Spending time in Sofia is wonderful – it is the gateway to the country for most visitors and with its nightlife
variety it showcases what the west has brought to Bulgaria. But it is crowded, and busy, and after a few days you’ll want to get out of town to let your lungs clear. There are umpteen millions of places to go in Bulgaria depending on what you want to do – from the seaside to mountains, and Thracian tombs to Roman ruins, yet chances are you’ll be directed away from the northwest.
Composed of three oblasts – Vratsa, Montana, and Vidin – northwestern Bulgaria has the unfortunate title of being the poorest region in the European Union. Low population density, brain drain, and lack of employment has given this part of Bulgaria the shaft, which unlike other parts of the country that have national parks, the seaside, or a major highway to fall back on, the northwest has seen the least investment or growth since the changes of socialism to free market. Not to say that there is nothing to see – Vidin was a former regional capital that absorbed quite a bit of Austrian sensibility due to its location on the Danube and sports Bulgaria’s most in-tact ancient castle. Nearby Belogradchik is quickly becoming a must-visit destination with its fortress walls built into a dramatic cluster of rock towers, and the entire border in this part of the region is lined with high peaks of the Balkan range untouched by hikers who can easily take a bus to Rila or Pirin.
My friend Mr. P and I decided to take the train up from Sofia for the weekend to Vidin to visit
his family, and for me to see my former colleagues at the youth center where I had worked for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Roma neighborhood. From Sofia there are 7 buses a day, taking about 4 1/2 hours to Vidin, at a cost of 20 leva one way. On the other hand, Bulgarian State Railways runs three trains (7:35, 12:25, and 16:25) that take give or take 5 hours and cost 22 leva round trip. Both the buses and the trains all stop in the northwest’s other big cities of Vratsa and Montana. Among Bulgarians there is always the bus vs. train debate; generally bus tickets are more expensive because they supposedly take less time and have air-conditioning. Venerated Bulgaria veterans can attest that this isn’t always the case. Until the 1990’s, train travel was considered much classier than bus travel. However with privatization, the still state supported Bulgarian State Railways suffered under budget cuts while privatized bus companies purchasing second-hand buses from Western Europe simply outperformed. It seems that BDZ is always on the brink of collapse, owing millions of dollars in debt and
operating at a loss, yet the government continues to support it lest leave a large portion of the population unable to afford the higher bus prices (pensioners, children, and students ride the train at reduced rates). Although stations and wagons in Bulgaria certainly need some TLC, they function. I personally prefer the train over the bus because I can 1) open the windows, 2) use the toilet, 3) and read, which makes me nauseous on bus rides. Another good reason to take the train is if you plan to cycle somewhere. Bicycles can be stored in cargo for 2 leva, and it’s a great way to see some of the Bulgarian countryside, especially along the Black Sea Coast, which has beautiful wild beaches spaced between towns on a relatively even landscape.
We left Sofia on the 12:25 train, BDZ No. 7622, composed of an old Skoda engine and three
wagons, although one car would detach in Brusartsi en route to Lom. This train was particularly full, and the ticket agent recommended that we buy seat reservations at a mere 50 stotinki charge, which would ensure us a reserved place to sit. Most Bulgarians don’t purchase these, but it’s always a good idea when going somewhere from Sofia, lest suffer a 4 hour trip on your feet standing next to the toilet.
Once leaving Sofia, the Vidin trains head north and enter the Iskur River Gorge, a 150 kilometer canyon cutting through the Balkan mountain on its way to the Danube. Apart from being one of the most beautiful rail trips in the country, there are several stops convenient for a cheap day trip from Sofia, among them the Skaklya Waterfall at Gara Bov (about an hour from Sofia), just past Svoge (where they make the chocolate). Not all trains stop at Gara Bov, but apart from the Vidin trains, there are several other trains going to Varna and Turnovo that pass through the gorge. Noted as the fourth tallest waterfall in the country, Skaklya is about hour’s hike from Gara Bov. When exiting the train, continue north along the river for five minutes until the next bridge. Once across the river, go to the right and you’ll see a sign marking the Ivan Vazov Eco-trail (which runs east to west). Heading west (to the left), the trail shares its way with a paved road. At the end of the road are two small bed and breakfasts and a dirt trail. The trail continues another 40 minutes through the forest right to the base of the waterfall. You’ll probably see a shepherd or two, and if any doubt, just ask them to point
towards the “vodopad.” The whole trip – an hour and a half up the mountain from the train station and an hour down – could be
done by the late afternoon, which gives you time to return to Sofia by evening for dinner.
