Old houses, wood carvings plus crisp mountain air add up to perfect Christmas atmosphere
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.
It is one of the few places in Bulgaria spared of the "modernisation" wave of the 1970s and 1980s that replaced old streets, wood houses and fin-de-siècle buildings with uniform, brutalist town squares. With its old houses and shops, a school and a stone bridge, a church and a clock tower, central Tryavna still looks a lot as it did in the 18th-19th centuries.
Tryavna's emblematic old tower and bridge are the focus of a network of cobbled streets lined with beautiful 19th century houses
Tryavna does not feel like a museum town. Ordinary people still live in the fine 19th century Revival Period houses. The cobbled streets are busy with townsfolk, hurrying about their business. One of the centre's top locations, in a traditional house between the city Clock Tower and the Revival Period school, which elsewhere would be an expensive restaurant, is still the café of the local pensioners' club.
Tryavna appeared in 1565 as a settlement of people who had to guard from highwaymen the nearby mountain pass and its travellers. In the following two centuries, trade and commerce flourished. In the 17th century, a local icon painting school appeared. Today its disciples are still among the most revered icon painters in Bulgaria. Woodcarving expanded too, forming another school of artisans.
A scene from Tryavna wool-processing workshop as depicted by 19th century Austrian ethnographer Felix Kanitz
The centre of Tryavna is a living exhibition of the skills and crafts of local masters. Every detail in the old buildings – from the carved wooden beams supporting bay windows to the big iron nail heads in the wooden doors – shows the desire of old-time masters to create things of beauty and endurance.
The best place to see the skills of local craftsmen are the wooden ceilings of the early 19th century Daskalov House. They were carved during a competition between a master woodcarver and his ambitious apprentice. Both men carved suns and it is still hard to decide which one is better – the heavy summer sun made by the seasoned master or the young apprentice's sprightly spring sun.
The so-called May Sun at the Daskalov House made by the master woodcarver who competed with his student who will make a better ceiling. The carving was made in 1808. The furniture in the room shows clear European influence on local lifestyle and was put there in the second half of the century
There is more in the St Archangel Michael church. Its iconostasis is covered with the intricate wood carvings of the best Tryavna masters, and the icons are on a par; superb examples of the art of the local icon-painting tradition.
For more icons, visit the Icon Museum at the King's Chapel, built by Bulgarian Queen Ioanna in 1943-1944.
For many, walking Tryavna's cobblestones, drinking Turkish coffee and rakiya in the restaurants, is immersion enough in the old-time atmosphere. For a fuller experience, do visit some of the museum houses like the Slaveykov House and the home of revolutionary Angel Kanchev. The house of the first Bulgarian professor of chemistry, Penko Raykov, shows how the elite's lifestyle got Europeanised after the mid-19th century.
Relief of poets Petko and Pencho Slaveykov on the facade of their Tryavna house
Tryavna's main landmark is the 21-metre Clock Tower in the city centre beside the beautiful humpback stone bridge. It was built in 1814. A year later two craftsmen from nearby Gabrovo installed a clockwork mechanism to regulate the working hours of the town's merchants and craftsmen. The clock works flawlessly to this day.
Tryavna however is not stuck in the past. Two of Bulgaria's most peculiar sights, connected to modernity, are here. In the 1990s, a local physics teacher successfully petitioned for the installation of a Foucault Pendulum in the Clock Tower. It is still there, proving that the earth does spin.
Tryavna is located on a route through the Stara Planina mountain range that used to be strategically important. Today the town is far from major roads
The former city public baths' building hosts the Museum of Asian and African Art. Its collection of wooden masks and figurines were donated to the city by a Tryavna-born New Yorker, the artist Zlatko Paunov.
Local tastes have changed as well. For years, Tryavna has had its own label of craft beer made after... Belgian recipes.
Turkish coffee brewed in hot sand is one of Tryavna's delights