Hand Working and Crafting – an integral part of Bulgarian Culture and Heritage

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 Amy Mitchell

From the very start of our first of seven sensory packed days in Bulgaria, in the Central Balkan located town of Troyan, it very quickly became highly apparent that the celebration of culture and heritage, and all that it encompasses, continues to play a very important and integral part in the country’s modern way of life. Whilst strolling through the town centre by foot on our way to visit the Troyan Museum of Crafts, we found ourselves side-tracked by the sights and sounds all around. An important holiday weekend to celebrate independence throughout Bulgaria was in full swing, in Troyan (and Oreshak) this is marked by the annual event The Festival of the Plum.

The main street of this rural town was found to be lined with a colourful array of stalls, most selling predominantly local crafts and home produce; locals and visitors alike were relaxing and enjoying the festival atmosphere with plenty of live music and dancing. Described here is a general scene which can be found throughout the world – ‘market day’. However, as our jam-packed visit to Bulgaria continued, visiting sites of archaeological interest, museums, home-based craft workshops and community-led initiatives and projects, it became increasingly evident that in Bulgaria the small-scale production of items produced in traditional ways is most definitely not just something people generally do as a hobby for presenting at their local market day.

Hand working skills developed over many hundreds of centuries, and with many originating from both Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman civilisations, crafting practice within Bulgaria is evidently absolutely and fundamentally woven into national heritage, local cultures and traditions. Highly specialised and wide-ranging indigenous skills continue to be passed from generation to generation; this includes extensive working with clay, metalwork, textiles, weaving, working with leather, woodwork, icon painting, silversmiths, and jewellery making – to name but a few. Extensive application of these crafts is practiced at various levels. Some, for example, like the working with clay, the raw, primary product of red clay being readily available locally, are implemented throughout the country both at a local level and on a more commercial larger-scale basis. Pottery and ceramics in Bulgaria are internationally renowned, and the country is widely known as a place of excellence from which to visit, study and practice this ancient craft. The Troyan Ceramic School is one of the most famous ceramic schools in Bulgaria which continues to support and maintain the culture of ceramics.

EcoGuest House – ceramic working demonstration, and display of products

During our trip we were very fortunate to be given the opportunity to visit a range of small producers of crafts who have based their businesses around their products, incorporating traditional skills which underpin local culture and heritage. At Drashkova Polyana, we were warmly welcomed into the EcoGuest house, which provides a ceramic workshop and crafting business run by Encho Gankovski. Visitors from around the world travel to this small village to participate in various courses, workshops and training; and, as with the experience of our small group’s afternoon visit, depart with greater insight into how proud and passionate the Bulgarian people are of their crafting culture and its importance to their country’s heritage. They don’t just see their craft as a hobby, it is embedded in their culture and is part of their national identity.

A further example of crafting being implemented as a way of life was thoroughly enjoyed by all during our stay the Bilkarskata Guest House (also known as the Herbal House) in the village of Gorsko Slivovo, on the Devetaki Plateau. As with the arrangement at the EcoHouse Guest House, our hosts run a small but diverse business from their home, ostensibly based on traditional crafting practices. The couple are prime examples of Bulgarians who have a directed passion for their traditional craft heritage and the interconnection with their cultural heritage. They work to maintain traditional skills and traditions by welcoming visitors to their home and to demonstrate and teach traditional craft skills at the grass roots level. During our two-day stay we were privileged to participate in jewellery making, honey tasting and ate the most delicious meals prepared from home grown produce.

Taking a somewhat different perspective to the preservation and enhancement of traditional cultural skills, we visited Etara Open Air Museum and Ethnographic Complex, just south of the town of Gabrova. This striking exhibition championing Gabrovian traditional crafts within an authentic setting gave us a unique and fascinating insight into a range of ancient national customs. A village designed and built as an architecturally accurate historic representation has been re-created to demonstrate how the application of hand-crafting skills were implemented as an integral part of day-to-day life in the locality during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period around twenty-six main crafts were developed in and around Gabrova, with goods being sold throughout Bulgaria and wider afield into other parts of Europe.

Etara Open Air Museum and Ethnographic Complex

Today, the museum hosts a range of craftspeople, well over 20 specialists, who rent workshop space to practice, demonstrate, promote and sell their goods. There are also examples of associated housing and social features such as a school and church which can be visited and help to show how people traditionally lived and worked. Once-again, visitors arrive from all over the world to participate in organised training events hosted throughout the year covering a range of traditional crafts.

Hand crafted pottery on display for sale, Etara

The Etara Museum also hosts an annual International Fair of Traditional Crafts. This year, the fair held from 6th-9th September coincided with the European Year of Cultural Heritage. The event is internationally renowned with crafts competitions, presentations, and exhibitions taking place in addition to other aspects such as re-enactments and demonstrations which further emphasise the cultural and heritage traditions of Bulgarian life.

Woodworker in his workshop, Etara Museum

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.

Ancient red clay pottery exhibits – Troyan Museum of Crafts

In Bulgaria it is seen as a typical, even expected, to participate in, promote, educate and celebrate craft work. Traditional skills are not being side-lined to the fringes of society or left for museums to portray. It is ultimately apparent that the Bulgarian people recognise and wholeheartedly embrace their national identity via the skills and traditions passed down from generation to generation; and, from celebration, education and overall profile within society. There are therefore undoubtedly lessons to be learned from those located on the eastern fringes of Europe to those on the western fringes of Europe on the maintenance, enhancement and conservation of traditional skills and crafts as a part of their cultural heritage.

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