Mt. Musala is the highest mountain not only in Bulgaria but in the entire Balkan Peninsula. At an elevation of 2,925 meters above sea level, its peak is 10 meters higher than Mt. Olympus in Greece. The saying goes that whenever a Greek citizen climbs to the top of Olympus, they bring with them a stone. Enough stones and one day, Olympus would rise higher than Musala. Bulgarians would not be pleased if this happened.

“Hurry up! We’ll make it up there in no time.”

“Let me catch my breath!” I am not a mountain climber and in fact, the only time I get any exercise is by joining an occasional pickup game on the basketball courts. Yet here I am, attempting the ascent to Musala’s peak at the insistence of Angel, my companion on the summer hike. Angel, with a hard ‘g’ like angle, only spelled differently. Angel, my host on a whirlwind one-week visit to Bulgaria.

“You must climb Musala if you want to really know Bulgaria,” he told me when we set off on the two-hour drive south from Sofia to the mountain.

“I thought we were going to the Rila Lakes,” I replied, remembering reading about the seven glacial lakes.

“Too many people there on the weekends. I knew you would prefer something more challenging. Mount Musala.”

Angel had prepared a crash course on Bulgaria for me. Eating shopska salad, drinking rakia, visiting Sofia’s Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and walking through Plovdiv’s Old Town. But an important part of the visit, Angel insisted, would be seeing Bulgaria’s stunning nature. The forests, the rivers, and the mountains. Especially the mountains.

“The Rila Mountains—they’re a must,” Angel told me over beers the night of my arrival in the country. “And climbing to the top of Musala? It is absolutely essential! We will climb it on Sunday.”

I couldn’t argue with his itinerary. I’ve known Angel for ten years, ever since he came to my home in Minneapolis on a six-month student exchange program. The kids at school made fun of his accent and ridiculed his name, but this seemed to bother me more than him. Enjoying his first experiences outside Bulgaria, Angel was on a high the entire time he stayed with my family.

Angel’s visit gave me the brother I never had. While my younger sisters regarded our Slavic houseguest with suspicion, I took it upon myself to teach him everything I could about the American way of life. About our culture, our music, our sports. Now he was reciprocating by introducing me to Bulgaria. His homeland.

The skies were clear when we left Sofia, but as we drove into the mountains, the wind picked up and the sun disappeared behind ominous clouds. We stopped in Borovets and took the gondola to the Yastrebets chalet atop the mountain ridge. It was a four-seat cabin, more suited to skiers in winter. Airborne, I was lightheaded with vertigo for several minutes and couldn’t focus on the stately pines and fir trees passing underneath us in a blur. But then I recovered from my dizziness and stared out the cabin windows. The higher we rose, the more stunning the views. I was grateful when I got out and stood on solid ground again.

“It’ll be cold up there,” Angel had told me the night before. “You’ll need to dress warmly.”

I had only packed a waterproof windbreaker for my Bulgaria trip, so Angel lent me a fleece shirt, a ski cap, and a heavier jacket. He didn’t have boots to spare—I would have to make do with sports shoes. I declined his offer of walking poles, but then Angel handed me one last thing—a pair of ski gloves. “You’ll probably need these.”

But now, as we stand near the chalet, it’s not that cold. I start to overheat under my many layers, so I take off the gloves and stuff the jacket into my backpack. Angel, wearing a long-sleeved running shirt, has a heavy-looking pack strapped on his back. What has he brought along other than provisions for our lunch?

“Ready?” Angel’s accent still makes me grin.

“Wait a minute.”

I reach for my water bottle as he takes a sip through the tubing of his water bladder.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Yes, it truly is beautiful. I stare at the thick, green forests and at the massive mountain in the distance—our destination. It’s all so different from what I’m used to back home. Minnesota has its share of forests and lakes, but nothing like this. I’ve been to Colorado and seen the Rocky Mountains from afar. Mountains were meant to be appreciated for their beauty, I say to myself, not anything to actually climb.

“For us, nature is part of our culture, our heritage,” Angel tells me. “I love to hike. Most Bulgarians do. I climbed Musala with my father when I was a boy. I came here with classmates, and again with friends. I can’t remember how many times I’ve climbed it. Musala keeps drawing me back.”

“You say you love Bulgaria so why are you planning to leave?” This question has been on my mind ever since arriving in Sofia. In his last email before my trip, Angel mentioned his upcoming relocation to Germany where he’s landed a job at a software company.

“Life in Bulgaria is hard,” Angel says. “From an economic point of view, that is. Yes, we have the most amazing nature, but I want something more.”

Angel grew up in Varna, far to the east on the Black Sea coast. He came to Sofia for his university studies and ended up staying in the capital. Angel’s family still lives in Varna and unfortunately, I won’t have a chance to meet them on this short visit.

“Something more?” I wait patiently for him to explain. He gazes toward the horizon, then turns to me with a serious look on his face.

