NET Managing our Natural and Cultural Assets
Understanding the Cultural Impact of Ancient Peoples and Applying Ancient Skills
Bulgaria 11th – 19th July 2015
Russian Church Sofia
Day One: 11 July – Arrival in Sofia
Upon arrival in Sofia, we met with Velis our guide (and mother figure!) for the week and we were taken to the Hotel in which we were to spend our first, and as it transpired, where we spent our final night in Bulgaria. The Hotel Rila is a 50 year old relic of the Communist era. Designed along very clear 1960s lines (and seemingly never having changed or been refreshed) it must have been quite grand in its day. I was placed in a room with Stuart and after an awkward conversation about snoring; we were to be room companions for the rest of the trip.
After settling in, the group – led by Velis – walked around the central area of the city. We viewed the Romanesque Church of St. Thomas – a beautiful rotunda building with some original Roman brickwork and red-tiled roof. Sofia was already beginning to erase my preconceptions about what it would be like. I had never visited Eastern Europe before now, and my imagination (always feverish at best) had been filled with grainy images, austere looking streets and the general fodder of bad spy movies and the purportedly gritty BBC dramas of my youth. Instead, there was the sense of ‘vibrancy’ with which most travel guides describe the city they are focussing upon. Trendy attractive bars filled with trendy attractive people were in evidence and I became acutely aware that we looked exactly like the thing we were: a group of visitors from the UK who were engaged in the arts and heritage!
Our next stop was the little church of St. Petka. This was a charming little oblong medieval building which seemed terribly incongruous, situated as it was in a modern concrete square – almost subterranean in nature – and set below the main level of the city. It was surrounded by areas of excavation (Sofia, like all cities having grown ‘upwards’ over time) and gift shops clearly aimed at tourists. These stores carried many items of Orthodox iconography, that strangely stylised and vaguely exotic type of portraiture which illustrates faith and belief in this region. They were placed alongside that universal tourist standard, the tee-shirt. These displayed the reds, yellows, stars, hammers and sickles of the late communist era. This – to my eyes – formed a strange and quirky juxtaposition – the work and symbology of the iconographer and iconoclast – side by side and very much for sale.
In walking around, Velis was able to show us more of the lower level archaeology dating from the time of Roman Sofia. The Romans supplanted the Thracians as rulers of the region. There was a wonderful example of how heritage elements of a city can be integrated into its workaday functionality: the remains of part of a Roman street and the East gate of the ancient city wall were features in an underpass! This was an incredible space; its polished paving stones giving a sense of how busy and well used it must have been as a thriving Roman settlement. We could see clearly where the iron gate fittings had once been – alongside a Roman drain cover – all well preserved and testimony to the renowned pragmatism and engineering skill of the builders.
We enjoyed dinner and drinks in one of the aforementioned trendy bars with extremely loud music of a sort which young people seem impervious to and which makes middle aged folk like me shout and use hand signals whilst wincing! All of the staff and most of the patrons were clearly too young to remember communism; its fall in 1989 means that a generation have now grown up without knowing the rigidity of its rule. We sat outside the bar and watched as Alpine swifts dare-devilled around the square and we fellow travellers got to know each other better. Earlier, Velis had indicated some of the oppressive architectural remnants of that earlier regime. The presidency and former party headquarters had the look of solidity and strength; of that once seemingly unremitting power and associated menace with which we have come to characterise former communist countries (incidentally, when Velis discussed the former political regime, she always referred to ‘Socialist’ rather than ‘Communist’. I never queried this but now wonder if the distinction doesn’t exist in the way that it does in the west).
Day Two: 12 July – Sofia, Plovdiv and Hissarya.
After an uncomfortably warm night (most of us did not sleep terribly well) we had breakfast in the Hotel. This meal was uncharacteristically bad! Bulgarian food was a real epiphany for me; I had no idea what to expect but it turned out to be excellent – fresh seasonal produce with lots of cheese and good wines! This meal however was standard euro-hotel fare with grim coffee (The high or low point of which, depending on one’s sense of humour, was a sort of cold meat like an industrial by-product. We christened it ‘Spamtex’ TM)
This, I must reiterate was the only unfortunate meal in Bulgaria (well I thought so anyway). The food and produce are good, in fact, I’m not sure the Bulgarians are aware of just how good their cuisine is, they are, of course, used to it. I feel it could be a real marketing strength of the country from a tourism viewpoint. It was very Mediterranean in feel, lots of tomatoes and oil, olives, salad and fish dishes (Bulgar pizza aint half bad too!) As a working-class Glaswegian, I feel I would be doing both Scotland and Bulgaria a disservice if I didn’t mention their beer at this juncture. The local stuff is called Kamenitsa which means ‘stony hill’ and was very palatable (well it was very hot and I have a morbid fear of dehydration!) Flippancy aside, I’ve no desire to see Bulgarian cities become the stag-and-hen-hell-holes some of their Czech and Polish counterparts have become over the past decade. However, people go abroad generally to relax, and that means good food and drink as part of a broader cultural experience. Marketed carefully and responsibly, I feel the beer and wine of this region would ‘do its bit’ in bringing in tourists to areas away from the Black Sea resorts. Food and drink are great cultural indicators; they help define a nation and its people and Bulgaria should be no exception.