Past Gara Bov, the next interesting stop is Gara Lakatnik, a small village on the banks of the Iskar bumping up to the southern edge of the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park, and its sharp Lakatnik Rocks. Consisting of weathered limestone cliffs, the Rocks are popular with adventure tourists and rock climbers, sporting even a little “eagle’s nest,” a small red shack built into the cliff side.
The last interesting stop would be the Cherepishki Monastery, founded in the 1300’s, though the buildings date from a bit later due to being burned several times by Ottoman troops. The Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski found refuge here, and the site was a favorite spot of the poet Ivan Vazov. Guests can find sparse rooms for 10 leva a night, though men and women will probably been in separate ones unless married, and you’ll need to bring your own food. Technically there is a train station for the monastery, though I’ve yet to see a train ever stop. The easiest way to get there would be to exit the train at Zverino (before the monastery) or Lyutibrod (after the monastery) and walk along the riverside road to the complex. From Zverino, it’s about 4 kilometers, from Lyutibrod – 3 doubling back.
After passing through the gorge, the train makes a stop in Mezdra, a sizeable switch town where Vidin trains continue to Vidin and other trains continue east. Here, the engine switches sides of the train, and you may have 15 minutes to smoke, buy a water, or do a sodoku puzzle. Past Mezdra, it’s 20 minutes to Vratsa, which is situated at the base of the low Vrachanski Balkan Mountain right where a small river has cut a canyon. The canyon also has a road which is the entrance to the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park. Apart from the park itself, Vratsa is rather ho-hum. As is the next big town, Montana, which is over-industrialized and had its name changed four times in 100 years.
Once past Montana, the train enters the far-off world of rolling hills and small villages until it comes to a
stop in Vidin. Our train arrived on-time at 17:40. One the largest of the northwest’s cities, Vidin has almost always marked the western border of Bulgaria and was far enough away from everything to be proclaimed an independent kingdom for a time in the 14th century. Originally inhabited by Celts, Romans built the first castle along the banks and named the town Bononia. Countless invasions of Slavs, Huns, Bulgarians, and Byzantines gave town the similarly fragmented history that most Balkan towns can claim. The still in-tact castle Baba Vida, perched on the banks of the Danube has a Roman foundation, Bulgarian Kingdom walls, and updates from the Ottomans who populated the city and made it a central western military outpost for the empire. They also constructed the numerous city walls, enclosing the castle into the center of the town. Several elaborate gates remain, once leading to the Kaleto (Turkish for fortress), which is how Vidin’s old town has been named. While all of this sounds enchanting, be prepared to encounter most places in Vidin with a need for sprucing up. The municipality recently was in danger of shutting down completely due to lack of funds, with traffic lights shut off and no electricity in the Obshtina Vidin skyscraper on the main square. As with most budgets, grounds keeping and remodeling projects are the first to go.
One place that has seen a revival through all of this is the city’s lone surviving mosque, not destroyed due to it’s historical connection with Osman Pazvantoglu, the notorious fierce Ottoman general who terrorized Wallachia from his base in Vidin and ruled his region semi-independently from the empire. Built in 1801, the minaret is topped by a heart rather than a crescent, supposedly in support of union between him and his Bulgarian Christian wife, but this is just something I’ve been told by people from Vidin and I can’t verify it as fact. What I can say is that after a long dormancy period, the mosque is up and working again and open to visitors who are curious about the building. When I went, a nice man let us look around and told us a bit about Islam.
Near to the mosque are also two medieval Orthodox churches which are half-underground due to
Christianity taking a backseat to Islam during the Ottoman rule. One is behind the large “new” Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nikolai built in the 1920’s, and the other is tucked away behind an apartment building in a courtyard. The one next to St. Nikolai is open to visitors occasionally (if the church lady feels like opening it for you), but the other I have never been inside; like a lot of the town there just isn’t anyone to keep it up. The same can be said about Osman Pazvantoglu’s grave located near the municipality on a side street, which is covered in plants and next to a gaping hole where part of an old building collapsed because of faulty planning on a building next door. Three years later, no one has cleaned up the mess and it stands as a hazard.
There is no hostel in Vidin, but there are a few hotels (Anna Kristina, Star Grad, Hotel Vidin, Neptun, Bononia) which are decent. As of recently the city has become a transit point for people entering Romania on their way to Sibiu and Timisoara, which from Sofia is a much shorter trip than with the train to the first Danube bridge in Ruse and via Bucharest. In Vidin there is a ferryboat serving cars, bicycles, and pedestrians that works 24 hours non-stop, but only travels when the ferry is full. During the day it averages about every hour or so, and tickets for pedestrians are right at six leva. From here you’ll get to Calafat, a sleepy
little town that has frequent connections to Craiova and onward north. From the train station in Vidin, it’s necessary to take a taxi to the ferryboat terminal, which is a flat rate of 5 or 6 leva. Due to a lack of buses, all the taxis in Vidin operate on a flat rate fare, dividing the city into zones. Most of Vidin costs 2.50 leva, with outlying areas more. In a few months the Vidin-Calafat bridge will open, running international trains and open to automobile traffic. This, for years, has been seen as Vidin’s last hope at survival to bring economic development; lots of money has been spent on rail upgrades, road infrastructure, a new international train station and hotels with hopes to make Vidin once again the country’s most important and west-looking river town.
