Looking through the Keyhole: Historic Koprivshtitsa


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Europe » Bulgaria » Sofia Province
July 22nd 2019
Published: July 25th 2019
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We arrived in sunny and very hot Plovdiv by train from Sofia one day before the start of the official Euromeet. I was feeling a bit wilted from the stifling heat inside our train compartment, but except for the lack of air-conditioning on board, I had enjoyed the ride in our shared compartment with Rick and friends. Several of us shared a taxi to Hotel Ego and by this time I was more than ready for a cool shower and some rest before striking out for dinner. Lingering in the cool shower began to wash away the effects from the heat of the day and I felt ready to enjoy our first night in Plovdiv.

Along with other friends staying at this same hotel, we all met in the lobby so that we could set out for dinner together. Our chosen restaurant was only a few blocks away on Saedinenie Square. The “Memory Wine & Dine” Restaurant was quite a find and I would recommend it highly! It had inviting décor and lovely outside area as well. Here we were seated at a long table which accommodated our large group. Cocktails were ordered by most, and dinner orders taken. For
dinner Rick and I both chose the trout filet with crème cheese, olive salsa and thyme baked in parchment paper with spring potatoes and a bit of olive oil – it was fabulous. Rick enjoyed his meal with a half bottle of New Bloom Winery’s Pixels Sauvignon Blanc which was deemed good as well.

As it turned out we were very lucky to have an inside table as during the evening the skies rained down a deluge! Engaged in good conversation, good wine and good food, I don’t think any of us even realized it was storming outside. In any case, by the time dinner was over and we were ready to leave, the storm had passed and we strolled back to our hotel. I was hoping for a great night’s sleep as the following day would bring an early wake up call and our foray into the mountains of Bulgaria.

Our short stay in Plovdiv definitely would not be short on activities. Since a few of us had arrived in town a day early, we had the greater part of Friday to explore at will. Friend Sarah had volunteered to arrange a day tour with "Enjoy Plovdiv"
which would take us beyond Plovdiv to the historic town of Koprivshtitsa, along with stops at a winery in Starosel, and the Thracian Tombs. Due to some miscommunication with our guide, Nadia, and the minibus driver, the tour was delayed and we lost some valuable morning sightseeing time. The drive to Koprivshtitsa would take approximately 2 hours and we made 2 stops on the way there. Roughly 35km from Plovdiv our first stop was at the serene Lake Pyasachnik. The quiet lake reflected the watercolor blue shades of the sky above and even the bluish gray drape of the surrounding mountains all of which blended together as if in a painting. A few houses here and there dotted the lake's shoreline. Other than a small roadside stand with a couple of men milling about and a lone fisherman on the lake, it seemed as if the world had not yet awakened here and the peacefulness was wonderful.

Continuing on our route further into the country, we passed fields of pink rose bushes being harvested and Nadia had our driver take our minibus down to the fields for us to learn about this quintessential part of Bulgarian agriculture. Known as
the “Land of Roses,” Bulgaria is the world’s leading producer of rose oil which is so valuable that it is called ‘liquid gold’. Having the perfect climate and soil for growing Damask roses (Rose Damascena) which are highly coveted by the perfume industry, the name Valley of Roses has been given to this particular area of the country. Rose oil is extracted by steaming or distillation, and only the beautiful pink Damask rose petals are used; it takes approximately 50,000 rose petals to produce 1 mg of rose oil. Already bags of rose petals had been harvested that very morning and the air around us was filled with the heavenly scent. Nadia was given a large bag of rose petals which she generously divided among us -- the petals' fragrance lasted the entire time we were in Plovdiv.



Koprivshtitsa

On the road once again toward our main destination of Koprivshtitsa, we caught glimpses of tiny settlements as well as abandoned buildings. Once or twice I saw incredibly large stork nests built precariously on telephone poles or other structures -- I was very disappointed that I never managed to capture that hoped-for photo of them. Finally we turned onto a long and winding mountain road leading into the heart of Koprivshtitsa. This small town where time seems to stand still is tucked into the lush green Sredna Gora mountain range and straddles the banks of the rushing Topolnitsa River. Koprivshtitsa, the birthplace of poets as well as revolutionaries is also famous for its Bulgarian National Revival style architecture. It has been designated as a “city museum” and also an architectural and historical reserve.

