Curiosity and a sense of fun are the trademarks of this Bulgarian town
Issue 67, April 2012
by Gergana Manolova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
Do you like Easter egg hunts? Here you are in for some good times. Gabrovo is a great place to start off at – and the terrain is large enough to provide you with a number of rewarding discoveries. The town stretches out on the slopes of Stara Planina mountain, 50 km away from Veliko Tarnovo, and gathers some of the best features of Bulgarian scenery and culture. While it seems sprawling, with roads winding to reveal yet another cluster of houses tucked away, in fact Gabrovo has a little less than 60,000 residents. This may be your first inkling that things here are not quite what they seem.
The spirit of the town was always on the rebellious side. Ottoman military leader Evliya Çelebi was attacked twice with his troops while crossing the passage near Gabrovo when trying to join the invasion of Austria in the 17th Century. He later warned against going to Gabrovo, saying that reasonable people should avoid the town.
Perhaps his advice influenced later tactics of the Ottomans. As with many other mountainous towns during the period of Ottoman rule of Bulgaria, Gabrovo was secluded from serious military presence and flourished. It became a centre for trade and crafts, with everything from pottery and embroidery to breeding silkworms. The ambitions of the tradesmen grew so much that in the 19th Century the first Bulgarian factory, equipped with German machines for textile production, opened here. The industrialisation that followed for almost a century was intense enough to give Gabrovo the nickname
a "Bulgarian Manchester".
Nowadays the stress is on tourist visits. The town is laid-back and green in spring, a perfect destination if you are looking for something off the beaten path. Gabrovo is famous for being self-proclaimed world capital of humour, owing to the fame of its citizens as masters of wry humour. The title is corroborated by the House of Humour and Satire, which has an enormous collection of comics, graphics and jokes, translated into numerous languages. A good number of them are at the expense of people from Gabrovo themselves – they are also known as exceptionally stingy, supposedly stopping their clocks and watches at night to save the cog-wheels from wear and saving on chimney-sweepers by putting a cat down the chimney.
The joking theme runs further than the building. Try and have a look around to find the "Gabrovo wonders" – a list of tongue-in-cheek landmarks such as the monument of the alleged founder of the town, Racho the Blacksmith, standing on an islet in the river, a tree in the middle of a street, horsemen on top of a building (House of Culture), or a ship in the woods, which is actually the building of the hospital for pulmonary conditions. You will only be able to hear about the planet Gabrovo, a small asteroid named on the town. It was discovered and named by a Ukrainian astronomer in 1976 on the eve of April's Fool Day – which Gabrovo has adopted as an official town holiday.
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