Berkovitsa

Sofia irradiates roads. I discuss the three that go to the Black Sea in my description of Sopot Waterfall. Then there’s the II-16 that takes you north along the Iskar Gorge to Bov and Dobravitsa. And the E79 (or the A3 motorway) that takes you south to Ovchartsi and then Greece. The E871 heading south-west in the direction of Polska Skakavitsa and Kyustendil. And don’t forget the II-63 that takes you west to Tran on the Serbian border (I still remember visiting Bilintsi Monastery along this road and meeting the abbot, who gave us tea next to an open pit and had taken it upon himself to ‘improve’ the ancient frescoes in the church).

Well, here we are going to take the II-81, which also heads north from Sofia in the direction of Montana and Lom. It is as if Sofia has antlers – the II-81 on the left, and the II-16 on the right. What makes the II-81 famous is Petrohan Pass, which you must pass over in order to reach north-west Bulgaria (Vidin and Romania). You leave Sofia through the district of Nadezhda and cross the ring road. The II-81 starts gently enough, passing through Kostinbrod and Buchin Prohod (from here you can turn right and cut across to the II-16 if you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to visit Dobravitsa Waterfall).

After Buchin Prohod, ignore the turning to Godech on the left (though this, for me, is a very attractive part of Bulgaria with the wonderful Razboishte Rock Monastery) and the ‘Historical Road’ (the main road continues left), and pass through the pretty village of Gintsi, much favoured by artists and beekeepers. The road then begins to twist and turn as it climbs Petrohan Pass. The pass is often closed in winter because of snow, but the rest of the year it’s normally fine. The top of the pass is 65 km north of Sofia. There’s a large reservoir, which I understand was once a fish farm.

The road then descends on the other side. More twists and turns (try not to get stuck behind a van!). Ten more kilometres, and you reach what in my parlance would be called a ‘roadside caff’ on the other side of the road, a restaurant much favoured by my father-in-law, I am told (he was a famous opera singer and his family hailed from Vidin) – you can always stop here to try the kebabs and meatballs. Another six kilometres, and you enter Barzia, the Gintsi of the north, so to speak. From here, a road heads right to Klisura Monastery, well worth a visit, if you have the time.

But we must continue to the town of Berkovitsa in order to reach Haidushki Waterfall. So stay on the main road. Three kilometres out of Barzia, you will see a turning on the left, marked ‘Berkovitsa, 2 km’. Take this turning, climb the hill, and soon you will reach an OMV petrol station. I have a particular fondness for this petrol station, because this is where I bought Timon, the meerkat who features in The Lion King and was once my son’s favourite teddy.

You can stop here for petrol or a coffee. After OMV, the road goes right, alongside the railway. After 1000 m, the road goes right again, over the railway, but you go left. This turning is marked ‘x. Kom, 17 km’. Another 700 m, and you must take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’. Continue along here for 2½ km, passing a stadium on your right, until you reach a fork in the road. Take the right turning, and now you have a decision.

The road you are now on leads directly to the waterfall. I can’t tell you the distance, because I parked the car by the marble (‘mramor’) factory which is in front of you and walked. But plenty of people take the car further, there being lots of picnic places and several summer houses along the way. So you have a choice. How far do you want to walk?

The car journey from Sofia to this point is about 1 hour 45 minutes (90 km). The walk in front of you is the same, 1 hour along the flat, and then 45 minutes gently climbing the mountain. You never leave the road, though it becomes progressively more rutted and covered in leaves, and I wouldn’t want to think what happens if you’re on the mountain and meet a car coming the other way. You’ve also got the question of having to turn around. So it’s really the 1 hour on the flat that can be shortened. Plenty of people drive this distance, leaving the car as the road begins to climb (this point is marked by the beginning of an ecopath, for which there is a rusty yellow sign).

If you leave the car by the marble factory, you will have a 4½-hour outing there and back, including a lunch stop. You walk alongside the marble factory for ten minutes, the road then appears to fork – actually it continues on the left (this is where many people park), while a track heads right, up the hillside. After that, you can’t get lost, unless you want to. All along the road, there are picnic spots. It’s up to you how far you take the car. But after an hour’s walking, when the road begins to climb and the waterfall is only 45 minutes away, it really is time to leave the car behind and enjoy the nature.

We went at the end of October. Haidushki Waterfall is a series of beautiful short waterfalls, and one of the few waterfalls it doesn’t matter if you go in the spring (after the snow melt) or in the autumn. Leaves carpeted the ground. The river below the waterfalls shone black. Other leaves that hadn’t reached the ground yet seemed to rain down on us, but it was the river that kept drawing my attention. Sometimes the leaves on its surface meant you didn’t know it was there, and it was easy to put your foot in it – in fact, I did precisely this: I became part of the waterfall for a moment.

