Bulgaria Exchange: Eileen Cook

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From 11th to 19th July I attended a Cultural and Historical Heritage Exchange to Bulgaria. The impetus to this decision came from the 2nd year Environmental Management Students at SRUC when we were studying the contribution of Sustainable Tourism to the development of the Scottish Rural Economy. As part of this module students each have to choose a particular area to study, preparing a poster and portfolio on the impact of tourism on the local economy and society.

A number of the students asked if it were possible to undertake a study of another EU country, or indeed to compare between rural Scotland and another place. The Bulgaria exchange promised, inter alia, an experience that could be used to good effect in developing such an approach for future students.

The Learning Outcomes for the participants in the exchange were as follows:

  1. Understand the legacy of Thracians, Greeks (Macedonians) and Romans in terms of building, engineering, art and craft
  2. See how marketing of local products uses the archaeological and historical legacy.
  3. See cultural tourism in action and the diverse cultural assets are used to educate tourists (and suggest improvements)
  4. Recognise the place of cultural crafts and local foods, which use sustainable local materials and have ancient roots, in maintaining cultural landscape and ‘sense of place’
  5. Trace the ancient craft legacy into Bulgaria’s patrimony and see modern examples of ceramics and weaving that have links to ancient peoples
  6. Be able to transfer ideas and systems for sustainable rural development to new situations.

Learning Outcome 6 was obviously the one that most directly tied with the work done in the module. However all the other outcomes clearly linked to the module which looks at the role of Scottish culture and history, crafts, local food (taste the view) and the environment in building a Sustainable Tourism Product. The importance of education and responsible tourism are also emphasized.

Did the exchange fulfill the outcomes? The answer has to be to the affirmative.

The legacy of Thracians, Greeks (Macedonians) and Romans in terms of building, engineering, art and craft was very well covered throughout the exchange, more particularly in the first few days.   The initial arrival and departure point (Sofia) and the visit to Plovdiv (ancient Philipopolis) gave us a good background to understanding the importance of Bulgaria’s Roman remains. In Hissaryia we built on this understanding and also looked at the importance of the Thracyian contribution. The latter was also covered on the 4th day as we travelled to Kazanlak and onwards.

A special thanks to the Museums in Hissarya and Kasanlak for helping in both building the context and considering the educational problems.

We also experienced many examples of cultural tourism and diverse cultural assets, as well as how the marketing of local products can use archeological and historical legacy.

The Etara ethnographic complex is an excellent outdoor museum which offers people of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to experience the practicalities of craft work, to study history and to buy exceptional merchandise. This complex has a hotel and children’s corner and is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to understand the place of cultural crafts and local food in sustainable tourism. The village also provides an excellent study in the use of waterpower: although in historical context lessons for a sustainable future are also to be learnt.

This visit was rounded off with an excellent talk with the curator of ethnography before we had our fourth local evening meal.

The 6th day provided interesting reminders that culture is a very broad term and that there are many ways of presenting the history of peoples, when we visited the Museum of Humour in Gabrova. An afternoon visit to Hotalich medieval remains, adapted for tourism, demonstrated another aspect of Bulgaria’s history. This broader approach was reflected in the later visit to the Polythecnical museum in Sofia.

A special mention must be given to the Troyan Museum of Crafts. This is an excellent museum at all levels. Situated in a building with a long history of its own, it details the history of the folk crafts of the region including textiles, pottery, metalwork and woodturning.

The arrangement of the exhibits is chronological and the information detailed and accessible to all age groups. All the exhibits have detailed information about their place in both the geography and history of the region and give a good understanding of the development of land use in the region. Visitors can choose the level of detail they wish to achieve with a selection of ‘apps’ being available to those who wish to see more about how people actually worked in the sector. This facility is particularly attractive for school groups. I would love to be able to take my students to visit, to demonstrate what can be done. The National Exhibition of crafts in Oreshak provided a good complementary visit.

The exchange also gave interesting insights into the other aspects of the local economy with visits to both a winery and rose water complex. Both are adapted to visitors as well as production.

Did I fulfill my objectives?

One of the major attractions of the exchange had been the opportunity to visit and learn more about the Central Balkan National Park and it’s role in encouraging Sustainable and Responsible Tourism in Bulgaria. This opened up the opportunity of comparing with the role of Scotland’s National Park. Although the Park was not billed as one of the attractions of the exchange, there was plenty of opportunity to become familiar with it. I was particularly impressed with the Eco Guest House that we stayed in for 2 nights, an excellent example of a family run sustainable enterprise (at all levels) completely in line with the tourism goals of the park.   This was an exception, however, and it must be said that sustainable business practices are yet to make much of an impact in some of Bulgaria’s facilities. Perhaps that is the next area to be developed, after the work in Heritage conservation.

I had visited Bulgaria on one occasion in the past: it was the 1970’s and I was not long graduated in Economics.   Bulgaria 40 years later is a very different place and I certainly learnt more from this visit. I was impressed by the efforts to reclaim their long history and to teach others about it, both in a local and more regional context. Loved the food! The visit demonstrated that culture is complex: and responsible and sustainable tourism an ever moving goal.

Big thank-you to all who contributed their time and expertise to help on this exchange: in particular to Velis Chilingirova of the Devetaki Plateau Association.

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