In July 2015, I took part in the NET funded Cultural and Historical Heritage Exchange in Bulgaria. Having never been so far East previously, I was really looking forward to this trip to discover a new culture and to get inspiration in my own work in heritage and culture.
I arrived at the airport to meet my travelling companions. None of us really had any prior knowledge of the country, apart from two of our group who had visited Bulgaria in the 1970s, when it must have been a very different place.
Arriving in Sofia in the early evening was a good way to acclimatise to the weather (apparently lots of countries experience consistent summer months – just not Scotland!). We met with our bags, our itineraries and lots of trepidation for the trip ahead. Velis met us at the airport and Ivo drove us to the hotel in Sofia and pretty soon it became apparent that this trip was going to be full of inspiring visits and interesting and welcoming encounters.
Velis took us for a walk around the centre of Sofia that night and we visited the church of Sveta Pedka, the statue of Sofia, the old Communist headquarters and the Archaelogical Museum. That evening we also had our first taste of delicious Bulgarian food and wine.
The following day (Sunday), we set off to our next destination: Hisarya, where the Romans once had settlements and where the (warm) mineral water still attracts tourists for its beneficial diuretic properties. The drive to this beautiful town featured spectacular corn and sunflower fields (the sunflower fields remained a feature of the trip, sighted everywhere we went!).
On the way to Hisarya we visited the city of Plovdiv, which will be European Capital of Culture in 2019, and which is preparing for it quite eloquently. The city lies in the Balkan mountains and it lies on one of the important roads from the East to the West of the country. Plovdiv was full of surprises: when we arrived we got to wander around Roman ruins which were towards the edge of the city and continued our walk into the centre through beautiful examples of Bulgarian Revival architecture. This was one of my favourite places we visited. It was a Sunday so there were traditional ceremonies taking place in Orthodox churches, with local people dressed up and lots of cheer amongst them. We got to see a ceramicist in action and we witnessed one of the most beautiful cultural encounters I have experienced: at the Roman amphitheatre there was a group of Japanese tourists who turned out to all be in the same choir. They performed a selection of songs for those lucky people who happened to be there (us!) and tested out the wonderful acoustics of this example of wonderful Roman engineering, of which we saw many in Bulgaria.
Once we arrived in Hisarya and had settled in the hotel we met the Director of the Archaeological Museum of Hisarya (Dr Mitko Madzharov) and its guide & curator (Radka Nankina) for dinner. This my first taste of Shopska salad – which I very much miss in Scotland! Our guides in Hisarya took us for a walk around the Roman baths by night, which were spectacular. The whole town revolved around tourism and heritage, with a balanced mixture of archaeology and health tourism (with the mineral springs and spas).
The following day (Monday) we visited the Archaeological Museum, where Radka showed us the various Roman artefacts which had been excavated in that region. What I most enjoyed about our visit was the collection of ethnographic objects and the collection of textiles 2D models of different people along the ages.
Radka showed us remains and told us of many Thracian tombs. One in particular caught my attention: chetinyova mogila had been discovered in 2000 and features a façade of columns, which was unusual for tombs of that period. The following day we visited the tomb, which was an exciting experience for me as I’d never visited an archaeological site like it before.
It was in 1953, with the opening of the Archaeological Museum, that people of the area started working hard in caring and looking after their local archaeological heritage.
The 2D textile collection belonged to Vera Macheva, who had worked for 20 years to make the reproductions. Born in 1921, she studied in Vienna Academy of Art, and she worked in the theatre and made each one of these reproductions meticulously by hand, an amazing work of art!
The ethnographic display featured many items, including hand guards for when the crops were being harvested and a rose oil distiller.
It was at this point that Radka and Velis told us about Chetalishte, literally meaning ‘place where people read’, but were know as palaces of culture, community centres, where people with a higher education level would read to others and where centre users would present plays. It was during the socialist years when big buildings were built. This is where educational activities of the museum take place like music, languages etc. Although there are no inbuilt facilities for welcoming groups to facilitate sessions other than museum visits, the space is inspiring and welcoming. Our visit in Hisarya continued to the Roman baths which we’d visited the evening previously.
The Roman baths were fascinating, there were sections that were original constructions and others which were reconstructions, carried out by companies with special licences to undertake this type of work. The reconstruction allowed for visitors to see clearly the different sections of the baths and other interesting parts, such as the mason’s marks on the bricks. We proceeded with our visit to an early Christian Thracian tomb, which was out of the Roman settlement of the town. This was in one of the five town cemeteries. It was found in 1957 by chance and it features a vaulted staircase with a floor level of five metres underground. When it was found it was full of water and mud. The murals were framed in squares or rectangles with flower motifs. The rectangles are thought to represent marble plates. Tombs were just like small rooms in the person’s house. This one in particular seemed to have been used twice as the shelf which would have been used for the objects belonging to the person had been bricked up, as if another level had been inserted. There was a beautiful mosaic too, underneath bed like structures on each side of the tomb. The tomb was probably built using a material known as Roman Cement (non-slake lime, crushed bricks, hot lime and volcanic ash). Walking around the town we went to the South Gate of Hisarya which used to have two camel figures on top, facing each other. This Gate is where people defended the city from, it has two towers with entrances in each of them and niches along the wall which once would have had statues.
