Oryakhovo – between painting and the Danubian ring dance

A history of three monuments
23 March 2020
Vratsa region and the strongholds of faith
23 March 2020

Oryakhovo is at the end of the Zlatiya (golden) plain, a few terraces above the Danube. It sits on top of history layers, a wine pool and lots of music. All this started from the Thracian settlements, went through Roman roads and medieval fortresses; then kept going during the Ottoman period to become a commerce hub on the Danube after the Liberation.

Oryakhovo - between painting and the Danubian ring dance

Oryakhovo is at the end of the Zlatiya (golden) plain, a few terraces above the Danube. It sits on top of history layers, a wine pool and lots of music. All this started from the Thracian settlements, went through Roman roads and medieval fortresses; then kept going during the Ottoman period to become a commerce hub on the Danube after the Liberation.

Today's Oryakhovo has bits and pieces inherited from every past period, its architecture of an old Danube town being perhaps its most striking legacy. Neo-baroque buildings, neat Secession Style, and the odd grand socialist style buildings dispersed in between. Oryakhovo is a place of opposites and an apt destination for those looking for an all-in-one. It suits the purposes of cultural, ecological and culinary tourism alike; to boot, only a few kilometres away is Selanovtsi - one of the largest villages in Bulgaria, a promising destination for rural tourism.

Those tempted by the area's history might want to see the remains of the local medieval fortress, Kamuka, or the Stone, which once shielded the region from foreign invaders. According to historical evidence, at the beginning of the Ottoman invasion, when Bulgarians were still holding onto their state, the insiders opened the fortress gates to the Crusaders. This is probably why the Ottoman authorities were quick to destroy the fortress. In mid-15th century the crusaders of Władysław III Jagelo-Warneńczyk marched through these lands. The need for border surveillance compelled the Ottoman authorities to rebuild the fort, but it was subsequently destroyed again.

Archaeologists and historians continue to study the preserved artefacts from the town's past. The old Rakov and Rakhova often get mentioned while discussing the origin of its name, but the common assumption is that it comes from the plentiful walnut trees in the area ('orekh' or similar means walnut in many Slavic languages). The area abounds in walnuts trees even today, and whether it is the Danube terroir or something else, their harvests are extraordinarily tasty too.


Urban culture

Much of Oryakhovo's centre and its area along the Danube have well-preserved rows of houses dating back to the early 20th century and designed in the secession and neo-baroque styles typical for the architecture along the Danube. Some are well maintained, others definitely need restoration works, but the trading spirit of a port city is clearly felt among them. Few passengers and freight get ferried across the river today, so traffic is quiet. You can drop over to Romania by car: Bechet has an ethnographic collection of hand-woven carpets included in UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Oryakhovo has its sporting glory – its recently built Arena Oryakhovo is dedicated to badminton. It hosts international and national badminton tournaments every year, a good reason to visit for many. Neighbouring Selanovtsi is popular as a hub of wrestling, with many well-known athletes born here, the world champion Nikolai Gergov among them.

Oryakhovo's History Museum often organizes exhibitions, ritual enactments and various other festivities. It is housed in an old Secession Style building. The Cultural and Historical Heritage Centre is our second stop in Oryakhovo. Its home is the Ethnographic House, part of the Revival Architectural Compound. The Old Charshia (Turkish for open-air market) and St. George Church are nearby. It is a three-nave basilica, something untypical for the Northwest region. The dome and bell tower were added in later times, and the temple itself was partially buried in the ground during its construction in 1837. The Ethnographic House shows a traditional urban lifestyle, a combination of Viennese furnishings with Bulgarian traditions. The shop on the first floor has a collection of clothing from the region, as well as a map of folk costumes from all over Bulgaria.

Danubian towns are uniquely lovable: no matter how many years of decline and depopulation they have experienced, all these centuries of urban culture continue to be felt in them. Oryakhovo boasts two art galleries launching exhibitions and other events at least once a month, as well as old architectural masterpieces and dozens of tiny things that elegantly display the legacy of great commerce, wealth and interactions between different religions and ethnicities. no palpable traces of parvenu style or unnecessary ostentatiousness in this town, nothing garish or too much in-your-face.


