"Danger! Crossing is forbidden!" Makeshift signs adorn the wooden bridges that until not so long ago used to provide a hair-rising and yet fascinating glimpse of the Negovanka River and the rugged rocks of the Emenski Canyon, near Veliko Tarnovo. The path leading to the high point of the trail, the nearby Momin Skok, or Virgin's Jump, waterfall also shows visible marks of decay: planks are missing here and there from the wooden steps, particularly at the most precipitous part of the climb.
In spite of the lack of proper infrastructure, there are people here enjoying the scenery and taking pictures. A man is even trying to catch fish in the pond under the waterfall.
Constructed in 1992, the Negovanka eco trail near Emen village, close to Veliko Tarnovo, is considered to be the oldest eco trail in Bulgaria and regularly pulls in the crowds in the region. It is, unfortunately, not the only one in a bad condition.
Throughout the country, eco trails and paths leading to interesting natural or historical sights are unkempt, sometimes dangerous, and often misleading. You are travelling around, say, the Rhodope, and you see a road sign indicating that nearby is a path leading to an ancient Thracian rock tomb. Eager to explore somewhere that none of your Facebook friends have ever been to, you park in an overgrown car park, find what looks like the proper path and head off. Several bends later in the thick forest, you are lost: no path, no sign, no Thracian rock tomb. Rock tomb, no big deal, you console yourself and then you continue on to a better known place, like the ancient stone circle at Dolni Glavanak village. Again, there is a car park, this time with an information centre that is closed, it seems permanently. The path leading to the stone circle is here, but is in such bad condition that it is actually easier to walk straight through the oak forest until you reach your goal. The information sign at the rock circle itself has been faded by the sun, only the odd logo of the EU surviving the destruction.
"Sadly, most of the eco paths today are poorly maintained," says Associate Professor Petar Petrov, a geologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who, in the early 1990s, almost single-handedly created the trend for eco paths in Bulgaria.
Eco paths are not unique to Bulgaria, of course, and some well known examples are those around the rock monasteries of Meteora, Greece, and the Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. Switzerland also has a long tradition here, as eco paths provide easy access for tourists of all ages and levels of fitness to interesting natural and cultural sites. Petar Petrov proposed establishing eco trails in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, a time when Bulgarian tourism seemed focused on Black Sea resorts. The geologist recognised the potential of little known, but interesting geographical sites around the country, such as canyons and waterfalls, karst formations and rivers. His first project materialised in 1991: a metal staircase leading all the way down to the bottom of the largest natural karst abyss in Bulgaria, near Golyama Garvanitsa village, in Central Northern Bulgaria. The eco trails at Negovanka and the Krushuna waterfalls, near Lovech, followed soon after.
Can you find the path? Remains from an eco trail on the southern Black Sea coast
In these early years, enthusiasm was the major force behind the construction of the eco trails. Petar Petrov and his team came up with the concepts, and local municipalities provided the funding and the building contractors. In the mid-1990s, the geologist founded an NGO, the Bulgarian Association for Rural and Ecological Tourism, or BARET. This organisation has been involved in the creation of eco and geological trails, geocomplexes (trails leading to a singular point of interest), and geological parks.
Funding has always been a problem for the eco trails projects. In the early 2000s, they were generally funded by either the EU's SAPARD programme for the development of rural regions or by the Phare programme for countries applying for membership. A major contributor was also USAid, with the Peace Corps regularly sending American volunteers to help. Green and rural tourism seemed to flourish in Bulgaria. Guest houses appeared even in places where few tourists ventured, and the number of trails rose.
Bulgaria joined the EU, in 2007, and the funding for such projects switched to the EU's Rural Development programme. The Americans withdrew.
Eco trails are crucial for the development of sustainable rural tourism as they attract people who spend money in local businesses, explains Petar Petrov. "Tourists don't just want a nice guest house and local food, they will get bored after a day or two, if they don't have something to do or somewhere to go, particularly if they have children." Eco paths are of particular value in regions that are not much visited.
This simple truth, however, is in stark contrast with the current atmosphere of abandonment that hangs over many eco trails. According to Petar Petrov, the answer is, to put it mildly, complex. Like so many other things in the Balkans.
"Each eco trail should provide the visitor with a one-of-a-kind experience," he explains. His organisation has prepared a list of 20 criteria defining what a good eco trail is. It includes things like a well-preserved and diverse landscape and wildlife, picturesqueness, and a route that makes the visitor feel the gratifying sense that they have overcome a serious obstacle. Difficulty should be combined with absolute safety. "The harder an eco trail looks, the more attractive it is," says Petar Petrov, whose latest project fulfils this requirement: the adventure trail near Borovo village, in the Rhodope, combines natural phenomena, an ancient Thracian shrine, old chapels and a cave.
Often, however, municipalities are so eager to have an eco trail on their territory that they do not think out their projects well. From the assessment of the natural phenomenon they want to advertise as "unique," to the concept of the trail itself, from safety and how to find a contractor able to meet the safety requirements, they have not considered all the implications. Many of them are not aware of how to advertise their eco trails and tourist sites, and soon after the project is completed, the tourists lose interest.
Ancient Thracian rock tomb near Dolno Cherkovishte village, the Rhodope, with what remains of an information sign
Municipalities are not the only ones affected by ill-thoughtout enthusiasm for eco trails. "The people assessing projects and applying for EU funding lack the proper evaluation tools when they decide to back an eco trail project and spend, say, 200,000 euros on it," says Petar Petrov.
Their motivation is, seemingly, to get the grant no matter what. It is a win-win situation for both the municipalities and the government, as the former get the funding and the latter can boast that Bulgaria has "utilised" its assigned European funds.
Projects funded by EU funds are required to have a sustainability plan but this, according to Petar Petrov, does not have to last for more than five years. Once they have passed, the municipality stops taking care of the trails and, as people still continue to visit, the infrastructure starts to disintegrate.
Petar Petrov sees a solution in private initiatives. "If the municipalities are not able to take care of them, it would be better to lease them to some local company once the project is over," he says.
So far, a few of his projects are maintained with additional funding, like the Golyama Garvanitsa trail that was restored a few years back with Norwegian money, and the Hotnitsa eco path that was recently renewed with funding from a Bulgarian bank.
The many eco trails and tourist routes that are not so lucky remain overgrown and crumbling, advertising their origins with the odd EU-branded information sign. But sooner rather than later they will succumb to the elements.
Not all eco trails are abandoned: "Green" media board introduces visitors to the bird diversity along the Byala Reka eco path, near Kalofer
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.