It was interesting to hear that despite training opportunities there is not much uptake by young people to follow a career path in crafts. Many leave rural areas and head to the larger towns and cities for employment. The model of an apprenticeship whereby the individual receives training through a dual system is an approach which works well. This involves a combination of theoretic training in an educational establishment combined with practical training in a crafts enterprise.
The Association was set up after our host Velis and her co-worker Iva were touring the villages of the Plateau more than a decade ago and looking into ways they could help the region develop for the benefit of the residents. They discovered people in neighbouring villages with similar interests but no communication between them, a lack of accommodation for visitors, and rich cultural and natural heritage – worth sharing – that had been ignored, mistreated or neglected. Relying on the memories and experiences of local people, they found and cleared up some of these sites, installing interpretation and path networks, and advertised them in tourist guides. Visitor numbers went from 15,000 per year to more than 250,000 in only a few years
Infrastructure improvements are generally costly, but DTA has made significant inroads into connecting the villages to twenty-first century Bulgaria and the rest of the world by the installation of publicly available internet facilities in each of the community centres. Residents, with suitable training, are thus able to read news, contact relatives, order goods and otherwise develop and maintain contacts with other parts of Bulgaria and the wider world. DTA has also initiated language classes, a project which has many potential benefits in the wider tourism strategy for the area.
At the cultural centre, we chat with the ladies, who welcome us with evident pride, about the people and stories of Gorsko Slivovo. The gallery space provides powerful juxtaposition: on one wall, dark eyes stare, four mothers dressed in black, four sons sacrificed, partisan scenes of resistance and death. A shrine remembers oppressions past, Soviet, Ottoman, Roman; on the other wall, paintings of traditional dress, costumes of colour and hope, the shepherds practical garb, lively animals and fertile fields. The promise of bounty and celebration of a community, who knew it is only the land, which has always been there, and through commitment sustains them. Like some ongoing conversation across the gallery, these faces of Bulgaria continue to speak.
This is one of the faces of Walltopia – a Bulgaria company and a global leader in climbing wall manufacture. It belongs to the Mountain Guides training school in Troyan on the Devistashko Plateau, established in 2013. Marco, one of the teachers here, tells us that students arrive aged 14, and leave six years later with a range of skills including cultural tourism, mountain biking skills, navigation and first aid.
We have returned home from our trip to Bulgaria refreshed with new ideas and an insight into how other European countries approach connecting communities with their natural and historical environment. Bulgaria takes a holistic approach by including arts, heritage, festivals, folklore and history into their engagement around our natural and cultural heritage. They encourage their citizens to engage in crafts using inspiration from the natural world, to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature and to conserve special places for future generations.
Our short but fabulous visit to central Bulgaria, demonstrated without any doubt that the Bulgarian people maintain, and continue to foster, a deep and genuine respect for their identity through their cultural heritage. Their high regard for ancient traditional skills and crafts are embraced with a proud consideration, and this is ultimately clearly demonstrated by the way they incorporate ancient traditional skills and crafts into modern day life.
The challenge for the people that live in the small houses, farms, villages and towns within and around the Central Balkan National Park and on the Devetaki Plateau is to keep their connection with nature. To hang on to it whilst embarking on the journey to market and promote their diverse heritage. To enjoy it and allow others to do so as development and tourism in this fascinating country inevitably grows.
The trip has also given me ideas of what festivals I could consider planning around peatlands – incorporating things like folk music and culture like we saw with the Plum Festival on the first day. These seasonal festivals provide a link back to nature, its products and its importance to local communities.
Through combining both of these aspects into the trip, which are perhaps often seen somewhat as contrasting ways to understand the biodiversity, whilst additionally learning about the rich history and traditions of the country, this has provided a valuable insight into how well-rounded disseminating information can be done, integrating many perspectives for understanding the environment into a single day alone to link together and catch the attention of visitors when communicating conservation to the public.