Bulgaria day four
31.05.2019 - 31.05.2019
Thanks to having remembered to bring my very good earplugs I slept well with the window open and the room stayed reasonably cool. Luckily though the earplugs aren’t so good that I slept through my alarm, which was needed this morning as we had to make an early start on the tour I had booked on behalf of a small group of VT friends. There was time for a quick breakfast although this wasn’t as good here at the Ego as the ones we had enjoyed at the COOP in Sofia - less choice and served in rather a cramped room.
I was just coming to the end of my small meal when one friend, Colin, announced that our tour driver had arrived but that he spoke no English and reckoned that no guide had been booked. I was sure that I had booked one (and an English-speaking one at that!) The hotel receptionist tried to help us call the company to confirm, but the driver’s boss also said there was no guide arranged for us. I was just steeling myself to break it to the rest of the group and discuss with them whether it was still worth taking the tour (when we would understand nothing and be unable to communicate with the driver), when a friendly voice behind me announced, ‘Hello, I am Nadia and I am your guide’. Much relieved I turned to see a smiling face – problem solved. I still don’t know why the driver thought that we had no guide, but what matters is that we did. It turned out that Nadia had come separately as she had gone to pick up my friend Teresa at her hotel in another part of town.
So we all piled into the minibus and were off.
Driving to Koprivshtitsa
Our main destination for the day was the museum village of Koprivshtitsa, but we made a couple of brief stops on the way. The first of these was planned, at a viewpoint over a dam and large lake, Pyasachnik or ‘Scented Lake’ in English.
Fisherman on the lake
Flowers by the lake
The second stop was unplanned. We passed some people picking roses in a field beside the road and Nadia asked if we would like to have a closer look, which we did. So our driver carefully manoeuvred the minibus down a steep track to the edge of the field.
The track to the rose field, and sacks of rose petals
Damask roses after picking
The helpful picker, interrupted in his work (and maybe glad of the break?), explained a bit about the process and Nadia translated and added some facts of her own. We learned that the picking season starts in mid May and lasts only about 20-30 days. The climate here is especially well-suited to the cultivation of these beautifully scented damask roses (Rosa Damascena) which produce the oil for which the country is famous. Roses have been grown here for their oil for over 300 years, having been brought here by the Turks (it is thought from Tunisia). Today 70% of the world’s rose oil is produced in Bulgaria, making the country the largest producer of rose oil. It is an intensive process – the roses have to be picked by hand, ideally first thing in the morning with the dew still on them. Approximately 3,500 kilos of rose flowers are needed to produce just one kilo of oil.
Damask rose, and my friend Lorraine smelling the roses
We had a lovely time here, smelling the roses and taking plenty of photos. As we left, the rose picker gave Nadia a bag of blossoms to share with us all as a gift - a lovely gesture. As I write (a couple of weeks later) mine are still scenting our hallway.
On the road to Koprivshtitsa
The impromptu stop in the rose field meant that we arrived in Koprivshtitsa somewhat later than planned, at a little after 10.30. We were met by a local guide, Elena, who took us on a walking tour of the town, visiting some of its most significant houses.
Koprivshtitsa is not a regular sort of town; all the buildings of the town centre together constitute a museum. It was declared as such in 1952 in order to preserve and promote the town’s cultural and historical heritage. Since 1971 it has been protected as a national architectural and historical reservation, with a total of 388 architectural, historical, artistic, and ethnographic monuments. No wonder we were to spend so much time here and yet still just see a small amount of what the town has in terms of history!
There are various accounts of the founding of the town, but all agree that it dates back to the late 14th century. Back then the houses would have been built mainly of wood and between 1793 to 1819, Koprivshtitsa suffered from destructive fires on three occasions. The third time the town was almost completely destroyed, and it was after that the town that we see today was laid out – perhaps surprisingly still with many largely wooden houses.
Elena took us on a walking tour which visited most of those included in the admission ticket for the museum. Other properties here are privately owned, but some I believe could be visited on purchase of an additional ticket, which we didn’t have the time (or energy!) to do. But we did pass one such house near the start of our walking route, the Oslekov House, and the owner (I assume) invited some of us inside the gate when she saw us trying to take photos.
The Oslekov House
The Dimcho Debelyanov house
The first house we went into was built in 1830 and is the former home of the Bulgarian poet Dimcho Debelyanov who was killed in Greece in WW2. Elena told us that while he did write some war poems (I asked, thinking he might be a Bulgarian equivalent of our own Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke), he was best known for his sad love poetry.
