AKA; The most amazing week…
For those who do not personally know me, you may not know that I am one of thooose girls. Yep, a horse girl. I am not ashamed! Personally, I think they’re the most beautiful creatures on the planet and we should feel honoured to be able to befriend and train them. I even have my own horse back home in Australia (who I am missing a great deal!). So when I saw a post in Aussies In London about a horse riding tour in the mountains in Bulgaria, I knew it was something I HAD to do. (Thanks Teagan).
So I booked it in January and (not so) patiently waited until April. Then I packed my carry on bag and headed to Sofia with 6 new friends. This trip had everything; laughs, tears, new friends and near death experiences…
The company we did it through is Penguin Travel. They have quite a lot of different horse riding trips! There are a few in Bulgaria alone. We did the 3-day horse riding in Rodopi Mountains. It is suitable for intermediate to advanced riders, as there is 5+ hours of riding each day, and costs €190. This includes transfers from/to Sofia before and after the ride, an English speaking guide, a saddled horse, 2 nights accommodation, all meals (day 1 lunch to day 3 lunch) and luggage transport. Which I reckon is a pretty good deal.
So we departed London Tuesday afternoon to arrive in Sofia Tuesday night. I have to also add; for anyone flying into Sofia and getting a taxi into the centre, make sure you go with an OK taxi. The price should be around 10-15 lev to get anywhere in the centre! We got scammed and got charged 50 lev…
Day 1 (Wednesday)
At 9am the tour company driver picked us up from right outside our accommodation and we began the 2 hour journey to our horses! During which we blasted and sang as many horse related songs we could think of. The anthems of the trip being the Saddle Club theme song; Hello World, and the Aussie classic; Darryl Braithwaite’s Horses. We arrived where the horses were waiting for us, which I’ll admit at first glance was not the nicest. It is in a Gypsy area so there are run down houses and rubbish all around BUT, this is just the area where they keep their gear. The horses roam in the land/mountains around it.
We met our guide Lubo, then picked our horses. I got Penny, which turns out was a 2 for 1 deal because her 3 month old foal was joining us too! The foal did not have a name yet so we decided to name her Pippa (which she now comes to so they are keeping it!). I also just want to mention that you ride in western saddles and they don’t provide riding helmets. They had a couple of bike helmets which you can use if you feel uncomfortable riding without one. I personally just rode without one but I can appreciate the importance of a helmet!
And we were off!
At around 12:30pm we set off into the mountains. The views were incredible! We rode through bits of open land and through gorgeous forests that made me feel like I was in Twilight. We then got our first canter of the trip and rode to a nice open area with a pretty view to stop and have lunch. Lubo’s mum had made us sandwiches and fruit. We also had a vegetarian and celiac on the trip and their dietary requirements were catered for. We got to do a few more laps of cantering there before we headed off up the mountain.
We rode through more forest and got to a tree on the ground. Now, Penny is a bit of a drama queen when it comes to stepping over things… So instead of stepping over normally, she jumped her two back feet over and basically bucked! I was thrown from the saddle and landed on her neck! (1 of the 2 times I had a brush with death 😉 BUT I didn’t fall off! ) I was worried I would hurt her, but she didn’t seem phased and just kept on walking! Once we got her to actually stop, I not so gracefully attempted to get off her neck. Then jumped back on and continued up to our first nights accommodation.
We untacked the horses and let them graze for the night while we went inside. A traditional Bulgarian dinner was made for us. It included; a spinach and tomato soup with toast, hot chips with local sheep’s cheese and meat with vegetables. There was sooo much food but it all tasted so good! After dinner we played some cards, Lubo taught us some Bulgarian (which we of course butchered! :’) #nicedrivin – also known as nazdrave which means cheers), had plenty of laughs then went to bed.
Day 1 was about 4.5 hours of riding through relatively easy terrain.
Day 2 (Thursday)
The next morning we all woke up verrryyyy sore. Safe to say, my muscles and my bum were in a bit of shock. For breakfast we were served pancakes/crepes with delicious, homemade jam. Then, in true Bulgarian spirit, more food was brought out to us. It was a more traditional Bulgarian breakfast food that consisted of some sort of meat with cheese and tomatoes on toast (also very yum!). We finally headed off at around 10:30am.
This trek was quite hilly and we ended up nice and high up in the mountains, walking and trotting through gorgeous woodland. For those of you that haven’t ridden horses on the side of a mountain before, they like to walk close to the edge so that they can see the drop down the side. So that could be little scary at some points but I fully trusted my horse to carry me to safety. Then, we had to get back down the mountain… For this we had to dismount and walk our horses down the very steep and quite slippery decline. Not going to lie, this part was quite frightening and made me sweat a little purely from the stress. But we made it down safely to the river.
Then came the second time I almost died.
(I’m not dramatic at all 😉 ) The river current was quite strong and the water was rushing. It took a few attempts for me to convince Penny to step in and walk across. Once she finally did, she panicked and started stepping to the left. I was trying my best to get her back onto the right path to cross, but then she then slipped on a rock and we went deeper. At this point I honestly thought I was going to end up in the water! Without a thought, Lubo jumped into the river (waist deep!) and helped us to the other side. The poor guy was freezing but I am so grateful for his help! My hero!
