Revival Period

DEMON CHURCH

Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art. You will mostly see them in moralistic murals painted on the exterior walls of churches.

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DEAD POETS SOCIETY

It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels. This notion may be a bit outdated in a world run by social media where electronic "devices" by far outnumber fountain pens, and where a "content creator" makes more than a teacher of literature. But it is still at least indicative. Bulgaria, whose writers and poets have been translated into English only sporadically, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is very proud of its literary heritage.

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10 PLACES NOT TO MISS IN 2023

Discovering Bulgaria's landscapes, people and events is rewarding all year round, especially when you leave the beaten track and explore some of the lesser sites. Of course, in high season you can scarcely find anywhere in Bulgaria completely devoid of other visitors, but many places still preserve an atmosphere of novelty for the curious traveller. We have selected some of these on the following pages.

Belogradchik Rocks

Where: Northwestern Bulgaria

What: Bulgaria's own version of the US southwest, plus a fortress

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LA VIE EN ROSE

A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP.

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RILA MONASTERY MAGIC

Bulgarians are proud of the period of their national revival, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It established the country as a young and energetic nation eager to restore its statehood after five centuries of Ottoman domination. Personalities such as the revolutionaries, Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, are the poster boys of the era, but the whole revival period, which spans a century, was more complex. Violent revolution against the Sultan was only a part of it and would have been impossible if Bulgarians had not already emancipated themselves culturally, economically and politically.

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VELIKO TARNOVO DELIGHTS

Perched on a twisty meander of the Yantra River, where the hills of the Danube Plain meet the northern slopes of the Stara Planina, Veliko Tarnovo has unparalleled topography in Bulgaria, and possibly the Balkans. Traditional 19th century houses cling above the steep river bends, connected by alleys and steps that defy both gravity and everyday convenience – but living in Tarnovo has never been about convenience.

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WHY IS NESEBAR A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE?

If you visit Nesebar in high season, it will be easy to doubt the wisdom of UNESCO's 1983 decision to inscribe this town on the Black Sea coast into its World Heritage list. The crowds of holidaymakers on day trips from the overdeveloped resorts around, the stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs, the chalga music booming from overpriced, "traditional" restaurants are so overwhelming you cannot enjoy – or even notice – the beautiful medieval churches and the old wooden houses that are the reason all of these people and businesses are here.

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WINTER TALES IN TRYAVNA

Wood-beamed houses, cobbled streets, mystic religious art and even some snow... you do not need to travel to France or Germany to immerse in the atmosphere of Christmas in a cosy town that has changed little over the centuries. 

Instead, visit Tryavna, on the northern slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range. 

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THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

Guidebooks boast about the beauty and artistic importance of the murals in Bulgaria's churches that date from the later centuries of Ottoman domination. Created by a society that was still deeply rooted in medieval tradition, but which was beginning to look towards and absorb Western European influences, this style of decoration sometimes charms but is sometimes hard to stomach. To the enthusiastic art lover, it embodies the search for new artistic means that defined the work of Bulgarian painters in the late 18th and 19th century.

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BULGARIA'S CLOCKTOWERS

Today, knowing what time it is becomes a problem only if the battery of your smart phone is dead and there is no one around to ask. For previous generations, it was different. For millennia, people measured their days and nights by the movement of the sun and stars, or waited for a rooster to crow.

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WINTER IN RILA MONASTERY

As the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rila Monastery can appear a little overwhelming if you visit in high season or during major Christian festivals. The crowds that gather in the picturesque yard, with its toy-like painted church and the striped arches of the galleries, can obliterate any feeling of holiness, or the tranquility that is usually associated with a monastic institution of such fame.

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WHO WAS FATHER PAISIY?

The Revival Period. Any visitor who has been to Bulgaria for more than a couple of days for business and/or pleasure has heard this combination of words, but what does it mean? It is the name of a singular, and highly idealised, period in Bulgarian history.

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BIRD'S EYE VIEW OF NESEBAR

Looking for some peace and quiet on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in summer is a natural aspiration, even in a year of pandemic and reduced international tourism like 2021. But there are places by the sea where peace and quiet in summer are not to be found. Even in a "slow" tourist summer, they are abuzz with local and foreign visitors; lively and vibrant, sometimes vulgar and often irritating.

Nesebar is one of those places.

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THE SECRETS OF REVIVAL PERIOD PLOVDIV

The braw houses lining the cobblestone streets of Old Plovdiv are arguably the city's most recognisable sight. The only thing that can distract from marvelling at their painted façades, projecting bay windows and verdant gardens is the pavement. Polished by the feet of generations of passers-by, it is slippery even when dry, as the traveller and historian Konstantin Jireček noted as far back as the late 19th century.

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(RE)DISCOVERING MELNIK

What is Bulgaria's smallest town? Bulgarian children learn the answer early in school. However, the reason both local and foreign tourists visit Melnik, population 194, is not its size. They cherish Melnik, in southwest Bulgaria, for its well-preserved Revival Period architecture, strong local wine and surreal surroundings of white limestone pyramids. Its location is just off the E79 route from Sofia to Greece, a short drive from Bansko.

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POSTCARD FROM ELENA

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas.

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WHO WERE CYRIL AND METHODIUS?

The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals and icons. Their images multiply on 24 May, when long processions of students crowd the central streets of every city carrying posters, usually decorated with flowers.

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EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY

The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary. Monks in habits, practicing Eastern Orthodox Christians and a couple of clueless foreign tourists are gathered at the gate of Bulgaria's most revered monastery and most visited UNESCO-site long after business hours to wait for a car to arrive.

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