This was a very warm day (they all were) and I was now regretting the heavy waterproof, numerous pairs of jeans and polished brogues languishing in my suitcase and taking up space. We left Sofia around 9.30am and began the drive towards Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city. On the road out of Sofia we passed many amazing buildings, including the immense (in terms of size and architectural majesty) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Natural History Museum, the University and the National Assembly. All of these made me wish I was spending more time in Sofia (although I did get an opportunity to look at the Nevsky Cathedral on our final night when we returned to the city). Leaving Sofia behind the horizon was dominated by Mount Vitosha in whose shadow the city lies. We drove through a plain surrounded by hills and I was able for the first time (but by no means the last) to appreciate the breath-taking natural beauty of this land. This is a well wooded region: swathes of mixed forest were all around and unlike Scotland, covered the hillsides. To the south west a range came into view containing Mount Rila, Bulgaria’s highest peak.
As we drove along, Velis explained to us how Plovdiv had had a range of different names over the millennia. Strategically important, the city sits on one of those great trade routes which links east and west and which through the ages had allowed the free and swift passage of goods and armies, ultimately reaching Constantinople – that grand Capital of the Byzantines – and into the east thereafter. To the Greeks, this city was Philipopolis, it being the birthplace of the father of Alexander the Great. When Rome held the territory, it became Trimontium, the city of three hills (Velis explained that the modern city was actually built on seven hills set in a fertile plain. The Romans – ever efficient – clearly only needed three of them!) The Slavic tribes moving westwards in the dark ages named it Pulpudeva and the invading Ottomans called it Filibe (harking back to its Hellenistic title). After the 1878 liberation from the Turks, the modern name Plovdiv was assumed.
Plovdiv is due to become European City of Culture in 2019. It is very much considered the cultural capital of Bulgaria (especially by the locals). Among its higher learning facilities there is a Language School, A food processing and catering college and the largest Agricultural University in Bulgaria. I noticed that the aforementioned fertile plain was very rich in agri-produce; maize, wheat and large acreages of sunflowers. I noticed also that much of the machinery being used – combines and tractors – was of a 1970s vintage.
We arrived in Plovdiv and parked at a modern monument dedicated to Orpheus (that lovelorn hero being claimed by the Bulgarians as well as the Greeks). Nearby was an excavated area which had revealed an ancient road and city gate. It was Greek in origin, overlain by Roman, yet featuring many typically Thracian design motifs. Plovdiv’s long history, its numerous name-changes and this site – a cultural palimpsest of layered architectural types – was beginning to reinforce upon me the importance of this region and the Balkans generally as a cultural through road by which many peoples had come and gone over time, each leaving their artistic and cultural stamp. Now I understood why this trip was subtitled ‘Understanding the Cultural Impact of Ancient Peoples and Applying Ancient Skills’. The legacy of these ancient groups is massively significant and potentially, the prime driver for tourism in the region.
After this we looked around the old town quarter and enjoyed its architecture. This district is a designated Ancient Architectural Reserve – an appellation roughly equivalent to our Conservation Area, with similar planning rules, regulations and restrictions. We looked in on a small pottery workshop where a dark haired lady threw pots on a wheel. The shop was ancient and filled with her wares. I particularly liked this strange mask object. It looked pagan and ancient – a real wild man! – the sort of thing dusted down for feast days and celebrations.
A short visit to the tourist information office allowed us to stock up on maps and me to satisfy my fridge-magnet addiction. Along the cobbled Saborna Street, we came across the Church of Saints Konstantin and Elena. Black garbed and bearded Orthodox priests were welcoming gusts to a wedding which was about to start. This happy occasion lent a buoyancy to our little party!
The Roman amphitheatre of Plovdiv – our next stop – is truly remarkable, not least for the story of its discovery. Excavated in the 1980’s it was under part of a nearby school’s grounds which had been sold off for building work, which, when it started led to the discovery of this monument to the arts. As we sat in the seats and looked down, a wonderful and uplifting thing happened. A group of Japanese tourists – several ladies and a gentleman – milled around on the stage area. Suddenly, they formed up into a choir and serenaded us. The acoustics were still perfect! The spontaneous nature of this recital made it all the more special! They sang some traditional Bulgarian tunes to which we gave a rousing Scots applause. This was an amazing moment, both inspirational and international in spirit. I felt quite moved and I think my colleagues felt likewise!