After that, it was fairly easy. We rode alongside the river and up the road to our lunch spot where Lubos’s family brought us lunch – and a spare pair of jeans for Lubo! After lunch, we rode along the road. The horses weren’t phased by the cars at all. Then we wandered through a small village until we reached our next accommodation. This night we stayed in a traditional Bulgarian house. We had steak with chips and salad for dinner and some chocolate cake for dessert. Then, we played some card games (some I even won!), we were laughing so hard that tears were shed, and like any good saddle club; we braided each others hair.
Day 2 was about 5 hours of riding through steep terrain and river crossings.
Day 3 (Friday)
Okay, just going to say this straight up, the last day was intense. It was a loooong day. We left around 9:30am and rode through some more beautiful forest. It seriously looked like an enchanted forest out of a storybook. Then, it started raining and didn’t stop for a good few hours. There were a few spots where we had to get off and walk the horses for about 15-30 mins at a time. One section was steep, downhill and sooo very muddy. A couple of the girls fell over in the mud. Which to the rest of us was hilarious, but you know, being wet and muddy is not always that fun.
Through this experience, I really saw how much my horse trusted me and I really put my trust in her. I used her to balance as we both carefully walked/slid down the mountain. She would stop right beside me the moment I lost any balance and would follow my every step, even when I purposefully went a harder way so that she could walk the easier path.
Walking down the rocky path was actually a nice way to stretch our legs and regain warmth and feeling in our hands and feet. We then came to a gorgeous view. We could see where we had come from on the other side of the mountain! The valley was covered by, what looked to be clouds below us. Turns out it was actually fog and it rolled in real quick! Before we knew it we were walking through thick, eerie fog. After emerging from the fog, we got in a few nice canters and ended up walking through an adorable little town.
We made our way back up the steep, village roads.
Penny was very tired by this point, so she didn’t have much energy to canter. This made it very hard work for me to keep up with the group. If I’m being honest (which I always am), I think this trip was a bit much for Penny and Pippa after being out of practice for so long/being three months old! It was a lot of hard work for them but they took it like champs.
One of the girls very kindly offered to swap with me for the last part of the trek so I could have the opportunity to canter properly. She was happy to go slower on Penny. Which I was very grateful for when we got to the very last stretch where we all cantered (some even galloped) all the way home. It is the most freeing feeling!
When we got back to where we started on the first day, we all said our very sad goodbyes and thank yous to our horses. After a few group shots, we piled into the van and Lubo took us back to Sofia.
Day 3 was about 7 hours of riding through steep rocky/muddy terrain and open fields.
We decided to stay in Sofia for the weekend afterwards. So we got to our accommodation at around 7pm on Friday night. There we said another sad goodbye, this time to Lubo. I honestly think he is a huge part of why we all loved this trip so much! He joined in on our games and jokes, he helped us whenever we needed (including jumping into a freezing cold river!!) and taught us so much about Bulgaria. He told us we were the best group he’s ever had! Which maybe we didn’t believe when he said it on the first day, but by the end I think we soooo were!
My shower that night honestly felt soooo good! Finally washing my hair and getting out of wet muddy clothes. A few of us headed out that night to explore some pubs and bars of Sofia. Bulgaria is amaaazing for drinks prices. To give you an example; 5 shots of tequila cost 12 Bulgarian Lev which is equivalent to about £5.30! We even had some amazing, “world class competition” cocktails at a place called One More Bar for 10 Lev (£4.40).
In the morning we all did a free walking tour with Free Sofia Tours (https://freesofiatour.com/) . We learnt so much about the city, which I definitely think you would not know otherwise because most of the locals didn’t even know that much about Sofia! I would definitely recommend it. Our guide, Svetla, was awesome. They run every single day of the year too, even on holidays!
The tour ran for 2 hours then we got some photos at the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and went to one of Svetla’s lunch recommendations for some food. We walked around Sofia some more and made a wish at the Russian Church, before heading home to get ready for our pub crawl! We had a great night out making new friends and seeing so many bars and pubs of Sofia, which for a relatively small city there are HEAPS.
The next morning, we sadly went our separate ways, some of us heading back to London, some continuing their travels around Europe. I can honestly say this was one of the best trips of my life! I don’t think I have ever laughed so much or bonded so quickly with a group of strangers. In just 5 short days, I made some great friends and created memories I will cherish forever. Okay, okay I’m done being sappy now.
Overall, I would rate the Penguin Travel Horse Riding tour 9/10. The only thing that would have made it 10/10 was; if Penny wasn’t so tired most the time. At times it did get quite frustrating being so far behind or slowing others down because I couldn’t get her to go any faster. That being said, it was still incredible! I absolutely love Penny and feel so honoured that I had the chance to experience such an amazing three days with her.
Highlights & Lowlights
Cantering through beautiful scenery, stunning forests, riding through terrain I’ve never experienced before (crossing rivers & cliffs), disconnecting for a few days, getting to experience traditional Bulgarian food and living, the views and of course, the horses and the people!
The rain and mud on the last day, the fear while going down the very steep hills, “almost dying” twice (although it provided some excitement and entertainment so not all bad), had to wait quite a long time between eating/drinking and most of all, poor Lubo having to jump into the river.