BULGARIA : България : 2017

Posted by

BULGARIA : България


introduction This NET project was funded by the Erasmus+ programme, a European Union Programme, managed by the British Council and Ecorys UK. The training course was facilitated and promoted by ARCH (Archnetwork) and hosted by the Devetaki Plateau Association, Bulgaria, with Velislava Chilingirova as project co-ordinator. The programme was a KA1 Adult Education for Staff project and it took place in Bulgaria between 30 April and 7 May 2017

The participants were (see photograph below, left to right):-

Philip Brooks (Public Services Officer, Historic Environment Scotland)

Hayley Shields (Quality Services Manager, Historic Environment Scotland)

Isobel McDonald (Social History Curator, Glasgow City Museums)

Sophie Watt (Learning Trainee, National Trust for Scotland, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum)

Hannah Teasdale (Learning Manager, National Trust for Scotland, Culzean Castle and Country Park)

Beverley Ballin Smith (Publications Manager and archaeological specialist, GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

Velislava Chilingirova (Guide and organiser for the course)

All the participants work for, or with, organisations dedicated to different branches of cultural heritage within Scotland, which include the public, communities, collections and buildings.


Aims of this report

One aim of this report is to demonstrate our understanding and learning of Bulgaria’s cultural heritage through experience, meeting and talking with curators and others. Another aim was to pursue our individual personal development plans and our organisations training plans. Particular themes explored on the course and in this report include:

  • the legacy of Thracians, Greeks and Romans (buildings, art and crafts, heritage and identity)
  • how marketing of local products reflects the archaeological and historical legacy (identity and economy)
  • local tourism in action and how the diverse cultural assets are used to educate tourists (interpretation, presentation, experience and sustainability)
  • the place of cultural crafts and local foods (using sustainable local materials), which have ancient roots and maintain cultural landscapes and a ‘sense of place’ (communities, identity and economy)
  • tracing the craft legacy from the ancient past to modern times, especially pottery and weaving (skills, training and traditions)
  • transferring ideas and systems for sustainable rural development into new situations

Our views are individual and personal and do not reflect those of our work-place organisations.


Our itinerary was varied covered the following places and cultural heritage sites across the middle of Bulgaria (see Map below).

map of sites visited (numbered as table above)







Cultural Heritage Site



Sofia (ancient Serdica)

Hotel Rila




Rotunda of Sveti Georgi




Archaeological sites near the metro/underground




Archaeological Museum




Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church




Remains in the Arena di Serdica Hotel



Plovdiv (ancient Philippopolis)

Roman Theatre and forum




Roman Stadium



Hisarya (ancient Dioclecianopolis)

Archaeological Museum and the archaeological reserve

Dr Mitko Madzharov – director

Dima – archaeologist

Milena – guide/curator

Radka Nankina – guide/interpreter



Roman baths/thermae




Villa Paris Hotel



Starosel winery

New development plus ‘Thracian temple cellar’

Zlatko – guide



Kazunlâk Tomb




Iskara Museum

Plamen Stefanov – chief curator



Golyama Kosmatka mound/tomb of Seuthes lll

Hristo – guide


Shipka and Shipka Pass

Monument of Liberty




Russian Church



Etara and Gabrovo

Etara Complex

Tsvetelina – guide

Violeta Yaneva – public contact

Dr Svetla Dimitrova – director

Dimi – textile specialist

Rositsa Bineva – curator

Tihomir Tsarov – PR contact



Soloski Monastery




Hotalich medieval fortress and town




Roman military fort




Museum of Crafts

Desislava Vutova



Troyan Monastery (St. George’s day service)




Crafts Fair




Kazera Tavern



Central Balkan National Park

Nature Museum in Cherni Osam Village and Mountain Guides School



Drashkova Polyana Village

Eko Art Guest House

Velichka – photographer and Encho Gankovski – ceramic artist


Heritage and identity – Philip Brooks


Throughout the week, a theme emerged in the use of heritage in the projection, and reformation, of Bulgarian identity. Having only recently emerged from a long period of Soviet Russian domination and even more recently having joined the European Union, there seemed to be a desire to present Bulgaria as a modern European nation that had a shared history with the rest of Europe.