It is clear when you reach the waterfall, because there are several signs. You have to descend a little. There is a shelter with some benches, a small mirador, and then the waterfall in front of you, but don’t forget the other waterfall on your right, hidden around the corner. They’re both beautiful.

If you continue upriver or downriver, no doubt you will come across other cascades. The traffic coming back into Sofia was dense, I had to drive with only one sock (the other was wet), but we had had our adventure. Life is not a choice, we only think it is – it is an experience.

The OMV petrol station in Berkovitsa (the road goes right).
After 700 m, you take a turning right, marked ‘Kom Peak, 14 km’.
The stadium in Berkovitsa.
The fork in the road – the road on your right leads all the way to the waterfall, but becomes progressively more rutted and leaf-strewn.
The marble factory on your right – we parked here.
After ten minutes, the road continues on your left, while a track heads uphill.
Autumnal colours.
The road through the trees.
One of the picnic places.
Yellow sign indicating the start of an ecopath – the road begins to climb the mountain.
The river with leaves on its surface.
The road on the mountain.
A landscape painting.
Arrival at the waterfall (which can be seen bottom left).
The roof of the shelter.
Haidushki Waterfall (left).
Haidushki Waterfall (right).
The road back to Berkovitsa (being eaten by a tree).

Sopot

The E871 is one of my favourite roads in Bulgaria. It’s even a little difficult to find. There are three roads heading east from Sofia. They all go to the sea. The E83/772 goes to Varna via the medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo, running north of the Balkan Mountains. The E80/773 goes to Burgas via Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv. The E871 doesn’t seem to go anywhere, though it does in fact drop down at the last moment and join the E773 on its way into Burgas – but only at the very last moment. Apart from that, it travels on the warmer side of the Balkan Mountains, the south side, and offers wonderful views of this beast that is the Balkan, scratching its belly (the mountain, I mean) in the early autumn sun.

I say it’s difficult to find because you leave Sofia in the east and if you’re not careful, you end up going to Varna. You have to hang a right, passing through the suburb of Dolni Bogrov, which always at weekends has lines of cars in the slow lane, parked for a market that takes place there and seems very well attended. Once past Dolni Bogrov, you again have to take a right (otherwise you’ll end up going to Varna), and then the journey begins. The road stretches in front of you, like a tree’s shadow, long and straight. You must up and over three hills (the second containing a bust of Bulgaria’s nineteenth-century freedom fighter, Vasil Levski, at its base). You then pass the turning for Chavdar, the first of the waterfalls along this road, which I described in an earlier post. You drive at under 50 km/h through the towns of Zlatitsa and Pirdop, twins joined at the hip. And then the fun starts. Numerous bridges, all with little bumps (I thought I counted five or seven on every bridge), from which people organize bungee jumps when it’s not too windy. Today was extremely windy, so there was nobody in sight (plus it’s the Bulgarian elections).

Just before Karnare, you pass the turning for the second of the waterfalls located near this wonderful road – Hristo Danovo, a stunning straight line like a windpipe. But be careful in Karnare – this is where Bulgaria’s freedom fighter Vasil Levski was betrayed to the Turks by a local priest, Pop Krustio! It’s also where a road dares to cross the Balkan Mountain from south to north, as if it’s suddenly decided to switch sides, passing through Troyan, the third most important Bulgarian monastery after Rila and Bachkovo.

One is not diverted, however, but continues along on the E871 (wonderful road that it is!) and after Anevo, just before entering Sopot proper, you will see a turning on the left for Anevo Fortress (2 km), followed immediately by another turning on the left for Sopot Lift (I think it was written ‘Lift Sopot’, 1 km). This is the turning you need. But you are not going to the lift. You actually need to head to one of Sopot’s two monasteries, the one dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus, which is situated at a distance of 1.2 km from the E871.

So when you see a sign for Sopot Lift (or Lift Sopot) saying ‘200 m’, don’t go there. Continue right and just around the corner the monastery will come into view. There is an open area where you can park the car.

With the monastery in front of you, look to the left. A narrow path hugs the wall of the monastery enclosure before, in theory, heading up the valley to the waterfall. You need to take this path. But this is where things get difficult. Let me explain.

In the past, a nice path ran all the way to the waterfall, passing a small chapel before reaching the waterfall after only 30 minutes. To our amazement, today no path was visible. It ended abruptly at the bridge just behind the monastery and had been replaced by an abyss, a drop down to the riverbed. There is no path anymore. A flash flood – or something like it – appears to have swept away not only the path that used to meander nicely among the trees, but also the very riverbank. There is no riverbank. I am not joking. You are forced to drop down to the riverbed and then to walk along the riverbed. So this outing is not for the fainthearted. But before you become discouraged, let me tell you an hour after we arrived at the waterfall, a gaggle of children all aged under ten arrived as well – I can’t believe how many there were, they started lobbing heavy stones into the pool at the foot of the waterfall – so it can’t have been all that difficult.

