Alongside history and archaeology – which the trip was packed full of – there was some space during our trip to Bulgaria for traditional crafts and textiles. The Bulgarians are very proud of their craft heritage, and most of the museums we visited included a display of traditional home interiors, craft machinery and traditional dress. The largest display of crafts was the ethnographic complex Etara.
Etara was built in the 1960s by an ethnographer who sought to revive the traditional crafts of the region when he saw many craftspeople move to neighbouring Gabrovo to work in bigger industry. The complex is centred around a cobbled path lined with craft workshops and the all important river, which powers the crafts. It felt as if we had stepped back in time, as all the crafts were still being produced as they would have a century ago.
Most of the craftspeople pay rent on their workshop where they produce and sell their work, except for the weaving, braid making and bell making which are sponsored by the museum.
Leaving Etara we travelled over the picturesque Shipka pass where we stopped at a hilltop monument of liberty built to pay tribute to the Bulgarians and Russians who died during the Russo – Turkish war of 1877, fighting for Bulgaria’s independence. From this huge overpowering tower we had an amazing, vast and clear view over to the Thracian valley, also known as the ‘valley of the roses’, named after its long established rose growing industry. The centre of this valley is Kazanlak – where we were headed. But first, we stopped off at the fairytale-like golden domed Shipka monastery, built also to commemorate the 1877 war.
The landscape around Kazanlak is dotted with mounds like over-sized mole hills. These were all tombs of Thracian kings, only a few of which had been excavated. The Thracians were a group of tribes inhabiting a large part of central and South Eastern Europe bordered by the Ancient Greeks to the south, but are less known as the Greeks due to their limited written texts. The limited written evidence of them gives the Thracians an air of mystery. However, they are discussed in Greek texts including the Iliad, which explains that the Thracians were allies to the Greeks in the Trojan war. The Thracians are often depicted as barbarians and inferior to the Greeks in these texts. However, the multitude of artefacts and architecture they left behind suggests the opposite. One of the most important discoveries was that of the stone head of Thracian king Seftus which we had seen in the archaeological museum in Sofia at the beginning of the week. If only I had known as much as I did visiting the Thracian valley on my visit to Sofia – I would have had much more appreciation of the vast amount of artefacts!
As I said early in the post, even the smallest of museums we visited had an exhibition of ethnographic costume and textiles. In Kazanlak museum there was a generous display of Ottoman textiles and artefacts. None of these were labelled or accompanied by any information. Clearly the objects were not a top priority of the curators – being a symbol of their past under imperial rule.
From Kazanlak, we travelled to the Roman spa town of Hissarya. As well as a walk around the Roman walls and the sophisticated Roman baths, we visited another small archaeological museum which housed an impressive collection of textiles and costume. One of my favourite items on display were these Mummer costumes.
The Mummers are men who dress in extravagant, bizarre, heavy and quite frightening costumes of goats hair, bells, beads and heavy wool. They then dance around in these during a procession before the start of Lent every year to ward off evil spirits.
We did so much in Bulgaria, to write about it all would mean writing a book! But I hope these last three blog posts have provided an insight in to some of the lesser known areas of Bulgaria, and prompted a desire to visit this historic, picturesque and culturally rich country.