The Dimcho Debelyanov house
The display inside would have been more interesting had the signs been in English but luckily we had Elena to point out the most interesting photos etc. However I would have liked to have been able to read one or two of the poems displayed on the walls, to give some context. I have since found English translations online and have to say that I find them rather flowery compared to the English poets of that time, but see what you think: https://christopherbuxton.com/index.php/writing/translations/dimcho-debelyanov/
Rooms in the Dimcho Debelyanov house
Debelyanov was buried in Greece, near where he fell, but his remains were later removed to the graveyard here in Koprivshtitsa. In the garden of his house is a copy of the statue that Ivan Lazarov designed for that grave. Elena told us that it represents motherhood, and all mothers waiting for their son to return from the war.
Sculpture of 'Motherhood' in the garden
The Church of the Assumption
From here we went to one of the two churches in the town, the older of the two, which is dedicated to The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It was built in 1817 on the site of an older church.
The Church of the Assumption
I chose to pay the required five leva to take photos inside, which was worth it as the light was very atmospheric albeit difficult for photography. The real bonus came when my photo permit allowed me to video the priest who kindly sang an Orthodox chant for us which really added to the atmosphere.
Inside the Church of the Assumption
The church of course has lots of icons. Elena pointed out three that were the work of a famous painter, Zaharij Zograf, including one of the Assumption and another of St George, which date from 1837/38.
The Assumption, and St George, by Zaharij Zograf
More of the church's icons
The Todor Kableshkov house
This was the point at which I started to wish that I had read more about Bulgarian history before my visit, as some of what Elena told us was a little lost on me. And as always I have done some research since and filled in the gaps!
The Todor Kableshkov house
In the garden of the Todor Kableshkov house
Several of the houses in Koprivshtitsa are associated with significant players in the 1876 April Uprising, a rebellion against Ottoman rule. The uprising failed, but the brutalities committed by the Turks while suppressing it led to widespread condemnation across Europe which was the trigger for the Russo-Turkish War. This ended in Turkish defeat, and therefore the April Uprising can be seen as having thus eventually achieved its original aim, the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.
Kableshkov was the head of the local revolutionary committee in Koprivshtitsa and led a band of rebels during the uprising. He was captured and later tortured in prison. He eventually committed suicide while in police custody at the age of just 25.
Elena’s talk focused mainly on the story of Kableshkov, but a sign in this house, helpfully in English as well as Bulgarian, told me more about the architecture:
‘The Kableshkov House was built in 1845 by Koprivshtitsa master Ghentcho Mladenov. With its three symmetrical façades, a beautiful yoke-shaped pediment and a glazed kiosk, it is a veritable pearl of the Bulgarian genius of architecture that flourished during the National Revival era. Wood-carving on closet doors, room doors and ceilings represents the decoration conveying the main ideas and trends of that time. The drawing room at the second floor comes as a surprise to viewers with its high round ceiling light that resembles a dome. It displays a shining wood-carved sun with interwoven wheat ears – symbols of the fertility of Bulgarian fields and of the striving for freedom.’
Rooms in the Todor Kableshkov house
Around the town
As much as visiting the houses I enjoyed walking around the town, taking photos of the quaint scenes and buildings.
Lane in Koprivshtitsa
A pretty stream runs through the centre and several artists (they looked to me like students) were at work by its banks.
Young artists in Koprivshtitsa
Frog by the stream
Lyutova house museum
This attractive house was built in 1854 by an influential Koprivshtitsa tax collector Stefan Topalov, then in 1906 sold to a wealthy merchant, Petko Lyutov. Hence it is sometimes known as the Lyutova house and sometimes the Topalova house. Today it serves as an ethnographic museum. There was a small fee of one lev to take photos, which I happily paid.
The Lyutova house
The museum has several rooms restored and decorated in the style of the mid 19th century when the house was built. There are some lovely delicate murals on some of the walls and around the edge of the beautiful wooden ceiling of the central hall.
Rooms in the Lyutova house
Ceiling of the Lyutova house
Displays included lots of old photos (with signs helpfully in English), costumes and some intricate lace in a local style known as keneta. Elena explained that this was sewn (rather than being made in traditional lace-making fashion) and incorporated horsehair to give it strength.
