For a small town, Troyan has a serious claim to fame.
Located deep into some of the most inaccessible parts of the Stara Planina, the town produces and lends its name to the famed Troyanska Slivova, or Troyan plum Rakiya. It is also the place of origin of the ubiquitous pottery found all over Bulgaria's traditional restaurants. The so-called Troyan pots, with their distinctive multicoloured patterns, are amongst the best souvenirs visitors to Bulgaria can lay their hands on.
Then, there is the Troyanksi Pass, a precipitous road that reaches an altitude of 1,595m before leading down, south of the Stara Planina.
Troyan's other attraction, however, doesn't have anything to do with merry living or geography. It is spiritual.
Located just out of town, the Troyan Monastery is the third largest and one of the most beautiful in Bulgaria.
Unlike the larger and more famous Rila and Bachkovski monasteries, the one at Troyan does not have medieval origins. The Assumption of the Mother of Christ appeared around 1600, on the banks of the Cherni Osam river, founded by a monk or a pair of monks (legends disagree) who came from the monastic community of Mount Athos.
Soon, pilgrims and monks began to flock to Troyan, attracted by the supposedly miraculous copy of an icon of the Mother of Christ from Mount Athos that is still kept in the monastery. The icon has three silver hands attached to it and, according to lore, was brought here by a monk from Athos on his way to Wallachia. The monk stopped at the then small Troyan monastery, and spent some time there. When he tried to continue his travels, the icon would not let him leave. Finally, he got the message and and left the icon in Troyan, continuing on to Wallachia empty-handed.
The monastic church is hidden in the innermost yard of the complex
The monastery did well in the centuries that followed the event, although it was attacked at least once by Ottoman brigands. By the first half of the 18th century it was large and prosperous, and was instrumental in reviving Bulgarian education, as the home of an early elementary school. After 1785, the abbot initiated the complete renovation of the complex, which continued for more than 30 years. The result was the two- and three-storey living quarters that you see today, forming the two inner courtyards of the monastery.
The small, stone church in the inner yard is younger. It was built in 1835, on the site of a predecessor dating from 1780. In 1848-1849, Bulgaria's finest painter of the period, Zahariy Zograf, decorated it, and his frescoes are now one of the main reasons why Troyan Monastery is recognised as a gem of art.
To understand this, you need to know that Bulgarian art at that stage had not progressed from medieval times. The centuries under Ottoman domination and isolation from the West had taken their toll: Bulgarian artists painted solely religious scenes, keeping strictly to the old Byzantine rules of ecclesiastical art. In the first half of the 19th century, change finally arrived and the Baroque and Rococo trends and styles long out of fashion in the West permeated Bulgarian art.
Zahariy Zograf was the man who incorporated this new sensibility most skilfully into the stagnant local art. His frescoes depict not medieval Byzantine saints, but his fellow Bulgarians thinly disguised as Old and New Testaments characters.
The frescoes at Troyan Monastery are masterpieces pure and simple. All of Zograf's favourite topics are there: the fashionable, rich people of his day in the grab of devils and demons in the Last Judgement fresco; the philosophical Wheel of Life scene that is an allegory of the course of human life; and Zahariy Zograf's self-portrait. The latter is the first portrait in Bulgarian art (Zograf did at least one more), a bold statement that broke with medieval anonymity in an attempt to tell: death might conquer all, but art still prevails. Particularly, we shall add, if you can add to your philosophical questioning a small Troyanska Slivova in a pot tumbler with the distinctive Troyan design.
The Wheel of Life scene is a meditation on the futility of human existence and its passions
European art influences are clearly visible in this Biblical scene of Jesus and the Pharisee
Zahariy Zograf broke with mediaeval tradition, depicting himself (right) in the church
The urban female dresses, painted in great detail in a Last Judgement scene, were influenced by contemporary European fashion like Regency style
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.