Koprivshtitsa immediately gives the appearance of being very old, and indeed it dates back to at least the 14th century. Koprivshtitsa's charm lies in its cobblestone streets, old but exceptionally well-constructed stone walls, pretty courtyard gardens entered through thick wooden doors with ancient-looking locks and keyholes, rough dark wood buildings and terracotta tile roofs all of which mingle beautifully with the graceful architectural lines of homes built in the Bulgarian National Revival style – so many of these painted in deep jewel-tone colors of ochre, Wedgewood blue, moss green, and dusty rose.

Our first look at the town was at the main square (Square 20th April) where the large, elevated gray granite Mausoleum Ossuary of Apriltsi takes center stage. Built in 1926 to honor those killed in the April 1876 Uprising (the 50th anniversary), the ossuary in the monument's lower level is the final resting place of the remains of Koprivshtitsa's native revolutionaries. This solid structure with multiple staircases leading to the ornate entrance includes a chapel on the second level.

Shortly after arrival we were introduced to our local guide, Elena, who would take us on a tour of town. Historically, Koprivshtitsa is most well-known for being the center of the April 1876 Uprising against Ottoman rule and for its native sons who planned and took part in Bulgaria's first step toward independence. The focus of our time here would be visiting the historic house museums. We visited several of these and it was like looking through the keyhole at the lives of people who once lived here.



Dimcho Debelyanov House Museum

Beginning with the Dimcho Debelyanov House Museum, we entered through a gate to find a charming two-story house painted in deep blue with dark wood trim. This is the childhood home of the beloved poet, Dimcho Debelyanov (1887 – 1916). His rather short life was beset by hardships, and after joining the Balkan Army twice he was killed in Greece during WW1 when he was only 29 yrs. old. His body was repatriated to his beloved Koprivshtitsa where his gravestone was designed by sculptor Ivan Lazarov and features the sitting figure of an older woman looking pensive. The work represents motherhood in general but specifically a mother waiting for her son to return home from war. We visited Debelyanov’s grave and realized a copy of this same grave sculpture is located in the Debelyanov house museum courtyard as well.

Each room of the main house museum has period furnishings and seemed to be very similar to what we had seen a few years earlier in an Ottoman ethnographic house museum in Albania. There are many worthwhile exhibits about Debelyanov and photos but as all the writing was in Bulgarian, without Elena’s help it would have been impossible to understand. The body of Debelyanov’s work was published posthumously by his friends; I have read some English translations and find that what I’ve read I liked and would like to read more.



The Dormition of Theotokos

We visited one of only two churches in Koprivshtitsa, "The Dormition of Theotokos," or the Church of the Assumption of Mary, which was built in 1817. This Bulgarian Orthodox one-story church is painted a beautiful deep shade of blue, and is topped by a single bell tower. On the church's exterior, it was the amazing terracotta tile roof in variegated colors of oranges and greens which really captured my attention and is still what I remember most. The church was smaller than I would have guessed and dimly lit; but, it was filled with interesting pieces of religious art. It had a vaulted ceiling supported by round columns, and at the front of the church there was an elaborately carved wooden iconostasis from 1821 which separated the altar from the rest of the nave. Several brass chandeliers hung from the ceiling spreading some much needed light, an exquisite carved pulpit was on the right, and paintings and many religious artifacts filled in most of the remaining space.

At the door we were greeted with the smell of smokey candle wax, perhaps a bit of incense and the robed orthodox priest. He offered to sing us a chant which he did – it was short and different from the Gregorian chants I’m used to and love but it set the mood for this church. For those of us who wanted to take photos inside, we gladly paid the 5 Lev fee which was collected by the priest. We scurried around trying to find the most interest aspects of the church and the religious icons, of which there were many, to photograph; but, abruptly the priest said “bye bye.” I thought this meant that he was leaving, but what it really meant was that he was leaving and also wanted us to leave and so the lights in the church were unceremoniously turned off. While the priest here was a bit more accommodating than a priest we would see another day at Bachkovo Monastery, both gave me the opinion that non-parishioner visitors are tolerated but not especially well liked.





Todor Kableshkov House Museum

Each house museum in Koprivshtitsa is important because of the notable person who once lived there. We next visited the Todor Kableshkov House, the home of the man (1851 – 1876) by the same name who was head of the local revolutionary committee, leader and author of the famous or infamous “Bloody Letter” taken as the commencement of the April 1876 Uprising. The letter was written and signed by Kableskov in the blood of the assassinated Ottoman mudir. During the unsuccessful uprising, Kableshkov was captured, tortured and committed suicide in Gabrovo Prison at the young age of 25. Kableshkov is hailed as a courageous Bulgarian hero of his day and one of many young men who lost their lives fighting for Bulgaria’s freedom and independence from the Ottomans.