On our drive to Starosel we saw some amazing storks, nesting on a building in Staro Zhelezare.
In Starosel there is a Thracian cult temple from 5-4th C BC. It was discovered by Georgi Kitov in 2000. The temple is facing South due to the cult for the sun of the time. The sun shines into the deeper parts of the temple during the summer solstice. The hill it sits inside is artificial, the temple was built, then a wall which was all covered in soil. During studies of the materials in the tomb it was discovered that the granite from the internal corridor came from 6km away whilst the volcanic tufa came from a site 25km away. The stones were connected with metal pins. The climb up the steps into the tomb required worshippers to bow to God as they walked in. The different colours inside represented different aspects of life: black represented the after life; red was life and blue was the heavens. The connection between these three colours is eternity. The experience of visiting this tomb was exceptional! I loved the authentic archaeological feel the site had.
We also visited the Horizon Temple, not far away from the previous one. Our fellow traveller Chris talked to us about all the plants and flowers around – the Arum Maculatum (‘Lords and Ladies’ or Cuckoo Pint/Anglian ‘pinto’) whose berry is very toxic.
On our drive home we stopped off at the Starosel Winery, where we were taken on a tour by a wonderful guide who told us all about the complex, which was also a hotel, and what they produced.
The next day we started off our day with some delicious Parjeni Filiki (eggy bread!) before heading off the Kazanlak. On our way we stopped at Kalofer’s Rose Distillery, which was fascinating. One of the main characters featured at the Distillery was Aleku Constantinof – a character from a book who sold rose oil in Europe. Rose Oil has always been a really precious product, to make 1kg rose oil you have to use 3-3.5 tonnes of rose petals. 1 kg rose oil is equivalent to 1kg gold. We were taken around the distillery by another very helpful guide, who told us of the process of producing oil. Had we been around a couple of months earlier we would have seen the rose fields in full bloom. Rose products are something that we saw throughout Bulgaria and which are said to have many benefits, including being good for the skin and for helping tummy problems.
The Rose Distillery not only showed the process of producing oil but also had an ethnographic section, displaying a 300 year old distillery, weaving instruments, carpet washing machinery and other part of the interiors of traditional houses.
Once we arrived in Kazanlak we went for a wander to find somewhere for lunch and explore the city. In the centre of the town there were some information boards which Velis told us was like a travelling exhibition. It showed photographs of different festivals and celebrations throughout Bulgaria.
The town had been famous in the ’20s and ’30s for being the only place in Bulgaria to make violins. There are also tumulas of ancient tombs around Kazanlak. During WWII there were excavations which brought to light some extraordinary paintings, which is now a world heritage site. In 1974 a replica was made of the original, due to its fragility.
The museum in Kazanlak has a vast collection of Thracian artefacts, paintings and musical instruments. There we met Plamen Stefanov. The most important of the Thracian objects were featured in an exhibition in the Louvre when we visited. The museum had satellite museums, one of which is the house which belonged to Petko Staynov (1896-1972), where they hold concerts of his music throughout the year. Staynov was the first to create a national Bulgarian symphonic school. He studied at the Academy in Dresden, focussing on local folklore. In 1924 he produced his first music, which were inspired by Thracian dances. The museum website has an electronic archive or his music. After visiting the museum Mr Stefanov took us to the 1974 replica tomb.
Our next stop was the Etara Ethnographic Complex. On our way we stopped at the Shipka monument, on Shipka pass, located in a beech forest which is a natural reserve. From here you could see for miles and the view was spectacular. The next morning we visited the complex, where we were also staying. It is located in the Stara Planina, a plain which divides the north and the south.
The Devetaki Plateau Association was started in 2006 by Velis and Iva. In 2007 a project was started to make a small tourist infrastructure. The membership costs to be part of the association has always been kept low, to ensure that it could be open to everyone. Various projects allowed for improvements in infrastructure, like internet access for all villages.
The Etara Complex was opened on 7th September 1964 as an open air museum. The main idea was to keep Gabrovian traditions and lifestyle alive. The complex was set up like a street in an old village with traditional crafts’ shops along it. These were all rented by local craftspeople who made their living in this way. This set up allows for visitors to see original techniques and materials. We were lucky to have a workshop with a lady who had worked in the complex since the beginning. She showed us natural dyeing techniques which were used to make traditional Bulgarian braids. There were icon painters, tanners, silversmiths, carvers, weavers, bell makers.