This could be seen clearly in the focus two areas: the Thracians and the period of independence from the Ottoman Empire in the mid to late nineteenth century. With the Thracians, a Hellenic tribe who shared many traits, including their script, with the ancient Greeks, Bulgaria positions itself amongst the creators of classical ‘European civilisation’. Indeed, one of our guides at Golyama Kosmatka Thracian tomb near Kazanlâk claimed that a deal was struck with the Greek government in the socialist period that no Thracian remains would be excavated. When asked why this was, he said that the Greeks were incredibly proud of their image as the founders of European civilisation and did not want any other country to contest this.

This view of the use of heritage in identity formation stems not only from what areas have been focused on, but also from those that appeared largely absent. For example, whilst there is much focus on the century or so of the Bulgarian National Revival and its culmination in independence, heritage sites and museums have scant focus on the events and cultures of the five centuries or so of Ottoman domination.

It is unsurprising that the Bulgarian heritage sector wants to celebrate Bulgarian identity by demonstrating their achievements in throwing off oppression and as an influencer of European culture rather than an oppressed people, and it is evident wherever one looks that the Bulgarians are proud of their place in Europe.

Ladas are a constant reminder of the Soviet period, which is not yet a focus in the heritage sector

Roman remains are a prominent reminder of Bulgaria’s ancient history in Sofia. The Banya Bashi Mosque is a rare reminder of the Ottoman period (to the rear)

Bulgarian national revival architecture in Plovdiv


Cultural Heritage, Sustainability and Communities – Isobel McDonald

 During the training course we learned about aspects of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Central Bulgaria. The tangible heritage was on display in museums, historic sites and in arts and craft centres. The richness and abundance of this heritage – particularly the archaeology – was very impressive. The number of significant sites uncovered in recent years was amazing, and there is clearly a lot more fieldwork which could be done.

A great deal of work is going into developing sites as tourist attractions, thereby generating income for the sites/museums and the region. Improving interpretation and programming at museums and historic sites could make them more appealing to a family or general audience, generating repeat visits from the local community all year round and improving economic sustainability. A good example of this in practice was Etara.

Heritage professionals have a responsibility to preserve and interpret sites and artefacts, which are uncovered, and a sustainable approach to this is paramount, especially when resources are limited. Perhaps directing funding away from fieldwork and towards interpretation would help to make visits to sites and museums more rewarding for a general audience. For example, Sostra Roman Fort has been recently excavated and consolidated, but interpretation and visitor facilities need improving if the site is to become a real visitor attraction for the area. Another example is the impressive prehistoric artefacts in the main hall at Iskara Museum. Redisplay and improved interpretation might increase visitor numbers.

Engaging all sections of the community with their heritage can be challenging, but a strong sense of common history and belonging can make a community stronger and brings many benefits. It was great to see many examples of sites/museums working with children, encouraging the future generation to care about their heritage. Intangible heritage was addressed though allowing us to personally try craft skills such as pottery, dying and making textiles. We learned about how skills are maintained today, for example at Etara, and Troyan Museum of Crafts.

Folk traditions such as dance and regional costume are still kept alive – even popularised on TV! Museums are very focused on material objects, but understanding the intangible heritage connected to an object or building can give a whole new perspective. There seemed to be a strong appreciation of craft and craftsmen, which was very positive.

Sostra Roman Fort

Prehistoric artefacts in the Iskara Museum

Learning how to colour wool using natural dyes at Etara

Appreciating craft masters at Oreshak Craft Centre


Economy and Sustainable Tourism – Hayley Shields

 It was striking how few of the attractions we visited kept a count of visitor numbers, or understood their importance. Many attractions were beneficiaries of EU funding, so had the initial money, but there did not seem to be concrete plans in place for maintaining and developing visitor numbers to generate income and ensure the attraction was sustainable.