Fine arts and music

Oryakhovo has given Bulgarian culture a constellation of prominent figures, among them the well-known actor Andrei Chaprasov and Professor Marin Varbanov, the creator of the Department of Textiles and Fashion Design at the National Academy of Art, a world-renowned artist. Oryakhovo's Art Gallery, a department of the History Museum, is named after him. Although small in size and population, the town has one more gallery, Savchevi, a family business, with young artist Radoslav Savchev hailing from the same clan.

Every year in mid-August, among the music of the Fair Days, artists from all over the world flock to the Oryakhovo Plenary. Their works can be seen on site, most touched by the gentle, sunny beauty and tranquillity of the city. Oryakhovo is also the birthplace of Lyuben Genov, the current President of the Bulgarian Artists Union. In terms of its contribution to visual arts, the town punches far above its weight.

The Nadezhda 1871 Community Centre is among the well-maintained specimen of 1930s architecture. It hosts many events, among them the August Brass Band Holidays during the Fair Days. Then locals and guests gather to commemorate the local brass trailblazer Diko Iliev with music and ring dance. The popular composer spent his most productive years in Oryakhovo as conductor of the brass band at the Community Centre and as a performer with the orchestra of the 36th Kozloduy Infantry Regiment, which resided in Oryakhovo. Inspired by the natural beauty of the shoreline, in 1937 Iliev wrote one of the most popular Bulgarian folk-based pieces, the Danubian ring dance. brass band music is one of the hallmarks of the Northwest and the Oryakhovo region is unimaginable without it. The neighbouring Selanovtsi's is the birthplace of another prominent composer, Andrei Vrachanski, author of dozens of ring dances and orchestra pieces.

But what is music without wine? Since ancient times, vineyards were the mainstay of the Danube region, and local wine-growing traditions can comfortably rank among the oldest in the world. After a period of decline late last century, Oryakhovo today again has a large wine cellar, the Chateau Burgozone, promising to restore the old glory. The cellar has tasting facilities, and the building's terraces offer spectacular vistas of the vineyards, the Danube and Esperanto Island. Leskovets is in the immediate vicinity, with its June 30 "Silver in our Hair, Song in our Souls" festival, an attraction for old town song fans. The same road going through the wine cellar and Leskovets reaches the Ostrov village, where a culinary fest for Danube fish takes place each year in late July. The Danubian panoramic road going around Ostrov can take you from Kudelin in the north-western all the way to Silistra in the east, following the river course. It can give you a rough ride to Dolni Vadin so you need additional care while driving. But the risk is worth taking – whether for the locals who are currently launching the Village on Loan Initiative, or for the Roman remains by the river of a bridge, once built by Constantine the Great, this Danube fairy tale is still alive.


Corn smiles

Just a few kilometres from Oryakhovo, in Selanovtsi, there is another fairy-tale world in store for you - the Little Prince rules the village centre from his fountain top, complete with the magical Rose and the Fox. An opportunity to create outside the beaten path is offered by the Little Prince National Contest for Young Philosophers, launched every year by the N. Y. Vaptsarov local school. The village fair takes place in 13-15 October, offering some additional enticements. The Corn Smiles Folk Festival is held alongside, with groups of authentic and adapted folk art from all over Bulgaria and from neighbouring Romania as well. Selanovtsi has yet another landmark - its community centre building has one of the largest halls in Bulgaria with a total of 580 seats. The centre itself called "Self-education 1894" displays a museum collection showcasing the village lifestyle and history, as well as a photography exhibition recounting the story of a pioneering collective farm.

Ways to get there: The road between Vratsa and Oryakhovo (67 km) is in good state of repair. The railway line is no more, but the ferry line to Romania is up and running.

Places to stay: There are several hotels in and around Oryakhovo. You are well advised to keep farther from the Danube in the warmer months as well as to get more reviews before you make your booking.

Not to be missed: Prof. Marin Varbanov and Savchevi art galleries, the local museum, Esperanto Island, Diko Iliev Brass Band Fest, "Silver in our Hair, Song in our Souls" fest in Leskovets, Fish and Fishermen Fest in Ostrov, Corn Smiles Folk Fest in Selanovtsi, St Ilija kurban fest in Gorni Vadin on July 20.

In the vicinity: Kozloduy with its Memorial Park and Radetsky Museum Ship, Botev Company trek, Berdarski Geran.

Well-suited for: Wine tourism, culinary fests, Danube islands, urbex, cycling route, urban culture events.

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