Bulgaria Net 2015 Stuart Eydmann

Posted by

Erasmus+ Structured Training Course

Devetaki Plateau Association

‘Understanding the cultural impact of ancient peoples and applying ancient skills’

Bulgaria 11th – 19th July 2015


My first visit to Bulgaria was in late summer 1974 as part of a trip I made through Eastern Europe. I was just about to enter my fourth and final year at Glasgow School of Art but was unsure about what career I wished to pursue. Crossing from the Danube Delta in Romania we spent some time by the Black Sea before heading inland and stopping at the ancient town of Tornovo:


This made an immediate impression on me and helped cement my developing interest in smaller historic towns, their history and how they might be conserved and managed. Sofia I found a bit more overwhelming and quite unlike anywhere I had ever visited before:


At that time I was also particularly struck by the music we heard as we travelled – Bulgarian folk music was pumped out of speakers on lampposts and played in railway and bus stations. On one occasion I fell asleep to the sound of women walking home past our camp site singing traditional songs in unison. I liked what I heard very much and it suggested ways that Scottish music, one of my passions but then still a minority interest, could be developed.

As it turned out, I subsequently pursued a career in historic building conservation combined with an academic and practical interest in Scottish music and I now work, teach and mentor others in these fields.

It was with my persisting, but increasingly distant memories and impressions of Bulgaria that I applied to join seven other Scottish experts on this Erasmus+ programme. I was particularly keen to learn how matters of the built historic environment are handled and to gain an understanding of how so called ‘intangible cultural heritage’ relates to this and is addressed in Bulgaria as a whole as this is an area with some current relevance in Scotland. I also understood that Bulgaria is an enthusiastic player in the field of intangible cultural heritage and holds key positions within UNESCO, so wished to experience this for myself.

The following report summaries my response to the visit in relation to my aspirations and the anticipated outcomes of the programme. Rather than providing a chronological narrative of the trip I offer my impressions and thoughts under a series of themes. This, I hope, will complement the reports of my colleagues which will cover other areas in more detail and the excellent reports by others who have participated in programmes in this area previously. I make no apologies for offering so many images as words alone would not do the visit justice.

The Devetaki Plateau Association is a civic organization established in 2008. The Founders were 55 people from 9 villages from 3 municipalities – Sevlievo, Letnitsa, Lovech, who had never worked together before. To change this, DPA founded a real bottom-up organisation motivated to work for sustainable development of the whole region. Their membership has grown to 141 members from various backgrounds and occupation – farmers, cultural figures, young people, local authorities, retired people, NGOs and businesses. The organisational structure includes: General Assembly as a governing body, a 9-member Board of Directors to run the operational tasks and a Control Committee to see for proper management of funds. The team – 2 full-time experts, is experienced in sustainable local development, good governance and citizen participation.

DPA aims at sustainable development of the area supporting innovative ideas of local people and converting them into projects.  They organise forums in the villages to identify needs and steps. Their main activities include training for local people: civil participation, planning, outdoor recreation, sustainable tourism.  Through a range of European programmes DPA send local people of different backgrounds to exchanges and training in other EU countries, in rural areas similar to the Devetaki Plateau. They aim to improve the life in the villages through renovation of the environment and improvement of tourist infrastructure. During the last 4 years DPA hosted exchanges of experts from the UK in the fields of environmental and cultural heritage management. DPA have managed projects funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Balkan Trust for Democracy, Open Society Institute, Leonardo da Vinci Program, the Norwegian Cooperation Program and America for Bulgaria Foundation. DPA have established 9 Information Centres in the villages where they have installed computers, printers, copy machines and Internet.


Our host and guide on the programme was the very attentive, highly organised and enterprising Velislava Chilingirova. Velis is the project coordinator whose roles include the organisation of meetings; training and discussions; contacts with the village representatives; preparation of programs for placements, exchanges and training of students and experts; sustainable tourism and rural development; guided tours; interpretation of cultural and natural heritage.

