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Shining lights of Sofia from Bulgaria’s fourth-highest mountain

It’s 3.10pm on a blue-sky August day and my thermometer reads twenty-one degrees Celsius. I’m lying on a sweat-soaked backpack next to a mineral spring in Aleko, the principal tourist spot in Vitosha. At 2191 metres above sea-level, it’s 95 per cent of the way up to Black Peak (Cherni Vrah), the 2290m summit I’ve just scaled. Most of those wishing to scale Bulgaria’s fourth-highest mountain start and end their hike here – with good reason.

Black Peak (Cherni Vrah), Bulgaria

I was directed by Landry, the slick-haired concierge at my hotel, to start at the rear of Boyana Church. A UNESCO-listed medieval building it’s unsurprisingly on the itinerary of near-all who visit the capital, though evidently remained unticked on my taxi driver’s bucket list since he needed to ask for directions: albeit ingeniously given the precariously-perched ciggie on his bottom lip stayed in situ throughout roadside Q&A.

Black Peak (Cherni Vrah), BulgariaWithin minutes of being dropped off I too was directionless, my Wirralian accent seemingly as intelligible as braille to fresco print sellers outside the entrance. Given hiker trail signposts were about as common as those directing investigators to mass grave sites, I wondered if those in the employ of Vitosha Nature Park had been headhunted from despotic regimes. Ten minutes into my hike however, by which time I was puffing through the dense pine forest like the Flying Scotsman of yesteryear, I understood the reason for lack of signage: a military installation.

Keen not to disturb the khaki-clad official, I made an about-turn and walked at a funeral pace up an incline that was so steep my knees were touching my chest. As a thirty-five-year-old who regularly runs 10k I consider(ed) myself fit yet was feeling nauseous after only thirty minutes. Black Peak (Cherni Vrah), BulgariaIt couldn’t be altitude sickness at 750m, I told myself, despite each step bringing on a bout of vertigo. Only my determination to put the sharp-suited Landry right that this hike is more High Atlas than Lake District got me to Boyana Lake.

As I slowed, and my breathing became the only noise aside from splashing water and crunching twigs, I saw a sign for “Easier Ascent” that would’ve tipped me over the mountainside had my jelly legs not resembled goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s. After unfolding my ill-behaved map, which needed wrestling to the cone-covered floor, I arrived at Panorama View (Suhi Vrah). An hour into my hike and standing at 1146m, the boulder-covered slope provided a welcome and Instagrammable grand vista of Sofia’s low-altitude skyline, approximately eight miles away.

Black Peak (Cherni Vrah), Bulgaria

Seeing the shiny, gold dome of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral provided the drive to persevere through the knee-jolting, muscle-burning (three-hour) ascent underneath eerie, abandoned-looking chairlifts. The day before, holding my aptly-named Lonely Planet guide, I’d lit candles in memory of my father and grandmother. Previously too grief-stricken for reflection, I now welled up like a tearful celebrity on Comic Relief. The lightening of my emotional baggage helped ease the descent, kick-starting my triumph over the metaphysical territory of loss, and sufficiently clear my mind prior to giving a piece of it to Landry.

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