Bulgaria's longest river holds many attractions just outside the capital
Nothing is deeper than the Iskar River, says the folk song of the Shopi, the Bulgarians who inhabit the area around Sofia. This song is the ultimate proof of the Shopi's proverbial stubbornness and local pride, and yet the Iskar River is indeed remarkable. Gushing out in Bulgaria's highest mountain, the Rila, it begins its life when two smaller rivers, the Beli, or White, and the Cherni, or Black Iskars, converge. It then heads towards the Danube, arriving there after a journey of 368km (the Beli Iskar lenght included). The Iskar might not be the deepest thing in the world, but it is the longest river running entirely in Bulgarian territory.
The Iskar has been important since people appeared in this corner of Europe. It provided a route between the Danube and the Sofia Plain, and also suitable sites for settlements.
You will appreciate the Iskar's importance in the first town it encounters after its source: Samokov. From the 14th century onwards, the river was used to power mechanical hammers to crush ore. The iron they produced turned Samokov into a vibrant industrial centre, and the wealth of the inhabitants is still visible in buildings such as the Belyova Church, the 18th century mosque and the 19th century synagogue.
The Iskar seen from the Lakatnik rocks
When Sofia became the capital of Bulgaria in 1879, the significance of the Iskar grew. A railway was built along its course to facilitate communications with the Danubian Plain and the Danube, and at the beginning of the 20th century efforts were made to tame its upper course to provide fresh water for the expanding Sofia. This demanding task was not realised until much later, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, when the Iskar Dam was constructed. Ironically, the project was completed by Ivan Ivanov, a former mayor of Sofia in the 1930s and the 1940s, who had been regarded by the Communist regime as an enemy and had spent several years as a political prisoner. When the dam was built, it was called the Gigantic Reservoir Stalin. The name was changed as late as 1962.
The Iskar Dam remains the largest reservoir in Bulgaria, but in the 1950s the river became part of another grandiose megaproject of Communist Bulgaria: the creation of a system of reservoirs and canals to provide a navigable water route between the Danube and Sofia. This one, however, was so utterly pointless that even the Communists realised its futility and abandoned it. It was when Lake Pancharevo was also turned into a dam; it is now a favourite spot for Sofianites to take a break from the big city.
While the Iskar passes by Sofia mostly unnoticed, once it enters the Stara Planina mountain range it begins the most spectacular part of its course, commemorated in countless photos and the writings of beloved authors Ivan Vazov and Aleko Konstantinov. With a length of 84km and an average depth of 362m, the Iskar Gorge is the longest in Bulgaria and is definitely the most spectacular, providing a combination of stunning geological layers, strange rock formations, lush forests, waterfalls, caves, quiet villages, historical monasteries and... Communist monuments. A short distance from Sofia, it makes an ideal short trip that still can be undertaken by train, but if you drive you have more options to explore away from the railway route.
Throughout the millennia, the Iskar has carved rock crowns, pyramids and columns into rocks that formed during the Triassic Period before 252-201 million years ago, creating the spectacular landscape at Lakatnik
The slopes of the Stara Planina begin to rise as soon as you leave the town of Novi Iskar. The first villages here – Vlado Trichkov, Rebrovo and Lukovo – are nondescript, and yet nature and the clean air makes them attractive enough for Sofianites looking for holiday houses. The airplane which for some reason is grounded at Lukovo provides an additional sense of the extraordinary.
During the Second World War the Iskar Gorge, with its forbidding mountains and hidden villages, was an operational zone for Communist guerrilla fighters. Monuments to the fallen and their comrades abound, and the most impressive of them is probably the one in the village of Batulia. On 23 May 1944, near the village, a battle between local partisans and government forces broke out. The partisan group was defeated, and among those captured and later executed was Major William Frank Thompson, who was acting as liaison officer between the British army and the Bulgarian resistance. Erected in 1973, the monument at Batulia is a menacing white shroud-like shape with a damp and ghostly underground section. Nearby, at the place where Major Thompson was captured, is a memorial fountain with a monument to the officer (now broken).
Monument to the victims of the September 1923 Communist riots, Lakatnik
Several kilometres north of Batulia, on the Iskar, is another reminder of Thompson: in 1960 several hamlets were joined into a village, which was called Thompson. In 2007, a monument of the dead Briton was erected in front of the local municipality.
The next stop on the Iskar Gorge is Redina, a village that does not look particularly interesting if you are unaware that nearby is Bulgaria's best preserved site of Palaeozoic plants: giant trees whose trunks are now visible after they last saw sunlight 300 million years ago. They are about 500m above the road to Svoge, on the steep right bank of the Gradeshnitsa river. Interestingly, modern day Redina has an actual, living century-old oak forest. It is called Babin Plast and is a declared natural site of interest.
The first town the traveller encounters in the Iskar Gorge, Svoge is probably best known for its chocolate factory. The city lacks its own attractions, if you don't count the meandering river, but outside it are many things to see and do. The Dzhuglata rock, by the nearby village of Tserovo, is one of them. Created by the river's flow through red sediment rocks that are 250 million years old, it is 18m high and looks like a grotesque human head.
Stunning vistas of the Stara Planina, seen from the eco path leading to Skaklya Waterfall
The nearby villages of Gara Bov and Bov (they are two different places, several kilometres apart) are worth exploring for their eco trails and waterfalls. The 120-metre cascade of the Skaklya Waterfall is just to the west of the Iskar Gorge and can be reached via the Ivan Vazov eco trail that starts from Gara Bov village, or from the nearby Zasele village. The vistas of the Iskar Gorge are stunning, and reportedly Ivan Vazov himself used to frequent the place. In winter, the waterfall freezes, attracting ice climbers.
Located east of the Iskar Gorge, the Pod Kamiko, or Under the Rock, waterfall, is 80m high and is a part of another eco trail that starts, confusingly, at the football stadium of Gara Bov village and then proceeds to Bov village. The walk to the waterfall and back is rewarding, with a number of other points of interest, like the Kaminata, or the Fireplace, rock, an old votive stone cross dedicated to the Holy Spirit and the remains of a mediaeval monastery. You will need about three hours for the whole trip.
At Lakatnik the Iskar bends and heads east, embarking on one of the most spectacular parts of its course. The rock walls rise up to 300m over the river, creating larger than life geology lessons on the deep past of the Stara Planina mountains. The Lakatnik rocks have been a favourite spot for rock climbers for a long time, and in 1938 a group of them climbed repeatedly over several months to build a small hut on the rocks, perched 300m above the river. The hut is still there.
You don't need to be an experienced climber to enjoy the stunning views of the Iskar Gorge from the so-called Alpiyska Polyana, or Alpine Meadow, atop the Lakatnik rocks. There is a clearly marked path that leads up and starts near the Temnata Dupka, or Dark Hole, cave and one of the largest karst springs in Bulgaria, just on the main road. Another option is to drive to Milanovo village and then head to the monument of the fallen in the 1923 "September Uprising," a series of Soviet-inspired rebellions in the impoverished Bulgaria after the Great War. The high, red-brick memorial is just atop the Lakatnik Rock, on the spot where government forces are said to have thrown the rebels into the abyss.
Lakatnik's environs are scattered with caves, but even the best known of them, Temnata Dupka, can only be visited by fit and properly equipped tourists with a guide.
The rest of the story is here
Monument to Major Frank Thompson, Thompson village
Folk art by the Vazov Eco Trail, near Zasele village
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.