Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park
Northern Bulgaria is a mysterious destination, only superficially covered by international tourist guidebooks and any efforts to google some information about the Vrachanski Balkan result in dry statistical facts about the amount of hectares it covers and the numbers of the flora and fauna species residing there.
Instead of sad post-communist landscapes you will find a beautiful, clean nature park which apparently is the second largest in Bulgaria. Looking historically, Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park interesting not only because of the rich heritage of the Thracians, which you can see in Vratsa’s museum, but also as a territory in which some important events during the Bulgarian uprising against the Ottoman Empire took place. The Bulgaria’s beloved poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev died here after a battle with the Ottoman army in 1876. His death place is marked by a cross high in the Vratsa Mountain - Okolchitsa peak. If you ever wondered why nearly every Bulgarian city has got a street named after Botev and want to know more about the poet’s life story and the uprising in general, a pilgrimage to the park is a must. Every year on 2 June ceremonies are held both in the square in Vratsa and next to the cross in the mountains to commemorate Botev’s death anniversary and long queues of wreaths are left at the feet of the monuments afterwards.
Although there are plenty of hiking routes to choose from while visiting Vrachanski Balkan, a particularly pleasant one for a first time visitor is the Pine Stone eco-trail. Most of the two-hour hike goes against a swift rivulet in the forest which means a refreshing shelter from the sun and hot temperatures on a typical summer day, and beautifully coloured trees in autumn; while in the early spring before the trees sprout their leaves one can adore the dramatic landscapes. The path, starting in the village of Zgorigrad, gradually goes up the hill (with a few sets of steep wooden stairs) and leads to the tall Pine Stone (Borov Kamak) waterfall. There is enough space behind the waterfall for the path to continue, so it is possible to stop for a while behind the waterfall, watching the rainbows at the point where the water cascade turns into a mountain rivulet and rapidly getting soaked by its splashes. The Pine Stone eco-path indeed does live up to its name. The waters of the waterfall and the rivulet are clean enough to drink.
Some other interesting hikes in Vrachanski Balkan lead to caves. The most prominent of the caves and the one that is easiest to enter is Ledenica. It is rather well known and clearly signposted; sometimes musical concerts take place there because of the cave’s excellent acoustics. Those looking for less popular places after a wander in tree-covered hills might come across a random gathering of enthusiasts equipped with helmets, headlights and ropes all trying to get into the Toshina Dupka cave. This cave is not as welcoming as Ledenica; in fact, without special equipment and without assistance from an experienced counterpart the trip into the cave is hardly possible. Even with assistance, be prepared to crawl in the mud and get your shoes covered in bats’ faeces. The reward for the efforts is mainly the ‘I have made it!’ type self-satisfaction and a bond with the fellow adventurers, although there are some corals, stalactites and crustaceans waiting to be discovered, and an underground lake.
Another type of adventures can be sought at the Vratzata rock climbing spot just outside Vratza. On the right side of the road there are tall and steep rocks, described by some local mountaineers as ‘the most difficult ones to climb in Bulgaria’. On the left side of the road there is a river and some ‘easier’ – and much busier – rocks.
Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park’s information centre and the administration are both based in Vratsa town. The institutions are hosted in a former Ottoman mosque – a tourist attraction in itself. Visiting Vratsa could be an easy day trip from Sofia (up to two hours’ drive by car, depending on how picturesque you want your route to be), or it is possible to use the town as a base for a few days while exploring the park.