The Arts and Sciences - Starosel and Staro Zhelezare

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Europe » Bulgaria » Plovdiv Province
August 11th 2019
Published: August 13th 2019
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Often I have found myself visiting a place that is so interesting that my curiosity cannot be satisfied with a short visit only. There rarely is enough time to see and do everything much less take all the photos I hope to. This was certainly true for the village of Koprivshtitsa which we had just visited, and the same could be said for my thoughts on the city of Sofia. But it's also exciting to think about places you've yet to visit, so it was time to move on.

We left Koprivshtitsa by way of the same bumpy, winding road we arrived on. Driving up the mountain had been much more fun than the coming down! I'm not sure that anyone else noticed, but the incredibly steep downgrade caused our minibus driver to have his foot on the brake most of the way down the mountain just to slow our descent from turning into something like a toboggan run. Inside the minibus the caustic smell of burning brake pads was very pungent to the point of being almost overwhelming but it surely created one of my most vivid memories of that day's trip!

Starosel &
Wine - Legacy of the Thracians

We headed next to the small town of Starosel where our tour included a stop for lunch at the Hotel Starosel Wine & Spa Complex. As we approached it, I could see that this was very much a sprawling resort. Rising up at the foot of the Sredna Gora mountain range, the complex includes a multitude of buildings nearly all of which are surrounded by the greenery of the vineyards. The setting was very apropos as this valley was home to the ancient Thracian tribes who believed wine was sacred and worshiped Dionysus, the God of Wine from the Greek mythology. It’s believed that the Thracians were, in fact, the people first responsible for introducing grape cultivation and producing wine in Bulgaria. As I was to find out, Starosel Winery does indeed produce a large variety of wines here.

Stopping at the first entry way we found ourselves in a large, lovely enclosed courtyard with gardens and stone walkways leading to what must be the Bulgarian-style hotel quarters and these formed the quadrangle courtyard. There to meet us was the curious resident peacock who, although most likely hoping for a handout which
never materialized, still obliged us with his time so that we could get a photo!

We had lunch in the Starosel Restaurant which serves traditional Bulgarian cuisine. The restaurant was reminiscent of a somewhat rustic mountain retreat with its white-washed walls, thick slab wood tables, chairs and benches, colorful seat cushions, a fireplace, and heavy wood accents everywhere. As the restaurant had some open sides, I was surprised to see swallows darting in and out of the dining area, perching in nooks or on wall decorations. Being that it was the month of May, it was nesting season and the swallows were still building nests or feeding their already hatched babies -- no one here attempted to disturb the birds or dislodge their nests. I had seen a similar swallow frenzy in Albania a couple of years earlier at a border crossing station where the birds had built nests everywhere under the overhangs. Then too it was in the month of May. It was not only quite a sight, but the air was filled with bird chattering as it was this day in Starosel!

Not wanting a big meal, I ordered a tabbouleh-type salad which came in a
large bowl filled with tomatoes, eggplant, thin spring green onion slices, olives and dollops of sour cream. I indulged with a bottled Coca Cola rather than having dessert. Lunch was not included in this tour and unfortunately, when the waitress presented the final bill(s) to each one in our group, there was some frustration on the part of the waitress due to some miscommunications about who ordered what I suppose. No worries as it all got straightened out in the end.

Some of our group had paid a bit more to include a tour of the wine cellars and a wine tasting at Starosel and after lunch was finished they went off for their tour. Meanwhile, our guide, Nadia, took the rest of us on a short walk to see some of the grounds such as the swimming pool after which we ended up at the hotel’s small wine shop next to the restaurant. Though I know nothing about wine, I thought it would be nice to bring back a bottle from the winery’s stock for Rick. There was a large selection, but I chose one of their highly rated red wines: the Starosel Terroir, a blend of cabernet
sauvignon and merlot which is apparently aged for 14 months in French oak barrels and another 8 months in the bottle. The cost was between 11 – 13 leva and I paid about 1 lev or so for a sturdy box to bring it home in.

Staro Zhelezare and How to Save a Village

For a completely different sight Nadia took a detour through the village of Staro Zhelezare which was a nice little surprise. This tiny berg had been experiencing economic problems as well as a population drain and was looking for a way to stir up enthusiasm and attract people back, or at least draw people to visit the village. The idea for this public art gallery took shape in 2015 when the “Mural Festival Village of Personalities/Art For Social Change took place that summer.

Suffice it to say that though we drove through only a couple of streets where the art can be seen, it was enough to make most of us want to see more.Thanks should be given to the Art Collective Katarzyna and Ventsislav Piryankov and students from Poland who originated and executed the idea for the project to use the village’s many walls and building sides as canvases for stylistic murals. I’m not certain if the artwork changes periodically but I have read that students return every summer to refresh the art.

Most of the mural paintings/sketches I saw were of one or more famous people, several political figures, sometimes paired in unlikely combinations: former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, former US President Barack Obama shaking hands with someone who looked to me like the former leader of Libya -- Muammar al-Qaddafi, and others I couldn't identify. I was surprised that Britain's former Prime Minister, Theresa May, wasn't depicted here as well. But there was one mural of the Beatles with perhaps a fan looking on so Britain was represented after all. While there possibly may be other art subjects in these works, or even some painted in color around the village, I never saw them. I came home with only a few photos of paintings/sketches, and then those were only in black against white/light backgrounds. Still, I liked most of what I saw.