This 1845 Revival Period house, now painted a dusty rose color with dark wood trim, is interesting for its architectural details. Among the traditional furnishings I noted that I have seen elsewhere, banquets or sofas line the walls in some rooms. These sofas seem to double as beds at night time. The most prominent of these rooms also seem to be the ones which have elaborate ceiling medallions made of plaster or intricately carved wood. In the middle of these rooms there would be colorful woven rugs, small tables, pots or dishes and often a fireplace. The Kableshkov House Museum contains displays relating to Kableshkov himself, including a fine portrait painting of the young man. At least one plaque displays information in both Bulgarian and English, and along with Elena’s commentary, it was very helpful in understanding more about Kableshkov. The sign explains that the Kableshkov House was made into a museum in 1930 (the first of several to be preserved) and given memorial status in 1954. As all that we would see, this house has been lovingly cared for since that time.



Lyutov House Museum

Though the Revival architecture of the 1854 Lyutov House was unique and lovely, I elected to remain in the garden rather than enter the house. Only later did I realize what a huge mistake that was as this particular house museum may be the best ethnographic showcase of them all.

The beautiful blue house itself can be distinguished from others by its gracefully projecting yoke pediment supported by two-story posts. The pediment painted in white overhangs the dual staircases leading to the main door while beneath the staircases there is another entrance to the lower level; the roof of terracotta tiles outline the yoke which features delicately painted scroll patterns and a centered medallion with the year 1854 all painted in blue -- the year the house was built. The interior of the house is said to have exquisite wall murals as well as intricately carved ceiling medallions, examples of clothing, a weaving loom, household linens, rugs, hand-sewn decorative covers and articles which would be used by a prosperous merchant's family. While some of the other house museums have similar contents, the Lyutov House Museum may have the finest examples of a family's personal belongings. A small fee is charged for photos of the interior here which I would have gladly paid. Several places we visited in Bulgaria charged photography fees and my assumption is that these fees may be applied toward the upkeep of the particular place being visited.



Lyuben Karavelov House Museum

Although it is actually one of the house museums closest to the main square, we visited the Lyuben and Petko Karavelov House Museum last and did not have sufficient time to tour the interior. The property contains three buildings: the 1810 winter home which is one of the oldest in Koprivshtitsa, the large 1835 summer house with second-floor veranda, and the smallest building, a storehouse or business building where their printing press was housed. The Karavelov brothers’ houses were one of the best preserved but whether the furnishings and
belongings actually belonged to the Karavelovs I am not sure. The several buildings and pretty rock walls enclosed courtyard which was so beautiful and well kept that it seemed like a private oasis of sorts.

The Karavelov brothers, Petko, a politician, and Lyuben, a poet and journalist, were major players in the Liberation movement and dedicated themselves to the independence of Bulgaria. Because they owned a printing press, they printed revolutionary newspapers and magazines. Petko went on to have many important roles in both the local and national Bulgarian government after independence from the Ottomans was won; Petko eventually became Prime Minister and during his time in office what was then Eastern Rumelia was united with the Bulgarian province, a major accomplishment. Even so he was persecuted and imprisoned by political enemies.

Lyuben Karavelov was considered a remarkable figure in his time. Along with other young Bulgarians then living in Bucharest, he and his contacts laid plans for the revolution and during this time Lyuben became the founder of the Central Bulgarian Revolutionary Committee. He was a publisher of several magazines, and a prolific writer of novelettes and stories depicting the Bulgarian and Serbian way of life in those times. Having lived elsewhere for some years, he returned to a free Bulgaria but sadly only lived there for one year after its independence having contracted and died from tuberculosis.

The Karavelovs must be assumed to have been a prosperous family because their property consists of three buildings: the 1810 winter home which is one of the oldest in Koprivshtitsa, the large 1835 summer house with second-floor veranda, and the smallest building, a storehouse or business building where their printing press was housed. The interior of the winter home attempts to give the visitor an idea of what their home might have looked like in those days. It’s an impressive property and I particularly like the attractive courtyard bordered by lovely stone walls which enclosed a lovely green lawn, and a beautiful garden with some interesting vignettes and flowers I particularly liked the beautiful iris.



