Visiting Berkovitsa, the Cherkaz Land

Vratsa region and the strongholds of faith
23 March 2020
Varshets, where the air heals
24 March 2020

Visiting Berkovitsa, the Cherkaz Land

We visited many towns and villages, met a number of people, and heard dozens of stories. None of the stories, though, is like that of the Berkovitsa region. Once we drove down from Petrohan Pass and there was Berkovitsa in full sight, in the pouring rain that made us hush up and just listen to its steady beat until it finally subsided and retreated up in the mountains. Another time we were driving up and down the enchanted road from Prevala and Borovtsi until it came to a sudden halt amid Berkovitsa, all sunlit and bird-chirpy with the Tree of Life. We were on the search for raspberries, waiting for chestnuts to ripen, and ate some late strawberries next to the Clock Tower.

 

Raspberry Pickers

Berkovitsa’s raspberries seem to be the most praised Bulgarian fruit, and for a reason. Once they are ripe enough in early August, the annual Raspberry Fest is held in the meadows under Kom Peak. In the mountains, raspberries ripen late and are full of aroma and sweetness. The Raspberry Fest is a tourist attraction and includes hikes and bonfire camps close to Kom Lodge. Writer Ivan Vazov was once so impressed with Berkovitsa’s raspberry-picking maids that he dedicated his poem, Raspberries, to them. In the 60s of the last century, the only monument in the world devoted to raspberry-picking maids was erected in Berkovitsa; it can be seen today, along with the Raspberry Picker Fountain, in the central part of the town.

Apart from raspberries, Berkovitsa’s strawberries are also the region’s recognisable red brand. The long years of non-existing manufacturing industries in Bulgaria’s North-West region resulted in clean soils, especially in the mountainous parts of the region. Today, strawberries are to be found both in the wild forest meadows and in horticulture gardens. Most are grown by an Italian company and are certified as organic products. Tasty fruit jams and marmalades, and also traditional lyutenitsa (sort of vegetable dip) after homemade recipes are produced in the neighbouring village of Prevala, in Chiprovtsi Municipality. The products of Sinevka company are often to be seen at festivals and marketplaces in the region of Berkovitsa. 

The town hosts several festivals: Shine Leather Shoes Fest for children, having international status. It is held in early June, while September usually hosts international folklore festival Songs and Dances of the Balkan Mountains. Even if you happen to visit the town whenever no festivals are held, there’s a lot to see in both urban and mountain tourism. The house where Ivan Vazov used to live when he was the Chair of the District Court in early 19th century is well preserved and located centrally in the town. It has been transformed into a museum dedicated to the Patriarch of Bulgarian Literature and was named an exemplary house from the times of the Bulgarian Revival. It is in Berkovitsa where Vazov got inspiration for some of his literary works, and among his legacy are wonderful descriptions of Berkovitsa surroundings: stories about bizarre poor people, the lively intelligentsia, and the amazing nature.

The Brass Band of Berkovitsa is recognisable all over Bulgaria, but also abroad. Even if you haven’t been to Berkovitsa, you’ve surely heard the band play, but listening to it in its home town is quite an experience. Since 2017, the Municipality has been hosting a North-West Festival of Brass Bands in early September. This event will become annual and will turn into a competition. The exact dates of all festivals and events in the region of Berkovitsa will be published on the Municipality website. Most dates are not fixed, because they depend on weekends and seasonal characteristics (berkovitsa.bg).

 

Locals, Visitors and Us

In the heart of the town, in a small park, there is a wooden monument called the Tree of Life. It is said to be the most ingenious monument of a Bulgarian writer ever; the exquisitely chiselled sparrows seem to have perched on the tree, next to Radichkov’s characters. Once you visit Berkovitsa region, you already know why the master of magical realism originates from it. You can hardly set the line between imagination and reality and you can’t be really sure if any of his mythical creatures called verblyuds actually came to life and what would happen right after the corner or beyond the hills. The memories about Radichkov are particularly vivid in this town. The Days of Radichkov are held every October: there are readings of his books, the locals regularly hang out by the Tree of Life, memories are shared, and photos of the fabulous North-West are shown.

The great Radichkov, as the locals recall, used to come here and sit together with his fellow citizens. They used to talk, he listened and made jokes. The locals remember him with a smile, and with a wink. After all, we can’t be completely sure where Radichkov is now; it seems to us that he is in his home village of Kalimanitsa and everywhere, but mostly in the Cherkaz Land. This is the land where many of his fictional characters dwell, but no one is sure of its exact location.

It could be hidden down under the Clock Tower that rises in Berkovitsa‘s town centre. It is one of the oldest preserved constructions in the region, and was built around 1762-64. The workshops of local craftsmen are located behind it. The town is populated by most of the remaining keepers of traditional crafts in Berkovitsa and Chiprovtsi regions: goldsmiths and carpet-makers. The ethnographic legacy is preserved in a thematic museum located in a house proclaimed as an architectural monument of culture. The exhibits are thousands, among them clothing, textile, wooden and metal utensils and adornment, pottery, etc.

The one-time St. Paisius of Hilendar School has been transformed to a National Painting and Carving Gallery of the Revival Period. The Gallery is in the yard of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church and exhibits oil canvasses, drawings, sketches, applied artworks, as well as numerous valuable wooden icons.  

If you’ve had enough of urban tourism, the woods and pathways to Kom Peak are awaiting you. There are trails leading from the town to Kom Hut where several directions may be taken further on. The Kom-Emine trail and the Berkovitsa-Chiprovtsi-Belogradchik tourist route are nearby. Kom Peak is 2016 meters high, the highest peak in this part of the Balkan mountain range. Right below it is the Funnel area where snow stays almost all year long. This part of the mountain is quite chilly throughout the year and has given rise to many curious and funny occurrences; for example, tourists once wrote in the book of impressions that at Kom Peak they saw snails with icicles for the first time ever. We saw none of those, but the chilly presence of the mountains is surely felt even on a hot summer day. During the cold months, a ski run and a tow lift operate at Kom Peak. Experienced skiers claim this is the best piste in Bulgaria. You can ask local mountaineers about different trails or opt for a knowledgeable guide. Please remember that the mountains around Berkovitsa are beautiful but nonetheless difficult hiking grounds, therefore you should always set off well-prepared. We have no intention to describe the mountains using boring details, because, honestly speaking, words will fail us. The right words may not be found yet, or Radichkov may have already written them:

“I’ve been in other lands; big measures are used to measure them: hectares and miles, versts and kilometers, and I have to say those are big lands. But nowhere have I seen a land bigger than mine, because mine is a land measured by a man’s palm.”


Ways to get there: if you travel from Sofia or South Bulgaria, the most convenient road is the one passing through Petrohan. In winter time, take the road through Vratsa and Varshets (36 кm). There is also a train service, however it takes more than 4 hours from Sofia.

Places to stay: there are hotels and guest houses in the town.

Not to be missed: the silver jewellery shop behind the Clock Tower, the Raspberry Fest

In the vicinity: Klisura Monastery, Stalin BBQ Joint, Varshets, Kom Peak

Well-suited for: cultural tourism and ecotourism, mountaineering and skiing