Vratsa is a majestic city. The chalk crags of Stara Planina (the Old Mountain) rise on one side of it, on the other valleys stretch all the way to the Danube, with the town in between living amidst its stunning ancient heritage and its present day-to-day with delicious food for body and soul. An almost obscure destination years ago, now the city draws in a growing number of visitors who like to see the world from a high vantage point and climb the Vratsa Mountain, to immerse themselves in the region‘s rich history or simply to relax amid Vratsa‘s beautiful nature. Some of the oldest and richest finds from prehistoric humanity have been found in the area. Having been inhabited over millennia, its layers of history have been incrementally unearthed in recent decades, with most of what has been found being on display at the Regional History Museum.
Far from being a drab and dusty warehouse for history objects, the local museum shares a building with an art gallery. Vratsa is the only Bulgarian city that houses two medieval towers, erected by local feudal lords, presumably in the 16th century. The larger one is the Meshchi Tower next to the city hall, and the smaller one, Kurtpasha, sits right next to the museum building and is open to visitors. Inside, you can see the kind of preparations that past rulers put in place to face enemy attacks. The tower is renovated and kept in good state of repair, with its ground floor hosting a souvenir and a handicrafts store.
The Regional History Museum has a hall dedicated to ancient history, displaying the famous find from Okhoden village: the funeral of a woman whom archaeologists named Todorka. Every July, the site where Todorka was unearthed hosts the Ancient Cultures Festival named "Todorka's Sun", showcasing handicrafts, lifestyles, skills and even the restored cuisine of people in prehistoric times.
The opulent silver and gold ornamental finds from the area show that local life was copious in ancient times. This is also corroborated by the Thracian treasures found in the area between Vratsa Mountain and the Danube. The museum has dedicated premises for them, with centre stage being taken by the gold from the Mogilan Mound, the Bukyov Treasure, and the silver from Galiche. The crown jewel of Thracian art is the Rogozen treasure, a part of which was accidentally found in a local villager‘s yard. He passed the news to the mayor, contact was made with the Vratsa museum and the finds were handed over. Subsequent work overseen by historian and archaeologist Bogdan Nikolov unearthed the richest treasure ever found in Bulgarian lands with 165 vessels in total. The Rogozen treasure is displayed in a special hall. Brace up for something very special on your way to it: you will be stunned by vessels of gilded fine silver, a peak in Thracian jewellers' art.
The National Revival is copiously represented with books, manuscripts and weapons used in the fight for a free Bulgaria. The museum has preserved the dismounted statue of Hristo Botev, which was the first monument erected in the country after the Liberation. The figure flourishing a sword was funded by donations and made by the prominent German sculptor Gustav Eberlein. Many pieces of evidence of the revolutionary struggle of Botev‘s rebels feature in the museum collection, while photographs and documents from the early years after the Liberation can trigger contemplation as to what the Romantic-minded revivalists imagined and how things actually turned out.
Every year on June 2 a solemn celebration is held as part of Botev's days - the culmination of Vratsa‘s annual calendar. The city‘s youth usually gather up at the panorama platform housing the tourist centre and the Herald of Freedom monument where they watch the celebration. Officials line up in the square around the poet‘s majestic monument.
Just a few weeks after the long-awaited freedom finally occurred, a boy was born in the highland city, who would catapult Bulgarian sculpture onto the European stage. The town‘s Art Gallery exhibits some of Andrei Nikolov‘s rich legacy, along with works by Ivan Funev, contemporary sculpture, painting and graphics.
Still on our culture wave, we can carry on our walk through the city centre. Vratsa has a large concert hall where Symphonietta-Vratsa Orchestra performs. The local theatre has regular stage acts for drama lovers, with the National Festival of Small Theatrical Forms being held in May. This is the oldest theatre festival in Bulgaria, launched more than forty years ago and staging the best productions from Bulgaria and several European countries within just a few days.
