Study Visit to Bulgaria & the Devetaki Plateau

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Study Visit to Bulgaria and the Devetaki Plateau (October 6-13 2019)

By Gail Boardman

Click here to download this report as a pdf.

Reflections from Linlithgow (December 2019)

How it came about

In October of this year I was privileged to participate in a cultural study tour of two of the main cities in Bulgaria and of the Devetaki Plateau in a programme organised by The Devetaki Plateau Association and Archnetwork, funded through Erasmus+. I attended as a volunteer for the National Trust for Scotland, and also in a personal capacity as a long term arts and cultural facilitator and gallery owner.

The objectives of the tour were both to enhance participants’ knowledge and awareness of the history and cultural significance of Bulgaria within the growth of Europe as a whole and to generate a practical awareness of the legacy of cultural and craft skills and practices in everyday life for residents and within a wider marketing context. We hoped to be able to extrapolate from what we saw and experienced ideas which could be developed within a Scottish context and, perhaps, to propose ideas which may be found useful on the Plateau and in the wider Bulgarian context.

To this end the trip covered a wide range of contexts, from the buzz of Sofia the capital city, and of Plovdiv where a broad ranging tourism platform is being developed, to the small villages on the Plateau where depopulation and work shortage are real concerns. We were shown initiatives on all scales, from annual festivals in the countryside to demonstrations of pottery throwing and a much appreciated wine tasting, taken to wonderful natural features of caves and waterfalls, and given opportunities to wander the streets and pathways in the villages we visited.

I do not propose to provide a detailed chronology for the visit nor to comment on every aspect of what I saw and thought. This would be both repeating what will be in the reports of other participants and not very interesting to anyone other than myself. However, I can give my reflections at some 8 weeks distance from the trip and these may be of some value.

I am hesitant about putting forward suggestions based on what can only be an incomplete understanding of how Bulgaria works, and apologise in advance if I make assumptions which are misplaced, make errors in my understanding of systems and beliefs or in any other way stand on toes or simply get it wrong.

The Plateau

The nine villages of the Devetaki Plateau range in size from about 100 houses to around 1000. Of these perhaps 30 percent in each village are inhabited on a permanent basis. Another 20 – 25 percent may be used as summer or holiday houses by families whose parents or grandparents lived in the village but whose work is now in the larger centres of population. This leaves many houses and gardens without occupants which are falling into disrepair and where nature is reclaiming land and structure alike. Gardens in these villages were traditionally productive with fruit trees, vines and vegetable plots cultivated to feed the families who lived there.

Around the villages are wooded areas, trees and bushes line the small connecting roads and shepherds and herders escort their charges through these on the daily forage before returning to the safety of the farm overnight. Wolves and bears still live in the mountains, and although sitings are infrequent no farmer wants his flock to prove an exception. The cultivated fields are very large with few boundary hedges or walls, and there are heavy duty harvesters and other large scale machinery in evidence in the landscape. It is my understanding that the farms are now the property of big agricultural concerns based outside Bulgaria and managed on a large scale with limited local employment as a result. How much of the produce feeds back into the village economy I can only guess at.

In my short visit to the various villages of Gorsko Slivovo. Karpachevo, Kramolin and Krushuna I was struck by the sight of men, mainly older men, sitting outside the houses or in the bars in the sunshine, and by the numbers of young women with babies meeting outside the community centre or what I understand to be schools. In Gorsko Slivovo the pharmacy within the Community Centre draws older residents, men and women, for their medical supplies and, in the village of Kramolin the cafe in the centre

The Devetaki Plateau Association

The Devetaki Plateau Association (DTA) is now some eleven years old and encompasses all nine villages on the plateau in its remit. It is a self driven and managed organisation with the ambition of regenerating and re-enlivening the plateau. Funding is sought from wherever it can be identified and projects are developed alongside the needs and ambitions of the villages and villagers it works with. The achievements made over these eleven years are considerable and much has been done to enhance and build upon the capacity of local people to work with the needs and expectations of both residents and the tourists whose spend can form the basis of new employment in the area.

Great efforts have been made to draw attention to the natural assets of the region, with the Garvanitsa Caves and the waterfalls at Krushuna being highlights of our short visit. The Caves are managed by a central authority with an entrance fee payable and, presumably, paid staff to man the ticket booth and some funds generated to maintain and protect both the site and the magnificent bat colonies within. Unfortunately for our visit the ticket booth was unmanned and the entrance turnstile broken. There was therefore no income obtained from our visit (and from the other groups we encountered) and no record of the numbers visiting. The situation at Krushuna Waterfalls was better .

