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.

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.