The Iskar Gorge - as it is commonly known - is a true pearl in the tourist necklace of Bulgaria. It is a natural miracle carved out of the stone breasts of the Stara Planina. For thousands of years the waters of the Iskar River have dug their way into the rock, carving out forms of incredible shape, which have impressed every visitor.
The gorge of the river Iskar starts from the Sofia Plain (550 metres above sea level), crosses the Pre-Balkan area and ends around the town of Cherven Bryag (95 m above sea level). The total length of the gorge is 156 km. The central - most beautiful and distinct - part of the gorge is actually located between the town of Novi Iskar and Lyutibrod Village and is 67 kilometres long. It is this most impressive and picturesque part which is better known as the Iskar Gorge. From the very start of the gorge the valley narrows sharply to outline the well-visible meanders. The slopes of the valley are sometimes flatter, then steep and in the end - forbidding! Then come the fairytale sights of Tserovo and Lakatnik railway stations, where the beauty of the scenery is increased further by an amphitheatre of stone. At Cherepish the river struggles to find its way through a canyon-type valley between vertical walls of snow-white lime. Several kilometres later one is struck by the awesome sight of the Ritlite, which serve to outline the border between the main Stara Planina chain and the rather modest forms of the Pre-Balkan.
For centuries, the heart of the Iskar Gorge has been difficult to access. The roads and tracks connecting both sides of the mountain were located high on the top of the mountain and ran parallel to its ridge. The railway line of today was built in 1889 (the double track line came some time later) and when this was completed life along the river started to change. New settlements appeared, new people came in, new industries developed. Later came the road.
In most recent times, the best and most picturesque locations on both sides of the Iskar River, near the railway stations and bus stops, close to the villages and quarters host villa settlements (predominantly of citizens of the capital city), which only add additional colour to the gorge.
As early as the '"gate to the Gorge'" - the town of Novi Iskar - one can see the famous Katina Pyramids (one-hour walk from Kurilo quarter but also accessible by car - about 15-20 minutes drive). The first 15 kilometres inside the gorge are hosting the houses and villas of Vlado Trichkov, Rebrovo, Lukovo, Thompson settlements. Among them the village of Rebrovo is well developed in economic sense. It is the initial point of several marked tourist tracks: the Bukovets Chalet (4 km from Batuliya village, accessible by regular bus plus a three-hour walk), Leskova Chalet (20 km., by regular bus to the Ogoya village and 2.5 hours of walking after that) as well as tracks leading into the Sofiiska mountain.
The only town in the gorge is Svoge (8351 citizens, 520 metres above sea level). Svoge is situated in the widest possible part of the gorge - it is where the Iskar River flows into its big left feeder, the Iskretska River. The town is 40 kilometres to the north of Sofia and 60 to the south-west of Mezdra. It is a resort with clean and fresh air, located among the most breath-taking of natural surroundings. Some 10 kilometres to the west, in the valley of the Iskretska River, one can visit the village of Iskrets, which hosts one of the biggest sanatoriums in the country for people suffering from lung diseases.
The past of the town of Svoge and the surrounding villages is reflected in the Archaeological Museum (Tsar Simeon Str., working hours 3 - 6 p.m.). The St. Paraskeva Church has preserved interesting frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a monument in honour of the sacrifices in the war of 1912-1918. The town hosts the Kraft Jacob''s Suchard Co. - a chocolate producing company. The town has a hotel - AIPI Hotel (12, Sofronii Vrachanski Str.).
Tourist information can be obtained in this hotel or from the Iskarski Prolom Tourist Association (15, Tsar Simeon Str., tel.: 0726 2593). Svoge is a railway station along the Sofia - Mezdra - Russe (extending to Varna) line. Bus lines connect it to all neighbouring settlements. The central bus-station (tel.: 0726 3194) and the railway station (tel.: 0726 2310 and 2223) are close by in the centre of the town. Svoge is a starting point for hiking tours to the picturesque areas in all directions but there are no marked tracks.
After Svoge, along the gorge the train stops at Tserovo, Bov, and Lakatnik. These places are an entry to a miraculous, fantastic world. The rock walls and particularly those on the left bank of the river become more and more impressive, reaching a climax at the Lakatnik Rocks - a unique piece of nature''s art! It is here that Bulgarian mountaineering made its first steps. These stone walls are the perfect challenge for any climber. The Alpine shelter Orlovo Gnezdo (Eagke''s nest) has nestled among the rocks. It was built in 1938 by the members of Bulgarian Alpine Club and can host 4 mountaineers. Nearby is located the famous Temnata Dupka Cave and the Zhitolub Karst Spring, close to which there is a restaurant. A 1 hour-walk from Bov railway station takes the visitors (along a marked route) to one of the highest Bulgarian waterfalls, the Skaklya Waterfall (85 metres). From there along a marked track by the Zessele and Zimevitsa villages the Proboinitsa Chalet can be reached (3-3.30 hours).
Another marked track in the opposite, eastern direction, starts from Bov in the direction of the Trastenaya Chalet (4 hours). On the way to the chalet one can choose a marked hiking track to a small quarter where the national poet Ivan Vazov had stayed (the house is still preserved, 1.30 hours from the railway station). There are marked hiking tracks from the Lakatnik railway station to: Trastenaya Chalet (3.30-4 hours) from where one can reach the spectacular Stara Planina peaks Mt. Izdrimets (1493 m), Mt. Yavorets (1348 m), Mt. Garvana, etc. as well as Proboinitsa Chalet (4 h), Parshevitsa Chalet (4-5 hours) and Byalata Voda Chalet (7-8 hours) and others.