Bricks and Mortar

We did not major on the built historic environment and, for me, that was no bad thing as I was keen to broaden my understanding of cultural heritage. However, there was much to see and learn from in the historic towns and buildings we encountered. In the ‘architectural reserve’ (almost the direct equivalent of our ‘conservation area’) of the old town of Plovdiv,or ‘Philipopolis’ as it was known in ancient times, it was interesting to note the efforts being made to assimilate new building with the grain, form and character of the existing urban fabric. Materials, colours, window to wall rations, door and window proportions, colours, building heights and roof forms were all clearly chosen to ‘fit in’. Some buildings were in very good external quality indeed and I suspected a loss of the gentle weathering and decay that can often make historic towns interesting as the area becomes ‘gentrified’:



The city is soon to be European City of Culture and no doubt this will bring increased pressure for ‘improvement’ and change. The effects of this are already becoming manifest in the downtown commercial areas where investment has clearly been taking place.


By contrast, it was a joy (for me) to find later on a walkabout in the town of Gabrovo this very early timber-framed house, perhaps medieval (?), of the style once found in Scottish towns, including Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow, but long removed due to fire and burgh regulation that required replacement in stone:


The outer (clay?) plaster skin of this house was kindly peeled back to allow close observation of the underlying structure of hand-made clay bricks and a timber frame:


Looking up into the house I could see the furniture of the last occupant still in place. The side elevation was equally instructive:Building-at-Risk-3

Across the street was a grander timber house, perhaps once owned by a merchant. It was not clear to me whether this property was undergoing renovation or not:


I hope that such buildings are being recorded while there is still a chance to do so. The need for, and potential of such work, has already been demonstrated by the Survey- House of Karpachev report of previous partners Darren Barker, Douglas Campbell, Richard Jordan, Naiomi Kempton and Russell Rowley. I saw many historic ‘buildings at risk’ on our travels and wonder too whether there is any strategy for addressing the challenges they present. Scotland can offer much good practice in this field. This structure, for instance, is in the spa town of Hissarya and, like others there, is being blighted by legislative provisions around archaeology that are said to place unreasonable demands on developers seeking to invest in them:


In Hissarya, Sofia and in Plovdiv we saw how much is being made of the Roman remains and there is a presumption that once found they should be made accessible to the public. This is good for tourism, bringing added value, identity and pride to places, but combining the preservation and interpretation of sites with modern urban life can be demanding. In Plovidiv we were stunned by the recently rediscovered and (conjecturally) reconstructed amphitheatre:


It was here that we were charmed by an impromptu performance by a Japanese amateur choir, an ancient building being used for its original purpose:

I was pleased to view the brutalist and appropriately modernist structure supporting and providing access to the re-assembled antique fragments from behind:


To my eye, the drive to ‘make something’ of ancient ruins has, in the past at least, seen some cutting of corners when it comes to repair methods and materials. For instance, the reconstructed arch over one of the gates at the walled town of Hissarya is now suffering due to the use of cement-rich mortar that will, no doubt, require costly re-intervention before long:


Elsewhere in the town, more recent works are more exemplary and we learned that working on such sites is restricted to an approved list of contractors. This Roman bath site is very attractive, with effective floodlighting at night, and may offer opportunities for further interpretation or animation:


This other Roman site was discovered in Sofia during constriction works for a new, upmarket hotel. In this case the developer incorporated the remains within the public spaces of the building and turned it into a central feature that can also be used for receptions etc..:


The Etera Ethnographic complex is an open-air museum focused on relocated and replica buildings. I have been conditioned to approach such sites with a degree of scepticism but over the years have come to be fascinated by them. Skagen in Denmark and Colonial Williamsburg in the United States are benchmarks for such sites that are popular and highly effective in education. I was not disappointed by Etera and enjoyed our interaction with the managerial and curatorial staff. Seeing the village animated at night by open air theatre in and around the buildings really brought the place alive. Any chance of open air theatre on the streets of Culross?


From what I saw there and elsewhere, the use of the replica is quite widespread in Bulgaria. This is a perfectly valid means of interpreting a site or object if the original cannot be made accessible and a responsible approach to the new item is taken. I was impressed by this Thracian tomb at Kazanlak where a complete, walk-in, copy has been created. The frescoes have been copied precisely, including signs of ageing, drips and damp stains:


I am fascinated by building crafts and materials and how these vary with the landscape and prevailing architectural requirements. I have already mentioned by delight at encountering sun-dried clay bricks…


…and there were stone roofs too, something known to us in Scotland also although rarely employed today:


Many buildings retained small original details and features which bring interest to the historic sites such as an old oak door in Plovdiv, old shop signs and, as here, distinctive door furniture. I was interested to see that almost identical items were still being made by some craft workers. This suggests that quality building restoration need not be hampered by skill shortages in this part of Bulgaria:


Driving through the countryside and thinking back to my visit in the 1970s, I thought a lot about the twentieth century architectural legacy. In Scotland we have been working for almost 30 years to ensure that the best of our buildings from the second half of the twentieth century are recognised and protected. This can be quite a challenge for heritage professionals as wider public attitudes, taste and perceptions are slow to catch up. From our observation it would appear that Bulgaria faces quite a legacy of redundant former public, industrial and agricultural buildings from the last century. I anticipate that may will be lost but suggest that there should be a careful consideration of the merits of each and good recording before any decisions are made. Again, Scotland has excellent experience and good practice in this area.

One 20th century public building that I really enjoyed at close hand was the community cultural centre in Hissarya. I’m glad I went exploring inside as I found the principal assembly space is graced by a massive mosaic. This really took my fancy – how craft was used in a modernist building to give it added value and significance. This would not have worked had the quality of the public art not been been so accomplished. I wonder how many other buildings contain gems like this:





The folk and popular traditions of Bulgaria clearly have a great potential in the field of cultural tourism and I was impressed by the ways in which these are privileged and have a central focus in museums. I was delighted, for instance, to see hand-crafted ritual costumes given pride of place in the fascinating Museum of Humour at Gabrovo:




I was left with the impression that people in Bulgaria like the idea of dressing up!

Art and Craft

On the evidence of what I saw, accomplished hand craft appears to have a central place in the visual arts of Bulgaria. This means that there is a emphasis on the accessible and where, the technical skill on display can be enjoyed, even if the message is not always obvious. The results of a summer art activity for children at Etera (we never saw the actual event) were most impressive including this mobile of transparent water spirits floating above the river:


The extensive temporary exhibition in the gallery of Museum of Humour featured mainly artists from Eastern Europe and, taken as a whole, the body of work had a wide range of styles including much figurative work that could easily have been produced thirty or forty years ago. ‘Were these by young or older artists?’, I asked myself.. and ‘who made the selection?’ I don’t know what it says on this shirt, but I liked it. Something about dichotomy or decision making perhaps? Left v. Right?


As always in gallery buildings, I spend much of my time looking at the building and how it works. This building was particularly interesting as it had been created from a former tannery complex. I loved these bespoke plant pots, from the 1970s I guess, that are SO retro-trendy today:


By contrast with the gallery and museum visits, we spent some time with Tryan artist Milko Danchev who fed us home-made yoghurt and allowed us to roam around his studio and garden:


As always on studio visits, I was captivated by the artist’s personal collection and arrangement of artefacts, that in this case bedecked every surface, as much as by the art output itself. It reminded me how artists often help us recognise the essential links between art, craft and tradition:Milko-2 Milko-1


My colleagues are more qualified to report on our experience with museums than I am but I was highly impressed by the well-organised yet informally laid out and displayed Museum of History at Kazanlak. Each of the the small number of objects was exquisite and nicely presented. Our discussion with Plamen the chief curator and other staff was highly enlightening but I was left with the impression that  museums in the West are travelling on a faster moving train in terms of marketing and activities:



In the centre of the town of Kazanlak we found an open air photographic display regarding its region, including traditions, architecture, people and crafts. The quality of the images and their display was outstanding by any standards:



Several museums displayed agricultural implements and explained rural practices, many old but others only recently lost. This is typical across Europe and it is always fascinating to find connections and contrasts with one’s own country:


Some of the figurative ceramic displays in Troyan had a rather nice folksy feel that recalled the Scottish pottery of the Forth fishing villages:


and we all fell in love with the hand crafted picture/sculptures on the history of humankind on display at the archaeological museum at Hissarya that had been made by a former theatrical costume designer:


Faith and Beliefs

I could have spent a whole day, or more, at the monastery at Troyan, a complex of many interesting components where there is much to demonstrate traditional construction, repair and conservation. I greatly appreciated the low-key, self-guided visitor experience although there was much I wished to know and bits I missed altogether as I spent too long watching some workmen prepare mortar and repair the masonry. It is also a place of strong spiritual significance for the community:




I presume the bunches of leaves, seen at Toyan and also in the Russian church at Schipka, are aspergillum used for the distribution of holy water?