In Kazanlâk, a ticket allowed entry to several attractions in the area, but none of the sites were promoting it. This would have been a key opportunity to boost income and ensure visitors are able to enjoy the whole area, increasing their dwell time at sites and encouraging secondary spending to boost the local economy of the area.

The Sites of Cultural Significance Passport was an excellent idea, which encourages Bulgarians to visit all sites in the country. The passport is stamped at each one forming a fantastic souvenir. When a certain number of sites have been visited the holder receives a badge, and when all stamps have been collected a prize draw is entered. This is a great incentive to encourage visitors. Although primarily aimed at children, adults enjoy it too. Similar initiatives to this occurred in Scotland in the past, and it would be great to see this reinstated, to generate excitement about visiting our historical sites.

It was a unique pleasure to visit the open air museum at Etara. Here visitor numbers and visitor origin is recorded, and it is no surprise it is the most popular museum in Bulgaria. The street of workshops sells products made by skilled crafts people working there and using traditional techniques. Their products are something that cannot be bought elsewhere, and they make the most of their unique selling points. Etara products are quality and are wonderful souvenirs. This genuine place is alive and it engages every sense. We had Turkish “coffee (prepared) on sand” – and it was delicious. Etara is one of the few places which serve this, so some visitors come just for the coffee.

Repeat visits are encouraged with an annual pass (the cost of three standard tickets) to ensure people return to buy a coffee or crafts. The success of this can be seen from their steady growth. Since 2010 the domestic market has grown by 60% ,while the international market has grown by (a still impressive) 25%.

Passport for Sites of Cultural Significance

Knife workshop in Etara

  Coffee on sand’


Skills and Tradition – Hannah Teesdale

On our first morning walking the streets of Sofia, it was clear that craft, and the associated traditions that go with them, are still an integral part of life in Bulgaria. Martenitsa (мартеница), small woven bracelets adorned the cherry trees surrounding Rotunda of Sveti Georgi. Made for loved ones, they are given as gifts on the 1st March, and worn until a sign of spring is seen, for example, a blossoming cheery tree. While a curio for us, we saw them across Bulgaria. They acted as small markers reminding us that Bulgaria’s proud crafting heritage is still very much alive.

In Etara, Bulgaria’s only outdoor museum, we were fortunate enough to explore crafting heritage further, under the guidance of textile specialist Dimi. We learnt how to use natural dyes and produced two woollen bracelets of our own using traditional techniques. We crowded around the fire, a small pot bubbling away, Dimi had already begun the process of bringing dried leaves up to the boil to release their colour. She later unveiled her dye book to us, showing all the natural plants she uses to create a wide variety of colours. The techniques used were not unfamiliar. However, Dimi’s own textile work showed how far the simple skills we learnt could be pushed to create detailed works of art. Etara uses traditional craft skills as its backbone, as craftsmen and women all produce traditional items: textiles, metalwork, pottery, woodwork and iconography. Although not employed by the museum (they rent their workshops for a fee), they must demonstrate their skill in traditional techniques guided by the museum curators; at times there is an interesting play-off between providing traditional and more commercial items for sale.

Tradition and commercialism was perhaps most apparent at the relatively new Starosel Winery. It is keen to be seen as a competitor to those more established, focusing on producing small to medium quantities of a quality product. The experience is what sets Starosel apart. It also focuses on being a retreat, using its large grounds and setting to be a tourist trap – currently this appears to not have had a knock on effect on the local community, but as it continues to develop and thrive it will hopefully do so.

An example of where a craft product has directly had a positive financial impact on the community is the production of Rose oil in Kazanlâk. The annual festival brings in tourists from as far as Japan. The desire to keep traditional craft techniques alive and relevant is something to be admired and inspired by. It appears to be a genuine way of connecting to Bulgaria’s history.

Martenitsa small woven bracelets

Textile crafts


Interpretation/presentation/person-engagement/experienceSophie Watt

The use and means of interpretation for engaging visitors across museums and heritage sites in Bulgaria varied from a reliance on the power of objects, an approach resulting in absent engagement programmes for the public, to a more contextual approach exploring different means of engagement. The latter was practiced by the Museum of National Crafts and Applied Arts in Troyan and the Etara Complex in Gabrovo.