After the unexpected chorale we walked through Kapana, the craft quarter and had a lunch of street food and boarded the minibus for Hissarya.
Entering Hissarya, we passed through remnants of the town’s Roman walls and arrived at the hotel where we spend the next two nights. After settling in, our party went out for dinner in a lovely open air restaurant where we were joined by Dr Madzharov, director of the local archaeological museum and Radka Nankina, one of the curators. After an enjoyable meal we strolled through a darkened park to look at the floodlit remains of an excavated Roman bath house were we were serenaded for the second time that day by the local frogs who had taken up residence in the pools of the site’s pools.
Day Three: 13 July – Hissarya, Starosel.
After breakfasting at the same restaurant as the previous night, we walked to the Hissarya Archaeological Museum. We were greeted again by Radka who showed us around the museum. The earliest objects dated from the 5th -4th millennium BC making them Neolithic. Among these were goddess figurines which seem to indicate a matriarchal society. There were a great many Roman and Thracian objects too. Radka explained that the Thracians traded with the Greeks (Greek coins and imported pottery being evidence of this). In return, the Thracians exported timbers, metal ores and vessels into the Greek states. Interestingly, many of the coins in the collection carried the image of a he-goat, the symbol of Hissarya.
The roman items were equally fascinating. After Romanisation, the town became militarised. Emperor Diocletian visited in 293 AD after which the settlement was known as Diocletianopolis (the museum has a fine sculpted head of Diocletian, although this is a copy after an original which resides in the Archaeological Museum in Sofia).
The museum also contained an ethnological display, showing many agricultural items including this still used for both brandy and rose-water! This seemingly gave the local brandy a rose hinted flavour. In the courtyard outside, among some huge clay pots (Roman) three cats played. They were actually owned by the museum. I saw a dead rat on the lawn; clearly these feline employees were earning their keep!
I enjoyed the Hissarya Archaeological Museum but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a touch staid. The interpretation – the gold on black script of the signage, whilst stylish – was all very formal. As a Learning Manager, it struck me that there was nothing for families or children who might visit, no interpretive learning, no learning space, no handling objects and crucially, no learning staff. This as it transpired, was to be a theme repeated in many (but not all) of the museums we were to visit, but more of that later.
Once again, Dr Madzharov joined us and with his son and Radka we left the museum to look at some of the archaeological features still extant in Hissarya. We saw the remnant bath house complex (this time in daylight) and Radka explained to us how the hypocaust (under-floor heating system) kept the caldarium (hot room) warm. We went, via the remains of a small amphitheatre – to a subterranean Roman tomb. This early Christian site was discovered in 1957 and was for me one of the highlights of the day. It formed part of one of five Roman cemeteries to be found out-with the town walls. We climbed down into the claustrophobic space, some five metres below ground. The tomb, we were informed, had been plundered at some point in the past. This was the only tomb thus far discovered with interior decorative features. The remnant murals, though very faint, could still be seen as could a wonderful floor mosaic, designed to replicate a carpet. There were six niches in the walls, intended to hold gifts, offerings and funerary urns. Romans called these tombs ‘eternal homes’, intended to facilitate the departed’s transit to heaven in some comfort! Rose motifs on the walls represented the Garden of Eden.
We left Dr Madzharov and his team and met with Ivo for the drive to Starosel to view a Thracian tomb complex. It was a short and pleasant trip, passing pretty villages with many orchards and vineyards and nesting storks atop poles and roofs. We stopped to Photograph this family on top of their burnished holy lodgings!
The Thracian Cult Centre at Starosel was initially excavated in 2000 by the late Dr Gyorgi Kitov. This impressive space comprises a tumulus – an artificial hill – underlain by a foundation wall (visible) composed of huge granite blocks – superficially similar in this respect to Newgrange in Ireland. It is aligned to the solstices, reflecting the Thracian cult of sun worship.
The inner temple is reached via a granite stairway. Velis explained that Priest-Kings carried out rituals here, connected to the cult of Orpheus, in her words, involving ‘music, wine and dancing!’ The interior is composed mainly of blocks of volcanic tufa. A nine metre corridor passes through the first chamber and three symbolic steps lead to an inner chamber. This was a breath-taking space, 5.4 metres in diameter it is the largest such chamber so far discovered in Bulgaria. The walls are adorned with a series of ten doric pilasters and a frieze with symbolic paintwork of black (the underworld), red (the world of men) and blue (the heavens) paintwork.