But let me repeat: there is no path. There isn’t even any earth. You are on the riverbed, jumping over rocks, threading your way through fallen trees. It took us an hour and a half (a little less coming back – my wife asked me why it’s always easier coming back, I thought it was perhaps because you already know the way). And here’s the lesson from our outing today.

As we walked beside the monastery wall, a glum-faced gentleman in his elder years droned that there was no point going on, the path ended after the bridge. He and his companions had evidently turned around.

Once we were on the riverbed, but still at the beginning, a younger couple (he looked particularly sporty, she was more elegant) also warned us against continuing. Ten minutes, and they had had to turn around.

If we had listened, we would have got back in the car and missed the most amazing beauty. So don’t listen when people try to dissuade you, when they try to make you lose faith. Listen only to your inner voice. It’s like Christ says in John chapter 8, the last day of the Festival of Booths: just believe.

It’s lucky our dog was there to help us choose the best route. I felt like Arthur Morgan in the computer game Red Dead Redemption 2, turning on eagle eye, which enables him to see the trail left by a cart or an animal. You find your way through, you continue up the riverbed (it’s actually very beautiful being this close to the river!), you ignore the gainsayers (don’t go, it’s not worth it!), and at the end you witness incredible beauty.

Because Sopot Waterfall is a heart. It is a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4:14 – have you read John’s Gospel? It is a fantastic book of short stories, of intimate encounters). Hristo Danovo is purity. Polska Skakavitsa, southwest of Sofia, is baptism – you cannot help but get immersed. Sopot is love, and so it ranks among my top waterfalls (even if there is no path, even if you have to walk through the air to get there). The water makes the shape of a heart. It is like a knot. A heart is a knot, two interlocked fingers.

And don’t let anybody tell you any different.

The path (it doesn’t last long) follows the wall of the Monastery of the Ascension.
It then abruptly ends. Here you can see how the riverbank has been obliterated – all that is left is the riverbed.
Miraculously, the path does reappear at one moment.
The magic of water.
Here you get a good idea of the terrain that you must cross to get to the waterfall.
The ruined chapel.
A pile of leaves – underwater!
In the absence of a path, people have taken to stacking stones when they reach the waterfall.
Sopot Waterfall.
A close-up of the heart.
The waterfall also resembles an hourglass.
The Monastery of the Ascension, which you can visit on your return.

Bov

At 85 metres, Bov Waterfall (‘Bovska Skaklya’) is one of the highest in Bulgaria. Like Polska Skakavitsa, it can easily be reached by train from Sofia. The journey takes an hour, and there are regular services during the day (see the excellent Bulgarian State Railways website for train times, https://www.bdz.bg/en).

Bov Waterfall is located at the halfway point between the villages of Bov (down below) and Zasele (up above). An ecopath has been built between these two villages to incorporate the waterfall and is named after the famous Bulgarian poet Ivan Vazov, who apparently used to enjoy walks in this area. There is some suggestion that you should descend from the village of Zasele, make your way down to the waterfall and the village of Bov and then climb back up again. Since it seems to me to make more sense to get the climbing in early in the day, I suggest starting in Bov. Also, Bov is the stop on the railway line from Sofia and is on the main road from Svoge to Mezdra, the II-16.

If you insist on starting in Zasele, located above the waterfall, then you will need a car. As you leave the village of Tserovo, five kilometres after Svoge, there is a turning left signposted for Zasele (7 km). Follow this winding road uphill until you come to the centre of Zasele, where there is a tarmac square. The ecopath starts from here.

Otherwise, continue to Bov, three kilometres after Tserovo. Ignore the turning right, signposted Gara Bov (Bov Station), and continue on the main road for another 400 metres, taking a turning left signposted for Skaklya. This narrow road continues for 1.4 km to the start of the ecopath, but be careful. 200 metres before the end of the road, the road divides – keep left, going uphill, until you come to a small area next to a house, with the river on your right, where you can park the car. For those travelling by train, alight at Bov Station and walk 400 metres down to the main road (leave the station, turn right, go under the railway and follow the road as it veers right and crosses the River Iskar). Once you reach the main road, turn right, continue for 400 metres until you reach the turning for Skaklya and then follow the previous directions.

