One might think Bulgaria is quite small on the map of the world. However, it is quite a rich country. Rich – with the fascinating beauty of its nature, with its unique cultural and historical patrimony. Today, people of Bulgaria preserve and treasure the ancient myths and legends, traditions and habits.
For nearly seven millenniums all known great civilizations of the ancient world have had their historical moment of presence and inhabitancy on what is contemporary Bulgaria’s land, their cultures and systems of values forming the foundations of what is Europe today. These are the civilizations of the first ever known pre-historic communities, of the Thracians, the Greeks of Ancient Hellas, of Rome and Byzantium, of the Bulgarians, and even of Islam. Several monuments and archaeological finds bear the traces and the memories of the historic past.
The heritage of the Thracians, the earliest inhabitant of Bulgaria’s land, could rival the cultural heritage of Ancient Hellas, of Egypt, Rome, Persia. The archaeological excavations in the Valley of Thracian Kings, discovered in the area between the cities of Kazanlak and Karlovo, present a very strong evidence for that contention. Nowadays this area is densely set with remnants of pagan shrines, mound-tombs and many other symbols of the Great Thracian Civilization. THE ANCIENT SEVTOPOLIS – the capital of the Kingdom of Odrisses by the time of Sevt III, is hidden deep in the waters of Barrage Koprinka near Kazanlak, while the Sepulchre of the King himself was discovered in excavating the MOUND GOLYAMA KOSMATKA, together with a fabulous treasure, containing the golden wreath, the golden mask, and an elegant sculpture of the king, Sevt III.
THE SEPULCHRE OF KAZANLAK is the first monument in Bulgaria, included in the most prestigious list of world monuments under the aegis of UNESCO. It contains original paintings – masterpieces from antiquity.
Other well-known monuments of the Thracian culture are THE TOMB OF SVESHTARY, THE TOMB OF ORPHEUS (discovered in THE TATUL COMPLEX), and THE TOMB OF SITALK.
There are numerous – the remains of fortresses, rock-hewn churches and monasteries, silent witnesses of millenniums of history, telling the stories of the glorious warriors, who lived here and defended Bulgaria, but also demonstrating the strength of their faith and the height of their culture. Every single stone here is telling part of the heroic history of the Bulgarians during long centuries, every single fragment of the ruins of an ancient fortress has its part of the legend to tell.
There are several fortresses that need to be visited – the FORTRESS OF KING ASSEN (near Assenovgrad), THE FORTRESS OF BABA VIDA (in the town of Vidin), THE FORTRESS BELOGRADCHIK, THE SERDIKA FORTRESS (in Sofia), THE HISSAR FORTRESS (in Lovech), THE FORTRESSES OF KRICHIM AND MEZEK.
The most important golden treasures in the museums of contemporary Bulgaria come from the Thracians – the Golden Treasure, the golden treasure near the village of Valchitran, the treasure near Panagyurishte, the treasure near Rogozen.
ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES
The rock-hewn churches and monasteries form a specific group of Christian temples, spread out mainly in the Balkans and the Middle East.
Some of the most famous ones are THE BESSARBOVSKY MONASTERY – the only functioning male rock-hewn monastery, THE COMPLEX OF IVANOVO ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES (included in the cultural heritage of UNESCO), and the ALADZHA ROCK MONASTERY – the most important of its kind in the Black Sea Coastal Region.
MONASTERIES AND ICONS
Led by the faith in God, the people, living in Bulgarian lands, built many churches, many monasteries. In present times, these temples, built in different periods of time, lend their authentic charm to the country as a whole, and quite naturally, are considered to be a part of the most remarkable places to visit.
Some of the most famous monasteries are THE MONATERY OF THE ASSUMPTION OF THE HOLY MOTHER (TROYAN MONASTERY), THE ROZHEN MONASTERY, THE PREOBRAZHENSKI MONASTERY and THE RILA MONASTERY – the largest in Bulgaria, also a part of the UNESCO book of world heritage, due to the enormity of its cultural, historic, architectural or artistic values of world significance. A treasure of major importance is the Monastery’s library.
Also worth mentioning is THE MONASTERY OF BACHKOVO, which poses and keeps some priceless monuments of architecture and art, considered to be of major importance for the culture of Orthodox Christianity as a whole.
