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.