Bulgarian architecture

DECYPHERING RILA MONASTERY

Black-and-white striped arches, technicolor murals of saints and sinners and high mountain peaks filling the horizon: a visit to Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria's most memorable experiences, and not only because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. This place unites stunning landscapes, spirituality, formidable art and architecture, and some interesting stories. It is hardly a surprise that both Bulgarian King Boris III and Irish journalist James Bourchier wished to be buried here, in 1943 and 1920 respectively.

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BEST VILLAGE CHURCHES IN BULGARIA

Some are centuries old, with mediaeval murals and strong stone walls untouched by time. Others are the result of the revival of the Bulgarian national consciousness in villages that were once lively but are now inhabited mainly by tourists. Many are at village centres while others are remote from any inhabited place, the sole remnant of some long forgotten monastery, or a village submerged by some dam.

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WHO WAS KOLYU FICHETO?

Bulgaria's traditional architecture of the 18-19th centuries has a charm that few – if any – newer buildings in the country can compete with. Preserved in small towns and villages, it is a harmonious blend of building and landscape, the intelligent use of natural materials and simple layouts which create nice living spaces during both hot Balkan summers and freezing winters. In the minimalist interiors, each detail matters. This architecture, both civic and religious, is aesthetically pleasing and designed to last for centuries.

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ESCAPE TO LESHTEN

Rural tourism in Bulgaria was barely known 20 years ago, but in the early 2000s it experienced an EU-funded boom.

But in the late 2000s the still ongoing economic crisis hit and now many guesthouses are struggling to survive with the decreased number of visitors. In the western fringes of the Rhodope, however, is a traditional village which is still one of the best places for rural tourism in Bulgaria.

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TRYAVNA

Shopping in the centre of Tryavna, a traditional town in the central Stara Planina, is a peculiar experience. Here and there, in the narrow shops infused with the aroma of 200-year-old wood, you can find the usual souvenirs and touristy stuff you are familiar with from other traditional places in Bulgaria. However, in Tryavna the ubiquitous carved wood items, icons and old aprons mingle with more ordinary goods, as the old Revival Period shops in the city centre also sell groceries and washing powder, books, shoes and toys, and plenty of the locally manufactured underwear.

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DOLEN

The elderly woman who holds the key to the church in the village of Dolen, in the Rhodope, gets up slowly from her wooden chair and shambles towards the altar. The scant light coming from the high windows falls on her. The theatrical effect attracts the attention of the small group of tourists freezing in the damp room who, in the gloom, have been trying to make out the famous wood frescoes that the church of St Nikola (1834) prides itself on.

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BRIDGE AT BYALA

Every day thousands of people pass by one of Bulgaria's most remarkable old bridges which spans the Yantra River near Byala, in the region of Ruse. Few, however, pay any attention to the elegant 19th Century structure. The bridge is close to the main road to Ruse and Bucharest, but the new bridge over the Yantra there is so awkward that it has witnessed many sometimes lethal accidents. Extreme caution is recommended, so most drivers never pay any attention to the surroundings.

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BOZHENTSI

The recent craze to escape the crowds has led thousands of tourists and holiday home hunters to the traditional mountain settlements in Bulgaria. Be it the Rhodope, the Stara Planina or the Strandzha, everywhere you can find once deserted houses which have been more or less well renovated and turned into lodgings or private villas. The craze has saved almost dead villages, like Leshten and Kosovo in the Rhodope, but has also killed the erstwhile pastoral atmosphere of places like Arbanasi near Veliko Tarnovo or Delchevo near Gotse Delchev.

In this crowd, Bozhentsi stands out.

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QUIET CHARM OF ELENA

The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.

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BY FAULT OR DESIGN

You are in probably the only EU country where architecture can be deadly – literally and figuratively. In Varna a concrete canopy collapsed, killing a girl; a tumbling building also crushed another couple of girls in central Sofia. The sandy beaches on the southern Black Sea coast are all but gone, replaced by hotels where pseudo-Egyptian statues are outnumbered only by pseudo-turrets and pseudo-balustrades. Most of them have crooked walls.

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