First Shot Bridge

Close to the end of our tour, we came to an important site in the history of Koprishtitsa -- Kaluchev Bridge is widely known as "First Shot Bridge." The area around this small arched, stone bridge seems quite peaceful today, and young art students use it
as a subject for their artwork. Actually it has a bloody history as it is the site where the 20 April 1876 Uprising began. It was here on this same date that a Bulgarian revolutionary killed a Turkish policeman and from the blood of the slain man, the "Bloody Letter" was written by Todor Kableshkov proclaiming the revolution had begun. In commemoration, in 1928 a monument was erected nearby. The monument, which I do not remember seeing, entitled, "First Gun," by Dudulov is a bronze relief sculpture on a granite block depicting a man from Koprivshtitsa with a gun/rifle against a clanging bell backdrop.

During the tour it was difficult to give my full attention to Elena while also trying to take photos, and even more difficult to remember all the historical facts she tried to impart to us concerning the roles these people of Koprivshtitsa played in the eventual liberation of Bulgaria. I like learning some of the history of the country I’m visiting puts the sights I am seeing into context otherwise, what's the point of being there. I always find that I do even more research about a place after I return home than I did in preparation for going there and that was true for Bulgaria.

As previously mentioned, there are six house museums which have been preserved here in this quaint and historic town. A ticket to all six costs only 5 Lev, and if you are able to see only half of them it will be well worth the time. We had to take a miss on visiting the Oslekov House and its uniquely painted façade, and also that of Georgi Benkovski, another of Koprivshtitsa’s revolutionary heroes who died in the April Uprising. And unfortunately, we were given no free time to wander about here on our own, and I was disappointed not to have been able to do that or buy even a small thing to remember my visit here; but, Nadia agreed to letting me take a very, very few minutes to go to the closest shop to buy a magnet for my collection and a few postcards before we left this charming town. My friend, Lorraine, was kind enough to accompany me which I really appreciated. As we left Koprivshtitsa, my last look at this historic town was a distant view of the hillside monument of Georgi Benkovski, a reminder of all the brave young men who once lived here who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom for Bulgaria.


Additional photos below
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26th July 2019

Historic Koprivshtitsa
This place sounds interesting, and making memories with ex- VT members will always make for a great blog
26th July 2019

Historic Koprivshtitsa
Thanks for visiting, Malcolm. Koprivshtitsa certainly was charming and very interesting if you love history of any kind. And, to do this all with VT friends made everything and every place that much more enjoyable.
26th July 2019

More happy memories!
Memory was great, wasn't it? I had exactly the same trout dish as you and Rick, and it was definitely the best thing I ate in Bulgaria, even though I had many other tasty dishes :) I think our tour delay was down to Nadia picking up Teresa at her hotel - I don't think she allowed enough time for that so wasn't at the Ego when the driver arrived. But she was otherwise very good, I thought. A shame you didn't get a good stork nest photo - I didn't either, on this trip, but n our Monday outing (which you sadly missed) we made a stop in a village with a great example for us to photograph! I love your description of the houses we visited on this trip as 'looking through the keyhole at the lives of people who once lived here'! I too would have liked more time here and would happily have skipped the winery in favour of lunch here and free time to walk around afterwards, but I don't think any of us realised how much there was here when we arranged the tour.
26th July 2019

More happy memories!
Thanks for your visit, Sarah! I too have so many happy memories of our time with friends like you in Bulgaria. I agree with you about Nadia and liked the tour very much, but as you say, there is so much more to see there. And, like you I would have opted for lunch in Koprivshtitsa and more time there even though I liked our lunch at the Starosel winery. I also feel I would have liked to see more in Staro Zhelezare (topic of my next blog), and the list goes on and on! Not sure how Rick feels, but I know I would be happy to return to Bulgaria and see lots more of it. Wish I'd been with you all on the following Monday!
27th July 2019

Wonderful memories .
What a wonderful read Syl , I loved our holiday and a place I would gladly go back to . It’s brought it all back . I can still see the fields of roses and the wonderful aroma and fields of poppies . It was a picturesque village lots of lovely houses full of history . Thank you for bringing it all back to life Josie xx
27th July 2019

Wonderful memories!
Thanks for your visit to my blog, Josie! It really was a great trip, and I would definitely like a return visit to Bulgaria. But it wouldn't be the same if I didn't have friends like you there to share it with!
27th July 2019

It is so lovely to read your travel-blog, dear Sylvia, and see Bulgaria through your eyes. I missed so much of Bulgaria and it is wonderful seeing your beautiful photos :) <3
27th July 2019

Regina, you are always so kind! We truly missed you when you were not able to be with us! I hope you enjoyed the places you were able to see and the dinners we had together. I have at least one photo together with you from Plovdiv that I think is really special. It was a wonderful trip, and Rick & I hope to see you and Jon again at a future Euromeet!!

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