After this we paid a quick visit to another nearby temple site which had been converted to a mausoleum for a Thracian King who had been found buried along with his horse. The burial space was fronted by an impressive colonnade of six doric columns. Interestingly this was one of those spaces which had retained its sacred relevance over time; nearby there had been an Orthodox monastery (destroyed in the 40s). A small chapel dedicated to St Spas still remained on a little hillock, pleasingly decorated with floral terraces.
We drove to the nearby Starosel winery, an interestingly odd place! Part industrial complex, part hotel, it had a restaurant, shop, fitness centre and pool. We were met and talked through the wine making process by Nadya, a sort of Thracian goddess in Gucci sunglasses! The most interesting part of the tour however, was the wine cellar. A mock Dionysian temple, the circular space was used for wine tasting events (one of which we were obliged to take part in, ho-hum!). Nadya (which means ‘hope’ she assured us) then positioned each of us in turn in the centre of the space, where if one spoke or sang, it created an odd quadrophonic effect! Joe’s rendition of ‘Ally-Bally’ followed by my Address to a Haggis were both – I regret to admit – soundly trumped by Stuart’s ‘Gae Bring to me a pint o’ wine’. How appropriate! Burns himself would have approved!
This jolly conflation of Scots and Thracian (Nadya insisted she was a Thracian, not Bulgarian) culture might seem a bit frivolous and silly, situated as it was in a phony temple under a modern winery. However, I realised that in some respects that was precisely why we were there; remember ‘Understanding the Cultural Impact of Ancient Peoples and Applying Ancient Skills’? This mixture was a heady vintage of genuine cultural insight and the sort of culinary tourism I have already alluded to, in many ways not so very different from the teary-eyed tartanry one can experience on a Scotch whisky distillery tour.
We travelled back to Hissarya, some of us bearing wine purchased from the winery (well it would have been rude not to). In the evening we visited a terrific restaurant and wisely allowed Velis to choose food for us. It was a cheerful evening, a mixture of the raucous and intellectual, precisely what one would expect from well fed Scots who had enjoyed good wine, sunshine and good company!
Day Four: 14 July – Hissarya, Kazanlak, Shipka and Etara (Gabrovo).
After 450 years of the reformed faith, it seems that Calvin is never far away from us Scots; always just looking over our collective shoulder and making sure we do not enjoy ourselves to much. I had obviously been enjoying myself too much. I am very prone to stomach upsets (alas, a long standing complaint). So, in an uncomfortable twist on predestination, the very unsettled stomach I awoke with was grimly inevitable considering the very different foods, drinks, water and exposure to heat I had had over the recent days. However, a couple of Imodium for breakfast and with teeth clenched (among other things) I was ready with our little band to leave Hissarya behind.
An unscheduled stop at a rose water distillery managed to lift my mood (this morning saw the only bad weather of the trip – it was grey and raining, reflective somewhat of how I felt!) We were shown around by a young female employee. It was clear that the distillery received a significant amount of investment, the machinery looked shiny new and it had a thriving visitor element. In many ways it reminded me of the winery at Starosel, the traditional product – in this instance rose-oil – was only one facet of what they sold.
A small ethnological display was of great interest to me, featuring numerous old fashioned agricultural and domestic items. As we drove away from the distillery I noticed many hundreds of acres of cultivated roses growing in the area. I am always fascinated by those crops, which, while ostensibly inedible, can drive a local economy and ultimately put food on the table, albeit by a more circuitous, commercial route. The large acreages given over to the rose crop would seem to indicate how well it was flourishing as a business. This significant land allocation is necessary, for, as our young guide told us it takes between 3 and 3.5 tonnes of rose petals to yield a single litre of the precious oil! At one time, it was literally worth its weight in gold, and the current price of 20 Levs (about £8) per gramme reflects its on-going value.
We journeyed then to Kazanlak (by which time the sun had returned) and stopped at the Museum of History ‘Iskra’. We were greeted by our guide, the museum’s vice-director Dr Plamen Stephanov. Plamen was a relentlessly cheerful man, whose enthusiasm for his work and the museum was infectious. He had previously visited the Robert Burns birthplace Museum and was gratifyingly complimentary about it.
The museum focussed on the Thracian and Roman history of the area, especially that surrounding Seuthopolis, a Thracian fortified town, now submerged under the nearby Koprinka reservoir. The collection was very impressive, a veritable treasure trove of pottery, gold, armour and statuary. However, it suffered; I felt, from a similar lack of interpretation to its counterpart in Hissarya. Don’t get me wrong, the items were beautifully displayed, almost artistically so. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Their rich archaeology is massively important to the Bulgarians and rightly so. The high regard for these finds seems to elevate them beyond the status of historic objects to something nearer that of artworks (which, undoubtedly, some of them are). It dawned on me, standing in one of the main galleries and looking at a row of pots, beautifully displayed with minimal interpretation, this was in some senses, an art gallery rather than a functioning museum in the way that we would see it in the UK. I cannot say that this is right or wrong, but it is certainly different, and food for thought for all that.