From where you park the car, you have a forty-minute steady climb through the forest to the bottom of the waterfall. The forest is magical, and there are some wonderful views back the way you have come. Once you reach the waterfall, another forty-minute climb, slightly stiffer this time, will take you to the top. As you get higher, there are steps and a railing to hold onto. You really get an impression of the height of the waterfall because you are climbing it! At the top is an open area of grass with several picnic tables. Continue to the village of Zasele, perched on top of the rock, and you will come across one or two restaurants and guest houses if you wish to stay the night (though I understand you have to book ahead).

The best time for visiting waterfalls is immediately after the snow melts – second half of April, first half of May. This is when the flow of water is at its strongest. We went at the beginning of June, so already the flow had declined somewhat. In autumn, it becomes a trickle. We first visited the waterfall ten years ago, in November. There wasn’t much water left, but the autumnal colours of the trees more than made up for the lack of watery fireworks! It was the first waterfall we went to, and the only one we have been to three times!

Bov Waterfall is not far as the crow flies from another waterfall, Dobravitsa (except that for Dobravitsa, you have to leave the main road in Svoge and follow the signs for Iskrets and Breze). From Gara Bov, another ecopath takes you to the waterfall Pod Kamiko. This ecopath starts from the football pitch in Gara Bov and is circular, so you don’t have to come back the way you went (see the map on the road outside Bov Station).

Bov Station.
The turning for Skaklya. There is also a sign indicating the ‘Touristic Road “Vazov’s Path”, 1.4 km’.
200 metres before the ecopath begins, the road divides – keep left here.
There is a small area to park the car where the road peters out and the ecopath begins.
A view from the ecopath of the rocks up above.
The path as it passes through the forest.
The waterfall in the distance.
Arriving at the waterfall.
Bov Waterfall, seen from below.
From here, the path continues to the top of the waterfall and the village of Zasele.
This path has steps and a railing.
The view near the top.
The top of the waterfall – the stream passes under the bridge and tumbles down 85 metres.
The water as it becomes airborne.
The view back to Bov.
Bov Waterfall.

Polska Skakavitsa

Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Bulgaria. The journey to the waterfall reminded me a little of the 1970 film The Railway Children since it involves travelling by train and then walking along the railway line for a short distance. You can travel by car to the villages of Ruzhdavitsa and Polska Skakavitsa, after which the waterfall is named, but I understand the road is not good and then you have a long hike to get to the waterfall. By far the better option is to travel by train! The stop for the waterfall is called ‘Skakavica’ and it is on the line from Sofia to Kyustendil. The journey from Sofia to Skakavica is two and a quarter hours, and there are trains about every two hours. The trains are very pleasant and they run on time! I direct you to the wonderful Bulgarian State Railways website: https://www.bdz.bg/en. Here you will find up-to-date information on train times and other destinations in Bulgaria.

Not all trains are direct, sometimes it’s necessary to change in Radomir, but don’t worry, the connecting train waits for the train you are on to arrive. We drove to Radomir and took the train from there. A return ticket Radomir-Skakavica-Radomir cost a little over 2 euros! The stop before Skakavica is Zemen, where there is a famous Monastery of St John the Theologian. The train then travels along a gorge created by the Struma, a stunning river that rises on the southern slopes of Mt Vitosha (the mountain that overlooks Sofia) and then travels to Greece, entering the Aegean Sea at the ancient site of Amphipolis. There are interesting rock formations. After fifteen minutes, you reach Skakavica station. Alight here, wait for the train to leave and then continue along the railway line in the same direction the train has just gone in (that is, south). It’s quite safe. This is a single-track railway, so there is no immediate danger of a train coming the other way. After fifteen minutes of walking along the railway, you will come to a short tunnel. Go through the tunnel and, before you reach the iron bridge crossing the river Struma and entering a second tunnel, on your right you will see a low concrete wall. The path to the waterfall starts here, at the end of the concrete wall.

Follow the path, which runs alongside the river Struma on your left – admire the river! – and in about fifteen minutes you will reach a signpost indicating a picnic area to the left (‘МЯСТО ЗА БИВАК’) and the waterfall to the right (‘КЪМ ВОДОПАДА’). Go right here. The path climbs a little, and you reach a wooden bridge over a stream on your left. This is the way to the waterfall. The wooden bridge is somewhat destroyed, but you can cross the stream just above the bridge. You must now climb some steps, which will take you to a small terrace, where you get a view of the gorge and the Struma on its implacable way to Greece. Continue uphill. The first turning on the left takes you to the bottom of the waterfall. If you continue uphill, you will come to an area just below the top of the waterfall. In both places, you are likely to get wet! But who cares, right? The experience is invigorating.