Signing for facilities and viewpoints has occupied thoughts and funds of the DTA for some time, with major projects undertaken to both clear vegetation, and unlicensed industry, from locations in order to open the way for visitors to enjoy. Information boards have been installed at many locations, often using local timber and installed by local workers. Sadly there has been some vandalism in some places, but prompt re-instatement shows a determination not to be defeated. There have also been a number of improvements to local village sites, with the repair of the town clock in Kramolin attracting attention. The expected high cost which had discouraged the residents proved , after investigation, to be a more manageable £50 and a long absent village feature is once more in working order. A valuable lesson has also been learned — that which is assumed to be impossible need not be so.

This experience of not accepting a generally held opinion is one which appeals to me greatly! It will also have some bearing on what follows.

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.

Traditional music and dance have an important place in all cultures and DTA recognised early on the power of music to unite and energise. With an appeal across all ages, music and dance have been used to pull communities together, bringing younger family members from the cities back to the village to sing and dance with grandparents. The Devetaki Jazz Festival does the same work on a larger and more varied scale — this annual event held in a natural depression in the landscape with scope for camping and exploration of the countryside, draws participants and audience from a wide area and is one of the most public manifestations of the work of the Association. Throughout the whole of Bulgaria, and certainly in the areas we were fortunate to visit, history and the uncovering of that remarkable past forms a significant part of the attraction to tourists from many countries. The archaeology already uncovered is outstanding both in its quantity and its geographical spread. The Roman remains could themselves occupy months of investigation, and much more remains to be explored. The history and archaeology of the Plateau is, to my knowledge, less well explored and the potential for further development must be attractive. I am, however, unclear about the degree of central government control on excavation, and on land access. There were instances on our visit where the requirements for site preparation and preservation varied so greatly from anything to which I am accustomed that I am reluctant to offer any concrete opinions. I would, however, think that a strategy for recognising what is already known, for what is already visible and where further investigation could be most readily rewarding, could prove a worthwhile facet in an overall tourism development plan for the plateau. To this end, also, it would be helpful to catalogue the historical artefacts and archaeological finds that have been made across the Plateau and to begin to think about means of preserving and displaying these. Parallel with this would be the development of clear and inviting explanatory materials — and here I think that Scotland could make a valuable contribution in sharing expertise in the understanding of just how much information a visitor can digest at one reading, and in devising text and labels attractive to the interested but ill-informed visitor.

It will already be clear that my reflections focus upon increasing the attraction of the Plateau for visitors such as myself — from the West, with a degree of interest in the history of Eastern Europe through time. I will aways be interested in the achievements of everyday people, in how they have lived and live now, in what they make and use, in what they eat and drink. That interest extends to the work, knowledge and activities of people through all ages.

We were very fortunate in meeting and learning about crafts training in Bulgaria from Maya Krasteva, from the Regional Chamber of Skilled Crafts, Lovech. For those of us with a less formally structured background, the regimentation under which crafts apprentices and masters are obliged to work was difficult to grasp. There are boundaries within the government ministries which seem, on our brief acquaintance, to be inflexible to the detriment of skill development and individual growth. Maya has a deep understanding of the Bulgarian system, and her dedication to the continuation of the traditional crafts skills is to be applauded. How much scope there is for learning ‘on the job,’ outwith a formal system of qualification, was not clear to me. The respect with which internationally recognised qualifications are held is clear, but whether a more practical, hand and eye led skill development process has any place in the overall plan I am not sure. We were introduced to some degree of vocational training at the National School for Mountain Guides at Cherni Ossam, but this was for young people of school age for whom a commitment to a future career was already established. Nowhere did I become aware of any recognition of the development of skill and experience  without a formal academic element. Were I thinking of widening the numbers of people able to make and sell craftwork of whatever variety — be it in the now lost creation and maintenance of weapons or other skill area – I would be thinking of learning by doing, working alongside a skilled person and leaving the formal elements for another, maybe long distant, day.

Textiles for clothing are fundamental in every society, and the need for the production of yarn and fabric is common the world over. Wherever we visited throughout Devetaki we saw tools used in carding, spinning and weaving yarn. Every centre had these, there were even pieces stored in the ramshackle sheds and outbuildings at the Bilkarsa Guesthouse. But no one we saw worked with wool or yarn. It is unlikely that the skills have died out. I know nothing about the breed of sheep current on the plateau, nor about the quality of the fleece. However, that ample evidence of recent yarn production and the presence of knitting, weaving and embroidery in museums and in community centres indicates that the base materials are workable.

There is a major revival in interest yarn and knitting in Western Europe and North America with every stage in yarn production and use being avidly followed and considerable sums being spent on the development and purchase of specialist yarn. Specialist yarn fairs and teaching events are run throughout many countries, often lasting for 3 or 4 days and drawing attendees from a wide area. Yarn producers can spin and dye yarn from their own small flock, and these sell at a considerable premium. Would there be scope for the development of a woolly element to future tourism development on the plateau?

Specialist yarns can be dyed using natural materials. The flower and plant life of the plateau was barely touched upon on the visit but the wealth of wild flowers encountered everywhere was wonderful. To further expand upon the textile focus I would be very surprised if there were not scope for the development of natural dying demonstrations as part of a yarn based attraction. Half a day spend learning about and collection plant material could be followed by an afternoon preparing dye baths and dyeing samples.

The wine tasting at the Bilkarska Guesthouse gave an example of how straight forward such an event might be — given thorough preparation beforehand. The winemaker knew his subject and was proud of his work. He also spoke English, which is important. DTA has provided language classes for local entrepreneurs, but this is only going to be worthwhile if those who have studied use what they have learned. The wire jewellery introduction at the same guesthouse was enjoyable, but illustrated the need for learning put into practice!

Having touched on dye plants I am very conscious that other participants will focus on trees and other plants in their feedback, but I do want to continue on one aspect of this subject for a little longer — food. Throughout our visit, whether in large cities or small guesthouses, the food we were served was excellent. Most noticeable in the villages, the food was locally grown if not from the owner’s garden. The photograph here is of a dish of red peppers prepared by Vili Ganskova st the EcoArt House in Drashkova polyana (photograph by Tom IngreyCounter) and I confess to spending a good ten minutes watching an elderly lady, in cardigan and head scarf, sitting on a stool in her garden in Gorsko Slivovo stripping the last peppers from the plants she had just uprooted. The bright red fruits went into a basket, the haulms into the compost — there were enough peppers for several dishes the size of the one illustrated.

Pork is the national meat, but I did not see one pig on the entire trip! Herbs and vegetables, however, grow aplenty. I was fortunate to have been given a package of dried mushrooms whilst at the EcoArt House, and these set me off on another thought. Foraging has become more appreciated in Scotland and wider afield with a greater awareness of climate change, wariness of chemical pollutants (and fertilisers) and an increase in the numbers of people following a vegan and vegetarian diet.  Many people are keen to learn about edible plants and mushrooms, and their uses, and courses are run throughout the year in plant recognition. Often these are followed by time spent in the countryside gathering components for a communal meal at the end of the day. At the Balkarksa Guesthouse we were served herbs and vegetables fresh from the garden.Velis, who has a cold, prepared a flavourful herbal tea and knew which ferns to collect and dry as helpful against a cough.

At our last evening meal at Gosrki Slivovo we were joined by Iva Taralezhkova and her husband. Iva, along with Velislava Chilingirova, provides the strategic impetus and constant management for the DTA. Here I learned that Bulgarians eat salad before the main course of a meal, accompanied by home made rakiya, followed by the main course and wine. We did not know. How to prepare and serve a traditional Bulgarian meal would certainly have been of interest to me — and, I am sure, could be part of a holiday programme.

It is sad to see the numbers of small vineyards and gardens attached to empty houses throughout the plateau. Might it not be possible to agree some programme to enable a number of these in each village to be used for communal growing? Would there be scope for a community enterprise to grow and sell to those no longer able to grow food for themselves — we learned that village shops are few and far between.

A kind of Conclusion.

There is considerable scope for the development of specialist activities which would have an appeal across a broad range of visitors from the West and possibly from within the larger urban centres in Bulgaria.. DTA has already worked with residents to develop some 50 plus guesthouses across the villages, each working on an independent basis with their own properties and promoting their own, unique appeal. Would it not be possible for local experts with an interest in a specific area — spinning, edible plants, natural dyes as examples — to exploit their personal knowledge whilst working together to devise a number of activities which could be components in, say, a week’s holiday on the Devetaki Plateau? The wine maker could form a starting point for  such a development.

On this trip we were fortunate to have a knowledgable and enthusiastic guide in Velislava Chilingirova and steadfast driver in Ivo, and I am grateful to both. The many experts to provided information and answered questions were invaluable — and give rise to a last comment. Bulgaria rejoices in strong and forthright women! Their English was excellent. Where are the men?

A last thank you to Libby and Seona from Archnetwork without whose efforts none of this would have happened, and to my companions Kirsten, Kat, Matilda, Deborah, Gavin and Tom. Thank you all. PS I am aware that I have made no mention of learning from the trip that I could use with the National Trust for Scotland

I am a volunteer, which will always be a delicate position from which to try to influence the larger body and, more significantly, the Trust has initiated a major overhaul of the role volunteers play within the organisation as a whole. Now is not a good time to expect to make an impact. Watch this space ……

From a gallery viewpoint I can see scope for working with Bulgarian artists and craftspeople, and we will be considering this after Brexit has finished its rampage.

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