Vratsa is proud of one of the oldest community centres in the country known as Development-1869, housed in a cultural monument building. The work of Oryahovo architects Ivan Vasilyov and Dimitar Tsolov, today it hosts concerts of local folk groups and the town's brass band. Vratsa‘s centre features a combination of old architecture (the first half of the XX century) and large-scale development from the times of communism. It musters a certain harmony that will look more complete after the urban water and sanitation system overhaul is up to scratch, with the municipality intending to put in place more landscaping and pedestrian streets with bicycle lanes thereafter.
Vratsa is also a place for modern business. It has now been several years since Vratsa Software Society enthusiasts started offering free training in computer literacy, programming and marketing. They teach high school students and train the IT industry workforce. Having started from modest beginnings, Software Society has been quick to develop, transforming its native town into an IT skills training national hub. Almost every month sees the launch of open events, where anyone can attend (you can keep track of them at school.vratsasoftware.com).
After this brief outline of Vratsa‘s culture and history, it would be sinful to shun the town's more earthly pleasures. The region has long been famous for its copious grape harvests and quality wine. Every year after the harvest, winegrowers used to converge on the town to sell their grapes and buy goods. This is how the famous Vratsa Autumn Fair emerged. Its glory waned after a few decades of economic and political upheavals, but since 2016 the municipality has ambitiously decided to restore its original vitality. Now this is one of the fairs where you can find only goods from Bulgarian producers and craftsmen (a similar one operates in Selanovtsi near Oryahovo). This is also a place to strike business contacts with producers, with the fair being haunted by confectioners, beekeepers, organic farmers, etc. The concerts staged during the fair's evenings provide further entertainment. Chalga is entirely off-limits, with rock music taking centre stage. Local rock bands find their faithful audience during these evenings while performing across Vratsa bars the rest of the time.
Vratsa Fair now emulates what markets and fairs were like in times of yore - with music, swings, small producers personally selling their produce, and plenty of delicious food. Grilled meat, including the Serbian way, suffers no shortage of acolytes across the country's Northwest, hence the fair is ill-suited for vegans. Apart from the fair, the municipality regularly launches culinary fests where local chefs offer their specialties. Try the famous Vratsa lyutika, the stuffed peppers, breads and banitsas with all kinds of stuffing. Every spring the nearby village named Banitsa aptly throws its Banitsa Festival. Our favourite is the rosehip marmalade from Pavolche near Vratsa. But on the whole Vratsa folk put great store by grilled meat, consumed along with delicious roasted pita and vegetables for garnish.
We are certain to have already won you for Vratsa's cause with this walk between a rich past, a promising future and a fairly enjoyable present. We can recommend Vratsa for every season, but hot clime lovers must no less know that winters there are chilly and snowy. In spring, Skaklya, the highest intermittent waterfall in the Balkans, is visible from the city. If overheated in summer, you can always head up to the mountain, which actually starts from the town's outer line of houses. A cycle path leads from the Botev monument in the centre to the Chaika Hotel and then to the Alpine House and the climbing routes.
Ways to get there: Vratsa is on the main road E79, 90 km from Sofia on the Hemus highway. The route is through the Iskar Gorge is slightly longer and outstandingly scenic. There is also a convenient and well-kept road through Pleven-Knezha, and for travellers from Romania the closest border crossing point is at the ferry port of Oryahovo. Both the railway connection and the bus services are running regularly, with all stations easily located downtown. There are direct trains from Sofia as well as a line with a changeover at Mezdra. If you are coming from Rousse or Varna, the changeover is similarly at Mezdra.
Places to stay: both Vratsa and nearby villages offer hotels and guest houses. All those we have personally visited so far were flawless.
Not to be missed: Botev Days (early June), Vratsa Autumn Fair, Rogozen Treasure Section at Vratsa History Museum, Todorka Sun Festival near Okhoden village, eco-trails and monasteries in Vratsa Mountain.
In the vicinity: Berdarski Geran, Tsarevets near Mezdra, Cherepish Monastery and Seven Thrones Monastery.
Well-suited for: culinary fests, music events, ecotourism, urban and culture tourism.