Amid a surfeit of icons, some of which are very highly accomplished indeed, I was particularly struck by the folk art tradition of sacred painting by women on show in the excellent Museum of National Artistic Crafts at Troyan. This one, for example, reminded me of the folk icons I have seen in Ethiopia:


Our unscheduled stop at the Russian Memorial Church at Schipka was a nice surprise. Dating from the end of the nineteenth century it offers comparison with so many church buildings in Scotland from the same period. Inside I found a range of decorative treatments including some national romantic paintings that recall the work of Scottish artists such as the Celticist John Duncan:


contrasting with more traditional works:


and some overtly heroic imagery:


This practice, whereby fabric items are tied to trees, has parallels with fairy and wishing traditions in Scottish folk culture. In Bulgaria the process is somewhat more formalised and institutionalised. On March 1 people greet relatives with a Martenitza and these threads, braids and bracelets, etc.. are also placed on houses and pets to keep away evil spirits. They are worn during the coming month after which they are added to a tree in blossom. I presume that the use of red and white ribbon and braid also suggested that an ancient popular practice was nationalised at some time:


I saw a black bow like this on a number of houses. Does it signify that the occupants are in mourning? I think this tradition was once more widespread in Europe, perhaps even in Scotland. I suspect many old traditions such as these survive in Bulgaria.



With its plentiful supply of water power and wool (both sheet and goat), the region has a long tradition of textile manufacture that recalls the legacy of the Scottish borders. We were fascinated to learn about and experience the dying of wool using natural pigments and to noted the colourful and imaginative weaving samples displayed in almost every museum.

Wool Cloth-in-museum Cloth-3 Cloth-2 Cloth-1 Cloth-4


I arrived hoping to hear some indigenous Bulgarian traditional music but soon realised that our very full programme would not include this unless we happened to stumble upon it. Music is highly prized by the communities we visited and I was interested to note that most of the high quality hand-made violins, for which Bulgaria is well-respected, come from Kazanlak where their is a plentiful supply of good tone wood and a tradition going back to the early twentieth century. This was well illustrated in the Museum of History:


I was also able to get close to some fascinating folk instruments of the Gadulka family:



The Gadulka even features on brooches in souvenir shops as does the bagpipe does at home. I’ve written a bit more about the Gadulka on my Edinburgh University blog here and here:


I never got the bottom of the Bulgarian obsession with bells, but they are everywhere and even feature in contemporary art and craft. Why are they so significant?





You can hear the bells in the Museum of Humour and Satire here:

One brilliant discovery was the tradition of ocarina making, based on Italian instruments, associated with the ceramics industry. Seemingly, every potter played the instrument at one time. I love the big, bright red (Soviet? Sputnik?) model shown here:


Food and Drink

Finally there is the food and drink of Bulgaria. Fruit, vegetables and herbs grow profusely and support a varied and distinctive cuisine that nods towards the country’s neighbours. The use of yoghurt in different ways is very impressive as is the range of salads which are ideal in the summer heat. Local ingredients are commonplace. Wine, whether from the bottle or vat, was always more than satisfactory. Eating and drinking in good surroundings, unhurried and with much conversation, are national pastimes.

Taken together, these are assets that must be of great potential in the development of sustainable tourism, particularly in a world waking up to the Slow Food Movement.


This was ably demonstrated by our stay at the Eco Art guest house of enterprising Velichka (Vili) Gankovska and her ceramicist husband Encho Gankovski. What an experience it was to eat on the garden terrace as the stars came out:NightSky1

And, of course, those and other evenings invariably ended with a song from our hosts:


The programme had fairly ambitious learning outcomes:

At the end of the programme, participants will…

  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 that 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 landscapes and’sense of place.
  5. Trace the ancient craft legacy into Bulgaria’s patrimony and see modern examples of ceramics and weaving that have a link to ancient peoples.
  6. Be able to transfer ideas and systems for sustainable rural development to new situations.

These topics were discussed long into each evening and ideas generated and shared for application both in Scotland and in Bulgaria. Indeed, the programme provided an informal ‘hot house’ whereby the Scottish delegates, all of whom are ‘doers’ as well as trainers, exchanged thoughts and experience and inspired each other. It is still too early to say just what practical advances will follow. However, I know that the trip has opened many new doors for all who participated and for that we are most grateful to the organisers, administrators, funders, guides, curators, craft workers, artists, cooks, wine makers…..


Dr Stuart Eydmann 31 July 2015

Blog Post Location

Recent Posts