Bulgaria is rich in number of temples, unique in their authenticity, scattered over the territory of the whole country.
The most well-known churches are THE BOYANA CHURCH (also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List), THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SUNDAY OF BATAK, one of the main fortresses of Bulgarian faith, THE MEMORIAL TEMPLE OF NATIVITY, a pantheon, giving the status of immortality to the sacrifice of the Russian soldiers and Bulgarians, ST GEORGE’S ROTUNDA, and THE ALEXANDER NEVSKI CATHEDRAL – the most beautiful and majestic symbol of the Capital.
THE SACRED PLACES
The Sacred Places in Bulgaria are visited by thousands of people every year. Every weekend religious communities undertake organized pilgrimage trips. From the oldest of ages, people were aware of the existence of energy centres, having built there special sacrificial altars, implementing their pagan rituals. Nowadays these locations of high concentration of positive energy are ground for monasteries and churches.
THE RODOPI MOUNTAINS
Many people believe that a piece of Christ’s crucifix is berried into the soil of Krastova Gora, an area in the heart of Rodopi, the Mountain of Orpheus. Thousands of pilgrims come here every year on the eve of the 14th September, the Holy Day of the Elevation of the Cross, to spend the night there in prayer for health. Everyone hoping to find some piece of stone with a mark of a cross, which, it is believed, helps curing pain and illness. The Rodopi Mountains are famous and glorified for being a powerful energy source.
RILA is a mountain, carefully hiding its mystical secrets for many centuries up to the present days. Its seven lakes are an attractive destination for pilgrims from all over the world.
Only a few kilometers from the Rila Monastery is the tomb of St. Ivan Rilski, within the cave, in which the earliest Bulgarian hermit lived and prayed. The legend says that sinners cannot pass through the cave. Nearby is the stone-built fountain tap, where the pilgrims observe the centuries-long tradition to leave a notice to the Saint asking for his help in the accomplishment of their wishes. People believe that whatever wish you put in your notice, it will come true.
The vicinity of RUPITE near the town of Petrich is known for years as the place, where famous and most popular woman-prophet Vanga was regaining her strength and energy, where people from all over the country were coming for her assessment and advice. The local church, St. Petka Bulgarska, has become the focal point for the pilgrimage of thousands of people, ill or suffering, still believing in miracles.
CULTURE ON THE BLACK SEA
THE BLACK SEA has always been an attractive place for different civilizations. The large numbers of remains from these glorious periods of time are still attracting thousands of visitors.
SOZOPOL was founded 2600 years ago, by Greek expatriates from Asia Minor. With its well preserved churches, and a number of houses, made of lumber and stone, the city has an architectural style of its own. The Annual Artistic Festivities, or Apolonia, are by themselves a genuine review of Bulgaria’s contemporary art of all kinds.
POMORIE is a settlement founded by the Greeks, named Anhialo, by the end of the 5th century BC. Don’t miss visiting the Thracian Cupola Tomb, the churches named after Jesus Christ and Holy Mother, as well as the Monastery of St. George and the Architectural Reserve of The Old Houses of Pomorie.
Founded by the Thracians some 3000 years B.C, present-time NESSEBAR is part of the World Cultural Patrimony and many of its monuments are subjects of the protection of UNESCO. Before diving into the stormy sea of History, it is advisable to do some preparatory work with a visit to the Archaeology Museum. The Temple of St. Stephan and the Church of St. Spas deserve to be subjected to attention. Nowadays, some of the 12 churches on the peninsula have undergone conservation works; others have been transformed into galleries.
BALCHIK is one of the oldest cities on the Black Sea Coast, with temples emanating dignity, with old fountains and old cobblestone streets. The outlines of the houses, the colors of its gardens put together the exotics on the romanticism of the Balkans, drawing-in visitors from all over the world. The Palace, the Botanic Garden of the Romanian Queen Mara – these are the things coming to mind after mentioning the city of Balchik.
THE ANCINET BULGARIAN CAPITAL-CITIES
PLISKA – the first Bulgarian capital from year 681, was one of the most widely known cities in the early European Middle Ages. Its stone-built palaces, its fortresses and churches were rivalling the edifices of Constantinople, or those I the lads of Charles the Great.
