The good spirits in Montana

Ethnographic groups
24 March 2020
The New Gold of Chiprovtsi
24 March 2020

The good spirits in Montana

The city bears its ancient Roman name now, after having been called different names throughout the centuries, e.g. Mikhailovgrad, Ferdinand, Kutlovitsa. It was twice declared a town - once during the Roman Empire and the second time on December 2, 1891, by decree of Prince Ferdinand. For some time during communism Montana was the fastest developing city in Bulgaria. At the beginning of the 20th century, the municipal government moved into the former home of Ivan Stoyanov, a lawyer and prototype of the Dormidolski character from Mitrofan and Dormidolski, a novella by the patriarch of Bulgarian literature, Ivan Vazov.


Music, music!

This is only a small part of the town's rich history, which relates to composer Diko Iliev, writer Yordan Radichkov and many other contemporary artists. Each year, Montana becomes the venue of several cultural events, with the two most famous among them the Diko Iliev Brass Band Fest and the Tenets Biennale. The former is held annually in May and gathers brass bands from all over Europe. Most bands come from Bulgaria and Serbia. Many of the local bands created by maestro Diko Iliev still exist. Montana Itself has several brass bands that often perform live locally. Among them is the "Bulgaria is looking for talent" winner, Vivo Orchestra. Along with Diko Iliev Brass Band Fest, there is a competition for new brass band compositions. Indeed, you can first hear the best performances live here in Montana.

The town also hosts the Chants from the Northwest children's competition every year, while local troupes for authentic and adapted folklore often give concerts. Every year in early June, the Holy Spirit Fest enlivens Montana's downtown, going on for several days with concerts, the Diana Youth Festival, exhibitions and tournaments, as well as a Handicraft Alley. The latter stays downtown throughout the Holy Spirit Fest offering to customers all sorts of artifacts. Craftsmen from all over Bulgaria come for the Alley, with traditional handicrafts ruling the roost, but quite a few modern crafts featuring as well.


Water mystery

If you are tired of events and music, let's opt for some quieter fun. One of Montana's most attractive sights is the Ogosta Reservoir, once planned as the largest hydro-technical facility in the Balkans, but today being just one of the largest artificial lakes in the country. The reservoir never lived up to the initial plan, with its construction stretching from 1958 until almost the end of communism. What we see today is less than half of the entire planned facility. The reservoir's works were marred by legends and weirdness, featuring a blend of superstitions, mystical fear, an outsized drive to subjugate nature and the end of two villages - Zhivovtsi and Kalimanitsa. Both were entirely submerged and their inhabitants displaced. Kalimanitsa is the birthplace of the outstanding Bulgarian writer Yordan Radichkov, whereas the writer and journalist Anastas Stoyanov and the poet-cum-painter Ivan Davidkov hail from Zhivovtsi.

Putting the legends aside, Ogosta is a very nice place for hiking, camping and fishing today. Don't worry about the monster fish - they swim somewhere in the deep between Zhivovtsi and Kalimanitsa, read Radichkov and aren't itching to make an appearance in our prosaic human world at all.


Historical heritage

The remains of the former Roman fortress, Montanesium, are preserved in the area above Montana. The ruins, located on Kaleto Hill, are accessible to tourists. They offer a nice view of the surroundings, with restoration works having so far involved making new paths and getting some of the debris out of the way, but, unlike elsewhere, there are no walls rebuilt to full-size or fake castles. Montana's Historical Museum will give you more detail about the history of the area, inhabited since the Stone and Copper (Chalcolithic) Age. The area has seen finds from each period, with Roman artifacts being perhaps dominant. Steles, column capitals and plates are on display at the Lapidarium where the valuable exhibits are either originals or replicas of ancient treasures found in the surrounding area. Both Montanesium and Kutlovica owed their riches to the gold-bearing rivers Ogosta and Zlatitsa, with both names deriving from the precious metal. The museum is right in Montana's center, just off Zheravitsa, the central square. Its name comes from the area where an important battle was fought during the Chiprovtsi Uprising. Both the museum's central hall and Mikhailov house display a number of original Chiprovtsi carpets, artifacts from the Chiprovtsi goldsmith's school and ceramics from Berkovitsa. These artisan schools and their artefacts were an important part of both urban and rural life in the region around Montana during the 19th and the early 20th century.

Mikhailov House also showcases urban and rural life in the region from the time after the Liberation and the first decades of the last century. The House sits right in the center, next to the St. St. Cyril and Methodius Church. The house museum was the home of Mikhail Variklechkov, an East orthodox priest who had nothing to do with the leader of the 1923 communist-inspired September Uprising, Khristo Mihailov. Montana's History Museum was established in the early 1950s to feature that same uprising, But later on its collection was extended to cover the whole history of the region. Montana was one of the centers of hostilities during the 1923 rebellion along with Boychinovtsi, Berkovitsa and Medkovets. Because of Mikhailov's leading role in the uprising, the city bore his name during communism. A few things today are reminiscent of the tumultuous events of September 1923.

Artistic creativity occupies no mean place in the cultural calendar of the city. Every even years painters, sculptors, graphic artists and applied artists join the Tenets Biennale  with original works created in the last three years. A jury from the Artists Union and the municipality evaluates the works and in October the best of them are exhibited at the Kutlovitsa Gallery and the Kiril Petrov Art Gallery. Award-winning works remain in Montana, so you can also see them freely outside the exhibition. Kutlovitsa Hall and the Art Gallery launch exhibitions and other events at least once a month thematically presenting different genres and styles, mainly with a focus on contemporary artists.

But why Tenets, the Biennale name? It is the jolly home spirit that wanders across Yordan Radichkov works and occasionally ventures out into the real world. Although it is hard for us to say what is real and what is just artistic imagination. That is why the tenets often passes by for fun and mischief and to remind us that everything in this enchanted Radichkov country is somewhat real and somewhat fictional.

Ways to get there: Montana is on E79, the main road between Vratsa and Vidin. The road through the Petrokhan Pass is shorter and much more picturesque, but the one through Vratsa is recommended in winter. The main railway Sofia-Vidin line passes through Montana. From the east you can reach the town through Pleven and Knezha, following the signs for Montana. It is 35 km away from Vratsa and 100 km from Sofia (via Petrokhan).

Places to stay: We recommend the choice of a small family hotel or a guest house. If you are travelling by car, the best option is to stay at a country guest house in the area rather than in town.

Not to be missed: Diko Iliev Brass Band Fest, Kutlovitsa Exhibition Hall, the Art Gallery, the Mikhailov House.

In the vicinity: Berkovitsa, Chiprovtsi, Varshets, Klisura Monastery, Chiprovtsi Monastery, Lopushan Monastery.

Well-suited for: cultural and historical tourism, fest and urban tourism, fishing and ecotourism, balloon rides.

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