Past and present mingle enticingly in sunny mountain town
Issue 66, March 2012
by Gergana Manolova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.
Elena is a town with many stories, and you would be hard-pressed to pick out the most interesting one. The legend concerning the founding of the settlement is one of the best known. It tells the story of two lovers, Elena and Samuil, who were to be wed in the mountain forests. The ceremony, however, was attacked by brigands, who tried to abduct Elena. She refused to go with them, and was slain and buried in what would later become a churchyard. Out of grief, her parents moved to live on this spot and gave the new town her name.
You can easily visualise the idyllic and peaceful surroundings of Elena as the perfect spot for a wedding ceremony. The town is only 38 km to the southeast of Veliko Tarnovo, but it is nestled in the folds of the Balkan Mountain, which lends a certain remoteness to the area. If you choose it as a getaway, there is plenty to occupy you. In its nearly 600 years of existence, Elena has accumulated many landmarks.
One of them is St Nikola's church, atop a low hill. For several centuries it was the only church in town, and it doubled as a book depository, housing a 16th Century tome of Psalms printed in Venice as well as many parchment manuscripts. A special priest handled the books, which were considered a treasure. So it was a tragedy when, after a brigand attack in 1800, the church was burned down, together with most of the books. For the Bulgarians of the time a church was not only a mark of faith, but also the key element of a community – and a way of expressing defiance against the Ottoman rule, which forbade the building of churches without permission from the sultan.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers