by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Outstanding vistas less than an hour's drive from Sofia

iskar gorge.jpg

There's nothing deeper than the Iskar," goes the local folk song, with characteristic parochialism. Even sceptics, however, admit that the longest river running entirely within Bulgarian territory is indeed remarkable. Springing from the plain near Samokov, it flows through the Sofia Plain and the Stara Planina mountains, crosses the Danubian Plain and, after a journey of 350 kms, joins the Danube.

The 65 kms squeezing through the Stara Planina are the most spectacular stretch of the river's course. Cliffs and vistas, rock phenomena and caves, monasteries: you have it all in the Iskar Gorge. Travellers passed through the gorge for millennia, but it really owes its fame to the late 19th Century, when a railway was built along it and popular writers Ivan Vazov and Aleko Konstantinov promoted it as a tourist destination.

Karlukovo Rocks

Rocks near Karlukovo

The most obvious reason to brave the bumpy road or the slow train through the Iskar Gorge is its stunning natural beauty. These 65 kms are dotted with rock phenomena like the red sandstone and karst cliffs rising 200 m above the tiny Lakatnik Station. Caves abound in the area around Lakatnik, the most famous of which is Temnata Dupka, or the Dark Hole, the fourth largest in Bulgaria. Lakatnik is popular with climbers and there is a cross on one of the peaks in memory of those who fell to their death.

The Ritlite phenomenon near Lyutibrod ‒ four long, narrow rock ridges ‒ and the rock window near Karlukovo are more of the natural wonders of the gorge. The area around Karlukovo is pitted with hundreds of karst caves, large and small. The most famous is Prohodna, a 262-metre corridor bathed with the surreal light from two eye-shaped openings, appropriately named Eyes of God.

The Iskar Gorge, however, is not only geography. It is full with history, too.

There are few traces today, but Neolithic peoples lived near the village of Rebrovo, and a ruined Late Antiquity basilica survives near Lyutibrod. The cliffs around Svoge are dotted with medieval fortresses. When people are not certain about their local history, they invent it. The inhabitants of Bov, for example, say that their village was established in the early 12th Century by a French knight called Sainte de Bauve. The village of Cherepish, another story goes, is named after the white cliffs around it, which in their turn were formed from the skulls of Bulgarian soldiers killed in a battle with the invading Ottomans, in the late 14th Century. Cherepish derives from the Bulgarian word for skull.

The monasteries in the gorge have always been a big draw for visitors. One of the most interesting is Sedemte Prestola, or The Seven Thrones, north of Lakatnik. The monastery is now over-manicured, but according to legend it was built in the 11th Century by Petar Delyan, an aristocrat who unsuccessfully tried to restore Bulgarian independence from the Byzantines. There are no thrones inside the tiny church ‒ in this case the word prestol means a chapel, and there are seven of them.

The Cherepish Monastery, which was established in the 12th Century, is a must-see, though all the buildings now date from the 19th Century. In spite of over-renovation in recent years, it is still charming, mostly because of its picturesque position on the banks of Iskar, below towering cliffs. The monastery also boasts a dramatic history. Nearby, in the Rashov Dol area, the last men of the revolutionary band led by the poet Hristo Botev were defeated by the Ottoman army on 3 June 1876. Writer Ivan Vazov used this event as a plot device for his popular short story, Edna Balgarka, or A Bulgarian Woman, which is set partially in the Cherepish Monastery.

Ivan Vazov loved the Cherepish Monastery, but another author of Bulgarian nature-writing, Aleko Konstantinov, had mixed feelings about it. He cherished the beauty of the place and its surroundings, but was dismayed by the primitive conditions, and recommended that tourists bring their own blankets and food if they planned to spend the night there. Things are different at present, and many Bulgarians now stay overnight.

The Karlukovo Monastery is a different matter. At the end of the 19th Century it was demolished to make way for a psychiatric asylum. Its church, with 16th Century frescoes, survives as part of the hospital.

The Iskar Gorge is also a place to satisfy your Communist heritage curiosity.

Some villages still bear the names of partisans, or Communist guerrilla fighters. Vlado Trichkov is named after the eponymous partisan killed in 1944, and the village of Milanovo bears the name of a participant in the so-called September Uprising of 1923. There is even a British name here ‒ Tompsan Station commemorates Major William Thompson (1920-1944), who was sent to help the Bulgarian partisans, but was caught and executed by the Bulgarian police.

The greatest Communist monument in the gorge is near Lakatnik. Perched on a precipitous rock, Pametnika, or the Monument, was built in the 1950s as a memorial to the fallen of 1923. Today, the main reason people climb up there is to enjoy the views towards the Iskar.

abandoned seminary cherepish

In the 1990s decay took over the abandoned seminary near Cherepish

Probably the most interesting remains of the regime, however, is also one of the least known. It is the ruins of the seminary near Cherepish.

In 1950, the Communist authorities nationalised the buildings of the Sofia Seminary and forced it to move far from the capital. The tutors and their students settled near Cherepish and stayed there for the following 40 years. In 1991, they returned to their erstwhile premises in Sofia. The dormitories, the school and the fine church at Cherepish were abandoned and left to the mercy of the elements. Today, it is a creepy place. The only signs that youngsters used to live there are the crosses placed on the high cliffs around. Each of them was installed by a graduating class, as a memorial to their stay in the Iskar Gorge.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh 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.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.