Bulgaria 11/07-19/07/2015 Cultural & Historical Exchange Visit

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In July I took part in a structured study visit to Bulgaria visiting a wide range of cultural sites covering the full spectrum of cultural heritage: historic buildings and towns; archaeological sites; museums; traditional crafts and skills; and intangible heritage and traditions.
My own profession is in art with an interest in architecture ancient and modern.
The study visit offered a great opportunity to observe and learn about Bulgaria’s artistic and cultural heritage dating from the prehistoric finds held in museum collections, from Roman and Thracian archaeological sites visited, right up to current output from working artists in craft and fine art by studio visits (Milko Dachev, painter and Encho Gankovski, Ceramic artist).

For me as an artist it was a great privilege to visit artists in their studios especially to find Encho, ceramic artist using similar hand-building techniques as my own albeit with different aesthetic influences.
The celebration and preservation of traditional crafts have not been abandoned in Bulgaria. Artists continue to keep traditional craft practice alive in pottery, woodwork, braid, silversmith, etc. near Gabrovo, in the Etara architectural ethnographic complex. This is an open air museum; a recreated working village, with architecture style typical in the Bulgarian Renaissance period.


– opened 1964, much of the machinery used to produce craft was water powered, and still is! All the craft workers, selected through competition, offering technique demonstrations and the opportunity to purchase direct from them rent the shop units but all must demonstrate traditional craft. This museum offers visitors with inside knowledge through education from professional craftworkers/artists as well as offering artists a secure job with excellent retail opportunities.

I observed that some established contemporary potters showing at The National Exhibition of Craft and Arts, Oreshak continue to produce their own work using their interpretation of traditional decorating techniques and distinctive pattern and colour using terracotta (red) clay sourced locally, although it’s interesting to see some of the upcoming new generation of artists breaking away from the traditional styles completely. (Photo below shows an established maker with his work in the back ground display. I learned the black and white vessels in the foreground were designed and made by his daughter following her father’s footsteps.
Etara, through its museum accreditation, tourism and engagement with children and adults in site specific workshops will ensure skills and traditions in craft will not be forgotten.


The most striking first impression of this museum was the building itself built 1974-78, Split level interior with gallery areas, built in concrete typical of 1970s architecture.
Many curators in the UK would be horrified but I appreciated the way many of the Neolithic, Roman, Thracian and other clay artifacts were displayed – simply, on plinths, without glass although it made the objects vulnerable to damage. It allowed close inspection from most angles and access to peer inside to see marks made by the maker all these centuries ago. (I realise I’m in a minority of people that feel the need to look inside to appreciate the build process!) .


Bulgaria has architectural styles from throughout its colourful history. From the typical Bulgarian houses made from adobe brick (sun dried compacted mud bricks) , grand Neo-Baroque, Neo-Classical – Derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture, Brutalist concrete buildings and in the old part of Plovdiv the Bulgarian National Revival, a period of Bulgarian Renaissance during the 19th century just before Ottoman rule ended. This mix of styles is best illustrated with a few photos.


As an artist specialising in Ceramics in Scotland I was particularly interested in this part of the cultural exchange trip.
Throughout the tour of the central region of Bulgaria the ongoing pottery production and celebration of traditional craft and design was evident not only in shops for purchase but also in everyday use on the dinner table and in restaurants.
Our tour of the museum in Troyan was facilitated by Desislava Vutova who not only guided us through the museum collection but took the time to answer any of our many questions fully, expertly and in good humour.

The layout of the museum, information, also presented in English, and display of artifacts, offered visitors an interesting and informative experience of indigenous Bulgarian craft including woodwork, metalwork and textiles.
I offer you a glimpse…

I teach and produce hand-built ceramics. It was inspiring to see the finest original examples from the ancient Greek and Roman vessels and the decorated Troyan earthenware pottery dating back to 1850’s in comparison to the widely available contemporary pieces produced for everyday use and tourist trade.
Techniques such as Sprigging, scraffito and the use of coloured slip or engobes in decoration are also used here in Scotland. However, the motifs and pattern observed in the museum and local shops are more unique to Bulgaria. Most notable is the “Troyan Drop” where the greenware (unfired clay piece) or bisc is covered in Engobe or slip with more colours being added by slip trailer tool in concentric circles and blobs with the final dragged pattern created by drawing lines with a sharp point to the centre of the work or either combing or trailing to create the signature Troyan design.
The museum video shorts offered an excellent, easily understood and enjoyable visual demonstration of all the traditional pottery decorating techniques that made the mysteries of the making process accessible by all.
Pottery and sculpture is my main area of interest, however, I enjoyed all the sections of the museum for the clarity of display leaving with a good understanding and appreciation of all aspects of Bulgarian traditional crafts that I look forward to sharing with my students.


Before visiting Bulgaria I had very little knowledge of the Thracians that predate the Romans.
We were fortunate to visit the site of Kazanlak tomb which is the most famous in the Valley of the Thracian Kings. This site is included in the World heritage UNESCO list so is now well protected against further deterioration or damage. We could however enter a reproduction close to the site. What an amazing find to discover the beautiful frescos.
The Thracians were accomplished metal workers producing magnificent gold and silver jewellery and embellishments. Many of the gold exhibits were on loan to the Louvre. We were however able to see some examples plus replica mask.


In Hissarya we visited the archaeological site of Roman Baths part of the 4th-5th century town of Dioclecianopolis. Our expert guide was Dr Madzharov who also took us to the Archeological Museum. I was impressed with the huge ceramic pots at the entrance and once again was inspired by many of the of the museums artifacts.

Having personally sampled the skin softening properties of the naturally warm mineral water freely available for all to drink at numerous fountains around Hisarya, the Romans clearly knew how to live.
It was very very hot in July but a welcome brief cool down was enjoyed in the Roman tomb close to the baths complex. I was amazed to see some fragments of the Roman frescoes could still be faintly identified.

In Sofia we were shown some Roman ruins that had only been discovered during excavation to expand the underground rail network in the centre of the city. Naturally all building work ceased while archaeology conservation and research takes place. This is not unusual. The fabulous Amphitheatre in Plovdiv was discovered again by accident and is now a huge local and tourist favourite as part of the old town. We visited a hotel in Sofia, Arena Serdica, that had suffered the same fate during development. The solution to these finds was truly inspired. The hotel design was altered to make a feature of the ruins as well as making free access to them available. I witnessed the same treatment in a pedestrian underpass at the site of the Roman stadium ruins in Plovdiv. It’s the perfect way to celebrate the past and incorporate it into the future.


In 2019 Plovdiv is European Capital of Culture. We toured Kapanno, craft area and old town after a brief stop at the roman road. Remarkably the roman ruins with chunks of carved details still clearly visible strewn across the site easily accessible to all in open air. I feel certain some of these carved stones would have found their way into gardens here in the UK.
With an abundance of Art Galleries and Museums it would certainly be the place to visit.


As you can see we packed in a great deal into a relatively short time. My poor brain had almost reached capacity buzzing with information and visual stimulation so ideas started to form for my own artistic practice and tutor work before I’d even left Bulgarian soil.
I’m glad to have taken so many photos!
Our visit to The Museum of Humour, Gabrovo coincided with the 22nd INTERNATIONAL BIENNIAL OF HUMOUR AND SATIRE IN THE ARTS – 2015. Our guide, museum curator invited me to submit a proposal for consideration to the next biennale in 2017.
Finally I leave you with tasty photos of some of the food we enjoyed from our hosts and local restaurants, often served on traditional hand crafted pottery. All ingredients locally sourced and fresh.

My thanks to Erasmus+ for funding, ARCH for project promotion and Devetaki Plateau Assocation the host partner working together to make this opportunity possible.

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