I am aware of the interdependency of preserving heritage, and the public, and families in particular, have come to expect more from their visits to museums and heritage sites. The variety and quantity of interpretation offered by the Crafts Museum and Etara with their higher visitor figures shows understanding of this.

We spoke with curators about working practices in Bulgaria’s heritage sector, and curator Rositsa Bineva, provided insight into Etara’s success. This was partly due to its emphasis on demonstrating traditional crafts within an authentic setting. We observed artists’ craft-making, took opportunities to participate in practical activities, such as weaving and dyeing with craftswoman Dimi, and purchased products directly from their makers within the architectural landscape. Etara allows visitors to see and experience what life was like for craftspeople and their families, and in doing so, highlights and promotes past traditions and skills to modern Bulgarians. Etara bridges the gap between the present and past, revealing and fulfilling the desire to keep Bulgaria’s history and heritage relevant and alive.

The Museum of Crafts, Troyan, also did this well through informative text panels combined with practical activities and displays. It provided insight into objects through their makers and craft/object production. Visitors are engaged with Bulgaria’s heritage and traditions through digital interpretation; videos on screens accompanying specific objects revealed stories about the craftspeople and the people who used their creations. Play-button signs around the displays prompted users to access these on their phones using the museum’s online system. However, guides also use handheld devices to project short video clips onto the museum’s walls for groups. Experiencing this first hand with curator Desislava Vutova was an activity that reinforced the value of knowledgeable, engaging and approachable guides. It was definitely a highlight of our museum visit. Meeting the people behind the objects through these digital platforms, as well as through the rest of the museum’s interpretation, created a positive and fulfilling visitor experience for me.

The interpretation practiced by Etara and the Museum of Crafts, demonstrates that making connections with people from the past and supporting re-enactments of experiences can be successful and sustainable in bringing visitors closer to the past.

This was also apparent at Shipka Pass. Exhibition displays with direct quotes from soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War, and the placement of weapons around the grounds, encourages visitors to reflect on, and be part of, the past experiences of others. This also shows, as with Etara, that making use of the outdoor environment can support visitor engagement and understanding.




Reconstruction, restoration and skills – Beverley Ballin Smith


One of the most striking and interesting things I saw that had an immediate visual impact on me was the reconstruction of ancient buildings. Inside, and also outside the subway, extensive areas had been excavated as part of development in the centre of Sofia. The display of Roman and later ruins, of eight streets of buildings of ancient Serdica, was breath-taking. These remains, and that of a late-medieval church with wall paintings, had been consolidated and enhanced in elevation to demonstrate the extensive settlement and importance of Serdica in the past. The sheer scale of the works, and the architecture and design of encapsulation in glass and concrete at the foot of the modern city, is an enormous feat of determination, pride in the country’s ancient past and statement of national identity. We had seen the incorporation and use of Roman remains into the modern building of the Arena di Serdica Hotel, but nothing surpassed the scale of excavation and consolidation of that seen below ground in the subway. It brought to mind ‘if you have it, flaunt it’, and the rare survival of such extensive ancient remains at the heart of the city was certainly exhibited to the full. The information display boards in the subway were discretely placed but further information, in the form of a booklet, would have enhanced the experienced and given us a little something to take away and remind us of what we saw. The adaptation of designs for modern demands, to incorporate the old, is very expensive but it was done to great effect in Bulgaria.