Afterwards we had a short visit to a recreated Thracian tomb (based on a real one nearby which had access restrictions placed upon it) We took our leave of Dr Plamen and his team and drove northwards towards the spectacular Stara Planina mountain range and the famous Shipka Pass by which we would traverse the range. The pass gained notoriety during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 when a Russian army defeated the Ottoman forces which had held Bulgaria for centuries. The gratitude the Bulgarians have towards their liberators manifests itself in two stunning edifices, both of which we were to visit.
The Shipka Memorial Church was visible to us for some distance before we reached it, its golden domes catching the afternoon sunlight as we approached its elevated position near the start of the pass road. It was built between 1885 and 1902 to bear memorial to those Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgar troops who died during the conflict. It is, quite simply, stunning. Its façade is the stuff of fairytales and the richness of its interior; its icons, frescoes, gold-work and iconostasis have to be seen to be fully appreciated. I bought a couple of small icons in the gift shop; Saints Andrew and Christopher.
Interestingly, where we had parked the van outside, there was a tree decorated with little red and white braided trinkets. These, Velis informed us, were tied to trees during Martenitza, the March festival which heralds the spring. I suspect this folk custom, like many similar ones across Europe, may have pagan roots. The position of this tree next to this great Orthodox Church made me consider once again the overlaying of cultural tropes. Bulgaria is undoubtedly a Christian state, but the pagan never seems to be too deep under the surface.
At the top of the pass, we stopped to admire the Shipka Memorial on Mount Stoletov. At nearly 100 feet high, this too was impressive, but in a grim, forbidding way. A giant stone lion stood silent, oppressive and aggressive above the doorway, the whole air, one of warlike triumphalism, the glorious dead commemorated in stone.
We headed on to Gabrovo and the Etara Ethnological complex where we were to spend the next two nights. We enjoyed another excellent meal and rounded the evening off with a walk through the complex where an open air theatre production had drawn many visitors. A stroll back to the hotel before bed was made somewhat magical by the appearance of hundreds of fireflies, little lanterns, illuminating the riverside and woodland edge.
Day Five: 15 July – Etara and Gabrovo.
We breakfasted in the hotel which forms part of the Etara complex. Etara Itself is an ‘open air museum’ similar in concept to Beamish in County Durham or the Highland Folk Museum. It consists of a main thoroughfare around a small river, which in turn feeds a canal. The canal then powers the various workshops. The buildings, some of which are original to the site, some of which have been trans-located, are of a similar vernacular style employing local stone and timber, abundant materials in this hilly, densely-wooded region.
The site started operating as an open air museum in 1964, it was chosen because of the pre-existing canal which ‘drives’ many of the small industrial processes on show. Wood turners operate alongside dyers, copper-workers, jewellers, wheelwrights, cutlers, icon painters and leather workers. As with all of these types of places (including the two UK examples I have cited) there is a degree of artificiality attached. However, with any immersive experience one can only suspend disbelief so much. My advice? Enjoy the day out and learn from it!
And that is certainly what happened at the Etara complex; we all enjoyed it. It has an industrious thriving feel to it, over and above the beauty of the buildings and surroundings. Also, it had LIFE! Yes, unlike the museums and ruins we had viewed up till now, Etara was full of people doing stuff, for the benefit of people wanting to watch that stuff being done! An artisan demonstration, in my opinion – is always the very zenith of primary interpretation at a heritage site. These were no costumed interpreters (apart from Dima the dyer who wore traditional costume, the others were all in modern clothing). They were workers; craftsmen and women who were all self-employed and pay rent to the museum for their pitches. We lunched at an excellent little café run on the site; we ate in the garden in a little thatched roundel, like a wall-less summer house with wrens nesting in the thatch.
Afterwards we attended a meeting with Dr Svetla Dmitrova, the current director of Etara. She pointed out to us that ethnology was considered extremely important in Bulgaria; all museums have an ethnological section. The Bulgarian Academy of Science governs how sites like Etara function through its department of Ethnology and all history departments have ethnological studies on their syllabi.
Undoubtedly, as a group, we enjoyed Etara. Indeed for some of us, it was the highlight of the trip. Its rich mix of history, craft and quality interpretation resonated, not only with a band of foreign heritage professionals, but with the many families who thronged the little street.
