VRATSA

I had passed Vratsa many times and even walked through the center as well. Yet I had never really given this city more time than an hour or so. It's on a crossroads between northern and southern Bulgaria and you're likely to pass on your way to Vidin, unless you take the road past Berkovitsa and Montana. Vratsa is not likely to be on any tourist's itinerary but it might as well be. It's a quaint Bulgarian town and even though even the Bulgarians are unlikely to visit, it has some surprisingly nice spots.

Vratsa is at 111 kilometres from Sofia, no matter if you take the highway or the windy road past Lakatnik. Visit any season you like but do prepare for icy roads in winter. I visited in January 2018 and typically, Bulgarian winters get quite cold with temperatures far below zero. This time, it was 14 degrees and people were having drinks on the terraces. There was even a whiff of spring in the air. It made my visit very enjoyable - especially thinking back to the harsh winters I endured in Bulgaria so far. Depending on the weather, make an outdoor walk across the main square and then through the mountains. Not necessarily steep - depending on what you like.

Search for restaurant Ресторант-механа "Вестител" in Google Maps. Walk up the stone stairs from the center. Then either walk to the restaurant for a good meal or some coffee or head right before you're halfway there. Then you'll see a cycle track leading through the mountains. It gets you to hotel-restaurant Chaika. Then either continue to Zgorigrad and the eco trail 'Vrachanska ekopateka' or head back the same way - the road in the valley is not pleasant to walk along so best is to take the cycle path back. Have a fine lunch at Pizza Corona and then a coffee at restaurant Thracian princess (Тракийска принцеса). I had a fantastic cappuccino, so good that I had to compliment the barista. Don't find them of such quality often.

Then the Ethnographic Complex (Етнографско-възрожденски комплекс "Софроний Врачански") and the Regional History Museum (Регионален исторически музей) are worth your visit as well. Vratsa is steeped in history. Just like most places in Bulgaria I write about, it's hardly a surprise anymore! Let's start with the name. As you walk along the cycle path I described, you'll feel as walking through a gate. A wide gorge with steep peaks. This is the Vratitsa pass, with 'vrata' being a Slavic word for gate and the suffic '-itsa' for little. So, a little gate or valve, which the city was called after. I'm not entirely sure it's actually the gorge the city was named after, or a city gate at some point. Vratsa was founded by the Thracians. Vratsa was part of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzanthium). Then it fell under the First Bulgarian Empire and the city was of military importance. Because of its location on trade routes, still nowadays, Vratsa developed itself into a center for trade and gold and silver smiths. Besides, the woollen cloths and leather products from Vratsa were spread far into Europe. Nowadays you can still see why this place along the Leva river was chosen as a settlement - the mountains right nearby make a perfect natural barrier against enemies.

Take a train from Sofia and you're in Vratsa in about two hours. You could take trains to Pleven, Ruse and Varna as well and switch in Mezdra, from which there's a connection to Vratsa. Plenty of buses from Sofia are available as well. Check Booking.com for good hotels in town - if you spend the night, make sure to visit the Ledenika cave nearby as well! It's an 18 kilometre drive and you might manage to negotiate a deal with a taxi driver. Let me know if you have any questions about your trip!

Recently I was approached by Galina from Visitvratsa.com. Her platform is becoming an interesting place to learn more about the tourism potential Vratsa has.

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