AN AMERICAN IN BG

text and photography by Rick Hibberd

I came to Sofia from New York City with my wife for a live-abroad experience much like those we enjoyed in the past

Doncho

We had visited Bulgaria briefly and loved the rich history of the country, the traditional culture still honored and close to the surface, the welcoming people we met, the Balkan cuisine and the wines of the countryside. It was clear to us that Sofia is a delightfully liveable city. We came for a year in Bulgaria – we’re now midway in our fourth year. 

In short travels around the country, we’ve delved into Thracian history, the beauty of the Rhodope mountains, the liveliness of the modern resorts and the lure of the ancient towns of the Black Sea coast, the mysteries of the Strandzha, the industry of the Rose Valley and the historic and cultural treasures of Plovdiv. 

Having a camera in my pocket has been a way of life – and remembering life – for me beginning in the first years of my career in industrial and graphic design. As I began to travel, a country’s cities, the architecture, the curiosities, the gatherings but, importantly, the people, were captured in my images, not for art’s sake or for any of the commercial purposes that pervaded my career, but as simply valued memories from my life in tangible form.

Rose Harvester 

Banev Rose Oil Garden, Bratsigovo 

Impressed by Bulgaria’s contribution of over 60 percent of the world's rose oil production, our first look at the rose oil industry was not in the famous Rose Valley near Kazanlak, but the farm owned by a friend of a friend – west of Plovdiv, near Peshtera – in the village of Bratsigovo. We learned how to pluck the blossoms and fill the bags ready for the distillers. And we met Doncho, the head of a Roma family that has worked in the harvest for decades. 

Handloom Weaver 

Old Town, Plovdiv

Handloom Weaver

In many visits to Plovdiv, from 2019 when it was an European Capital of Culture, we braved the perilous, ankle-challenging stone streets of the Old Town to find the studios of craftsmen working in fabrics, wood, leather and ceramics. Elena’s studio and shop is little more than 10 square meters, but rich in the products of the handloom where she sits daily.

Souvenir Instrument Vendor 

Old Town, Plovdiv 

souvenir instrument vendor

The proprietor of a small shop on Saborna Street is unfailingly welcoming, always eager to demonstrate the charm of a Balkan tambura, a gadulka or a dvoyanka. We found Tomi also at a sidewalk table on a sunny, especially tourist-heavy day.

Felting Artist 

Old Town, Plovdiv 

felting artist

On the furthest alley of the Old Town’s craft district is a door onto the garden of a few small studios. Climbing the wooden stairs, we found Spaska and her shop of scarves made by floating wisps of silk, wool, mohair, alpaca and occasional threads of silver or gold onto a convex table and melding the creations into wearable art of irresistible beauty.

Ceramics Instructor 

Wood Makerspace, Sofia 

ceramics instructor

A four-person pottery lesson was given as a present to a friend. We were invited to fill out the class. Boryana teaches and leads the ceramics work at a fascinating workspace that supports the development of creative industries including design, engineering, manufacturing and prototyping. She taught us the decorating technique of sgraffito drawing, etching through a coating of white clay slip, on bisque-baked pottery.

Gayda and Accordion Duet 

Royal Garden, Sofia 

gayda and accordion

For many months, we paused our city walks to listen to the traditional music of this duet. Though we never learned each other’s names, I think they enjoyed my gift of a print of this image as much as I enjoyed giving it.

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