That evening, we dined in Gabrovo, the main town which Etara adjoins. We were joined by Rositsa Bineva or ‘Rosi’, as she preferred. Rosi is a Curator-Ethnographer at Etara. She and Velis were clearly old friends. We engaged in an interesting conversation with both ladies about how Bulgaria had changed since the fall of communism and surprisingly, they felt that not all changes had been for the better. On the ride back to the hotel at Etara, Rosi and Velis treated us to traditional songs, a moment to cherish as they sang in harmony and then giggled at the end of each rendition!
Day Six: 16 July – Gabrovo, Sevlievo and Drashkova Polyana.
After breakfast at the Hotel, we packed and drove into Gabrovo again to arrive at our next stop, the Museum House of Humour and Satire. Sculptures outside the museum show ‘Clever Peter’ on a mule – a peasant trickster of local folklore; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and an abstract representation of that greatest of clowns, Charlie Chaplin.
We were met inside by Ms Galina Boneva, Head of Information services at the Museum. Galina’s accent when speaking English displayed a distinct twang which made me suspect she had spent time in the north of England. She was to be our guide.
The museum has many different rooms and documents the chronological association of Gabrovo and humour / satire. Gabrovians are famously ‘careful with money’. This legendary stinginess provides a rich vein of humour which the Gabrovians themselves happily mine (not unlike the Scots). The joking probably started, it is believed, in the 1930s, deriving possibly from the shtick employed by Gabrovian traders trying to sell their wares. Around this time they also start to emerge as the butt of jokes in the Bulgarian press.
The museum also has galleries of political art; cartoons and paintings, some of which are very powerful, some of which I have to confess, rather left me scratching my head! Despite this, there is an infectious joyousness which one would expect, especially in the Children’s Amusement Hall. Here, again, families were being catered for. The other galleries focussed variously on religious figurative art, the history of the Gabrovo carnival and African art (which seemed a bit incongruous to me).
Interestingly, much Gabrovian humour centres on cats, which are a sort of totemic creature for the area. They feature in much of the art and craft works, including a large bronze in the collection. Women are encouraged to rub its nose for luck and men can similarly placate the fates … by rubbing its testicles! Well, when in Gabrovo! Joe and I duly obliged for a photo opportunity. As yet, I have not won the lottery…
For lunch today we decided on a picnic. After a visit to a supermarket, we descended upon Hotalich near Sevlievo, the next site on our itinerary, which handily enough had picnic tables. Hotalich is an excavated and partially reconstructed medieval fortified town; it has a couple of guides on site and a visitor centre.
Digging started in Hotalich in 1979. What was uncovered was a town, dating from the 5-7th century AD, making it Byzantine in origin. As well as the fortress, there are three churches and around 90 houses (the foundations of) in the settlement. Other finds include a pot containing some 3000 coins of Byzantine and Bulgarian origin.
Our guide showed us two reconstructed houses, one of which contained examples of medieval dress, armour and weaponry. There was also a degree of interpretation which looked into the daily lives of the former inhabitants.
Our group then climbed uphill to view the upper extent of the fortress. This was no easy feat on such a hot afternoon. The views, however, were worth the climb. The remains themselves were impressive and a little ruined chapel near the top was, we were informed, built solely for the use of a Boyar’s family (Bulgarian nobility)
Taking our leave of our young guide, we drove onto Drashkova village and our lodgings for the next two nights, the eco- guesthouse of Encho and Villi Gankovski. Set in a very beautiful wooded valley by a little watercourse, we rounded off our day in Villi and Encho’s extensive and very attractive gardens. We enjoyed a meal prepared for us by them and bravely tried Rakia (local brandy) and the wine we had bought at Starosel.
Day Seven: 17 July – Drashkova Polyana, Oreshak and Troyan.
A beautiful morning, after an amazing night. Breakfast, again prepared by our hosts, was fried doughnuts with home-made jam, honey and local cheese; all enjoyed once again in that marvellous garden, a little Eden of fruit trees and artworks sloping down to the wetland (where the previous night, the local frogs provided us with a croaky chorale; with lighting supplied by fireflies and the clearly visible Milky Way).
We drove to Troyan (which incidentally, is Velis’s home town) stopping first at the National Exhibition of Crafts and Arts, Oreshak. This exhibition had many excellent displays of ceramics, wood-working, textiles and metalwork. It also hosted a bazaar where many of these craft items could be purchased. From a learning perspective there was an excellent little summer school where large groups of children were learning pyrography. This is a process whereby heated irons (not unlike a soldering iron) are used to burn patterns and images into wood. Our party had a demonstration and then attempted this for ourselves. The results were mixed, ranging from generally quite poor to absolute rubbish! A short visit to the nearby monastery allowed us to enjoy the frescoes in the church and hear the monks’ choir practice. A beautifully cloistered quadrant was lined with little gift shops. Velis had left us by this point to attend a meeting with her colleagues, but in Ivo’s capable hands we were taken to Troyan. After lunch, we rendezvoused with Desislava Vutova (Desi) of the Troyan Museum of Traditional Crafts and Applied Arts.
