Travelling is not just about seeing new places. It is also about experiencing their atmosphere and their food, their people and their stories.
Elena, in the central Stara Planina near Veliko Tarnovo, is a destination that has all this, and more. There, you will find yourself deep amid green forests, old churches and traditional houses, complete with the feeling of a place still stuck in the early 1990s. As a bonus, the town is the home of one of Bulgaria's renowned delicacies: the Elenski but ham.
Elena claims it was founded by refugees who sought security in the mountains during the Ottoman invasion. Their decision seems curious, as the town is beside a pass that is now scarcely used, but was quite popular in the past. Traffic, in fact, was so significant that, under the Ottomans, the people of Elena were exempt from many taxes and were allowed to bear arms in exchange for guarding the pass and its travellers from robbers. Having a weapon in an empire where non-Muslims were not allowed that right emboldened the locals, who were confident enough to make a fuss to the authorities when an administrator abused his power, and they partook in a number of rebellions. In the 18th-19th centuries, local manufacturing took off and fine wool and clothes were produced in Elena, together with goods such as pottery, wine, and silk.
Marrying entrepreneurship with money, the chorbadzhii, or notables, of Elena became famous throughout the Bulgarian lands – some for their harsh business practices, others for their donations towards the construction of new bridges and churches, and some for both. Literacy was held in high esteem, and the old local monastic school was transformed into a modern one, which educated some of the most prominent men of letters in Bulgaria of the time.
Just as elsewhere in Bulgaria, Elena's industry was killed off after the Liberation of 1878 by the loss of the imperial markets and the cheap mass imports from Europe. Under Communism there was some investment in the city, but the economic crisis during the transition to democracy post-1989 had a huge impact on the local community. Today, Elena relies on the manufacture of traditional food, including dairy products, and tourism, and has the general feel of a place that has been left behind.
This sense of time stopped contributes significantly to Elena's charm and, combined with the small discoveries the visitor comes across here, turns the visit into an experience that remains in the memory.
Discoveries do happen here, as you will see if you enter the ground floor of one of the most beautiful traditional houses in Elena, the Popnikolova Kashta, or Father Nikola's House, where there is a paleontological exhibition of fossils from the region. The school that gave Bulgaria so many teachers and intellectuals is part of a museum complex, together with the most interesting of the local churches. Sturdy and fortress-like, St Nikola's Church was built in 1804 after its predecessor, together with its famous old book collection, was burned in 1800 by brigands in an infamous attack that is commemorated in a local song. The unassuming exterior of the church is deliberate – as construction of new churches was forbidden at the time, the locals represented the church to the authorities as an older building. The authorities swallowed the story, supposedly helped by a hefty bribe. The church was painted in 1817-1818 by the two most prominent local painters.
Elena's famed ham
Rising on a nearby slope is the much more imposing Assumption of the Virgin Mary church. Consecrated in 1838, in times when the construction of churches was allowed, it was built of stones taken from an earlier fortification that used to provide protection during the bandit raids.
The area around Elena is dotted with places that can be explored, either on foot or by car. You will need to walk to access the Hristovski Waterfall near Ruhovtsi village, the Chumerna Peak (1,536m), which is the highest in this part of the Stara Planina, and the Markov Kamak and the Rayuv Kamak rocks. The monasteries around are easier to visit. Those in Maryan and Buynovo villages are more humble, but the Kapinovski and Plakovski monasteries are some of the finest Revival Period religious complexes in this part of Bulgaria. The small waterfall with a pool by the Kapinovski monastery is a good place to cool down on hot summer days.
Whatever you do and wherever you go, if you are not bound by dietary restrictions, do try the local ham, the Bulgarian answer to prosciutto. Made by a simple traditional process from the legs and quarters of a pig that have been salted and dried in the mountain air, Elenski but ham has recently been declared a guaranteed origin product. This explains why the delicacy is easily found in local shops, and can be seen hanging all over Elena in the gardens of the houses and the balconies of the flats, but is next to impossible to find elsewhere. It is easier to buy prosciutto, actually.
Elenski but is generally eaten raw, but there are a number of local recipes that make use of it, mainly in combination with sauerkraut or beans.
Luckily, the town produces another delicacy that can be bought everywhere: the File Elena, or Elena cured meat, but it's worth the journey, for Elena is here, waiting for you, full of discoveries yet to be made.
Built in 1812 by a local master builder, Elena's clock tower has a mechanism and a bell that were donated by a rich Muslim from Tarnovo
Statue to Januarius MacGahan, the American journalist who in 1876 raised the alarm on the atrocities during the subjugation of the April Uprising
An old graveyard by the Assumption of Virgin Mary church
In the 19th century Elena developed its own icon-painting school
Located amid a pleasant oak forest, the Hristovski Waterfall is 15 m high and makes for a nice walk
In the 19th century, most of the public buildings in Elena were built with donations from locals. Called chorbadzhii, they often suffered violent death as they were killed for their money or by competitors
Local economy has suffered during the Transition and signs of decay are everywhere
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.