EMBRACE THE PAST

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Explore traditional crafts at Etara open air museum

etara museum tower.jpg

Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria. Spread along the banks of the Sivek river, eight kilometres from Gabrovo, it is a love letter to a Bulgaria lost in time – that of small merchants and artisans, and their families, who lived in beautiful houses of timber and stone, used primitive water-powered technology to mill corn and produce textiles, met in dim cafés, prayed in humble, brightly painted churches, and dreamt of ending the five-centuries of Ottoman rule and establishing their own state.

This alluring version of Bulgaria's past was created as the answer to a moment of monumental change for the nation: the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation that followed the Communist coup of 1944.

Weaver's workshop

Etara was established in 1964. The idea was hardly new; the first open air display of this kind, Skansen, was opened near Stockholm in 1891. But in Communist Bulgaria the idea of Lazar Donkov, from Gabrovo, was revolutionary as immersive experience was an unknown concept for local museums (to a large extent, it still is).

This is how the museum's founder, and first manager, explained the need for Etara in his memoirs: "Recent expositions have failed to help visitors feel a connection with the past. That is why it occurred to me to create a functioning open air museum… so the past comes to life, and we come to understand more deeply a monumental national treasure which is so worth preserving."

The original Sakova House was built in 1850 in Gabrovo by a prominent local merchant. Its replica in Etara was constructed in 1970

A brief glance at Bulgaria from the beginning of the 1960s is enough to show why Donkov's idea is the unexpected but inevitable result of something bigger – the building of a Communist society. As early as the first years after the 1944 Communist coup, the whole country underwent an extensive reconstruction programme which lasted into the 1980s. Entire neighbourhoods and old city centres were demolished to make way for Socialist monstrosities and lifeless, marble-paved squares.

The former Communist Party headquarters, the Largo and NDK in Sofia are the most grandiose testimony to these changes, but not a single city was spared, Gabrovo being no exception.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the residents of this town on the northern slopes of the Stara Planina discovered that the River Yantra, which flows through it, could be used for purposes other than watering their gardens. It could power flour mills, and then the primitive tumble washers for locally-made textiles sprang up along the banks of the river.

Mosaic at the entrance of the museum

By the end of the century, the textile industry had developed at such a fast pace that Gabrovo was nicknamed the "Bulgarian Manchester." Renowned as Bulgaria's stingiest but at the same time most jocular people – the Scots of Bulgaria, some would say – the citizens of Gabrovo nevertheless used some of the money they made to build fine houses.

After the Communist construction thrust, very few of the old houses in Gabrovo remained, including the Clock Tower and the Baev Bridge. Uniform new housing estates were built in their stead.

The pottery is on the ground floor of a house that was built in 1874 in Gabrovo and belonged to a local potter. The town was an important pottery centre and in the late 19th century was home of 40-45 potteries. Cheaper, industrial production quickly made the craft redundant; the last pottery in Gabrovo closed in 1945

Some of the old Gabrovo houses were more fortunate. They were moved, along with some buildings from the surrounding villages, to the Etara museum to become props to manifest apparent concern for Bulgaria's past. The rest of the houses in the complex are copies.

No matter how they ended up in the Etara museum, their purpose was to reproduce with a degree of accuracy the life of the inhabitants in Revival Period Gabrovo. For example, the distinctive Sakova House in the High Street, its second storey walls painted a vibrant blue, illustrates the life of well-to-do residents in the transition between two epochs. They used new Western style chairs, exquisitely crafted tables, modern lighting and European beds and wardrobes. At the same time, however, life still revolved around the big traditional hearth, and the household continued to lounge on old style couches, cushioned with thick pillows.

Cart painting is another lost art that has found place in the museum

Outside, in the cobbled street, the clock tower, a not particularly accurate replica of the one in Dryanovo, marks the time. Ice cold mountain water gushes out of the old fountain. Tourists use either the wooden or the two stone bridges to cross the Sivek River, while in the workshops craftsmen work according to 150-year-old methods.

You can see the waterwheels in action, powering mechanisms originally used for everything from grinding flour to treating and softening textiles from the time when Gabrovo sold goods to the Ottoman army. The town produced such things as knives, decorative fabrics and woven woollen braids, used to decorate clothes. The oldest building in Etara, a 1780s mill, grinds flour to this day, and one craftsman still paints psychedelic colours on carts.

In the past, Bulgarian women made by themselves all textiles needed for the household, from clothes to blankets and floor coverings

The cobblestone street is the main commercial area of the complex and bustles with life. It has been designed as a replica of the old market street of Gabrovo. The ground floors of the buildings house the small shops, where artisans made and sold their wares. People normally lived on the first floor.

Nowadays no one lives in the 16 houses along the street, although the shops are crowded. Most of the craftsmen try to attract customers with their hand-made goods. Potters spin their wheels, woodcarvers are covered in shavings as they work.

The tiny street echoes with the hammering of the metal forged by coppersmiths. Some shops are quieter, such as those of the iconographers, the silversmiths and the weavers of colourful rugs.

The museum exhibits all type of tools for everyday activities that were once routine, but now belong firmly in the past, like this mechanism that separates corn from cob

The small confectionery shop, however, is the most appealing. The confectioner's sugar peacocks, sesame sticks and walnut sweets are some of the most authentic experiences in the Etara museum. They are sweet enough to give you toothache and take you back to a time when the word "chocolate" was unknown in Bulgaria.

Etara has an impressive collection of ethnographical objects and regularly hosts scientific conferences, symposia, workshops and public events aimed at promoting its activities to a broader public, including classes for children and families who want to make their own martenitsi, and re-enactments of traditional rites and exhibitions. The curators tried to make the place as authentic as possible, but omitted a key element – a church. A votive stone dedicated to St George was placed at one end of the compound as late as 1993.

Gradually, several old tombstones appeared alongside it. In 1998, a programme was launched to raise funds to build the church that stands there today. This replica of the Epiphany church in Radovtsi, built in 1868, was consecrated in 2006.

This year Etara will celebrate its 60th anniversary, in September, with a concert and an exhibition, but it is worth visiting all year round.

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