Река Искър (Iskur River) starts in the Rila Mountain range and runs a long path north, widening and deepening until it ends in the Danube. In the beginning, you can cross the Iskur easily by using the large granite rocks as stepping stones and those same stones make the Iskur gurgle and run white, spin and curl as the river winds through the mountain forests. We encountered the Iskur River as we moved on from the Rila Monastery and the Rila River. Bulgaria is full of mountains and waters of all kinds—glacial lakes, hot springs, fresh water rivers, the Black Sea. We first went to Сапарева Баня (Sapareva Banya). We wanted to try out the famous hot mineral waters—at 103 degrees Celsius at the source the hottest in Europe—and found the Аква Клуб Котвата where three pools (including one for small children) contain warm mineral water, one Jacuzzi contains hot mineral water, and one Jacuzzi contains extremely hot mineral water. For those feeling the need to shock the system, there is a small, deep cold water pool right next to the hot Jacuzzi. It is not easy to leave Aqua Club Kotvata and only the beginning of a rain shower ended our three hours of immersion. Children, of course, care only that they can play nearly endlessly without their lips turning blue. The facilities are excellent and there are ample lounge chairs. You can even pay a small fee, though we chose only to stare in wonder, to plunge your feet in a basin in which small fish “massage” them for ten minutes. These garra rufa, it turns out, are also known as “doctor fish” and are sold specifically for this purpose.
The mountain village of Овчарци (Ovchartzi) is a less than ten-minute drive from Saparevna Banya. There you find the Goritza Eco-Trail. It’s a short pleasant hike to one of Ovchartzi’s seven beautiful waterfalls. The rivers Горица (Goritza) and Фудиня (Fudinya) run along the two sides of the village. Aside from the natural beauty, the Goritza also serves as a traditional “laundry” specifically for washing wool carpets and kilims. With a bit of piping and fencing, a portion of the water’s stream is diverted to roil in a circular stone area that naturally cleans without soap. The clean carpets and kilims are then hung in a special drying shed just across the path. Handwritten on a small sign is the telephone number to call when you want access to either the “laundry” or the drying shed.
Just on the edge of a break in the mountain range is the village of Белчин (Belchin). In 2013, the remains of an ancient fortress, Цари Мали Град (Tsari Mali Grad) were opened to the public. Now an Eco-Trail leads to an entire historical and cultural complex made up of the preserved Byzantine remains, museum of artifacts, ample and detailed signage documenting the history in both Bulgarian and English, modern sculptures. The second you step out of your car, the man in charge of taking your nominal parking payment comes to you bursting with information, pride, and excitement about all the complex has to offer. The sun-dappled Eco-Trail through a beech forest. The length of time to walk the path depending on if you are elderly, middle-aged, or a small child. The eight-minute “funicular” lift should you not wish to walk. The playground for children. The wood and rope bridge. The beautiful views. He was effusive as he repeated the information for all comers; such enthusiasm here is so rare that we felt rewarded before we even set off on the trail.
Early on in the life of the Iskur River, there is a small branching where the river briefly becomes two, Бели Искър (White Iskur) and Черни Искър (Black Iskur). We decided to spend a couple of days in the village of Beli Iskur. We stayed at Eagle Rock, a condominium complex at the highest point in the village, though less than a five-minute walk to the small main street. The complex is immaculate, with a lovely lawn and garden area, fitness center, ping pong table, a library of English-language books, and an attentive staff. The view of the mountains is spectacular.
The village of Beli Iskur is quiet, and in early summer mornings and late afternoons you can see the herders bringing their goat herds and their cows back down from the mountain pastures. There are infinite walks in the meadows and mountains above the village. One afternoon, we followed a domineering rooster leading his handful of hens and, strangely, a larger group of turkeys into a meadow from where we made our own way up past wildflowers, then hazelnut trees with their nuts still green, and finally dense brush and trees as the path disappeared and the trek became steeper.
We had planned only to see Rila Monastery when we set out from Sofia. The rest we left to chance. I had vaguely heard of Sapareva Banya, once there we were directed to the Goritza Waterfall, my husband saw Tsari Mali Grad in a book given to him as a gift, we had a friend who recently bought a place in Beli Iskur. So much of satisfying travel is serendipity, allowing extra time for discoveries, planning for unplanned time. It was good to wander a bit in Rila’s mountains and rivers before embarking upon our planned time in Синеморец (Sinemoretz) on the Black Sea.