Kalofer is one of those places that all who'd rather avoid Bulgaria's highway pass en route between Sofia and Burgas, yet few bother to stop, and even fewer stay on. From a certain standpoint, this is positive.
It keeps mass tourism confined to the highway, away form the town huddled in the foothills of Mount Botev, once known as Ümrükçal, which means Fist Mount – Stara Planina’s tallest summit at 2,376 metres. Kalofer is a pearl you will fall in love with. But to discover it, you need to make an effort.
The history of Kalofer is turbulent, heroic and often soaked in blood. Centuries ago, the valley where today's Kalofer nestles on the two banks of the Tundzha River, was an impassable virgin forest spanning the distance between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora. West of today's Kalofer, along the Byala Reka River, was Zvunigrad: a town razed without a trace by the Ottomans in the 16th or 17th centuries.
The local people, however, turned out to be brave and intrepid occupants of the Balkans. Centuries ago one of them, Kalifer Voyvoda, gathered a band of 40 like-minded men and took over, bringing fear to the Turks for years on end. Unable to counter the Hayduts, or brigands, armed and determined as they were, the sultan granted Kalifer Voyvoda the right to settle in the area. Some historians assert that the name of Kalofer comes from same Kalifer Voyvoda.
Putting their weapons aside for a while, Kaloferites stuck to timber logging interspersed with relatively peaceful raids on local dairies. A more agreeable local pastime was brides-stealing from nearby Sopot, a town renowned for its female beauty.
Kırcalı thugs sacked and torched the town on two occasions, in 1799 and 1804, but Kalofer would recover, and become one of the wealthier Balkan Mountain settlements. Its zenith came during the early 19th century. Contemporary travellers noted that Kalofer had more than a thousand of the then hype wool looms, and several dozen dyeing mills. Kaloferites traded successfully with distant places such as Constantinople, Vienna, Odessa, and Braila. Many of them went to study in Europe.
The definition Altın, or Golden, was appended to Kalofer's name, and the locals began to aristocratically appreciate their bucolic tranquillity. The sultan granted Kalofer limited self-rule, mainly through bylaws to preserve public tranquillity. Ottomans had no right to stay overnight, and any horse-riding Turk had to have their horses' shoes removed by a specially appointed blacksmith, in order not to disturb the locals with excessive noise. Kaloferites were no slaves.
In 1845, the town got a large new school, and in 1871 the first high school for girls was inaugurated. Many renowned Bulgarian Revival Period intellectuals came from Kalofer: Exarch Yosif, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; Elena Muteva, Bulgaria's first poetess; Anastasia Dimitrova, the first secular teacher; Hristo Tapchileshtov, a prominent merchant in Istanbul; Ivan Shopov, Bulgaria's first bibliographer and researcher of folklore; Anastasia Golovina, Bulgaria's first woman doctor.
From afar, the St Archangel Michael Church looks like a large Revival Period mansion. It was built in 1869 on the place of an earlier, smaller church from the 18th century
Brigandry continued alongside intellectual pursuits and handicrafts. Kaloferites were key figures in the Chetas, or bands, led by Panayot Hitov, Hadzhi Dimitar, Stefan Karadzha, and Bacho Kiro. At the close of the Ottoman bondage, no fewer than 15 armed bands circulated in the Kalofer area. Retreating Ottomans torched the town during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, but Kalofer would again pull through. Until the arrival of the Communists in 1944, it was a flourishing Balkan town with developed industry and buoyant commerce.
The Communist contribution to Kalofer has been, to put it mildly, contentious.
The Revival Period town was methodically and purposefully destroyed by the increasingly megalomaniacal new rulers. Almost the entire city centre was demolished to make room for a parade ground square where official mass gatherings would take place at the authorities' instigation. In the 1970s, the Communist megalomania reached new heights with the erection of a massive statue of Kalofer's great son, poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev. The major idea of the stone monstrosity was to make itself visible "from all parts of town." Local people were forced into unpaid hours of work on the monument, while ideologists decreed that dates unrelated to Botev but significant for themselves be carved into it. Such is 1923, a reference to the year of a failed Communist mutiny, as well as, naturally, 1944, the year of the Soviet-backed coup. Erecting the enormous Botev monument resulted in the destruction of most of the town's largest and most beautiful park, the Boteva Polyana, or Botev's Meadow.
The former regime's determined destruction of the historical past led to the emergence in central Kalofer of a series of odd-looking empty spaces. Ironically, save for very few exceptions, no trace remains of the Revival Period when Kalofer was one of Bulgaria's important cities.
For a town housing about 3,600 souls, Kalofer has a remarkable religious heritage. It has four churches, each with an own graveyard, and a convent which locals simply call Kalugerkite, or The Nuns.
But Kalofer's greatest asset is the grandiose landscape of the Stara Planina. The town is the starting point of a multitude of shorter and longer mountain treks which lead either to Mount Botev, or along the Tundzha River, or into the Sveti Kirik or Panitsite areas.
Communist-era Botev-themed visuals are carefully maintained in Kalofer
In the 1970s, a significant part of old-time Kalofer was demolished to make space for the construction of a monument that linked Revival Period poet Hristo Botev with the Communists of 1944
St Atanasius Church was built in 1842 and has a marble iconostasis that was brought here from Constantinople
A local priest giving a sermon at St Atanasius Church
The Tundzha is Bulgaria's third longest river and forms the backbone of Kalofer
Struggle against Ottoman domination is depicted on the rather soul-less Chitalishte, or community centre, constructed in the 1970s. Today the centre's main activity is to serve as one of the few cafés in town
Squeezed at the feet of Stara Planina's highest peak, Kalofer is a place of stunning vistas all year round
Gardening is a favourite pastime of the women of Kalofer, the nuns at the local nunnery are not an exception
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.