In the Vidin oblast there are two other important Bulgarian sites that I happened to visit. The Magura Cave, located outside of the village of Rabisha, contains cave paintings from the Neolithic era made from bat poop. The drawings are simple, though the depictions of giant genitalia are unmistakable. I’ve been several times, though this past weekend when I went the drawings weren’t on display due to excavations by archaeologists. Mr. P’s mother, who had never been to the cave, was also disappointed. There was plenty more disappointment to go around as well – the entrance fee had risen from 3 to 5 leva per person, and there was an additional tax of 10 leva for the mandatory guide, which was divided among the people on the tour. I paid 60 stotinki, yet if you’re the only person on the tour, expect to pay the entire 10 leva. Once we entered the cave and guide told us we weren’t going to be visiting the cave drawings or the wine cellar, I felt cheated. Not friendly in any sense, our guide seemed bored to be giving the tour and tried to make dry witty jokes, yet he just sounded mean. Especially when trying to explain things to an English
couple on the tour. “Bear! Cave bear!” he yelled at them. Luckily I was able to do some translating. The cave tour is about a kilometer in length and geologically very pretty. Coming from Kentucky, with the largest cave system in the world, I can say this is a good one. The tour doesn’t loop around, and so visitors exit from a different opening looking over the Rabisha Lake, Bulgaria’s largest natural lake and a protected site. Imagine our surprise when the guide told us it was a two kilometer walk back to the main entrance, yet there was a motor train that would take us for 2 leva per person, something he had failed to mention before entering the cave. Of all the places I’ve been to, I must say that Magura Cave has the most ponzi-scheme setup I have ever experienced. The cave gets an A for interesting, but an F in service.
If you would like to visit Magura cave, it’s best to have a car. Luckily we had Mr. P’s sister’s. There are buses that run to Rabisha village from Vidin, though you must inquire at the Vidin bus station when they come. From Rabisha village, it’s about a 25 minute walk to the cave, or three kilometers.
The better and easier place to visit is the Belogradchik fortress, which has a direct bus from Sofia daily (at 16:30) and costs 16 leva one way. You can also take one of two or three buses from Vidin, which once again will have to be asked about at the Vidin bus station (they exist, but I just can’t find any time listings). The final and cheapest option is to take the Vidin train to Gara Oreshets, just before Dimovo, and take the minibus from the train station to the center of Belogradchik (which is just over a hill). There is a minibus usually for every train, and if not, taxis will be waiting for a flat fee of 5 or 6 leva.
The Kaleto (like in Vidin) was originally built by Romans, rebuilt by the Bulgarian Kingdoms,
and updated by the Ottomans. What’s exciting about this fortress is that the Romans built it high up into some dramatic rock formations that give the effect of candles on a birthday cake. The walls and stairs were stone, but most of the buildings in the fortress were wooden. Some have been reconstructed for visitors. At the top of the fortress, visitors can climb and explore the rock formations, though be aware that you’re climbing at your own risk, there are no fences, and in places you can expect a 200 meter drop. But all of this danger makes it all the more exciting. Below the fortress is the town which is small and provincial and
hasn’t yet been overtaken by mass tourism. The remoteness of the city also protects it. Around the fortress is a nature reserve that is worth exploring and has several eco-trails. Maps can be found at the tourist information center in the town square across from the police. There is one large hotel in Belogradchik, and lots of smaller guesthouses (look at this site).
Since we had a car, we also took this time to visit Mr. P’s grandmother, Baba Kolka, in his ancestral village of Durzhanitsa, tucked away in a river valley about 8 kilometers from the town of Archar, site of the old Roman settlement of Ratsiaria, which longer is standing. Durzhanitsa was probably settled due to its proximity to the fortress. Baba Kolka found some old Roman coins while digging in her garden, which is way cooler than finding potato bugs or worms. We had lunch, and then we watered the tomato plants, and then returned to Vidin.
If you have time, Vidin would love to have you visit. Open fields, small villages, and Roman antiquity are
their specialty, and you get the chance to meet lots of Bulgarians who are still coming to terms with the country’s transition 20 years ago. This is a part of Bulgaria that is still, more so than others, frozen in time. If you would like more information, please let me know – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!