This summer Pippa had a conference in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, so like any keen orienteers we thought we’d see if there was any orienteering nearby. As luck would have it there was five days of O only an hour away in the hills! The map samples looked interesting, lots of rock features, and a new European country to tick off for orienteering, so what more persuasion did I need to fly out to meet her for a Bulgarian adventure. It meant missing the Scottish 6 days, but after many years of that you know what you are getting, so it was time for a change….
One of the first things you notice about Bulgaria (and probably quite a few other Eastern European countries) is they make very little concession for English speaking. And why should they? Not only that, but the Bulgarian alphabet is unintelligible, until you understand the relatively simple transliteration into more recognisable letters. This is all compounded by a relaxed approach to organisation – final details appeared the day before the first race, with “just enough” information. So you just have to go with the flow, and assume the orienteering will be good…
… and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The races consisted of the Begun Cup two days (middle and sprint), and Bulgarian Cup three days (three “middle” races). The first race was in the evening – just as well as it had been well over 30 degrees during the day. Standing on the start line I really didn’t know what to expect of the terrain, the map, and the course, not having see anything more than a few map snippets. I was towards the tail end of the starters, and one of the start officials was just cracking open a can of beer, his job nearly done for the day. Start clock beeps, I pick up the map and turn it over, and I’m faced with a sea of black blobs for the maze of rocks, and lots of contours on the steep hillside – this is no place to lose contact and go for a wander! What followed was 30 minutes of superb orienteering, technical navigation amongst the rocks, a few small wobbles (of my orienteering, not the rocks), but otherwise a solid run, and I’m pleased to come back with a healthy 5 minute lead.
The second day of the Begun Cup was a sprint race round an old town. Unlike the majority of UK sprint races around regular university campuses, this negotiated narrow cobbled streets. Perhaps not the same quick changes of direction or density of controls, but a fun experience. Another victory and first overall.
The Begun Cup prize giving was a fun affair, with the local town mayor presenting. The youngest M/W10 classes were up first, where anyone who completed the course was invited on stage for a medal – what a great idea! Then the other classes, with top three in men and women up together, and barely enough room on the podium to fit!
We were staying the week in an apartment with a nice pool – excellent for post race relaxing, and I’ll admit that besides the orienteering there wasn’t too much exertion! Bulgaria has a beautiful countryside, interspersed with villages of mixed character. The country was under communist rule until 1989, and there are plenty of buildings crumbling into disrepair that seem to date from that period. Driving around you see plenty of older residents simply sitting by the road in small cafés watching the world go by. Bulgaria has an unusually sharply declining population, dropping from around 9 million in the late ’90s to around 7 million today. However the aging demographic is not reflected in the orienteering like it is in the UK – the largest classes are M/W45 or 50, and the event organisation has a significant number of young adults running the show (similar to what I’ve seen in other countries like the OOCup in Slovenia).
Back to the orienteering. Next up was the Bulgarian 3 days. All with the same parking and finish arena, just over the road from the Begun Cup day 1, but making imaginative use of the surrounding area such that none of the days overlapped except the last control or two.
Day 1 called for steady orienteering amongst rocks on a clean forest hillside, which I was happy with by now. Good runs put Pippa and I left us leading our classes, and there was a prize giving for the day that evening in the town square to attend. The programme said 8pm, so at 7:50pm we drove into town past the square to find somewhere to park. A good crowd seemed to be gathered suggesting we might be in the right place. But strangely as we approached they all seemed start walking away, and we’d missed it. I double checked the final details on my phone – yes it was definitely supposed to be 8pm… except if you looked at the Bulgarian details it was stated as 7:30pm! Oh well, we picked up our medals as they were packing up, and resolved we’d just have to win again tomorrow and get the time right then!
Day 2 was more challenging, with some mixed terrain, in places it was open and bushy, in others the green forest closed in. Both our courses culminated with a long leg traversing a steep green boulder strewn hillside – a real danger leg if you didn’t keep the right height, and pick yourself up as you approached the control! Fortunately no time was lost, and another pair of wins meant we could attend the prize giving, at the correct hour!
Day 3 of the Bulgaria Cup was a chasing start. We deduced the rough area it would be in given the same arena and the direction we’d been on the other days, which didn’t seem to leave much terrain. But the planner had devised exciting twisty courses, coming back through the arena (and the pre-start!) mid-course before a final loop. Lots of fun.
My head wasn’t really engaged today, I made some silly mistakes, but fortunately had an 8 minute cushion on the chase, and while a chasing Swede clawed back 4 minutes it wasn’t enough, and both Pippa and I came out on the top.
All in all a great week’s orienteering. I’d really recommend people have a look at the international orienteering calendars (Compass Sport usually has a good section in an issue at the start of each year, or try the World of O calendar) for inspiration for your next summer trip, and seek new challenges outside the UK – I’ve rarely been disappointed with what I’ve found!