VELIKI PRESLAV (THE GREAT PRESLAV) is the second Bulgarian capital. The remainders of these glorious times can be seen in the Archaeological Reserve Veliki Preslav and the Museum, which is part of the Reserve. Some very celebrated troves were found there – the ceramic icon of St. Theodor Stratilat, the Golden Treasure of Preslav, the ceramic iconostasis of the Monastery-in-the-Palace, the unique collection of state-seals made of lead, the valuable collection of epigraphic monuments.
VELIKO TARNOVO (capital of Bulgaria in the Middle-Ages) has a history of 7000 years. On the hill named Tsarevets is the main fortress of Medieval Tarnovgrad, topped by two palaces – the Royal Palace and that of the Patriarch. Later in the evening, it’s all “sound and light”, a special program to present the place, which is a combination of sound and visual effects, aimed at reproducing the history of the old Bulgarian Capital.
THE ARCHITECTURAL AND HISTORY RESERVE ARBANASI is a village whose monumental houses and churches are generously ornamented with wood-carvings and wall paintings. One of the most lovable places to visit there is the Church of the Nativity, its Iconostasis being one of the oldest creations of the wood-carving art on Bulgarian lands.
KOPRIVSHTITSA is an architectural and history reserve, keeping more than 300 monuments of Bulgarian culture, the gentle story-teller of the beautiful tale of the Bulgarian Revival.
TRYAVNA is also a Revival town on the Northern mountainside of the Mountain Stara Planina. The old houses in Tryavna are built following an architectural pattern of their own. The Old City is given the status of Architectural Reserve.
MELNIK is Bulgaria’s smallest town, but its attractiveness is so strong, that there are days when the tourists and visitors outnumber the local citizens. Melnik is famous with its old-style houses, rich in architecture, with history full of legendary events, with its incredibly beautiful nature, fancy rocky formations and, last, but not least – full-bodied, aromatic wines.
The Ancient PLOVDIV is also a place for an unforgettable journey through the romantics of the Revival. The labyrinth of cobblestone streets is seeded with colorful houses, painted in brick-colors, in yellow, in beige. There are houses with unique interior decorations, wall-paintings, cosy inner courtyards. These houses are usually known by the names of their owners – Balabanova, Hindilian, or famous visitors as are the case with the Lamartine-house, or function – the Ethnography Museum – and carry with them the fame of enchanting beauty. Do not miss visiting the Antic Theatre, the Antic Roman Stadium, the Dzhumaya Mosque, Nebet Tepe.
VILLAGES – ARCHITECTURAL RESERVES
BOZHENTSI is a village tucked away in the picturesque scenery to the east of the town of Gabrovo. It is one of the very few places in Bulgaria, having kept intact its old-time appearance of the Revival period, preserving precious architectural and ethnographic monuments.
ETARA is the name of a charming open-air ethnography museum, located in the central part of the mountain Stara Planina, in the Gabrovo Region. The Exposition is live – with the participation of the Master-Craftsmen – presenting the architecture, ethnography, the folklore, the old crafts, the cuisine, the dressing habits of Revival Bulgaria.
KOVACHEVITSA is a village in which its authentic Revival appearance was so well preserved, that it is now one of the well-known and beautiful Bulgarian villages. The houses are almost entirely stone-built, this is valid even for the roofs. An exception is possible only in case the house is very high, then the last floor is built with wood.
THE VILLAGE OF ZHERAVNA is an Architecture and Ethnography Reserve with slightly more than 150 houses, reminding the past with its candle workshop, cellar-school, nunnery, church, 8 tap-fountains, caravansary, all with their Revival authenticity. Any one of these points of interest is an inimitable cultural monument, work of The Unknown Artists. The position of the village is amphitheatric.
CUSTOMS AND FESTIVALS OF BULGARIA
THE HOLIDAY OF THE ROSE is one of the most remarkable festivals in Bulgaria, dedicated to beauty as such, and to its components – the flowers, the spring and the fragrance of the rose of Kazanlak. Traditionally, the Holiday of the Rose is taking place in the first weekend of June, and it includes a beauty contests for the Queen of Roses.