In order to achieve such results there must be many specialists with the skills not only of excavation but of interpretation, consolidation (using traditional skills), but also those who have the vision that small enhancements built on old foundations improves interpretation and visitor experiences. We are often shy of augmenting ancient remains in the UK, but in Bulgaria it was put to good effect. In Hisarya, the Roman bathhouse complex, which is still undergoing investigation, had been consolidated with walls rebuilt higher (with appropriate markers between old and new masonry). Specialists are not frightened to augment monuments to give visitors a more-three dimensional visual experience of what they think structures looked like. We saw this time and time again, but also in the newly displayed Sevlievo fortress, where examples of two buildings had been rebuilt and given roofs as display and interpretation areas. The Starosel Winery is a different but successful example of marrying modern needs with the architecture of the past, in producing an underground cellar in the form of a Thracian temple. The reconstruction and adaptation of the Roman Theatre at Plodiv, for modern use, is another.

The careful adaption of cultural heritage, and the incorporation of it into modern developments, is extremely well done, and we can learn much from it. It also suggests that the legacies of the ancient past, not just the buildings and the crafts, are deeply rooted and put to great use in a modern setting.

Subway with Ancient Serdica Roman Theatre, Plodiv Roman Baths, Hisarya

Philip Brooks

The course was an overwhelmingly positive experience and I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to speak to professionals from Bulgaria and be able to openly ask them questions about their practice. Alongside this, it was useful to be able to discuss the sites we visited with fellow professionals from Scotland about how things differed from their own practice.

Something that surprised me was that when viewing how heritage is represented in a country other than my own, I felt I had a greater perception of bias within the interpretation. However, after this week, I believe I will cast a much more critical eye on interpretation wherever I see it and question to a greater extent what is present and what is absent.

It was particularly enjoyable to be able to visit a wider spread of the country than just the major cities, which gave an impression of how Bulgaria’s national culture varies across the country. All in all, being able to immerse ourselves in many aspects of Bulgarian culture allowed me to gain a better understanding of the heritage sites we visited and gave me a different perspective on the heritage sector to that which I have gained in the UK.

The visually stunning church architecture was a personal highlight. The Shipka Memorial Church was built to commemorate the soldiers killed fighting for Bulgarian liberation in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78


Isobel McDonald

One reason why I wished to undertake the training course in Bulgaria was that I had studied the Bulgarian Mesolithic and Neolithic periods at university. It was really exciting for me to see artefacts from those periods in museums. But even more important was the opportunity to travel round Bulgaria, and see the countryside where those early people lived. It was easy to see why the Neolithic farmers chose to settle down in such a beautiful and fertile land. This encouraged me to think about how heritage needs to be understood in the context of the environment it belongs to. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to see so much heritage in situ – Roman, Thracian, medieval and later.

I work in an historic building and this trip has made me consider what else we could do to explain the wider context and environment of our building. I will certainly focus more on understanding ‘a sense of place’ when working on community and social history projects. The learning around crafts and skills also has prompted me to think about intangible heritage and how we could explore that in my workplace.

Prehistoric pottery in the Archaeological Museum, Sofia

Visiting a Thracian temple in the Bulgarian countryside

Tomb of Seuthes lll, developed as a tourist attraction in recent years

Hayley Shields

This was an amazing learning experience. It was augmented by the other participants who all had very different specialisms but we were linked in being heritage professionals. Hearing the insights of these colleagues every time we explored somewhere new allowed me to think of these places in different ways, and think about our own sites in a different light. Personally, I gained so much from the variety of cultural attractions we visited. Professionally, I learned so much from my colleagues from Scotland.

Bulgaria has a real focus on the local. Although provenance is important in Scotland when it comes to catering and retail, in Bulgaria it is something that just seems to come naturally. The cheese is made in the local area. The beer is made down the road. The lamb soup is a traditional dish, homemade today (this was the only food we did not enjoy in Bulgaria). This did not seem to be consistently promoted, which can also be an issue in Scotland. Etara of course did this very well, promoting the traditional skills and materials, locally made on site. I think this is something we can really learn from. My luggage was overflowing on the journey home, and every item is special and will always remind me of a wonderful learning journey.

Traditional lamb soup and an example of wood carving


Hannah Teasdale

The opportunity to explore a new country with other museum professionals was a truly unique experience. To see so much that was new and very different in ways to our own museum culture and to be able to discuss that with other professionals from both countries created stimulating debate on both sides.