Desi took us, gallery by gallery, through the museum. This was undoubtedly the best museum we visited during our stay. Situated in a beautiful old townhouse, it was well interpreted using good signage (with English translations throughout) and excellent quality audio visuals. There was also a demonstration of an augmented reality style app. Using a modified mobile phone Desi was able to project films, relative to each gallery space, onto the walls. It was strange; for most of the trip, I had felt that Bulgarian museums were really trailing us in the west in terms of interpretation, learning and their application across sites. Yet, in one move, in a single visit, it seemed that this had been turned (partially at least) around and I was looking at an interpretive medium more sophisticated than any I had employed back in Scotland. We also learned that there was a full children’s programme including a dressing up space, old fashioned games, Night at the Museum events and an outreach box of handling items used for circulating around schools (an idea which Desi had taken from Kelvingrove Museum during a visit to Glasgow) There is also a small volunteer programme (also inspired by Kelvingrove).
The galleries themselves showed the craft history of Troyan. There were numerous small industries but Troyan is particularly known for its ceramic ware. Indeed, during the 19th century some 50-60% of locals were employed in the manufacture of ceramics (the film Desi showed us in the pottery gallery – using the aforementioned app – showed a demonstration of the famous Troyan ‘drops’ method of decoration and glaze). An interesting element of this gallery was a display case of 20th century pottery. The items were decorated with emblems of the communist era. This begs the question; were the makers politically motivated themselves, or were they just astute enough in business terms to cash-in and simultaneously gain favour from the prevalent political culture.
The museum is also rolling out a collections website with a digitised collection to show items not on display. This is accessible through a dedicated touchscreen station in the foyer. The buy–in to technology did not end there; the museum has an active social media presence having had a Facebook page for two years (of which Desi is the administrator)
We went from the museum and looked at two further gallery spaces in the town, which were attractive spaces but didn’t quite inspire in the way that the museum had. We took our leave of Desi and thanked her for an entertaining and enlightening tour, which had left me feeling much more hopeful about Museums in Bulgaria. It strikes me now, looking back that the really staid ones were those with an archaeological association. Perhaps the academic world in which they operate leads to them being more old fashioned in their approach to museum presentation? I can only surmise; it would take a greater depth of examination to determine this than our week allowed.
We met up with Velis again and we visited the rurally splendid atelier of Mr Milko Dachev. This was a fantastic space set in what appeared to be a little smallholding. Mr Dachev seems to possess the eccentricities one might associate with a gentleman of such artistic tendencies. We squeezed into the little seating area of his studio and he regaled us with a lowdown of his past as a performer in a band in the sixties through being a ski instructor in the seventies and now he lived as an artist, successfully exhibiting from 1994 onwards. His style was very eclectic to say the least; his artworks were crammed into every available space and seemed to transcend every available style and school! Milko was a very charismatic character and his eccentricity worked only to charm us further. He took us to a little outbuilding where we sat round a table to enjoy his home made yoghurt and local honey and a glutinous but very tasty cherry preserve. After this he showed us a tiny little chapel he had built in his garden, really only big enough for two people to stand in. it has a little altar area where we could – if we so wished –light a votive candle. Velis lit one for her late father.
That evening we dined in Troyan in a restaurant with a water wheel inside, purely, I suspect, for decorative purposes! Velis’s husband joined us for the meal after which we went back through the clear night to Villi and Encho’s guesthouse.
Day Eight: 18 July – Drashkova Polyana, Sostra and Sofia
Another glorious morning, another glorious breakfast with Villi and Encho. We were all a bit saddened to leave the company of this excellent couple. Encho presented us all with a parting gift, a little ceramic bell (he is a ceramic artist; his studio is located at the rear of the guesthouse overlooking the garden). We packed, said our goodbyes and were soon on the road.
Our first stop was at Sostra where a Roman fort had been excavated and parts of a Roman road (the Via Traiana – the Way of Trajan – it is from Emperor Trajan that the town of Troyan derives its name). The fort dated from 254 AD and took thirty years to complete, expanding significantly during that time. It had been constructed on the orders of Galienus, the Emperor at that time. It must have been a truly imposing sight; the fortress walls reached a height of ten metres in parts whilst the defence and gatehouse towers reached twelve metres. This however, was clearly not that much of a problem to those notorious bad boys of ancient history, the Huns, who destroyed the lot – fortress, wall et al at the end of the 5th century!