Mummery, or KUKERY in Bulgarian, is one of the country’s symbols. About New Year and Shrovetide special ritual ceremonies are taking place, called Kukery Games. In Kukery Games only men are allowed to take part, they put on their masks, made in advance by each of the participants. The goal is through their magic-dancing and horrifying masks to frighten and drive away the evil spirits and weird sisters in order to ensure and preserve a good crop next year.
GRAND MOTHER MARTA (Baba Marta in Bulgarian) is one of the oldest Bulgarian traditions – to attach on the dress of those you love a martenichka, symbolizing the arrival of springtime. Martenichka is an ancient Bulgarian garment, bringing magic strength, made by the simple twisting of two threads – red (symbolizing good health and prosperity) and white (symbolizing longevity). Martenichka is attached to one’s dress on March 1st, and should be carried on until the arrival of the first couple of storks, or the first time you hear the singing of a cuckoo. Then the martenichka is to be tied to a fruit-bearing tree, or, another option – to be thrown in a river, to wash away evil.
Traditionally, every year in November in the region of Plovdiv comes the time of the DIONYSIUS FESTIVITIES – otherwise known as the Holidays of the Young Wine. Guests, as well as people from the region, taste the wines of the new crop.
NESTINARY – or fire dancing – is one of the most ancient traditions, preserved and performed in the area of Mountain Strandzha. The magic rite of dancing on the red-hot ashes, expressing veneration to the Sun, is calling together thousands of enthusiastic fans. A big-size ceremonial fire is lit in the village’s centre after the light of the day comes to close. The youth of the village is round – dancing the horo – with the fire at the center of their circles. When the wood in the fire burns out, forming a layer of ashes, there comes the moment of the fire-dancers. They enter bare-footed into the red-hot ashes with the icon of St. Constantine and Elena in hand, and dance in a trance, feeling no pain, with unharmed feet.
TRADITIONAL BULGARIAN CRAFTSMANSHIP
The exquisiteness, the elegance of the works of Bulgarian people’s craftsmanship is undoubtedly a matter of fact.
In some old houses in Tryavna, Kotel, Koprivshitsa, one could enjoy seeing genuine perfect compositions of BULGARIAN WOODCARVING. But Bulgarian craftsmen were famous with their small-size piece of work as well – such as spoons, spoon-boxes, bread-boxes, bowls, sprindles, tripods, chandeliers, nut-crackers and etc. This marvelous collection increases with the addition of music instruments – shepherd’s pipes, rebecks, bag-pipes.
BULGARIA’S ICON-PAINTING pattern is a precious gift given by the Masters of icon painting, who started creating this tradition back in the 10-11th centuries. The best works of our Masters can be seen in the Museum of Ecclesiastical History, belonging to the Clerical Seminary in Sofia, but also in the wonderful scenery of the Monastery ‘Preobrazhensky’, the Holy Cloister of Rila, in the churches of Arbanas, Sliven, Tryavna.
There is another area where one is to feel the unfading beauty of people’s arts and crafts – BULGARIAN EMBROIDERY, with its intricate geometrical forms, used mainly as decoration to the traditional national dress. The art of making textile include the weaving of table-cloth, rugs, and carpets made of hand-dyed yarn with natural dye.
CONTEMPORARY BULGARIAN ART
The magic of the Choir, bearing the name The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices is still having its power to fascinate their thousands of fans. The folklore-song and dance companies from Bulgaria are regularly invited to take part in the most prestigious international festivals. THE NATIONAL OPERA AND BALLET THEATRE, THE PHILOHARMONIC SOCIETY OF SOFIA can bring you to the pleasure of the wonderful interpretations of our opera-singers and musicians, performing the works of Bulgarian and foreign authors. THE NATIONAL THEATRE IVAN VAZOV, as well as the other public or private theatres will offer you a long list to select from stage-settings of different genres.
The Bulgarian village is the keeper of the spirit and traditions of the people, of its centuries-old traditions, colorful folklore and wisdom. Only in the village regions you can taste traditional authentic Bulgarian meals, enjoy beautiful folklore songs or hear regional legends and fairy tales.
