An Ill Fated Visit to Rusenski Lom National Park

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Considering the sizable slope we’d pitched our tent on, and notwithstanding the fact that we were hiding out in someone’s field, we got a decent amount of sleep. We intended to head out with first light, however, we woke to the sound of yet another a morning thunderstorm.

Antsy to get out of the field and onto the road, we packed up everything inside the tent, waited for a lull in the rain, and then wiped down our shelter and put it away, heading out to finish our climb. The hills were carpeted with mist so thick that big drips of it ran off the front of my helmet as we warmed up with a slow steep grind. Then, things flattened out and we hit a happy riding pace through villages, wheat fields, and not-yet-bloomed expanses of sunflowers. Our way was blissfully silent and we occasionally passed horse-drawn wagons riding around town or sitting idly by their owners who were cutting hay on the side of the road.

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One particular wagon passed us while we were stopped to take some pictures of the rolling landscape. When I gestured to them with my camera, wondering if I could take their picture, I got a rousing bunch of thumbs ups and cheers, which made us laugh. A few minutes later, we passed them on our bikes and they repeated the cheers as we went by. They made my morning!

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Later, we stopped in a little town for some snacks (pizza and cheesy pastries) when the rain started to fall again. Being wet and cold is among my least favorite things in life, but for this trip I’ve decided that I won’t spend my time worrying about it since it isn’t usually anything we can control. We got back on the bikes and rode with rain coming down so hard that I could scarcely see well enough to steer, every part of me positively soaking wet. Instead of getting so stressed out, I reminded myself over and over, “I am not the Wicked Witch of the West and I will not melt in the rain.” As long as we kept moving, I wasn’t that cold and kept reminding myself that while being wet wasn’t very fun, it wasn’t going to kill me either. All of this mental bartering was enough to keep me going until the rain stopped and the wind in my face started to dry me out.

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Another 45 minutes on the road brought us to the town of Ivanovo where we’d been looking forward to visiting the monasteries built into the rock caves in a river gorge in Rusenski Lom National Park. The churches are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took a four kilometer detour down a curvy long hill with strange Dr. Seuss like flowers lining the road. I sighed, knowing we’d have to climb back out up the same hill later in the day, but carried onward, excited about what we might see.

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What greeted us at the bottom however, was not anything like what we’d expected. The parking lot was completely empty and the visitor center looked like it had been abandoned for years. The signs were unfortunately all in Cyrillic and completely useless to us. A look at a very faded map led us to take our bikes down the only available access road, across the river, and along the base of the cliffs.

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The going was slow but manageable, until soon the gravel road turned to dirt and from dirt to thick sloshy mud. We parked the bikes and started walking on foot, but soon the road became all but completely impassible. Just then, things went from messy and muddy to completely ridiculous when the the rain began to pour. Despite all this, Ben tried to go even a little further, but we could see no signs of any churches.Meanwhile, I was being completely swarmed with mosquitoes, killing a handful after just a few minutes. I now had dozens of red welts on my legs, perfect to match the huge splatters of mud I was also wearing. Soaking wet, spread with mud, and madly swatting blood sucking invaders, I was pretty much ready to call it a day.

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Ben headed down one more side path, just to make extra sure we’d done our due diligence, but that plan came up short as well. We rolled our bikes back through the gravel mud mess and back to the decrepit visitor center, taking shelter under the porch and waiting out the downpour. In the meantime, Ben got creative, using the stream of water from the rain gutter to get a bit of a sponge bath. It wasn’t exactly a substitute for a real shower, but it did help our presentation immensely.

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Finally, the rain quit for the day and we soldiered back up the hill, regaining our lost progress to finish our ride to Ruse. We pedaled for another hour, gratefully with less rain this time, until we saw yet another sign for another rock monastery. This particular detour was supposedly only a kilometer away, and though we were both feeling a little wary of doing any more wandering around abandoned sites, we decided to try one more time.

This round, we were in luck! An easy kilometer led us to a well signed, gated monastery. Another couple and their taxi driver was there as well, letting us know we’d found the right place. This one lacked the beautiful frescoes from the churches we never found, but we were feeling vindicated all the same. We only spent a little while poking around in the chapels tucked into caverns, but at least we found one, right?

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Finally, it was time to head into Ruse for real, which required another 10 kilometers of steep hills and heavy highway traffic, all with the suddenly intense sun prodding us along. Still muddy and now thoroughly sweaty, we finally rolled into our Guesthouse. The lovely owner didn’t bat an eye at our grungy appearance and quickly tucked us into a little room for the night. A hot shower hasn’t felt so good in as long as I can remember.

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