At the top of the waterfall is a small chapel dedicated to St Demetrius. This can be seen from below. Near the wooden bridge is a map of the area and a description of the local wildlife, with a couple of picnic tables in the shade. While we rested here, a bird kept us company with an astonishing succession of melodies and trills. This is Bulgarian nature at its best. It took us only forty minutes to get from the station to the top of the waterfall, and the walk is very pleasant. The waterfall in its entirety is seventy metres high. It is formed by the Shiroki Dol river, which then joins the Struma below on its journey to Greece. At a distance of about six kilometres from the waterfall is an old chapel dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, near the village of Ruzhdavitsa, which we didn’t go to. All in all, a fantastic day out.

A note of warning: when you head back to Skakavica station, allowing about an hour to get there, so you have plenty of time, the path along the Struma back to the railway line divides at one point, and it is very tempting to take the left branch that heads uphill (and, for all I know, goes to the railway station), but if you want to go back the way you came, you must take the right branch. In a couple of minutes, you’ll be back at the railway. Provided you’ve left enough time, there is no danger of coinciding with the train, but obviously caution is required.

The path alongside the railway, after you leave Skakavica station.
The tunnel.
The low concrete wall. The path to the waterfall starts here.
The waterfall in the distance.
Fifteen minutes after you leave the railway, the path divides. Head right to the waterfall (‘КЪМ ВОДОПАДА’).
The steps leading up to the waterfall.
The small terrace overlooking the gorge formed by the Struma River.
The top of the waterfall.
The view from the top of the waterfall, with the Struma River in the distance.
The bottom of the waterfall.
Polska Skakavitsa Waterfall.
Heading back to the railway, the path divides. Keep right in order to reach the railway!
The path as it descends to the railway.

Hristo Danovo

If you’re travelling to this waterfall from Sofia, you’ll need an early start. It’s a ten-hour day – a two-hour drive in both directions, a two-hour walk in both directions and two hours to spend at the waterfall. Is it worth it? Well, you will get a real taste of the Balkan and will visit what for me is the most beautiful waterfall in Bulgaria. So, yes.

You need to take the E871 east of Sofia, in the direction of Burgas. This is one of my favourite roads. It starts very straight, then it climbs and winds over a couple of forested hills, passing a monument to Bulgaria’s freedom fighter Vasil Levski, after which it seems to pass through a landscape straight out of The Hobbit, as if elevated fifty feet in the air. The road hugs the southern slopes of the Balkan, the ‘Old Mountain’ as it’s known in Bulgarian. It’s like an arrow flying east.

Leave Sofia on the road for Varna/Burgas, but then follow the signs for Burgas. Having passed through the outlying village of Dolni Bogrov (where there always seems to be a market at the weekend, and lots of cars parked at both sides of the road), you turn right, and the E871 stretches out in front of you. The drive from Sofia to the village of Hristo Danovo is 130 km. About halfway, you pass the turning for another waterfall, Chavdar, to the south, then you go through the more industrial towns of Zlatitsa-Pirdop (it’s difficult to distinguish them) and after Rozino, just as you are about to enter Karnare (from where there is a road that memorably crosses the Balkan north to Troyan), there is a turning on the left marked Hristo Danovo, 4 km. Take this turning until you reach the central square of Hristo Danovo, where there are signs for the waterfall (known as ‘Suvcharsko Praskalo’) and the Balkan Central National Park which it is part of. Park the car.

Above the village is an old tarmac road that will take you all the way to the waterfall. Some people drive their cars some of the way, but it’s really not necessary (and also the road is not very good). Enough with the driving. You leave the square along a short road to the right of all the signs and immediately turn right and climb a paved road. This road becomes a track. Keep on climbing out of the village. After ten minutes, the track divides, you head right, next to a field with a view over the village, and in another five minutes you reach the tarmac road. Avoid the temptation to continue along the dirt track opposite, and turn left along the tarmac road.

Savour the views of the Balkan Mountain. On your left is a deep gorge formed by the Damladere River (the same that forms the waterfall). After forty-five minutes, you will see a smaller waterfall. In another twenty minutes, you will reach an orange barrier, followed by a table and benches, which is an ideal spot to stop and take a rest. Exactly an hour and a half after leaving the village, the road veers to the left over a concrete bridge that crosses the Damladere – this is where you part ways. Immediately after the bridge, a narrow track heads upstream through the forest. You continue along the left bank of the river for five minutes, and then you are forced to climb (not to follow the course of the river, which is protected). Fifteen minutes after leaving the bridge, you will reach the waterfall. Prepare yourself for a wonderful sight. The waterfall is a straight line falling 54 metres, like a windpipe between two lungs. The water glistens in the sun, throwing off drops that bombard your face. Let them.

