Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, named after the word for ‘Wisdom’ in Greek, is overlooked to the south by an extinct volcano, Mt Vitosha. You cannot be in Sofia and not be aware of the Mountain. I would say that the Mountain somehow defines Sofia, it certainly provides it with fresh air. While other cities have rivers running through them, and bridges across them, Sofia has a mountain whose summit, Cherni Vrah (‘Black Peak’), rises to 2290 m. above sea level. Bulgaria is spoilt for choice when it comes to mountain ranges – Rila and Pirin on the way to Greece, Rhodope further east, and the Balkan or Old Mountain running like a backbone from Serbia to the Black Sea. But, because of its proximity, for me when someone refers to ‘the Mountain’, it means Vitosha. This is where inhabitants of Sofia go at the weekend.
Most of us live in and around the city centre. But there are three districts of Sofia that nestle on the mountain itself – from west to east, Boyana, Dragalevtsi, and Simeonovo. Of course, there are villages further around the mountain – Vladaya to the west, Bistritsa and Zheleznitsa to the east, other villages further south. But Boyana, Dragalevtsi, and Simeonovo can be taken to form part of the capital city. That said, they sit beyond the ring road. If you head out of Sofia on Boulevard Bulgaria, this will take you under the ring road to Boyana, the most prestigious of the three, inhabited by ambassadors, people who got rich after the fall of Communism in 1989, and one or two locals who were there already and have managed to hold on to their property. Continue on this road, and it will take you to some of the most familiar places on Vitosha – the Dendrarium, Kopitoto Hotel, Zlatni Mostove (‘Golden Bridges’), and higher up to mountain huts, the peat reserve, and the summit itself. Go east on the ring road, and you will come to the turning for Dragalevtsi with its famous convent dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. There used to be a chair lift, which was great fun once you were on it. Like sitting on a park bench, but raised twenty feet above the ground. Continue past the convent, and this road will take you to Vitoshko Lale, the main ski slope, and on to Aleko, from where there used to be another lift that made it easy to go to the summit, Cherni Vrah, where you could ring a bell to signal your arrival and admire the rock formations from which Picasso must have drawn his inspiration for his paintings. Finally, continue east on the ring road, and the next turning will take you to Simeonovo. Between this turning and the turning for Bistritsa is the start of the cabin lift to Aleko, the only lift that seems still to be working.
Boyana, Dragalevtsi, and Simeonovo – the three Sofia districts that sit on the mountain. From Boyana (by bus) or Kopitoto Hotel (with a car), you can reach Boyana Waterfall, a favourite destination for city-dwellers. From Dragalevtsi Convent, you can reach Aleko Waterfall on the way to Simeonovo. Boyana Waterfall is more impressive. But don’t underestimate Aleko, a lovely cascade with a rocky outcrop nearby that provides, for me, the finest view of Sofia.
These two waterfalls can be visited easily from Sofia. You can drive, catch the bus (the 63 to Boyana, the 66 to Dragalevtsi), or take a taxi.