UNESCO

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES

Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where conventional buildings would be hard to construct. Since the dawn of religion they have enlarged existing caves into rooms that resembled church interiors, complete with naves, altars and apses, and murals. They also lived in caves, in cells scattered around these churches, often forming large compounds.

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AFTERLIFE IN KAZANLAK TOMB

What happens after death has fascinated people since the dawn of humanity. The earliest accounts of what they thought was the answer paint a glum picture. According to the ancient Mesopotamians, the dead inhabited a grim realm where they had only dust to eat and drink. Ancient Egyptians striving for an afterlife had to be mummified and to undergo a strict vetting process, under threat of being eaten by a monster in case they failed. The ancient Greeks were aware that even the greatest heroes would be reduced to nameless shadows in the Kingdom of Hades.

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MADARA HORSEMAN ENIGMA

Of all UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria, Madara Horseman is most difficult to see.

This is not because Europe's only medieval open-air relief is in an isolated spot that is hard to reach. The Madara Horseman is a short and easy drive from the Hemus motorway, near Shumen. Just beneath the 100 metre high rock where it is carved, there is a new visitor's centre and a viewing platform.

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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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CRACKING MEDIEVAL SMILE

A pair of dark, tender eyes glow in a delicate face crowned with a costly headdress decorated with pearls. The lady's lips are slightly curved, as if she is smiling at a private joke, or perhaps a secret she holds? The woman herself is an enigma. We know that the elegant lady painted on the walls of the Boyana Church was called Desislava and that she was the wife of Kaloyan, the handsome lord of 13th century Sofia painted next to her. But why is Desislava smiling?

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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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NESEBAR

There is a silver lining to the sharp decline in international tourism in Bulgaria in 2020. You can now see Nesebar, one of this nation's most impressive towns, without hordes of Brits and Scandinavians still hungover from the previous-evening's pub crawl at Sunny Beach resort.

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SVESHTARI TOMB: UNESCO-LISTED THRACIAN SITE PRESERVES RARE ARTWORKS

One place, however, reveals more about Thracian history than anywhere else in Bulgaria. Situated on some hills along the bends of the Teketo River, Sboryanovo Reserve offers a glimpse of a Thracian city and citadel, plus several necropoli and shrines, and reveals astonishing building skills, gold treasures and important information about the religion, economy and social life of the Thracians.

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BYGONE NESEBAR

Zillions of stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, beach towels, jeans and conveyor-belt-produced marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and 200-year old houses.

Many tourists are actually wondering what they are doing in Nesebar.

The obvious answer is they are visiting what is probably Bulgaria's best known and most visited UNESCO World Heritage site.

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IVANOVO ROCK CHURCHES

No, this encounter of past and present is not taking place in faraway Cappadocia of worldwide renown for its odd rock chapels, but here in Bulgaria. About 20 kms from Ruse, the bends of the Rusenski Lom River embrace about a dozen churches and monastic cells hewn into the rock. In the 12th-14th centuries they composed one monastic complex. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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CHIPROVTSI'S CARPETS

A smiling man offering to sell you a traditional carpet supposedly woven by his old mother herself – everyone who has been to any part of the Middle East has met the omnipresent "genuine" rug dealer.

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AROUND BULGARIA IN 5 SACRES SITES

You don't need to be a believer to experience something special at some places and some moments. A sense of spirituality can enfold you anywhere, anytime. Being a small but very varied country, Bulgaria has plenty of locations conducive to this. It is a country of many religions, both old and new, long dead or still living, and it is yours to explore with eyes and soul open once you get tired of the beaten tourist track.

RILA MONASTERY

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BULGARIA'S ENDANGERED HERITAGE

Officially, not a single Bulgarian entry in UNESCO's world heritage list is in danger. In actual fact however, in the country of sun and roses, many historical and natural sites are in danger of being changed beyond recognition, or of being completely lost.

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WALKING ON FIRE

The unusual, almost Native American-like drum rhythm and the bagpipe tunes echo over the silent crowd, gathered around a large circle of live embers glowing into the night. All eyes are on a tiny group of barefoot men and women in traditional clothes, who dance slowly at the edge of the circle, holding icons.

"They are in trance," says one of the onlookers.

"No, they are afraid," whispers another.

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OLD NESEBAR

The crowd of tourists in flipflops, faces glowing from sun-burn, is overwhelming. The cries of the touts trying to lure patrons into this or that restaurant selling pizza or Chinese cuisine in small portions at outrageous prices are piercing. Zillions of stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, beach towels, jeans and conveyor-belt-produced marine landscapes cover the walls of the medieval churches and 200-year old houses. The cobbles are slippery.



Many tourists are actually wondering what they are doing in Nesebar.


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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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CHIPROVTSI

If the name Chiprovtsi sounds familiar to you, it is probably owing to the carpets being made there. Handwoven and adorned with intricate geometrical motifs in bright colours, they are one of the most popular remnants of the old handicrafts in Bulgaria, like the coloured ceramics from the region of Troyan. Many Bulgarians consider their design to be unique, although you can easily distinguish patterns already seen on carpets from Asia Minor and the Middle East.

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