If you don’t know much about Vratsa, rest assured that you’re not the only one; it is way off the beaten tourist track, it’s not on the coast and is not a ski resort, either.
Among Bulgarians, it is known mostly for Okolchitsa peak, right above the town, where the final battle took place between Bulgarian poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev’s band of volunteers and the Turks during the April uprising of 1876. Botev was killed and the band scattered, but the peak, marked by a 35-metre tall stone cross, is among the most revered sites in Bulgaria’s history and each year around June 2, when the battle took place, memorial events are held. But this basides, Vratsa is virtually nonexistent on the tourist map.
And no wonder. It is in Northwestern Bulgaria, officially the most underdeveloped and poor region of the European Union. According to the general tourist outlook, there is nothing to see there.
And this is exactly why Vratsa and the area around it are the ideal weekend escape, especially if you dislike crowds and tourist busses and seek the unconventional. It is about a 90-minute drive from Sofia (116km) and can also be reached by train through the picturesque Iskar gorge.
Probably the most striking thing about Vratsa are the almost vertical rocks, rising above the town. The name of the town comes from a nearby gorge, called Vratsata (“the door” in archaic Bulgarian) but you have to read further to find out about it.
The area has been inhabited since the second millennium BCE, by the Thracian tribe Tribali, which have left behind numerous archaeological findings, exhibited in the Vratsa Regional Historical Museum. Through the centuries, the area has been continuously inhabited, mostly because of the copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold, mined until the not-so-distant past in the nearby mountains.
The centre of Vratsa is dominated by a massive monument to Botev and right behind it are one of the two residential-defensive towers in the town and the Vratsa Regional Historical Museum. It is an unassuming building, but it is the home of two Thracian treasures, among many other things.
The earlier one – dated at around 2500 years BCE and discovered in what is today the centre of Vratsa in the 1960s, is small, but spectacular. In a burial mound, containing three graves – one presumably sacked in antiquity, and two relatively intact. In one of the graves a chariot was found, drawn by two horses that had been ritually slain, the skeleton of a third horse, silver horse tack and the skeleton of a young woman, presumably a servant, killed in the funeral ritual. In the other grave the skeleton of another young woman was found – her head adorned with a massive laurel wreath of pure gold. She also wore intricate golden earrings and a veil (not preserved), adorned by golden ornaments and held a mirror in her left hand. Right next to her were found the remains of a warrior with his ceremonial arms and armour of silver and gold, as well as various ornaments and golden vessels.
The bigger part of the largest Thracian treasure found in Bulgaria so far – the Rogozen silver treasure – is also exhibited in the museum. It was found in a backyard in the village of Rogozen in 1986. It consists of 165 silver artefacts (cups, pitchers and phials), some of which are gilded, and weighs 20kg. The objects are dated between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and are of various styles, so archaeologists believe that it was a heirloom of a Thracian nobleman or a king.
If you’re interested in animal-drawn transportation, you can also visit the Sofronii Vrachanski ethnographic complex and have a look at an exhibition of their evolution from an ox cart to the “Vratsa carriages”, which were exceptionally popular in Bulgaria in the beginning of the 20-th century. The owner of the factory which produced them, Mito Orozov, was a famous philanthropist, an MP and a banker. According to the legend, Henry Ford made him an offer to produce coupes for Ford, but Orozov’s factory, in which everything was produced manually, couldn’t meet Ford’s quantity demands, so the deal fell through.
In the hills above the town rises a lovely white building, called simply “The chalet”. It was built in 1926 with the donations and voluntary work of Vratsa’s hiking enthusiasts. In 2005 it was nearly razed by a fire, but has been since restored. Right next to it is the monument of the Russian soldier Petlak, who, on November 9 1877 blew a war horn to announce the liberation of Vratsa from the Turks.
The view from the hill, which is a favourite local hangout, is absolutely breath-taking and is worth the climb up the hundreds of stairs.
If you are travelling with children, another interesting option is to take them to the nearby adventure park Prikazkata (The Fairy Tale). It is in a forest and offers attractions both for children and adults – paintball, a rope park, archery and shooting range, picnic areas, a cafe, team building games both in the park and in the nearby mountains. The park is still being renovated and expanded, but is supposed to open again for visitors within the next few weeks.
Another option for a short side trip is the area known as Bozhia Most (God’s Bridge) – a place, which was once a cave, but parts of it have collapsed and formed a massive stone bridge, under which flows a small river. There are also ruins of Roman and medieval fortifications. It can be reached by car and a short walk across a meadow and a tourist path, but tends to get exceptionally hot during the days in the summertime, so an early morning visit is more suitable.
If you are interested in hiking or rock climbing, Vratsa is your place.
The logical starting point for a hiking trip is the “Natura” Conservation Centre, which is a few minutes’ walk from central Vratsa. Located in an old mosque, now a monument of culture, it also houses the head office of the Vrachanski Balkan nature park and provides information on the park, the eco-trails and hiking tracks. The centre also offers educational programmes for children, mountain guides and horseback riding, speleo tourism, cycling trips and rafting.
The local pride and joy is the Vratsa eco-trail, which starts from the nearby village of Zgorigrad and winds through an old beech forest along the river Leva, to a lovely waterfall – Borov Kamuk (Pine Stone) – where the river takes a 63-metre plunge. The hike takes about two hours, with several breaks. The trail crosses behind the waterfall and further on reaches a mountain meadow with a resting area, then continues for another hour to the Purshevitsa chalet. From the chalet to Vratsa is a further two-hour hike. Another option is to go back down the way you came.
The trail does not require any special skills or equipment, besides good hiking shoes, some food and water. It is quite steep at some points and extra caution is well-advised, though the stairs, bridges and railings are well-maintained and completely safe.
It is well-marked and there is a map of the area at its beginning above Zgorigrad. Bear in mind, however, that the river almost dries up in July and August and the waterfall may not be very spectacular at that time of year.
Another option are the two tourist routes, which start from the complex in front of the entrance of the Ledenika cave. More information on them, as well as on the cave, can be found in the “Natura” centre.
Whichever option is chosen, the road will take the traveller through Vratsata gorge. It used to be called “Vratitsa” (the small door) and there used to be a medieval fortress, whose remains can still be seen during a short hike along a marked trail, starting on the side of the road.
The vertical rocks of Vratsata, 400m tall, are the highest of its kind in the Balkan Peninsula and are the most popular rock climbing site in Bulgaria. There are 140 climbing routes, with different levels of difficulty. The area has claimed the lives of quite a few climbers, so the routes have recently been equipped with additional anchors for extra safety.
Even if you are not into rock climbing, the walk through the gorge is well worth it – the imposing vertical grey cliffs are an awesome sight and the rock climbers are fascinating to watch. The area is a favourite weekend hangout of the locals who barbecue and sunbathe along the green riverbanks.
Overall, Vratsa and the area turn out to be an excellent weekend option for those who seek the road less travelled. It is easily reachable by car, bus and train and offers attractions for almost everybody. There is more to be desired of the accommodation situation in Vratsa – it has three hotels, which could possibly be fully booked, especially the one in the main street, but there are guest houses in Zgorigrad and the other villages in the area.
Photos: Hristina Dimitrova ©