin is famed for. Massive boulders were left here and there. In low places, the trapped ice melted about 200 glacial lakes. They have the same origin as the famed Seven Lakes in the Rila, yet they appear bluer as Pirin's rocks are lighter in colour.

Despite its forbidding terrain, Pirin also became the home of diverse wildlife. Thick forests of gigantic fir hug its lower parts. One of them is Bulgaria's oldest tree – the Baykush pine was already thriving when the nation was established, about 1,300 years ago.

At a height of 2,000 metres above sea level, the trees make space for subalpine shrubs and then – to grasses, mosses and lichens, the ultimate Alpine ecosystem.

About 20 plant species are endemic for the Pirin, although the only rare plant that most Bulgarians associate with the mountain is the edelweiss.

Despite its relatively small size, the Pirin is high and dangerous mountain

The animal diversity is equally significant, counting about 2,000 species. The most prominent of these are the chamois that carelessly jump on vertiginous rocks and screes, the wolfs, the brown bears and the golden eagles.

The mountain's diversity and beauty were recognised early as deserving protection. The first natural preserve in the mountain, the Bayuvi Dupki-Dzhindzhiritsa area, was created in 1934 for its splendid Balkan and Bosnian pines. In 1962, the greater part of the Pirin became a national park. In 1983, it was included in UNESCO's World Heritage list.

The mountain was also important to humans. Since times immemorial, its slopes were grazing ground for the sheep and cattle of generations of itinerant herdsmen. Today, semi-wild flocks can still be seen in the Pirin, the last remnants of a dying culture and economy. Some of them are of a rare, local breed of sheep, the Karakachan, distinctive for its thick fleece, agility, resilience and intelligence.

The name of the Pirin and its peaks, saddles and localities also reflect its importance in the lives of generations of people. Its old Thracian name, Orbelus, was supposedly derived from its snow-covered peaks. It has not been in use for centuries, as it was replaced by the Pirin after the Slavs settled in the region, about the 6th century AD.

 

Bulgarians perceive the Pirin as a true Bulgarian mountain range, one of the defining features of the Macedonia region and a cradle of the so-called National Revival Period. The town of Bansko, at the foot of the range, exemplifies this. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the centre of thriving commerce. One of its sons, Paisiy of Hilandar, wrote the first modern Bulgarian history, in 1762. The book is now perceived as the symbolical beginning of Bulgarian cultural emancipation from Greek dominance within the Ottoman Empire.

But the picture is more diverse. Turks used to live in and around the Pirin, too, and the Vlachs, a group of itinerant shepherds, used to cross it on an yearly basis on their way to and from the Aegean. Bulgarian Muslims, or Pomaks, still live here as well.

This diversity is also reflected in Pirin's toponyms. In the 20th century, many of its peaks, lakes and other prominent places were renamed to Bulgarian ones. For example, its highest summit Eltepe, or Stormy One, became in 1942 Vihren, which means basically the same.

Yet, many of the old names persisted, like the Demirkapiya, or Iron Gates, saddle, and Muratov, or Murat's, peak.

Modern tourists enjoy the Pirin year round. The ski slopes above Bansko are considered the best in the Balkans and attract an international crowd. Hikers and mountaineers love it for its diverse landscape suitable for people of all levels of fitness.

Climbing the Vihren is a must, and thrill-seekers are delighted to walk along the narrow, precipitous spine of the Koncheto, or Little Horse, saddle. All Pirin lakes are beautiful in their own way, but Tevnoto is special as it is right in the centre of the mountain range.

An easy option to enjoy Pirin's stunning nature is to take the chair lift that starts above Dobrinishte to Bezbog Lake, and to hike around.

Pirin is also a place of hidden conflicts. The protection of its wildlife and pristine nature is a constant battle between developers, the national park authorities, the environmentalists and the last wild herdsmen.

Illegal development is the main threat for the Pirin these days. And fewer people are aware that there is a conflict between the national park authorities and the wild herdsmen. The shepherds complain that the rules of the national park are too restrictive and will soon force them to abandon grazing herds in the mountain altogether, ending a millennia long tradition of peaceful cohabitation between humans and nature.

Whether this will happen is an open question, but if you happen to stop at Kresna, a town at the foot of the Pirin west, do seek buy some cheese and yoghurt. They will taste like nothing at Sofia's farmer's markets.

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