Further down the gorge are the Opletnya village and railway station and the stops Prolet and Eliseina. The slopes of the valley become somewhat smoother and calmer although the scenery is still spectacular. The Parshevitsa Chalet in the Vrachanski Balkan part of the mountain can be reached after a 4-hour walk starting from Opletnya. This is where the highest quality sheep-cheese and the well-known Balkan yellow cheese are produced. From the Prolet stop along the 15 km asphalt road from the direction of Eliseina, following the marks for about 3 hours one can reach the unique Sedemte Prestola Monastery nestled in the bosoms of the Balkan Mountain on the right bank of the most picturesque Gabrovnitsa River. The brother of Peter Delyan - King Georgi Gavril, built it in the 11th century. It was plundered and put to the torch in 1737 and in 1770 - was again restored. During the Turkish yoke it was a place of refuge for the Bulgarian outlaws. In 1799 it was the hiding place of Sofronii Vrachanski, the notable Bulgarian revivalist. It was visited by Vassil Levski, the Apostle of Freedom and has hosted Ivan Vazov to write the '"Klepaloto Bie'" story (1899).
The church is of special interest its architecture being unique not only within the country but in Europe as well. It was built in 1815 and renewed in 1868. On both sides of the main nave there are three small chambers with separate entries, nave-thrones and iconostasis. It is from these 7 thrones ('"sedemte prestola'" meaning the seven thrones) that the name of the church is derived. Of particular interest is the big wooden chandelier Horoto (1815), made of 15 wooden parts well decorated with carvings. The monastery offers cheap lodging. It serves as a starting point for tourist tracks in many different directions throughout the mountain.
From Eliseina a regular bus (for Osenovlag village) reaches the Sedemte Prestola Monastery. Taken the opposite direction, to the west, the Parshevitsa Chalet can be reached along a marked hiking track (for about 5 hours). Par-she-vitsa Chalet can also be reached from the village of Zverino (where 40 members of Botev''s detachment led by Boinovski crossed the Iskar River after they had lost the fight) along a marked track (5-5.30 hours walk). Some unmarked hiking tracks in the mountain lead also to the Sedemte Prestola Monastery (7-8 hours) and to Leskova Chalet (6.30-7 hours). After Zverino, the river is again '"squeezed'" between the white limestones and one is struck by the rock cliffs and the fairytale meanders. In most places the water washes the rocks and this is why the road and the railway line have been forced to find their way through numerous tunnels of different length.
The historic Cherepish Monastery is located on the right bank of the river Iskar, between Zverino and Lyutibrod, not more than 1 kilometre from Cherepish railway station. The legend of this monastery, half hidden by the rocks and pressed against them by the river, is frightening. Ages ago it was here, that the army of Tsar Ivan Shishman (1323-1333) engaged into a fierce battle with the enemies of the kingdom. After the battle, they collected the skulls of the dead and made a heap of them on the spot, where the monastery is located today. Maybe it was in honour of our ancestors or maybe it was to help their souls rest in piece that a monastery was built on this spot and it was named the Cherepish Monastery (in Bulgarian '"cherep'" means '"sculp'"). The legend corresponds well with some local place-names: Shishmanovi Dupki, Shish-ma-nets, etc.
Among the written documents, preserved and kept in the monastery, is the Cherepish Gospel, written on paper during the 15th century and kept in gold plating, made in the monastery itself. It comes to evidence the connections between the Cherepish Monastery and the monasteries in Aton. In a panegyric of 1623 three works of the Patriarch Euthimius have been found. Jonko Popvitanov painted some of the frescoes on the ceiling and the arcs. The wood-carved iconostasis and the bishop''s throne are interesting pieces of art. The silver relics-holder of the 18th century and the knitted shroud of the 19th century add to the treasures of the monastery. It had also twice sheltered Sofronii Vrachanski.
One kilometer before the village of Lyutibrod - the practical end of the gorge - stand the Ritlite as the final, one of the most interesting natural phenomena of the whole Iskar Gorge. Four unique-shaped stone walls stand in parallel on both sides of the river and common people have correctly given them their name meaning the two sides of an ox car. Closer to the river they are 49 metres high while at the western end their height is up to 200 metres. The historic Rashov Dol is located to the south-west of the Ritlite, above the left river bank. In the early June 1876, 12 of the Botev volunteers led by Georgi Apostolov were killed here. A small memorial tomb and an engraved stone plate remind visitors of the death of these heroes. The adjacent area is now a park. Mt. Okolchitsa can be reached after a 3-hour walk along a marked track from the village of Lyutibrod. On the peak there is a memorial and a chalet. Okolchitsa is the place, where the poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev and his men met the Golgotha. There is also an asphalt road leading directly to the peak.
After Lyutibrod the gorge widens and enters its Pre-Balkan part. The impression is tempered but unexpectedly picturesque sites surprise visitors and tourists at the villages of Roman, Kunino, Karlukovo, Resselets.
It must be born in mind that the railway station in the town of Svoge is the only stop of express trains in the Iskar Gorge, otherwise only passenger trains have stops in the gorge. In addition, only Svoge offers accomodation facilities.