We drove to Sofia, which took a couple of hours and visited the National Polytechnic Museum. This was a science and technology based museum, not dissimilar in feel to the Riverside in Glasgow. To be honest, technological museums leave me a wee bit cold, I have the most un-mechanical mind imaginable and have difficulty understanding technology that goes beyond pointed sticks and a small fire. However there was certainly a lot to see and the curator who showed us around took us to a very good learning space, set up to appear like a lecture theatre and pointed out that they have 20,000 schoolchildren a year visiting!
After the Technology museum, we checked in again to the Hotel Rila, our old cold war friend from the first evening. The rooms this time were much nicer; larger suites with better facilities and this set everyone in a buoyant mood. Myself, Joe, Kirsty and Elene took taxis to the Museum of Socialist Art. This was an unusual place, quite difficult to find and not terribly obvious from the outside when we got there. Interestingly, the two taxi drivers who took us were unsure about what it was or its whereabouts and this seems to suggest something about modern Bulgaria and its attitude to their communist past. Perhaps, in some ways, a collective forgetfulness is a cathartic process, perhaps it betrays a deep desire among modern Bulgarians to definitively move away from this era and embrace the free market economy? It certainly seemed a strange way to treat the (very) tangible cultural elements of a (comparatively) recent past and political system which had dominated the lives of everyone in the country. Or, perhaps it wasn’t, if you had lived through it.
The museum, which once again was really an art gallery carried a number of huge oil paintings with propagandist motifs and the sort of figurative heroic realism one associates with Soviet era art. I felt the outside was far more interesting; a sculpture garden featuring statues decanted here from across Bulgaria. It felt a bit like a cemetery – in many ways it was – a graveyard to an un-mourned political past. These sculptures were almost like the embarrassing ornaments of elderly relatives one might inherit, but can’t throw away for fear of offending someone.
We returned to the Hotel and caught up with Velis and the rest of the party. We took another walking tour of the city and Velis showed us the Saint Sofia Church, a basilica built more along western Romanesque lines that the eastern models we had seen so much of in recent days. We then visited the imposing Nevsky Cathedral. This is a huge building, gloriously opulent within and without, and built in the early 20th century in dedication to the Russian Saint, Alexander Nevsky. As we entered, a choir struck up in the gallery and the sonorous tones of eastern sacred music filled the colossal space within. A service was on-going. There are no pews in Orthodox churches, the congregation standing or sitting along the wall benches. The air was thick with incense and the priest chanted as the choir sang. As a product of the Church of Scotland (lapsed admittedly, some 35 years), this was all very alien to me! The whole atmosphere took on a strangely hypnotic feel which was quite, in my opinion, unsettling. I noticed people; heads bowed and in tears, moved utterly in the midst of devotion to their faith and God. Two women in particular caught my attention; they were dressed very soberly and wore traditional headscarves. They sat on wall benches and rocked back and forwards, eyes closed in what appeared to be a sort of devotional trance. It all began to feel a bit oppressive and I went back out into the air and light. Faith and I have never been easy bedfellows, but I could understand how the sheer intensity of experience drew people in, the ritual and ceremony with which the faithful punctuate their lives was abundantly obvious here. As a cultural experience, I’m glad I spent a few minutes inside to absorb the atmosphere, but a part of me knows it isn’t something I could subscribe to any meaningful way.
A short walk back through the city took us to where we would have our last meal with Velis. It was a little Italian restaurant with friendly staff and a good atmosphere. This was the end of our Bulgarian Journey. Sure, we would be here tomorrow but only as a starting point for the journey back to Scotland. We laughed and ate and drank and I felt that I had connected strongly with my fellow travellers. And with Velis, our excellent guide, sage leader and good friend. Goodbyes were understandably emotional.
I also felt I had connected with Bulgaria, this ancient land of ruinous forts, ancient tombs and politically scarred cities. I loved it. I will go back.
Christopher Waddell – Learning Manager
National Trust for Scotland – Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
A Bulgarian Journey
Essentially, this trip was to focus on the heritage sector tourism of the region, to look especially at how the rich ancient history of Bulgaria was being managed, what impact this was having on tourism and economies and essentially how it compared with similar sectoral areas in Scotland. The scope of the trip proved to be very broad, encompassing museums, folk life/ ethnographical centres, craft sites, ancient and archaeological remains, architecture, religious sites, art galleries, traditional music, food and produce. This meant we experienced a very comprehensive and exciting programme.
My travelling companions on this trip were:
Thanks and Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Libby and the people at Archnetwork who made this amazing trip possible and the Erasmus + funders – their contribution is beyond invaluable. I would also like to thank my travelling companions for being such fun companions and for putting up with me for a week! Special thanks go to Velis and Ivo who took great care and entertained and befriended us. Finally, thanks to all the wonderful Bulgarian people who contributed to our experience and made it so informative and memorable.
Picture of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral By Antoine Taveneaux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons