Connecting people with cultural and natural heritage in Bulgaria, and lessons for Scotland

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Connecting people with cultural and natural heritage in Bulgaria, and lessons for Scotland

By Katherine Murphy, Trees for Life

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Cultural and Natural Heritage in Bulgaria

Devetaki Cave

Bulgaria is a country rich with heritage, both cultural and natural. Its location in Europe means that there is a long history of human occupation. Remains have been found of Neanderthal activity dating to around 150,000 years ago[1]. Since then the Bulgarian landscape has been inhabited, or regularly traversed, by Thracians, Persians, Celts, ancient Macedonians and Romans and the Ottoman Empire; each leaving their mark on the landscape and culture of the country today in the form of ruins and remains, traditional foods and crafts, and the Bulgarian language.

In terms of natural heritage an UNESCO report from 2013 suggests that Bulgaria’s biodiversity is amongst the richest in Europe[2]. More than 35% of its land area is covered with forest (though this figure does not distinguish between natural forests and plantations)[3]. During our trip in early October 2019 we were mostly exploring the karst landscape of the Devetaki plateau – of which the Devetaki Cave and Krushuna Falls were highlights.

A Roman amphitheatre in the middle of Plovdiv

Cultural heritage sites visited included the Roman thermal complex of Diocletianopolis in modern Hisarya, Roman remains in Plovdiv and in the centre of the country’s capital Sofia, Troyan Museum of Crafts, Troyan Monastery with its famous frescoes, Lovech and Hotalich fortresses, cultural centres in the villages of Gorsko Slivovo and Kramolin, and we also experienced the lively annual Pumpkin festival in Sevlievo.

Connection through interpretation and experience

Heritage is valued across the world for several reasons – it can provide income and boost a region’s economy through tourism, it informs us about the way people lived in the past, it can be explored and enjoyed in the present, and it can connect people with their culture and roots. One way of connecting people with heritage is to provide interpretation – to describe, explain and provide context for what people are seeing. We encountered many different styles of heritage interpretation over the course of our week-long stay, from traditional displays and signage to augmented reality phone apps.

Our metallic Roman friend

At the Roman Thermal Baths in the remains of Diocletianopolis visitors were invited to download an app – ‘Hisarya Tour Walk’ – to aid in the exploration of the remains. Two or three of us managed to download it via the patchy 4G and were delighted to discover that through holding our phone screens up at the first prompt at the entrance, we were greeted by a life-sized, rather metallic, Roman man! It was unclear who this virtual man was, as he only spoke Bulgarian, but he certainly added a dimension of fun to the visit. Other prompts showed us 3D representations of carved pillars and pottery remains.

The cultural centres of two of the villages we visited offered an interesting contrast to interpretation in the UK. These buildings are multi-purpose it seems, acting as pharmacies, libraries, theatres, meeting places, cafes and sources of information for local people. Both centres contained displays of traditional cultural clothing and household items, old photographs, and in one case, a display cabinet of gifts from the home countries of some of their guests. There was minimal or no interpretation with these items, and what interpretation there was was in Bulgarian only. This got me thinking – what is the purpose of these displays? And why recreate a traditional living room in a small room in a small village hall, with no advertising of its existence?

(L) The museum in Gorsko Slivovo village cultural centre, showing the ‘living room’ display in the background and cabinets of donated items in the foreground. Many photos of local people and their ancestors adorn the walls.

(R) Bulgarian ‘living room’ display in the cultural centre of Kramolin village

I can only assume that this is a way people in rural areas who are still more connected to their history and heritage can keep traditions and knowledge of local history alive both for their own sake and to proudly display to city folk touring the countryside, and foreign guests like our group when they visit.

Our group getting a wire jewellery making masterclass

Another way to connect people with heritage is through immersive experiences. The Devetaki Plateau Association, co-founded by our host Velis, has been encouraging and supporting traditional skills and rural development in the towns and villages of the Plateau since 2008, and one element of this has been to encourage tourism through the use of B&B-style guest houses.

We stayed in two such guest houses – Bilkarska Herbal House in Gorsko Slivovo and Eko Art Guest House in Drashkova Polyana village. During our stays at these guest houses we were treated to traditional meals made with fresh, local (often home-grown) ingredients – entirely different food to the kind we had in the cities – sampled some local Bulgarian wine and traditional rakia (plum brandy), and had workshops and demonstrations provided by our hosts in pottery and jewellery making. Through offering these workshops as part of the tourist experience, the crafts themselves, as well as the objects produced, remain a valued part of the culture, and provide a way for Bulgarians to keep traditional crafts alive whilst making a living; something which social and economic changes in recent decades have made very difficult.

Interpretation of heritage for protection

Heritage is interpreted for public awareness, connection to a people’s or area’s past, profit, promotion of tourism to an area, and, importantly, for protection. In places where a fee is charged for entry, such as the Diocletianopolis thermal complex, or Devetaki cave, it could be assumed that these sites were monetised to make a profit for the people running them. But the fees were relatively small, and the amount of interpretation and maintenance needed (plus insurance, staff costs etc.) would, I imagine, render any profit from entrance fees minimal. What charging a fee allows, however, is for those things – staff, insurance, interpretation – and others such as walkways, path creation and safety barriers to be put in place, allowing heritage to be further protected, even as visitor numbers rise.

Minimal interpretation and poor maintenance at Sostra

There was a clear difference between interpretation styles and the general condition of the sites between those we visited for free, such as the Roman fortress Sostra, where interpretation was limited and mostly in Bulgarian, and those which charged an entrance fee, like Diocletianopolis thermal complex.

Making it back to safety after descending into the cave

One of the natural heritage sites we visited stands out for me in this respect. We paid a short visit to Garavnitsa (Raven’s) Cave, where the Devetaki Plateau Association holds an annual jazz festival. The large cave is in the middle of the area used for the festival. A metal staircase leads down into the base of the sinkhole/collapsed cave. Text scratched into the cooling concrete of the entrance to the steps suggests that they were installed in 1990, and they don’t seem to have had much maintenance since then. Most of our group, being unable to resist an adventure, risked these steps for a look into the cave at the bottom, and found metal steps warped, appearing on the verge of collapse, and trod lightly.

Whilst presumably there is an entrance fee for the jazz festival, the cave itself is freely accessible, at least to anyone who knows where it is. This means the site itself has little money flowing into its maintenance. Stone shelters were burnt out and litter left around them, and the toilets were in a sorry state. The introduction of an entrance fee here could allow for maintenance costs, interpretation and staffing – which would also serve to reduce the vandalism the site experiences.

The Devetaki Plateau Association – a story of success in heritage connection

While some tourist attractions in Bulgaria clearly serve similar purposes to those we find in the UK – the Troyan museum showcasing cultural heritage for locals and tourists alike, for instance – the Devetaki Plateau Association is something that, to me, seems very unique.

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 years9.

The Iron Age bronze deer figure, found near Sevlievo, which inspired the DPA’s logo

The Association encourages a kind of holistic tourism. The goal is not to advertise only a certain attraction – a waterfall, or cave, or museum – but to promote the entire region with its myriad attractions as one destination. In addition to promoting heritage visits, it seeks to make tourism sustainable and beneficial to local people through encouraging the set-up of guest houses and tourist experiences in the local villages which tourists will stop for where they used to merely drive through. This can be compared to regional tourism in the UK – people visit an area and find sources of information about heritage sites to visit, as well as accommodation and food, usually through things like the government-funded VisitBritain. The difference with the DPA is that it has very much been a grassroots effort, begun by residents, and its goal is to directly benefit the local people and landscape of the Plateau to ensure its cultural and natural heritage are protected into the future.

Our wine tasting set-up in the garden of the Herbal House guesthouse

Lessons for Scotland

I work as a community engagement officer for a charity, engaging local people through public events like guided walks, talks and activity days, and running educational activities for school groups.

Our visit to Bulgaria gave me a look at a broad range ways of communicating heritage to people from audiences at the global scale and local. I found the work of the Devetaki Plateau Association particularly inspiring and relevant to my work. After digesting everything I saw and learned, the following elements will inform my future engagement activities:

  • Encouraging communication between local areas e.g. bringing people together at events
  • Offer something different / keep up with the times e.g. augmented reality, hands-on workshops
  • Make the most of local knowledge and heritage e.g. drawing on and recording local people’s knowledge
  • Consult with local people, include them in decision-making
  • Find key contacts and reach others through them e.g. representatives from each village or from community organisations
  • Encourage people to enjoy and look after natural heritage e.g. interpretation about the formation and wildlife of Devetaki Cave, walks around Krushuna Falls
  • Keep people connected to heritage through interpretation and hands-on experiences e.g. guest house workshops, collected local knowledge in a museum/archive
  1. Tillier, Anne-Marie; Sirakov, Nikolay; Guadelli, Aleta; Fernandez, Philippe; Sirakova, Svoboda (October 2017). “Evidence of Neanderthals in the Balkans: The infant radius from Kozarnika Cave (Bulgaria)”. Journal of Human Evolution111 (111): 54–62. 
  2. Species biodiversity in Bulgaria (2013) UNESCO.
  3. UNData, 2019.

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