Whilst at Etara we had the chance to have a meeting with Dr Svetla Dimitrova and Tsevi Kateva, where we discussed the difficulty in achieving a balance between architectural and ethnographic aspects of the museum. There is obvious parts of the museum which include architectural heritage in it, although there are also sections which are reconstructed. Currently there are studies being carried out on the historical development of the complex, which would be interesting to see displayed in a specific part of the museum. We also discussed the reasons why this particular site was chosen. Some of the equipment which was water-driven existed by the river. The area was suitable to make a new canal and buildings. A small canal already existed there. The most interesting aspect of the complex is the live interpretation and the possibility to see some of the crafts being carried out. There is something for everyone. One of the arising issues is that some of the crafts featured are dying out and there is no real use for them. An example is the bell making or goat hair rug making. People do not buy these products and there is no real funding evident to keep these crafts alive. What worked the best in Etara was that you could have the whole experience in one place. The hotel, eateries, the close by village of Gabrovo, the crafts and heritage were all in close proximity.
The next morning we went to the House of Humour in Gabrovo. This is a prime example of exhibiting intangible cultural heritage. There are anecdotes and jokes which revolve around objects and funny stories which tell about the frugality of the Gabrovians. We met with Galina Boneva, curator of the museum, who took us round the exhibition spaces. The museum opened in 1972. The museum displayed how smart the Gabrovians have been from an early stage in marketing themselves effectively in a non-celebratory way.
On our way out of town we stopped to pick up a picnic which we ate in Hotalich, a medieval fortress and town which is set up for tourism. After a long walk we visited parts of the old chapel. This site had also been in large part reconstructed, creating a tourist attraction. We proceeded on to Eco Art guest of house where Vili and Encho welcomed us. Our hosts could not have made us feel more welcome and I really appreciated the opportunity to eat traditional home cooked meals (made up of home-grown vegetables!).
The following day we went to Oreshak, to the National Exhibition of Crafts, where items such as Troyan drop ceramics and goats hair rugs were displayed. The buildings for this exhibition were created especially in the 1970s. Here we had the opportunity to try out pyrography techniques.
The Museum of Crafts in Troyan was really impressive. We met with Desi Vutova who was very helpful and knowledgeable. At one time the village would have been inhabited by potters. In the 1870s the town was burnt down. The museum was set up in 2000. The interpretation in the museum was comprehensive and we were all impressed with the interactive devices and resources available, particularly the videos which showed the traditional pottery techniques. The museum also exhibited icon paintings and traditional costumes and textiles. Further into the museum there were recreated interiors of traditional houses. Later in the afternoon Velis took us to Milko Dachev’s atelier, where we were shown around his studio and were offered delicious home made yoghurt, honey and cherry jam.
On the last day we travelled to Sofia stopping by a Roman military station called Sostra. In Sofia we met Svetozara who showed us around the Polytechnical Museum. The collections have been housed there since 1992, previous to this is was a museum dedicated to an ex-communist leader. The exhibitions focussed on Bulgarian industries and the collections were divided in several sections. Our tour was really interesting with many interesting facts which we would not have understood otherwise, as the interpretation was in Bulgarian. Svetozara told us all about the activities that happen at the museum, including Night at the Museum, their Family Sundays and workshops.
A few of us decided to make the most of our extra day in Sofia and we went to the Socialist Art Museum which was out of the city centre, but definitely worth a visit. Its gardens displayed many socialist statues of Lenin and other scenes from the socialist period of the country. The exhibition space was behind the Ministry of Culture and the exhibition featured only a few items of the collection, which are rotated regularly.
Before our dinner that night Velis finished off her grand tour of Bulgaria by taking us on a last walk. We went to a hotel which was allowed to be completely only after agreeing to display the Roman ruins which had been found beneath it (Arena di Serdica); we went to the beautiful orthodox church of Sveta Sofia where all of our senses were stimulated with the beautiful interior decorations, the choir singing and the smell of incense burning.
The Bulgaria trip was a real eye-opener. I was made to consider and examine the working practice of places in the UK which I have visited and worked for. I learnt so much about the Thracians and Romans and the cultural history of the country. It was incredibly fascinating how the local artisans and craftspeople work within this setting and how they’re supported through the infrastructure for tourism already present. Throughout the trip I really felt immersed in Bulgarian culture, through food, places, traditions and people. Velis, Ivo and Libby are the people I would like to thank, for making all this a reality and making the super-packed itinerary flow so effortlessly! I will take what I have learnt with me in future work and it definitely will not be the last time I visit Bulgaria, what a place! Truly inspiring.