Revival Period monasteries, traditional towns, mountain peaks, beaches: you may think you have seen it all in Bulgaria, but you would be mistaken. This country has a number of eccentric places to visit, a delight for the connoisseur of the strange and the odd.
Many of these are connected to Bulgaria's literary greats in a personal and somewhat morbid way: a body part lovingly preserved in formaldehyde here, a relic that witnessed a violent and untimely death there.
One of the best experiences is the museum in the Sofia home of Ivan Vazov, the national writer and poet who gave the nation its most cherished novel, Pod Igoto, or Under the Yoke. Located on central Rakovski Street, it exhibits stuffed Bubi, Vazov's beloved dog who could not cope with the death of his owner in 1921 and after some days of depression threw himself under a car. For few weeks in July 2016, the museum celebrated the 70 years since its creation with a temporary exhibition of Vazov's preserved heart.
Further along Rakovski Street is another famous poet's house, and the memory of another suicide. Actually, two suicides. The small house of Peyo Yavorov, with a sad statue of the poet in the yard, is where on 29 November 1913, after one of their regular quarrels, Yavorov's wife Lora Karavelova shot herself through the heart. The poet shot himself, too, but the bullet he fired into his temple did not kill him, and he only lost his sight. On 29 October 1914, Yavorov tried again. He took poison, wrote a farewell letter, lay on his bed and aimed another shot at his head. This time he succeeded. When the house became a museum, it included as exhibits both the dress Lora was wearing on the last day of her life and a pillow thick with Yavorov's dried blood. You cannot see them today, as the museum is closed as it is in such bad condition that entering is dangerous.
The final hours of another of Bulgaria's great authors are recalled in the museum in his native town, Svishtov, on the Danube, by the ghastly relics of his murder. Aleko Konstantinov, the man who gave Bulgarians their funny, boisterous, entrepreneurial anti-hero Bay Ganyo, was killed in 1897. His pierced heart, with the bullet hole clearly visible, and the suit he was wearing on that fatal day are now the central exhibits in the museum.
Two glass eyes are the morbid museum legacy of modernist poet Geo Milev. Milev lost an eye during the Great War, and was fitted with a glass replacement. When he disappeared in 1925, during the prosecution of leftists that followed the Communist-organised bomb attack on St Nedelya Church in Sofia, he was presumed dead. Confirmation came as late as 1955, when a skeleton with a glass eye was discovered in a mass grave on the outskirts of Sofia. This eye is now in the National History Museum in Sofia, while the spare one, which was kept by the family, is on display in the poet's home museum in Stara Zagora.
The stuffed dog of poet Ivan Vazov, Ivan Vazov House Museum, Sofia ©Antoan Bozhinov
This trend of exhibiting body parts of important figures goes beyond literary circles. The hearts of several politicians have also been preserved, the most famous of which is that of King Boris III, which is now buried in Rila Monastery. The whereabouts of the grave of Vasil Levski, Bulgaria's great national hero who was hanged in 1873 in Sofia, are unknown, but locks of his blond hair are on display in the National Military Museum and in the chapel by the historical museum in his native Karlovo. The coat he wore as a monk before he abandoned the Church to become a fulltime professional revolutionary is on display in the St. Spas Monastery near Sopot although the exhibit is probably fake.
The two museums of Vanga, the blind clairvoyant, are a much more colourful experience. No locks of hair and embalmed hearts here, but a display of the mundane and eccentric possessions of the woman who conversed with either extraterrestrials or the Devil, depending on the inclinations of whoever does the explaining. In addition to the usual stuff such as personal belongings and furniture, Vanga's home on Vanga Street in Petrich displays an amazing collection of kitschy souvenirs given as gifts by grateful visitors. Vanga's second home, in Rupite, has a less extensive exhibition but makes up for that with much more atmospheric surroundings. The small house stands among the picturesque landscape of a former volcano and steaming mineral springs, while nearby is one of the most eccentric churches in Bulgaria. St Petka was built in 1994 with donations from Vanga, and has an unorthodox design and even more unorthodox murals that caused a scandal at the time, as they depicted the clairvoyant as a quasi-saint.
Eccentricity in Bulgaria is not only confined to the morbid and the supposedly supranatural. Take the artist Pavel Koychev. The creator of strange and charming projects, this sculptor loves playing with natural materials, turning them into thought-provoking manifestations concerning the place that modern man has in nature. The easiest way to see one of Koychev's creations is to head to Osikovitsa village, 70km along the Hemus motorway. There you will find Gradezhat, or The Building, an art installation that is also a perfectly habitable house. In the summer of 2016, the sculptor organised an art show nearby, incorporating the landscape as part of the exhibition.
The interplay of art and nature is the main theme of the Dupini Art Group. Created by artists from Veliko Tarnovo, it fills the abandoned Dupini village and its surroundings with sculptures and installations made only of natural materials.
The grandest project of eccentricity in Bulgaria appeared about 10 years ago when a businessman from Sozopol, Georgi Tumpalov, started building a... Gothic castle by the village of Ravadinovo. The construction has been ongoing, La Sagrada Familia style, but visitors paying the entrance fee are invited, often by Tumpalov himself, to marvel at the swan lake, the mediaeval splendour made of pebbles, and the idealised statue of the castle's creator.
"Gothic" castle, Ravadinovo village
Recently, Tumpalov added to his creation the work of another eccentric: the wooden fairy palace that used to stand in the Borisova Garden by Nezabravka Street in Sofia. The obsession of the self-taught woodcarver Racho Angelov, the palace appeared in 1968, at the height of the Communist regime. The authorities were not particularly happy with it, but they let Angelov be and with time his ever-growing concoction of reused wood, bricks and suchlike became a favourite of generations of Sofianites. After Angelov died, in 1992, the municipality failed to preserve his life's creation and by the 2000s the palace was already a ruin rather than a fairytale. A few years ago, Georgi Tumpalov acquired what remained of it and brought it to Ravadinovo.
The latest manifestation of this love for the eccentric and the odd in Bulgaria is the so-called Open Air Museum of Creation at Novo Selo village, near Plovdiv. Let not the word "museum" fool you: here we are talking about sheer hilarity. There is a bilious-green concrete T-Rex. There is a sauropod of the same material and hue. There are some apes with an unexplained penchant for oranges and mushrooms, shop window mannequins dressed like primitive Homo Sapiens, and a Tree of Life, made of scrap metal. There is also a Thracian rider, a fortress (of course), and much more. This so-called museum is the brainchild of mayor Todor Atanasov, and was mostly made by the local welder. In spite of criticism that he is spending supposedly public money on kitsch, the mayor is determined to enlarge his project. As a result, with every year the Museum of Creation is getting bigger and (ahem) better.
Gradezhat installation by sculptor Petar Koychev, Osikovitsa village
Jesus and frills: the bedroom of Vanga, Vanga House Museum, Petrich
Saint-like portrait of blind clairvoyant Vanga, St Petka Church, Rupite
The heart of killed writer Aleko Konstantinov, the wound hole clearly visible, Aleko Konstantinov House Museum, Svishtov
T-Rex and a sauropod from the Open Air Museum of Creation, Novo Selo village
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.