by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

In Bulgarian, the word Lakatnik means "elbow" and this place is named for a reason: at this point in its course through the Stara Planina mountains, the Iskar makes a sharp turn to the east and northeast, eventually reaching the Danube.

iskar river.jpg

The first place of interest after Lakatnik might look strange to a foreigner: a five-metre statue of an old man apparently staring into the gorge, at Ochindol village. The 2005 monument represents one of the best known literary characters in Bulgaria, the Dyado, or Grandpa, Yotso from the short story Dyado Yotso is Looking On by Ivan Vazov. The story is about a blind octogenarian from an isolated hamlet in the Iskar Gorge who is fascinated by every single sign of Bulgaria's independence from the Ottomans; from the uniforms of an official and a soldier to the newly-built railway. He is unable to see any of these with his eyes, but his heart is equal to the task, as he feels the manifestations of Bulgaria's freedom. The statue at Ochindol represents Grandpa Yotso "looking" at the railway and the passing trains.

Several kilometres south of the Iskar is the Sedemte Prestola, or Seven Thrones, monastery. The complex has all the hallmarks of Revival Period architecture: a fortress-like building with a grassy courtyard and picturesque wooden verandas. The church, however, is like nothing else anywhere in Bulgaria. Tiny, dark and damp, and made of rough boulders, it has not one, not two, not three, but seven altars. Hence its name, the Seven Thrones church. Why this architectural curiosity was created is lost in history.

According to one legend, the church was built by seven Bulgarian nobles in the Middle Ages or, according to another, by seven brigands fighting the Ottomans. The monastery itself is believed to have existed as early as the 11th century, but the earliest recorded mentions of it date from the 16th Century.

Monument over Iskar

Monument to Dyado Yotso

The monastery yard is unapologetically scattered with kitschy garden gnomes, yet it has a truly remarkable feature: a century-old Sequoia gigantea, a species that is not common in Bulgaria.

Back in the Iskar River gorge and farther east is a strange sight: a factory chimney sticking up out of a mountain slope by Eliseyna village. It is the remain of Bulgaria's oldest unrefined copper smelter. It was opened in 1905, and closed after 1989.

The next village, Zli Dol, is where in 1876 the final battle between what remained of the revolutionary group of poet Hristo Botev (Botev was dead at this point) and the Ottoman army took place. Few of the revolutionaries managed to escape, and the remains of the others are now in the ossuary of Cherepish Monastery, located in one of the most picturesque parts of the Iskar's course.

The monastery at Cherepish exudes history. It was supposedly founded in the 14th century, but the complex you see today is a fine example of Revival Period architecture. The mansions in the outer yard were all donations from rich sponsors. The Rashidova House was built by a local Muslim lord after the monastery's supposedly miraculous spring healed his daughter. Ivan Vazov chose Cherepish Monastery as the setting for one of his most famous short stories, A Bulgarian Woman, about an elderly lady who is trying to save a gravely wounded member of Botev's group of revolutionaries.

The inner yard of the monastery, with its fine 19th century church, is huddled between forbidding rocks and the river. Follow the short path by the cemetery, and you will end up on the river bank just before the Iskar enters a particularly narrow part of its course. The landscape is sublime.

The Seven Thrones monasteryThe Seven Thrones monastery

A short walk from the monastery there is an interesting piece of more recent history: the ghostly remains of an ecclesiastical seminary, complete with overgrown gazebos, residential quarters and a beautiful church. In 1950 the Communists authorities forced the professors and students of the Sofia Seminary to move to Cherepish, as they were seen as an unwelcome presence in new, Communist Sofia. They all lived and studied there for four decades, until the regime collapsed and the seminary returned to Sofia. The abandoned complex at Cherepish began to crumble away.

The crosses dotting the tips of the rocks around Cherepish are another reminder of the seminary: each of them was put in its place by graduating seminarians.

Nature is the creator of the last formidable site in the Iskar Gorge: the Ritlite natural phenomenon. Rising on the north bank of the river beside the village of Lyutibrod there are are several narrow, 200-400m long rock formations, rising up to 80m high. They formed about 120 million years ago in an ancient ocean; when the ground rose during the formation of the mountain belt stretching from the Alps to the Himalayas, the wind and the rain carved them into what you see today.

At Lyutibrod, the Iskar is finally free of the Stara Planina, and continues north-east through the Danubian Plain, though its course is not as dull as you might expect. At Karlukovo the river has carved the karst into two astonishing natural phenomena: the Provartenik rock pyramid with a round hole at its top (believed by some to be the remains of a prehistoric observatory), and the Prohodna Cave. With its length of 356m and height of 56m, it is Bulgaria's longest cave tunnel. The two teardrop-shaped openings in the cave's roof, called The Eyes of God, add to the atmosphere.

The Cherepish monastery

Icon doors from the Cherepish monastery

The region is so rich in rock formations and caves that the Bulgarian speleologists have their centre there, at the precipitously located hut called National Cave Home.

The next stop for a traveller eager to explore all the delights of the Iskar is one of the drabbest towns in this part of Bulgaria, Cherven Bryag. It houses probably the greatest surprise one can find along the river: an open air sculpture gallery, in the garden of a brick factory. Yes, you have read  correctly: the owner of a brick factory in a backwater of Bulgaria spends his money inviting sculptors to visit, and they have created a charming mishmash of modernistic, realistic, abstract and conceptual statues in the local red clay. The garden of the Terra 2000 factory is open to visitors.

The other point of interest in this town is the colossal statue of a woman with raised arms on the top of a hill. It was built to commemorate a local Communist guerrilla group, and today is overgrown and generally abandoned.

As the Iskar flows farther towards the Danube, the villages it passes by are mostly uninteresting, but just before the river joins its bigger sister, by Gigen village, lie the remains of a Roman city. Ulpia Oescus was founded in 106AD by Emperor Trajan and it soon became one of the major cities in this part of the empire; in 328 Emperor Constantine the Great visited it for the inauguration of a bridge over the Danube. The ruins, a picturesque chaos of fallen columns and architectural fragments, are just outside Gigen.

Read Part 1 here

The Seven Thrones monastery

The Seven Thrones monastery


The Cherepish bridge

A railway bridge over the Iskar near Cherepish monastery



The Iskar is also the home of water lilies, near Karlukovo



The Provartenik rock pyramid



The National Spelunker Home near Karlukovo welcomes non-cavers as well

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.


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