“You are going to hike for three months? Through the Balkans?? ALONE???”
Having confirmed each of these questions with a “yes”, I could almost always expect to hear one of the following exclamations: “Are you not afraid? Alone, as a woman, from Vienna to Bulgaria?” I wasn’t afraid until I had been asked these questions often enough to start wondering if I actually should be.
To start with, I had never hiked for more than a weekend. I had never walked with all my belongings on my back. Never used any other map but google maps. Never tried wild camping on my own. Ah, and I had never heard about something called Sultan’s Trail!
But I decided to spend my sabbatical volunteering in Bosnia, and while I was wondering how to get there, an unclear idea arose in my mind that I could fulfill a long outstanding dream and just walk a long-distance trail. A quick Google search of “walking” and “Balkans” led me to the Sultan’s Trail, which seemed pretty appealing as it came with a detailed information package, a daily walking schedule, accommodations on the way, and an easy-to-use app – perfect for beginners! Even though I ended up getting to know other hiking apps, deviating from the trail, choosing my own ways, and camping in the wild, the Sultan’s Trail encouraged me to start this adventure.
And I reached from Vienna to Plovdiv, so despite a bit of cheating on the way (e.g. by taking a bus from Belgrade to Niš or by accepting kind offers of a short ride by car if someone stopped) I would call it a success.
Surely, it wasn’t always exciting – walking for hours and hours through some boring Hungarian or Serbian fields in above 30°C made me wonder what the whole purpose of this trip was – and why I chose not to ride on a bike or even in an air-conditioned bus. It wasn’t always fun either – sometimes wild camping in my one-women tent made me think if I am more scared of wild animals (hungry boars or dogs who slept right next to my tent), or of men who for some reason believe that women travelling solo need special attention.
But most of these fears were just in my head. The boars were more scared of me than I of them, the wild dogs turned out to be searching for company (and the few ones that were actually barking and fletching teeth got scared as soon as I started throwing stones at them), and the humans who approached me came to ask if I need any help, water, or food, or they just invited me directly for a coffee or drink (mostly alcoholic, and mostly before noon) in their garden.
In the end, it’s the nice and hospitable people on the way who made the Sultan’s Trail such a nice experience, no matter which language they spoke, which kind of drink they offered, or in which of the Balkan countries they lived.
Nonetheless, I would recommend everyone to walk the trail, or at least parts of it, with friends or fellow hikers. The best part of the trail was definitely the last two weeks after I met three like-minded women in their 20s and 30s, and we joined forces. One of them was Myrthe, who surprisingly was also hiking the Sultan’s Trail (so few people hike this trail that we decided that running into each other in a random hostel kitchen in Sofia must be destiny, and not a coincidence), while her friend from the Netherlands and another solo traveling woman completed our quartet. Together we overcame the steep ascents and the changing weather conditions in the high mountains of the Rila National Park, and who knows, maybe one day we will complete the remaining part of the Sultan’s Trail and reach Istanbul!