Once thriving Balkan range town retains beauty despite economic downturn
In Bulgaria, there is only one museum besides the archaeology and national history ones in Sofia where you can see a great Thracian treasure in its (almost) full ancient glory. No, this museum is not in Varna, nor in Plovdiv or Stara Zagora.
We know this is hard, so here is a hint. This city is the only one in Bulgaria with a display of late-19th Century carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles. It is also the only one with a monument of Hristo Botev, perhaps Bulgaria's best-known poet, which was removed because it was seen as insufficiently Socialist by one of the country's Stalinist dictators.
This city is also the largest in Bulgaria's North-West, the poorest region of the EU, a place of soaring unemployment and mass emigration in search of a better life elsewhere.
Today, Vratsa is known mainly because of this last characteristic. This hardly sounds appealing for tourists, who generally seek happier destinations, but it actually makes Vratsa one of the most rewarding hidden treasures of Bulgaria. Here, nature, history, architecture and stories combine in a way that is hard to equal or to forget. The closing of a major chemical plant in the city in 2003, for example, was a heavy blow for the scores of workers made redundant, but it dramatically improved the levels of pollution, making the region better for green tourism.
The monument to poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev is the focus of local life
Vratsa is a hidden treasure, not only metaphorically. The city is the home of the Rogozen Treasure. Discovered in the 1980s, it consists of 160-plus vessels of silver with gilt and is the biggest Thracian hoard ever found in Bulgaria. Unlike other significant treasures, such as that of Panagyurishte, the bulk of the Rogozen Treasure was not sent to the exhibitions of the larger museums in Sofia. Instead, it is on display in a darkened, guarded and humidity controlled hall in the history museum of Vratsa. There, it shares the space with other astonishing objects of ancient Thracian gold smithery: a beautiful gold wreath that was buried with a young lady, and a grieve of gold and silver, depicting the tattooed face of the Thracian Great Goddess on the kneecap.
Near the museum two massive defensive towers are preserved, a rarity in Bulgaria. They were built in the 16th-17th centuries to protect the locals from the raids of bandits who terrorised this corner of the Ottoman Empire.
The fact that Vratsa attracted the attention of robbers in those times shows that the city was rich enough. Indeed, exploitation of the copper mines in the area began as early as the 2nd Millennium BC, and in the centuries that followed Thracians and Romans, Bulgarians and Ottomans made use of the deposits of copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold. The mines remained active well into the collapse of Communism and the planned economy in the 1990s. Today production has all but ceased.
The carriages in the Sofroniy Vrachanski Ethnographic Complex are yet another remnant from the times when Vratsa and the words "economic prosperity" could appear in the same sentence without raising an eyebrow. They were produced by a local entrepreneur from the 1880s, and reached international markets in the early 1900s. The business was killed not by automobiles, but by the Communists, who nationalised it soon after 1944.
Vratsa is located where the Stara Planina and the Danubian Plain meet, in a stunningly beautiful area
The natural environment around Vratsa trumps even its historic landmarks. Located at the end of a once busy, but now forgotten pass over the Stara Planina, the city is set amid a number of stunning places to explore.
The rising cliffs of the Vratsata, or The Gate, Pass form forbidding walls that rise up to 400m, and are among the best for rock-climbing in Bulgaria. About 140 tracks and 400 rock-climbing routes with different levels of difficulty criss-cross the area. The pass leads to the Ledenika Cave, whose ten "halls" are packed with stalactites and stalagmites. One of the "halls" has acoustics so good that the Vratsa philharmonic orchestra has concerts there, but another curiosity has made Ledenika a name familiar across Bulgaria. A few years ago, a collection of kitschy statues of wild animals and fairy tale heroes appeared at the entrance to the cave – an offence against good taste financed by the EU's Regional Development programme.
Beyond the Vratsata Pass, there is more. The Ponora Cave, near Chiren village, is one of the biggest water caves in the Balkans. It is 3 km long, and is submerged by an underground river.
Above ground, two waterfalls tumble down the cliffs near Vratsa. Visible from the centre of the city, the Skaklya Waterfall is 141m high, the highest non-constantly running waterfall in Bulgaria. Borov Kamak Waterfall is only 63m high, but you will find it flowing all year round. It is accessible via a pleasant tourist path.
Vratsata Pass is a heaven for rock climbers
A peak near Vratsa blends the stunning natural landscape with a tragic story.
In 1876, Vratsa became one of the centres for the preparation of a major revolt against the Sultan. Unexpectedly, this revolt, later called the April Uprising, broke out in Central Bulgaria a few days before the date set. When the news reached Vratsa, it was already too late for the clandestine revolutionary organisation to take up arms – the uprising was already being crushed, and there was a significant Ottoman army presence in the city.
Vratsa remained quiet.
A few weeks later, however, poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev crossed the Danube with a group of armed men and headed for Vratsa. His aim was to reach the city and re-ignite the uprising there, but the local revolutionaries had already witnessed the brutal suppression of the April Uprising, and were reluctant to join Botev. The poet led his men up into the mountains, and was killed in battle in the locality of Okolchitsa, near Vola Peak. In a few days, most of his followers were also dead.
In 1901, a monument was built on Vola Peak, a giant cross that looms over the plain. Today, groups of Bulgarians commemorate these events by retracing the route of Botev and his men, all the way from their landing at Kozloduy to their end at Okolchitsa.
A memorial of Botev on Vola Peak, near the place he died, in 1876
The first monument in Vratsa to Botev appeared even earlier. In 1890, a Romantic-style bronze statue was erected on the very spot in the city centre where, in 1876, the Ottomans piled up the severed heads of the fallen revolutionaries. In 1955, Stalinist dictator Valko Chervenkov visited the town, and thought the monument was bad. The statue was taken down and replaced by a substitute bust that remained there until 1964, when a new bronze monument, in line with the new Socialist aesthetics, was erected. Ironically, at that time, Chervenkov had been all but forgotten, outwitted by Todor Zhivkov.
The 1964 statue is still in the centre of Vratsa. For decades, the original one had been moved around the city, until it finally ended up in the history museum.The Great Goddess of the Thracians stares at you from this priceless grieve, in Vratsa's Museum of History
High 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.