I was riding my mountain bike down a steep path into a wooded gorge. Niki Titev, a member of the Bulgarian national mountain biking team, was, predictably, far ahead of me when a woman emerged from the woods at the side of the trail. I stopped and smiled. Clad in a head scarf, her hands stained purple from picking blueberries, Nedjibe was a Pomakâ€”a part of the Bulgarian Muslim minority. When I asked whether I could take her picture, she shook her head back and forth in the charmingly confusing Bulgarian gesture for yes.
While Titev comes to Rila to bomb down the ski runs at Borovets, Nedjibe comes to gather berries and fatten her sheep in the high summer meadows. Across a gulf of centuries, they have these mountains in common.
The pocket-sized Rila mountain range forms the southwestern boundary of the Bulgarian heartland. Its foothills rise from pastoral and bountiful fields just an hour south of Sofia, the nation’s capital. At Musala peak, the highest point in the Balkans, the range’s sharp granite pinnacles assert an ancient ruggedness before falling off to the south, toward the drier areas along the Greek border.
I visited in August, joining a group of American and Bulgarian mountain bikers for a week spent riding around villages and chalets scattered throughout the range. While our ride was strenuousâ€”miles of rough climbing were rewarded with monumental descents that challenged the abilities of even the most experienced ridersâ€”the small size of the range makes many of the places we visited accessible to those less inclined to suffer.
The snug village of Govedartsi, under steep pine-cloaked hillsides along the Iskar River, is one such place. In the stone-and-wood gazebo behind the family-run House Djambazkiâ€”alfresco dining is a delightful warm-weather custom in Bulgariaâ€”we ate the bounty of the mountains. Sheep’s-milk yogurt, heaped into stoneware bowls and topped with wild honey and alpine blueberries, tasted of the summer pasture we had ridden through earlier in the day.