“Salaries are low here; rents are high. I’ve written to you about that. There just aren’t enough opportunities. In Germany, things are better—healthcare, education, a higher standard of living. Even the women are more beautiful, I’ve been told. I want to earn more and get more out of life. This is not possible in Bulgaria.”

“I thought you liked living in Sofia.”

“I do. But my friends are leaving. It seems the more talented you are, the sooner you’ll leave. I have classmates who settled in America; colleagues who now work in Ireland. Germany is good, I’ve heard, and that is why I want to move there. Come on, let’s go.”

I would have preferred to linger a bit longer but I see he is eager to get started. The initial part of the trek is easy going. A long stretch of level, unpaved road. The air is crisp, untainted by Sofia’s pollution. The sky lightens, no longer threatening rain. If the entire hike is like this, I’ll be just fine.

“I don’t get it,” I say to Angel, walking at his side. “If you love Bulgaria so much, how could you live anywhere else?”

“Bulgaria is in my blood. It is my home. My parents live here and I will always come back to see them. What’s so wrong about starting a new life elsewhere, where conditions are better? What about you? You’ve lived in Minnesota all your life. Wouldn’t you move to New York if you got a job there? Wouldn’t you relocate to Chicago if they offered you a higher salary? You’re a physics teacher; you can teach physics anywhere.”

He has a point. “We go where life is better,” I admit.

“I will never leave Bulgaria. I’ll just be living elsewhere.”

We begin to climb. The clearly marked trail winds snakelike up the mountain, its ascent steep. The terrain is difficult; the bouldered slopes make for slow going. We step carefully on the rocks, a balancing act that takes one’s full concentration. One slip and the result would surely be a sprained ankle, or worse.

“Come on, you can do it!” he calls, looking back to find me lagging behind. He shakes his head and continues up the path.

We climb in silence for several minutes. The cliffs above are craggy, the mountain seemingly impregnable. I ignore the scenery and focus on where to place my feet. The uneven rocks are obstacles to avoid and the gravelly ground is slippery. I reach for the shrubs growing on the slope, hoping to get a handhold to leverage my climb. My breathing grows heavy, maybe because of exhaustion or possibly due to the altitude. My muscles tighten, twist, call for relief. It’s mind over matter, I tell myself. With each careful step I am getting closer to the top. I will persevere. I can do this.

With a sudden spurt, Angel races to the summit. I scramble up the final stretch and join him at the official elevation marker. The mountain’s name is written in a Cyrillic script even I can understand. Musala. 2,925 meters. I climbed more than 9,500 feet!

We are not alone. Other hikers are giving each other high fives, taking selfies, eating their snacks. Off to the side I see the weather station, its wind vanes spinning wildly.

As I rest from the arduous ascent, the wind pounds into me. The cold seeps into my bones and I put on my jacket and adjust my wool cap. My breath is a cloud of mist that quickly dissipates. I shiver, zip my jacket as high as it will go.

“Come look at the view,” Angel calls.

But there is no view. A thick cloud cover cloaks the surrounding mountains in soupy white, obscuring the vista I had been looking forward to seeing. Have we come all this way for nothing? The thought that I would never see the full majesty of Mount Musala deflates my excitement at reaching the summit.

I sit down, exhausted, resting my back against rocks piled up by previous climbers. Nearly three hours of hiking have wiped me out. Sitting on the ground, fully exposed to the elements, I am freezing! Angel’s words again go through my mind. How he loves his beautiful country but can’t live here. ‘We go where life is better,’ I had said to him, but his response that Bulgaria will always be his home makes me think. We may go somewhere new, but maybe we also never leave?

And then, the clouds lift and I stand to take in the magnificent, breath-taking views. Distant mountain ridges in tints of gray and blue. Rugged peaks towering over pristine glacial lakes partially hidden in deep valleys. The contrast between the rocky summit and the white nothingness of an endless sky. The colorful jackets and backpacks of the other hikers—most of them amateur climbers like me. I snap picture after picture, hoping to retain the memory of this glorious adventure.

Angel sets his backpack down, the first time he has taken it off during our hike. He unzips the pack and reaches inside. To my surprise, he pulls out a stone. A large stone. A very heavy-looking stone.

“What the hell is that?”

“Just a rock,” he says, zipping the bag. “Come on, let’s put it over there.” He points to the elevation marker.

“Why did you bring it?”

“Whenever I climb the mountain, I bring a rock.” His words are caught up by the wind; I barely hear the laugh that accompanies them. “After all, we have to stay ahead of the Greeks,” he shouts. “We must make sure Musala will always be higher than Olympus. This is one thing about which we will always be proud.”

Now that I am getting to know Bulgaria, I would expect nothing less.


Ellis Shuman 


Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. His short fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, Literary Yard, The Write Launch, Adelaide Literary, and other literary publications. You can find him at
Twitter: @ellisshuman

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