One of the most distinctive Bulgarian crafts is WEAVING, known and improved since the time of the ancient Thracians. The traditions have been passed on from one generation to another. The young girls were learning the skills from their mothers and grandmothers. Every craftsman added a little something from themselves to the products, making them unique.
The beautiful hand-painted plates, pitchers and pots are another part of the image of Bulgaria. POTTERY is a skill which has been practiced since ancient times.
Almost every Bulgarian town and village has had its own pottery craftsmen, who have created beautiful and unique products. The decorations are diverse and form an important feature of the Bulgarian folklore traditions, which differ in every region of the country.
CUTLERY has been one of the most popular crafts in the Gabrovo, Sliven, Vidin, Panagyurishte and Sopot regions. The experienced craftsmen created different types of knives and swords with engraved handles made from wood, metal or bone. Some of the products have numismatic value, as precious stones and metal were used.
GOLDSMITH’s trade has been practiced for centuries in Bulgaria. The oldest golden cultivated gold in Europe has been discovered in Varna’s necropolis – it dates from the end of V or the beginning of IV century BC.
The Bulgarian goldsmiths created fine and unique jewellery. The buckles and accessories made for the traditional costumes are immensely impressive.
One of the most interesting places in Bulgaria, where you can still witness skilled craftsmen manufacture various handmade souvenirs and jewellery, is located just a few kilometers outside the town of Gabrovo. The ethnographic complex ETARA recreates a scaled-down model of the craftsmen town Gabrovo from the era of the Bulgarian Revival. In the craftsmen’s complex there are several workshops, where you can witness the work of different craftsmen and to purchase products manufactured right before your eyes.
In the heart of modern Dobrich, at the spot of ancient Odun marketplace, nowadays stands the ethnographic complex ‘OLD DOBRICH’. Various crafts will reveal their secrets to you – masonry, knitting, carpentry, embroidery, weaving, coopery, shoe production and many more.
In SOPOT’S CRAFTSMEN COMPLEX the inheritors of the old craftsmen demonstrate their skills right in front of the visitors of the complex. The production of the Masters of the Union is diverse – wooden sculptures, engraved firearms, unique engraved blades, wood-carving, hand-made pipes, paintings and icons.
Ethnographic Regional Complex ZLATOGRAD based in the centre of the town is a unique place, situated in the heart of The Rodopi Mountains, close to the Bulgarian-Greek border. Every craftsman will invite you to their workshop, show you the way they work and answer your questions.
SAMOVODSKA CHARSHIA in Veliko Tarnovo was formed in 19th century and quickly became the trade centre of the town. Every Friday the villagers from the region used to gather there and sell their production. Today, Samovod Charshia s an ethnographic complex, which has preserved its authentic look. There are functioning workshops, many antique shops, as well as some small art galleries.
Many Bulgarian villages attract visitors with their cosy atmosphere, tasty food and eco-friendly activities. Amongst the most popular destinations are the Rodopean villages Smilyan, Arda, Mogilitsa, Momchilovtsi, Yagodina, Trigrad, Leshten, Ognyanovo and Kovachevitsa. Here, surrounded by beautiful nature and crystal clear air, you can taste amazing dishes, experience the peace and quiet of the countryside and feel the hospitality of the local people.
The villages in Stara Planina Mountain (the Balkan Range) are numerous and diverse. There are many architectural masterpieces which have to be seen. Some of the most interesting places to visit are the villages Zheravna, Medven, Miykovtsi, Chiflik, Ribaritsa and Shipkovo.
In Pirin Mountain, there are some of the most interesting villages in the country – Delchevo, Rozhen, Musomishte and Koprivlen. Besides the accommodation in a vintage house and authentic Bulgarian cuisine, here you can indulge in great variety of activities – fishing, hiking, horse riding, herb and mushroom picking.
In the mythical Strandzha Mountain, the villages keep their old houses, as well as their ancient traditions. Only here you can witness the tradition ‘nestinari dance’ (fire-dancing) performed on the glowing embers of fire. The villages of Gramatikovo, Brashlyan, Kosti and Balgari can offer unforgettable holiday relaxation in the heart of Strandzha Mountain.