Charming frescoes, classical music and world champion in wrestling
At the heart of traditional villages with old houses or in drab Communist-era developments fighting depopulation, village churches dot the Bulgarian countryside and offer a variety of stimulating experiences. Some were built centuries ago and others are newer. Some are covered with masterpieces of church art and other were decorated by self-taught artists. Some are museums and other still serve their communities. Some offer proof of strange rituals or important events in their parishes and keep alive the memory of the times when the now empty villages bustled with life.
While Kovachevitsa was the home of the rich, the nearby village of Leshten was inhabited by poor but dextrous itinerant masons. Interestingly, they managed to build their own church devoted to St Paraskeva years before their wealthy neighbours in Kovachevitsa erected St Nicholas. It happened as early as 1837. St Paraskeva is small, domed and prettily nestled into a slope amid the beautiful local houses, overlooking the Pirin mountains. In the early 2010s, it was badly damaged in a fire, but was eventually restored and is again welcoming visitors, who arrive at Leshten mainly to enjoy the village's old architecture, beautiful landscapes and traditional food.
Many villages in northern Bulgaria are either entirely depopulated or struggling to survive the turmoil of post-Communist Bulgaria. The village of Dlagnya near Dryanovo seems to be an exception. Its charming traditional houses are well maintained, and its church, St Demetrius, built in 1842, is a spiritual centre for the villagers and also for many who drive for miles to attend religious ceremonies. Unlike other Orthodox churches, St Demetrius is used not just for sermons but also for concerts. After the liturgy, in the adjacent former school, food and drink are shared between the churchgoers, modelled on the Agape feast in the New Testament.
Most travellers head for Sitovo, in the northern part of the Rhodope, without any intent of actually looking at Sitovo itself. What they are mostly attracted by is the Sitovo Inscription, a mysterious panel of what appears to be runes that have not been deciphered yet – if it is an "inscription" at all and not a natural phenomenon.
Some detour to the remains of a nearby medieval fort called Stutgrad, and not too far away is Tamrash, a hunting ground.
But Sitovo has its charms as well. It has not yet been turned into a conglomerate of guesthouses, and it boasts two endearing churches, St Petka (built in 1848), which is right in the centre, and The Holy Mother of God, perched on a hill nearby.
Balgari is very quiet for 364 days in the year (365 in leap years). The day when it is not is 3 June, the feast day of Ss Constantine and Helena. Thousands of visitors then flock to the village to observe what in recent years has been advertised as the last truly authentic firewalking festival in Bulgaria. Firewalking, or Nestinarstvo, is an amalgamation of Christianity and paganism. Its performers walk barefoot on live embers and dance, holding icons above their heads.
Once upon a time firewalking was widespread, but today Balgari is about the only place in the Strandzha that preserves it.
Understandably, the village church is named after Ss Constantine and Helena, the patron saints of the rite. It was built in the second half of the 19th century but was torched in 1903 when the St Elijah-Transfiguration Uprising was suppressed (at that time Strandzha was still a part of the Ottoman Empire). The church was restored in 1910.
A local legend links Nestinarstvo in the Strandzha with the survival of pagan firewalking rites. When the Ottomans invaded in the 14th century, they set the church on fire. The building went up in flames, but an elderly woman heard human cries from the inside. She entered and took away a single item, an icon depicting Ss Constantine and Helena. Inspired, the villagers took to firewalking.
Built during the Great War, a time of severe hardships for Bulgarians, St Ivan of Rila in the village of Sennik, in the Stara Planina mountains near Sevlievo, is nevertheless imposing. It sits on top of a hill and is visible from afar, a fine example of early 20th century religious architecture.
It has two rare features. In 1920, the church was adorned with a clockwork mechanism that still measures the time.
Twenty years later, Sennik's most famous native was buried in the churchyard. Born in 1892, Dan Koloff (1892-1940) emigrated to the United States in 1909 and became a famous wrestler, winning several international championships. When his career ended, he returned to his home village, Sennik, and spent almost all of his money on charities, before he died relatively young from consumption.
Today the village of Dolno Lukovo is in one of this country's least visited regions: in the southeastern corner of the Rhodope less than a mile from the border with Greece. The region's isolation dates back to the first years after the Second World War when Bulgaria and Greece found themselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. The Communists took over and sealed the border. As a result, the local people's traditional livelihood, which included silk farming, all but disappeared. People started to leave as they no longer saw a viable future for themselves. Today Dolno Lukovo has 70-100 inhabitants.
In the 17th-18th centuries, however, the village prospered with silk farming and sesame production. The locals erected a church, Ss Constantine and Helena. It was reportedly completed in six days to comply with the Ottoman Empire's rules that a place of worship with a roof over it could no longer be knocked down. The church has primitivist murals painted over the original clay masonry rather than over mortar. Inside the altar there is a healing water spring.
Ss Constantine and Helena was in use up until 1896 when the new three-nave basilica, St Michael Archangel, was erected.
Balgarevo is one of the few villages in Bulgaria inhabited by one of this country's most intriguing minorities – the Gagauz, ethnic Turks who speak an archaic version of Turkish and are devout... Christians. There are two churches in Balgarevo. Ss Peter and Paul was built in 1901, but recently went through a restoration so severe its original character is all but gone. From the outside, the 1896 St Michael Archangel church is not that imposing, but its dark interior, humble icons and austere furnishings make it a quiet, moving place that speaks to the spirit.
Perched on top of a cliff over the Pchelina Reservoir, St John the Baptist of the Summer Chapel is a popular spot with amateur photographers, who sometimes have to wait in turn to take a picture of the small building against the sunset. Its environs are superb, but its story is quite disturbing. This used to be the church of a village called Pchelina, which existed until the 1970s when it disappeared as it was submerged in the waters of the reservoir.
The chapel is difficult to date but it was described as early as the late 19th century when the Czech historian and traveller, Konstantin Jireček, visited.
Arbanasi, one of Bulgaria's few villages that centuries ago had a Hellenised Albanian ethnic majority, is the home of some of this country's pre-Revival Period's most spectacular churches.
The Nativity of the Christ Church is a massive, low building. Initially, it came into being in the late 16th century. Its murals are truly amazing. They were painted in 1597-1681 and cover every square inch of the interior of the church. Their bright colours and the fantastic scenes they depict will make your head swirl.
Less well-known but equally mesmerising are Ss Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church, St Demetrius Church and St George Church, all of which were erected and decorated in the 17th century.