I have been to more than thirty waterfalls in Bulgaria, including the more famous Raysko Praskalo a little further east, also in the Central Balkan National Park. Hristo Danovo is my favourite. You have a sense of the power and purity of nature. You also learn a little bit about the Balkan Mountain. One of the amazing things about Bulgaria is how distinct its mountain ranges are from each other – the Balkan, Vitosha, Rila, Pirin, Rhodope… Not one of them is alike. I am actually a fan of Vitosha, because this is the mountain I visit most often from Sofia (it overlooks Sofia from the south), but they are all remarkable. My wife says Bulgaria is in the perfect location – far enough north for the mountains not to be dry, far enough south for them not to be cold. Of course, she’s right!

Hristo Danovo main square, with the signs for the waterfall and the Central Balkan National Park. The road for walking to the waterfall is on your right.
The route to the waterfall!
The paved road leading up out of the village.
Before reaching the tarmac road, the track divides. Go right.
The track reaches the tarmac road. Follow the tarmac road north-west.
A view back over the village of Hristo Danovo.
The road is not exactly suitable for driving!
After forty-five minutes, a waterfall on your left.
In another twenty minutes, you reach an orange barrier.
An hour and a half after leaving the village, you reach a concrete bridge over the Damladere River. Leave the road immediately after the bridge and follow the left bank of the river.
A narrow path takes you through a magical forest to the waterfall.
Hristo Danovo Waterfall – a windpipe between two lungs.
After falling 54 metres, the water lands with an almighty crash.
A view of the upper part of the waterfall.
A view from the side.
A view from under the rock.

Vishovgrad

The third waterfall in terms of distance north-west of Veliko Tarnovo is Vishovgrad (‘Zarapovo’). Hotnitsa (because of the turquoise waters) and Emen (because of the canyon that precedes the waterfall) may take the fame, but do not underestimate the charms of this waterfall 3 km east of Vishovgrad, on the road between this village and the village of Emen. This waterfall can be visited on the same day as Emen since Emen is only 4 km further east.

To get there, follow the instructions for getting to the village of Emen. Once you arrive in the main square in Emen, continue for another 200 m, until you reach a crossroads. The road to Vishovgrad is on the right. After 400 m, you will see the dirt track leading to the start of the ecopath to Emen Waterfall on the right. Stay on the main road. After another 3 km, you will pass a factory on your right, and 600 m later, where there is a bend in the road, you will see two white signs on the right, with a dirt track leading into the forest. This is Zarapovo. You can park the car on the verge. The ‘ecopath’ (any path in nature seems to be termed thus) heads to the right and in only five minutes takes you to the waterfall.

The path divides. The left fork takes you through some trees to the bottom of the waterfall. The right fork takes you round the rock and over a wooden bridge to the top of the waterfall. The area below the waterfall is ideal for rest and relaxation. There are even several smaller falls further downstream.

These three waterfalls are all worth a visit – Hotnitsa because of its turquoise waters and the ‘ecopath’ up the gorge; Emen because of the canyon; and Vishovgrad because of its charm. I found Vishovgrad the most restful. Even though there were lots of people about (on a Saturday), everybody was very friendly!

If you’re travelling to or from Sofia, there is no need to go via Emen and Veliko Tarnovo. Travelling east on the E772, 14 km after Sevlievo, there is a turning on the left for Dobromirka (4 km) and Pavlikeni/Suhindol (25 km). Take this turning, ignore the signs for Suhindol, follow the signs for Pavlikeni. Vishovgrad is situated 11 km before Pavlikeni. Turn right here, at the main square of the village, and in 3 km you will reach the waterfall.

The ecopath from the road to the waterfall is so short you can see the end, where the tree is.
At the end, you are standing on a rock above the river. Down below is the wooden bridge that takes you to the top of the waterfall.
On your left is the path through some trees to the bottom of the waterfall.
The waterfall, which seems to me to resemble a seated figure.
Vishovgrad Waterfall.
A smaller fall further downstream – looking back up to the main waterfall.
A view of the wooden bridge from the other side of the river, and the rock where you arrive after you leave your car.

Kapinovo-Ruhovtsi

There are two waterfalls south-east of Veliko Tarnovo, near the villages of Kapinovo and Ruhovtsi. They can be visited together.

Ruhovtsi is a village 5 km east of the town of Elena. The waterfall is named ‘Hristovski’ after a nearby settlement. Drive from Veliko Tarnovo along the E772 in the direction of Varna. After 10 km, turn right for Elena (33 km). Drive past Elena and continue for another 4 km until you reach the turning on the right for Ruhovtsi (1 km). When you reach the main square of the village, turn right and continue for 1.8 km. Just after crossing a river, you will see a sign for the waterfall on your right and an open space to park your car on the left. Follow the dirt track that leaves the road on your right for about 15 minutes. The dirt track veers left through the forest and then leads directly to the waterfall. This waterfall is attractive because of the width of its cascade.

To visit Kapinovo Waterfall, you need to go not to the village of Kapinovo, but to Kapinovo Monastery. The waterfall is in the grounds of the monastery. Drive back past Elena in the direction of the E772. 15 km after Elena, you will reach the village of Mindya. Turn left for Kapinovo. Drive straight through Kapinovo (ignore the sign for Kapinovo Monastery on your left, just before the main square, the road is not fit for normal vehicles), continue through the villages of Tserova Koria and Pchelishte, and then turn left at the sign for Velchevo (7 km). Drive straight through Velchevo and continue for another 6 km to Kapinovo Monastery. The grounds of the monastery have been turned into a campsite. On entering the monastery grounds, you will be able to park the car at a small roundabout. The waterfall is over on your left, by the rocks. There is a guesthouse overlooking the waterfall. The path to the waterfall descends to the right of the guesthouse.

Don’t forget to visit the church of Kapinovo Monastery, which is dedicated to St Nicholas and has an impressive fresco of ‘The Last Judgement’ on its façade. The church is a short distance from the waterfall and can be reached by following a subsidiary road.

Of course, it is possible to visit Kapinovo Waterfall without going to Elena and Ruhovtsi. In which case, all you need to do is to take the E85 south of Veliko Tarnovo in the direction of Debelets, Dryanovo and Gabrovo. After only 1 km, there will be a turning on your left for Prisovo, Kapinovo and Mindya. Take this turning. Drive through Prisovo and then turn right at the sign for Velchevo (7 km). Drive through Velchevo and continue to Kapinovo Monastery.

These waterfalls are not as impressive as the waterfalls north-west of Veliko Tarnovo – Hotnitsa, Emen and Vishovgrad – but they are still beautiful and worth a visit. There are numerous other monasteries in or near the surrounding villages of Kilifarevo, Prisovo, Plakovo (this monastery is just before Kapinovo Monastery), Merdanya, Maryan… Just remember while some monasteries are located in the village, most are some distance away – at the end of the road…

Mural in Elena.
The dirt track leaving the road for Ruhovtsi Waterfall.
The dirt track as it passes through the forest.
April blossom!
Ruhovtsi (‘Hristovski’) Waterfall.
Close-up of Ruhovtsi Waterfall.
The waterfall from the side.
The path to Kapinovo Waterfall in the monastery grounds (campsite). The path leads right of a guesthouse.
Kapinovo Waterfall from above.
Kapinovo Waterfall.
Close-up – the rock resembles a dog lapping water!
The peaceful view downstream.
The fresco ‘The Last Judgement’ in Kapinovo Monastery.

Emen

Emen is the second of three waterfalls that lie north-west of the medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo – Hotnitsa, Emen and Vishovgrad. What sets Emen apart is the canyon with the river Negovanka at its bottom. Just before the Negovanka forms a large reservoir, there is a ten-metre waterfall called ‘Momin Skok’, meaning ‘Maiden Jump’ – as with Ovchartsi Waterfall in Rila, this refers to the legend of young girls jumping to their death in order not to be forcibly converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria (14th-19th centuries).

To get there from Veliko Tarnovo, take the main road to Sofia (E772) and after 20 km turn right for the village of Balvan. Follow the road to the centre of this village and then turn right for Emen (8 km). Be careful because there is a sign for Emen in Balvan that has been turned back to front and seems to indicate that you should go straight ahead when the road veers left. This is not the case. The road veers left and after a short while you reach the centre of the village.

Here you turn right and after 8 km arrive in Emen. The road takes you over a bridge on the river Negovanka and immediately you arrive at a small square opposite the town hall where you can park the car. There is also drinking water. A smaller road leads to the right, following the left bank of the river. The road becomes a dirt track and then a path. After fifteen minutes, you reach a wooden suspension bridge over the river, but you stay on the left bank. The path climbs up to another dirt track, which then leads on your right to the beginning of the ecopath, where there is a cave. The cave is 3 km long and is home to various species of bat. In communist times, it was used as an arms depot for a military base located directly above it.

The ecopath is said to have been the first in Bulgaria and was created in 1992, shortly after the fall of communism. I think the initial idea was to follow the course of the river at the bottom of the gorge, but the wooden bridges crisscrossing the river have long since succumbed to the elements, which is a shame, and now the ‘ecopath’ actually runs along the top of the canyon on the left. From the beginning of the ecopath, where the cave is, to the waterfall is about forty minutes. The path takes you up to the top of the canyon and then winds along the edge, in amongst trees. After about thirty minutes, the path divides, but it doesn’t matter which branch you take – one continues among the trees, the other skirts the precipice. The path then descends to the left (this is clearly marked by blue arrows) to rejoin the river at the bottom. Turn right, and you will arrive at the waterfall in five minutes. You can hear the waterfall from the top of the gorge.

