In The Balkan Countryside

Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Travel Writer

I’m increasingly convinced that if you want to really see another culture, especially in the globalized West, you have to get out of the cities and into the countryside.

This is always my advice to friends bound for Europe, where many cities — particularly those once united by empire — tend to look and feel alike. From Paris to Oslo to Vienna, you can see the same broad, tree-lined central boulevards, fountain-dotted parks and street-level cafés. Over the past decade, differences have been further erased by the proliferation of H&Ms, KFCs and pizzerias that blanket every downtown.

What’s more, Americans tend to fly here and rely on public transport — which means that Europe’s wildly varied landscapes, quirky villages and memorial sites remain largely out of reach. With a car, however, you can move beyond the bars and bistros to experience what remains unique to each region. Out in the Balkan countryside, where I found myself recently, English signage gives way to pure Cyrillic; waiters in roadside grills bob their heads in singular Bulgarian fashion to indicate yes and no.

With this rural immersion in mind, friends and I — a mixed crew of Germans, British, Americans and Bulgarians — set out from Sofia to retrace the steps of the Ottoman empire.

Specifically, we were headed for a cluster of villages deep in the Sredna Gora, the pine-covered mountains of the mid-Balkan Range. This region is where, in the 1870s, a revolutionary movement against Turkish domination coalesced. A series of uprisings here resulted not only in the liberation of Bulgaria, but also in the slow crumbling of a mighty empire that once stretched from Budapest to Baghdad.

As we drove east from Sofia, the winding country road was lined with cherry trees in fluffy white blossom. To our left loomed what locals refer to as Stara Planina (“Old Mountain”) — the worn purplish peaks of the Balkan Range, still capped with winter’s snow.

By coincidence, that week was both Passover and the Eastern Orthodox Holy Week. We had spent the morning at the house of a mixed Jewish-Orthodox family, where the children noshed on garlic matzah from Carrefour while my friend dyed Easter eggs. Outside, tiny woven ornaments of red-and-white yarn bobbed from the limbs of plum trees — symbols of Baba Marta (“Grandmother March”), a springtime holiday dating from pagan times.

The forests grew thicker as we approached Panagyurishte. This town is famous for its signature egg dish — baked with garlic, feta, and yogurt — but also for its role igniting the 1876 April Uprising, a military failure that nonetheless is remembered in the Balkans as a galvanizing moment in the quest for liberation from the Ottoman empire. It was a Slavic movement in this historically multiethnic land; the Sephardic Jewish population, which had coexisted peacefully with Christian and Muslim neighbors, found itself sidelined amid the nationalist fervor.

The Turks burned much of Panagyurishte’s old town, but a few quarters still remain — a pleasant maze of cobbled lanes and stone walls, with horse-drawn carts still in use. In addition to several house-museums interesting mostly for their period décor, Panagyurishte is home to the small regional museum commemorating the April Uprising.

Nearby is the most intact and touristic of the region’s historic towns: Koprivshtitsa. (Try saying it three times fast — or even one time slow.) The town straddles a river in a scenic part of the Sredna Gora that nestled amid pine forests and brilliant green hillsides where horses roam.

Modern Koprivshtitsa is both a placid agricultural town, where about 1,000 locals still ply donkey-carts and raise cattle and horses; an open-air museum there is dedicated to the April Uprising. The 1870s were glory days for what was then a relatively industrialized city of 12,000; stately wood houses of the movement’s major political figures remain. 

Koprivshtitsa is charming without being kitschy. Souvenir shops are modest, while the wooden footbridges, winding streets and brilliantly-colored Revival buildings (a distinctly Bulgarian style of architecture) look much as they did in the 19th century. It’s the quintessential pastoral Balkan town, complete with working farms and picturesque waterfalls. A shady square is filled with cafés ACCENT and punctuated with memorials to the uprising.

Koprivshtitsa has a half-dozen worthwhile museum-houses, preserving the décor and feel of the region’s glory days. A three-dollar ticket buys admission to all of them, and just a few steps uphill from the square is the finest one: the Nincho Oskelov House, home to that 19th-century merchant.

Enter through the wooden wagon gate and you find a brightly painted stucco façade; inside are two stories of elaborately-carved wooden rooms, complete with vintage furniture, clothing, and textile machinery. These dye pots and spinning wheels not only sustained Oskelov’s business, but also wove the uniforms for his revolutionary compatriots.

Next on the PodBalkanskian Road (literally, “under the mountain”) is Karlovo, birthplace of one of Bulgaria’s most legendary figures: Vasil Levski, chief organizer of the anti-Ottoman uprising. Nearly every street, square and memorial in this pretty town is named for Levski, and the chief sight is the Vasil Levski House-Museum, whose simplicity of style (and collection of antique weaponry) speaks to the hero’s singleness of purpose.

Throughout this region, you stumble upon massive statues of Levski and other heroes — monuments to Communist zeal as much as to the liberation. And they’re not just where you might expect them — crowning a village square, say, or a city hall. Here in Eastern Europe, you might round a bend in the rural highway and fall upon a two-story-high bust of Levski, looming absurdly (to Western eyes) over a field of grazing sheep.

These monuments are yet another layer in the historical palimpsest that is the Balkan Sredna Gora — and a sight only visible from the country road. 

The central square in Koprivshtitsa, in the countryside east of Sofia. Hilary Larson

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