The particular aspect that resonates with me is the desire to keep heritage craft skills alive, although in parts of Scotland this is a focus, it does not seem to have the drive that I witnessed in Bulgaria; to not only respect the heritage traditions but to also focus on it being an active way of engaging with tourists and locals alike.

The attitude of trying to integrate archaeological sites with a growing city is another area that struck me. As heritage sites face growing pressures to be commercially viable, there may be something in the way that Bulgaria has found solutions, sites becoming parts of hotels or shopping arcades. Can both work well together and do they benefit the community?


Sophie Watt

The training course provided an opportunity to visit a number of different heritage sites and museums across Bulgaria, as well as meet the professionals presenting Bulgaria’s heritage to the public at these locations. Without the structure of the course, engaging in so many activities across such a broad area would have been difficult; and this facilitated a more informed insight into the working practices of the heritage sector for the country, as well as of Bulgarian culture, life and history nationally and in different regions. I learnt a lot from our guide regarding this. The programme also provided a unique opportunity to share this experience with other professionals working in Scotland’s heritage sector, with benefits including gaining new insights and knowledge from those with different interests, specialisms, roles and from other organisational bodies within the sector, as well as developing my understanding of the importance of supporting heritage colleagues and projects around the country. The programme has reinforced the value I place on supporting visitor engagement, and I will be using the insights and perspectives I have gained about programming and interpretation, particularly the emphasis on people and their experiences, to create more accessible and engaging spaces and collections for visitors. I will also try to utilise digital interpretation and the outdoor environment of my venue to support visitor engagement.

Beverley Ballin Smith

The opportunity to experience a different culture with a wide range of craft traditions, and to talk to curators, guides and crafts people/artists were the main objects of my visit, and this was amply and successfully fulfilled by the course. One of my personal highlights was staying in Veli and Encho’s house and experiencing home cooking of traditional food. Having the opportunity of ‘working with’ a renowned potter, seeing his work, and my attempt to make a pot in clay will always remain with me. We all have skills, and being able to pass them on to others is so important. This is something I should be doing both personally and at work. Also, the course has inspired me to do more crafts and to pursue learning skills to make pottery by hand.

I learnt that Bulgarians highly value tradition, skills and ideas, and pass them on. It would have been interesting to visit the Crafts School in Troyan or the Mountain Guides School when they were open, to see a new generation learning their skills. Today, we ignore the fact that craft skills are not being adequately passed on to the young in the UK, although new ventures have been initiated by HES for trainee stone-masons and others, for example. However, it is the simpler and more traditional crafts such as forest wood working, vernacular building construction skills, weaving, knitting etc., among others that we forget are part of our cultural heritage. Hand working should be encouraged in the UK.

I also learnt that there are heritage communities in Bulgaria that may occasionally need a helping hand such as by fundraising and making others aware of what they are trying to do. The question of how I can help is something I need to give thought to, as well as how I can have some sort of positive impact on what they do. Communication is undoubtedly the key, and I am hoping that our guide and a museum curator from Bulgaria may be able to come over to a Community Heritage Conference being held in Scotland in the autumn, to help spread the word about their rich culture, that we experienced a little of on the course.

Having a go at Encho’s Craft-people’s work at Oreshak The new Hotalich medieval fortress and town

Final Thoughts

For all of us the course was educational, inspiring and humbling. We have taken away with us information from curators and others maintaining their museums and collections while trying to be innovatory, often with very little money. We discovered that some curators who had visited Scotland previously had taken back with them ideas that they had put into practice. In return, we have learnt from their innovations, determination, and from their problems. There are ideas we can try to implement into our workplaces, for the benefit of individuals and communities, but above all there is much still to assimilate from our rich experiences in Bulgaria.


We would like to thank the following for supporting our training course Erasmus+ and NET, European Development plans of ARCH and its consortium members including, Historic Environment Scotland, National Trust for Scotland and City of Glasgow Museums. Velis Chilingirova was our guide and local organiser and Evtim Peychev was our very capable driver.

Blog Post Location

Recent Posts