It is possible to drive to the start of the ecopath. Continue past the main square in Emen and after about 200 m you will reach a crossroads. Turn right, and just as you are leaving Emen, a dirt track forks off to the right, leading to the ecopath. Continue along this road, without taking the dirt track on your right, and in a short while you will reach the waterfall of Vishovgrad, ‘Zarapovo’. Both waterfalls can easily be visited on the same day since they are only a short distance apart.

The Negovanka River as it passes through Emen.
The wooden suspension bridge in Emen.
The path on the left bank of the river joins the dirt track leading to the start of the ecopath.
The start of the ecopath – steps leading up to the cave, the 17th longest in Bulgaria at just over 3 km.
The start of the ecopath, after the cave.
Having immediately climbed to the top of the canyon, view of the canyon itself.
Cragged rocks.
View up the canyon.
The path divides – either branch will lead to the waterfall.
The remnants of the ecopath clinging on for dear life!
A blue sign indicates the beginning of the descent from the top of the gorge to the waterfall below.
Emen Waterfall.
Close-up of the waterfall.
Panoramic view of the waterfall.
If you decide to drive to the start of the ecopath, you need to take the dirt track on the right. Continue along the asphalt road, and you will soon reach Vishovgrad Waterfall.

Hotnitsa

There are three waterfalls north-west of Veliko Tarnovo – near the villages of Hotnitsa, Emen and Vishovgrad. Hotnitsa (‘Kaya Bunar’) is the closest. The journey takes about forty minutes, and on the way back you have the chance to visit one of the most beautiful monasteries in Bulgaria, Preobrazhenski (‘Transfiguration’) Monastery.

The waterfall is where you park the car and is undoubtedly one of the most magical and mystical waterfalls we have visited. To get there from Veliko Tarnovo, follow the brown signs for Preobrazhenski Monastery and for the ancient Roman town Nicopolis ad Istrum. These signs will take you north of Veliko Tarnovo, from where you join the E85 and head in the direction of Samovodene. This main arterial road that joins the towns of Haskovo in the south and Ruse in the north passes along the gorge formed by the river Yantra. After a short while, you will pass the turning for Preobrazhenski Monastery on your left. Keep going straight. In Samovodene, the road divides – the right fork is signposted for Ruse, the left for Resen. You take the left fork and, about a kilometre after leaving Samovodene, take the turning left signposted for the villages of Hotnitsa (5 km) and Pavlikeni.

When you arrive in the centre of Hotnitsa, the waterfall is clearly signposted on your left. The distance from the centre of Hotnitsa to the waterfall is 3 km, and it is clearly signposted all the way. The road ends at the waterfall, where you can park the car. This astonishing waterfall is on your left. The colour of the water is turquoise blue because of the karst spring and limestone rocks.

There is an ecopath (1.5 km) that takes you up the left-hand side of the waterfall, a little up the gorge above the main waterfall and back along the top of the gorge on the right. This ecopath is not for the faint-hearted! I did it carrying our dog, but there are places where you have to climb or descend steep wooden ladders and clamber over the rocks. There are several wooden bridges that take you from side to side of the river Bohot. You can literally stand at the top of the main waterfall. There are smaller waterfalls further upstream. Once you have reached the top of the gorge on the right, the path descends slowly back to the café at the bottom.

On your return to Veliko Tarnovo, don’t miss the chance to visit Preobrazhenski Monastery, which overlooks the Yantra gorge and offers views back to Veliko Tarnovo. The church was built by noted Bulgarian National Revival architect Kolyu Ficheto and painted by another nineteenth-century Bulgarian artist, Zahari Zograf (who also painted Rila and Troyan Monasteries). It has some of the most beautiful frescoes in Bulgaria, including the famous fresco ‘The Circle of Life’ on the outside of the building. Behind the church is a very large rock that missed the church by inches and has been left there to remind us of God’s providence! On the opposite side of the gorge can be seen another important monastery, the Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

The road from the village of Hotnitsa ends at the waterfall.
An overview of Hotnitsa Waterfall.
The upper part of the waterfall.
A view from the side.
A view from the ecopath above – note the turquoise blue water!
The ecopath (no, it’s not a dungeon!).
A view back to the pool below the waterfall.
Standing at the top of the waterfall – be careful!
A smaller waterfall further upstream.
One of the wooden bridges crossing the river Bohot.
One of the steep wooden ladders.
The sun captured in the river.
A view from the top of the gorge back to the car park.
The fresco ‘The Circle of Life’ at Transfiguration Monastery.
View from Transfiguration Monastery to Veliko Tarnovo – note the plateau on the left, above the gorge, where the village of Arbanasi with its famous churches is situated.