On the descent from Petrokhan to Montana, we enter the realm of enchanted lands, where nothing is what it seems from afar. It is as if Radichkov's characters come to before our eyes as we negotiate the road turns down towards the valley. Varshets is sitting dreamily under the slopes of the Old Mountain, wrapped in the glory of a trailblazing balneological resort nationwide. The main street features rows of old holidaymakers' villas with names like Maritza and Roza, redolent with the spirit of early 20 century, when the elite of the young Bulgarian state used to chill out in the small town. The founder of the spa resort was Dr. Damian Ivanov: it was his initiative to build the parks and plant forests in the vicinity. The landmark Sun Garden was also his idea, with its alleys branching out like sun rays and paved with a special stone that reflects light.
Much of the renowned doctor's legacy has been preserved to this day: Varshets still nurtures its fine, aristocratic spirit, though somewhat toned down with time. The resort town is serene and neat, a fine place to relax in peace and quiet. The villas have long fallen out of use, having been taken over by hotels and guest houses. Even the dew in Varshets is believed to cure. Well, if it doesn't, Varshets water is really curative: it claims to help alleviate many peripheral nervous system conditions – or you can just recreationally immerse yourself and get a piece of mind. A warning is in order: although the water is mildly mineral, lengthy soaks in it without a doctor's recommendation might not be such a good idea. Each of the larger hotels has its own indoor or outdoor pool, with all of them being also accessible to outside visitors. For those enticed by the traditional local spirit and cuisine, please opt for a smaller guest house. The dedicated rehabilitation hospital is up and running, its facilities perform admirably, but bookings are only possible based on a physician's referral.
Varshets is said to have been built on the ambition to become the Bulgarian Baden-Baden: to a large extent the romantic of the time between the two world wars is still palpable. The plane tree are the same, the parks are well-groomed; only the newly built hotels and houses here and there make sure one gets a reality check. Yet the town has been spared from the development frenzy that brought so much overcrowding and tastelessness and ruined many other resorts. Even the high season rarely sees a massive guest influx and noisy crowds in the streets. Nature still being the most valuable asset here, those accustomed to organized entertainment and mass taste will probably be disappointed. A warning is not misplaced in order to avoid the familiar sigh, "It's too quiet here and there is nowhere to have fun".
Varshets is where the first casino in the country was built, with its official opening in 1924. The king's brother, Prince Cyril, often dropped by, while the Sofia bourgeoisie blithely dissipated the money it earned from its sundry inter-war ventures. The casino has long been defunct, but its building still stands. It emulates the casino in Baden-Baden and its electrical wiring at the time was a gift by King Boris III. Varshets also has a small gallery and a museum housed in an authentic 1930s house.
Varshets has several places for mountain hikes in its vicinity. Ivanchova Polyana, the closest one, is something like a park with alleys several kilometres long. Its vistas are excruciatingly beautiful in clear weather and the air has a crystal feel to it. This is an area of light breathing due to local mountain currents; early mornings and evenings produce a sweet air that saturates one's lungs with oxygen. About ten kilometres southwest of the city there is a place called Zeleni del (Green quarter), with the paths climbing Todorini Kukli (Todora's dolls) starting here. It is located in the valley of Stara reka, under the Koznitsa ridge. The annual Celebration of Mineral Water and the Old Mountain takes place here. The area is heaving with wild raspberries that ripen around late July and August.
The White Water area lies at the foot of Koznitsa Mountain, with trails for the waterfall area and Spanchevtsi starting here. the Tourist Information Centre in Varshets can give you information about the trails to various local landmarks and Todora's dolls peak. The Klisura Monastery at the foothill of the peak welcomes guests only at daytime. The monastery has a shop where the nuns sell their own produce. Klisura is one of the largest and well-kept Bulgarian monasteries.
The nearby Spanchevtsi village has a community mineral pool with a beach open to the public. Prices are symbolic, the pool is large, with shadows and rest areas around it. There are other recreation facilities near the village. A dairy operates in the higher part of Varshets, churning out yogurt, cream and cheese from the milk of animals grazing the surrounding area. You can seek directions on the spot. The dairy sells its goods under the Kom brand outside Varshets as well.
The village fair opens around May 24. It is accompanied by the Goat Milk Art Memory Fest, first released in 2003. Its name comes from the traditional delicacy of the area – goat milk curd. goat numbers have declined in recent years, but curd can still be found in neighbouring villages like Druzhevo and Milanovo.
The Griffon Vulture Protection Centre is located in the nearby village of Dolno Ozirovo. There is an eco-trail leading to it, with panoramic places for ornithologists. A population of griffon vultures has been successfully restored in the rocks above the village. An easiest way to see them is at the feeding spot or in the adaptation aviary. You can get more details about the Goat Milk Fest program from its website (novakultura.org)
Ways to get there: The shortest road from Sofia goes through the Petrokhan Pass (70km); once in Barzia village watch the sign to the right. If you come from the east or the Hemus highway, the turn off to Varshets is after Vratsa (22 km). For those coming from Vidin, we recommend the road through the Prevala village, running parallel to the main road, but offering much more peace and beauty.
Places to stay: Both hotels and guesthouses in town and the surrounding villages are plentiful, for every taste and every pocket.
Not to be missed: Klisura Monastery; Ivanchova Polyana; the Sun Garden; the festival in Gorna Bela Rechka in late May.
In the vicinity: Montana, Chiprovtsi, Lopushanski monastery, Berkovitsa.
Well-suited for: Environmental tourism, mountain hikes, spa tourism.