Bucolic village turns into top hot spot for 'agro' tourism
Issue 67, April 2012
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
The recent craze to escape the crowds has led thousands of tourists and holiday home hunters to the traditional mountain settlements in Bulgaria. Be it the Rhodope, the Stara Planina or the Strandzha, everywhere you can find once deserted houses which have been more or less well renovated and turned into lodgings or private villas. The craze has saved almost dead villages, like Leshten and Kosovo in the Rhodope, but has also killed the erstwhile pastoral atmosphere of places like Arbanasi near Veliko Tarnovo or Delchevo near Gotse Delchev.
In this crowd, Bozhentsi stands out.
Nestled in the Stara Planina, less than 10 kilometres away from Gabrovo, it had become a hot spot for arcadian atmosphere and rustic architecture buffs much earlier. In the beginning of the 1960s Bozhentsi was almost deserted. A few old people used to live in the spacious but rundown houses built by wealthy merchants two centuries previously. The younger generation had left in search of jobs in Gabrovo and elsewhere. Back at that time, Bozhentsi was not even a village, it was officially labelled a hamlet.
In 1962, however, its old houses with whitewashed facades, stone walls, dark brown beams, and tiled roofs caught the attention of some conservationists. It was the time when old houses in richer and livelier villages and towns were being demolished in the process of establishing a "modern" Socialist lifestyle. Places like Bozhentsi had become a rarity. This saved the hamlet. Two houses were patiently and sensibly restored, others followed. In 1964 Bozhentsi received the status of historical and architecture reserve, and the tourists started to arrive, in organised groups or independently, after hearing the magical-place mantra drummed by propaganda (the latter has not changed much in the following decades).
At the end of the 1960s, the writers arrived as well, with the intention not to leave. It began when Orlin Vasilev, a Communist Bulgarian literature big wig and a former director of the National Library, bought a house in the village. He renovated it and turned it into an countryside escape where he would entertain friends and party apparatchiks. Soon, the writers' colony in Bozhentsi boomed. The change was so sudden and so unexpected that even the local press criticised the intellectuals for their "bourgeois" behaviour.
This, however, is long forgotten. In the following years, many houses in Bozhentsi, which was granted the official status of a village in the 1970s, have been bought, restored and turned into private villas or hotels.
Today, a different story is told about the place. It is the legend of how the hamlet was founded. When the Ottomans captured the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo in 1393, an aristocratic lady called Bozhana escaped the ensuing massacre with her sons and a group of servants. They ran until they reached an inaccessible part of the Stara Planina, a valley shielded by high peaks from both the cold winter winds of the north and the heat waves from the south. They settled there. The hamlet grew and took the name of Bozhana, its founder.
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