Sewn lace on display in the Lyutova house
The Lyuben Karavelov house
The last house we visited was actually three structures in a single group, with a separate winter house, summer house and a third housing the family business, making the famous Koprivshtitsa sausages. The oldest part is the yellow winter house, built in 1810. The sausage-making part was added in 1820 and the summer house, with its first floor open terrace for semi outdoor living, in 1836.
Some of our group with Elena at the Lyuben Karavelov house
- the winter house is on the left and sausage-making part on the right
The summer house with open terrace
Door and roof details
This was the birthplace of two important Koprivshtitsa residents, the brothers Lyuben (1835-1879) and Petko (1843-1903). One was a propagandist, writer, and revolutionary, and the other served as Prime Minister, a minister, and a financier who helped build modern Bulgaria. There is a bust of Lyuben in the garden of the house.
Bust of Lyuben Karavelov
I was tiring by now so when Elena told us that the house was primarily a museum devoted to the life and work of Petko I decided (like a number of those in our group) not to go inside but instead enjoyed relaxing in the pretty garden.
We had spent quite a lot longer on the walking tour than had perhaps been planned, as well as arriving a bit late because of our stop in the rose fields, so we agreed unanimously with Elena that we should skip the last of the houses, that of Georgi Benkovski, another hero of the 1876 April Uprising.
After our tour we drove to Starosel, to a large hotel / spa / winery complex. We had lunch in the restaurant with views of the vineyard. The food was good (I had a lovely salad and good homemade ice cream) but the service erratic, with the result that the four friends going on a tour of the winery and a wine-tasting did so much later than planned.
Those of us not on the tour were able to sit over our food a bit longer, and have a wander around the hotel lobby with some interesting decorative touches. It was also an opportunity to get some photos of the resident peacocks, although they stubbornly refused to display their gorgeous tails!
Swallow in the restaurant, and a wall decoration
There was wine for sale for those who wanted to buy, but although prices were reasonable I didn’t want to risk putting a bottle in my small soft suitcase for checking in, and of course with the restrictions on liquids would not be able to take any in my hand luggage.
We all voted to skip the stop at the nearby Thracian tomb as we wanted to get back to Plovdiv in time for the first official VT Euromeet dinner that evening, but we did stop briefly for photos in this village where a group of young Polish artists have painted portraits of famous people on the walls alongside those of villagers. Their aim was to show that everyone matters, regardless of fame or lack of it, and also to see if a project like this can to revive the fortunes of a village struggling with a decline in its population. As in many rural areas (in Bulgaria and elsewhere), young people are being drawn to the cities and birth rates falling, resulting in a drop in population to less than 500 – five times less than before the collapse of communism in 1989. Could an art project help to draw tourists to the village and help boost its economy? Well it certainly drew us, but we didn’t have time to do more than take a few photos, and certainly not to stay long enough to spend any money. Maybe others will spend the time here that many of us would have liked to have done had we been able to.
Murals in Staro Zhelezare
Of course I had to wonder if there was any significance to the portrayal of Trump with a bovine, rather than human, resident – it seemed more than likely that this was a political statement of sorts by the artist concerned.
Murals in Staro Zhelezare
The VT meet officially begins!
The drive back to Plovdiv from Staro Zhelezare was made slower by heavy rain and heavy traffic, but we made it and had time to freshen up quickly before dinner.
The first official dinner of the VT meet was arranged in the Hotel Leipzig, which although not too far from the Hotel Ego seemed to far to walk in the heavy rain. We had great difficulty in getting taxis to take us there, however, as the storm was affecting phone signals and the cabs were very busy, but we made it eventually.
We signed in and paid the money we owed to our host John (to cover the costs of those dinners and day-time activities we had opted to join – in my case, all of them!)
Then it was time to relax and enjoy catching up with all the many friends who had gathered here and meet some new ones too. I sat with my good friend from the Netherlands, Ali, over dinner and caught up with all her news.
With my friend Ali
Friends at dinner
Yvonne and Rosa with VAs
Yvonne, Colin and Rosa with VAs
The food was casual but tasty (platters of various Bulgarian specialities to share at each table) and I enjoyed some good Bulgarian wine. A few short speeches were made – by John, welcoming us to Plovdiv, and by Michael (whom I met for the first time this evening and discovered we have a mutual non-VT friend!) to thank John for his hard work.
Michael's speech and gift for John
As we headed back to our hotel, I reflected that although we had now been staying in Plovdiv for more than 24 hours, I was yet to see anything much of the city. I was looking forward to tomorrow morning’s city walking tour!