The likenesses are quite good and easily recognizable in most cases except perhaps those Bulgarian persons or historical figures which
most of our group wouldn’t know. At least one personality was featured in a somewhat derogatory fashion which I thought was unfair and laughably so. Whether it was meant to be derisive or just funny I don't really know and so I asked our guide Nadia what point she thought the artist was trying to make. She was quite diplomatic in her response but I'm not sure she truly gave her real opinion.

The artist(s) who depicted the famous person in a negative light, while certainly having a right to express his or her own opinion, painted something that, in my own opinion, would only serve to offend some portion of tourists who come here for a visit. That certainly was how I felt. But such things are so common these days that I chalk it up to ignorant arrogance as well as a lack of substantiated facts. Ironically, the other famous political personalities depicted in the Starosel murals certainly have been the subject of ridicule themselves based on their own failings as seen on the world stage as well.

Nadia gave us an opportunity to get off the minibus and take as many photos as possible in
5 – 10 minutes but our visit did nothing to add to the village's economy as we weren't there long enough to even buy a cup of coffee. Oddly enough, cars and other objects in front of the paintings often made it difficult to get good photos, and I wondered why the village did not do a better job of showcasing the paintings for a better effect.

I have not been able to find any tourism statistics which would give any hint as to whether the artwork here has had the intended effect of drawing people into visit the village to spend money there, but I sure hope so and they at least deserve credit for trying to do something about their situation in a very inventive way. In addition to its public artwork, Staro Zhelezare has yet another attraction which could draw people if only they know about its existence. We might have seen this historical find ourselves if time and sufficient interest were no problem since we were in the vicinity when we drove through Staro Zhelezare.

Thracian Tombs and the Thracian Cromlech Stone Circle

Though it was part of our tour, we
skipped a visit to the Thracian Tomb sites due to time constraints. For those with more time to spare, it would be a shame to skip this historical aspect of Starosel as it is famous for its ancient Thracian sites which any anthropology enthusiast would like. German and Bulgarian archaeologists now believe that what is known as the Starosel Tomb, the largest found so far, dates to the 4th century BC based on carbon-dating analysis and other physical evidence. Here the terminology becomes confusing because one assumes that the site referred to as the Starosel Tomb is the same as the Starosel Thracian Temple which is also known as the Starosel Thracian Cult Complex -- termed complex because several tombs were found around the central temple. The temple at some point was intentionally covered by heaping earth on it to form a mound. That mound is named the Chetinyova Mound and archaeological teams concluded that the temple found underneath it was built during the reign of the Thracian King Amatokos II (359-351 BC), of the Thracian Odrysian state.

The Staro Zhelezare Thracian Cromlech Stone Circle, also known as the Bulgarian Stonehenge, was discovered in 2001 by the late Bulgarian
archaeologist Georgi Kitov. It is thought to date to 5th century BC and was used as an astronomical observatory. While I thought stone circles to be very rare, stone circles similar to this cromlech have also been found in southern Bulgaria. Similarities to this site can be found in a surprising number of countries in Europe, and also Turkey and Egypt.

Once consisting of 24 megalithic stone slabs arranged in a circle, apparently the Thracian Cromlech Stone Circle’s purpose was to measure the year cycle, equinoxes, and solstices. The timing of these events played a very necessary role in the lives and religion of its builders. Believed to be built by a Thracian tribe known as the Odrysians, for reasons unknown the Odrysians abandoned the Cromlech and buried it which must have been no small task as the dirt mound that covers the Cromlech is 45 meters in diameter, or nearly 150 ft. The Staro Zhelezare mound is known as Cholakova Mogila. The information on these ancient sites is a lot to digest, but I became more interested in such sites after visiting Carrowmore in Ireland.

On our way back to Plovdiv we ran into rush-hour traffic which slowed us down causing us to rush a bit to get ready for the evening’s festivities. We later taxied to the Hotel Leipzig where the VT Euromeet registration and first official dinner would take place. It was fun seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and end the evening with a fabulous dinner of traditional Bulgarian specialties. Thanks go to Sarah for arranging our wonderful day tour taking us beyond the town of Plovdiv, and to John L. whose idea it was to hold this year’s meet in Plovdiv. He also arranged dinners for the next two nights as well as two day tours all of which were terrific! There was no doubt that the next day our walking tour of Plovdiv would be a very rewarding experience on many levels and it will be the subject of my next blog.


14th August 2019

Arts and Sciences
Another informative post Sylvia - and I do like good wall art. As for the artist who portrayed his/her subject in an offensive way, I think they're being small-minded and counter-productive to their work
14th August 2019

Arts and Sciences
Thanks for your kind comment as always, Malcolm. There's a time and place for everything, but I thought this was a poor choice of both to bash another country.
14th August 2019

Thank you for such a great write-up of our day out. It was a shame we had to skip the Thracian tombs. Many of us had the chance to visit one on the Monday tour but unfortunately you had to leave before then :( And thank you too for your diplomatic approach to the discussion of the controversial mural. It wouldn't be seen as such by most of us in Europe but I appreciate that in the US opinion would be more divided, and I'm sorry it upset you to see it Sx
14th August 2019

Wonderful Memories
Syl , so enjoyed reading your blog . Brought back memories of a wonderful trip . Xx Look forward to the next one .
14th August 2019

Wonderful Memories!
Thanks so much, Josephine! It really was a pleasure to be able to see some of Bulgaria with you! You are the sweetest!!

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