An easy drive from Sofia, nestled deep in the leafy Sredna Gora mountains, Koprivshtitsa has all the elements of an exemplary Revival Period experience.
The surrounding landscape is all high slopes, lush forests and meadows. Beautiful 200-year-old mansions line cobbled streets. Old stone bridges span the local river. Charming old water fountains, their worn inscriptions still legible, are here, there and everywhere. Koprivshtitsa's history is also captivating, as this was where the April Uprising of 1876 began.
To make things even better, the local food is great.
Nobody is certain when Koprivshtitsa appeared. Legend attributes its founding to refugees from this or that part of Bulgaria who after the Ottoman invasion were seeking a place where security mattered more than easy access to roads or fertile lands. The people of Koprivshtitsa still say, part-mockingly and part-proudly, that summer here lasts three days and if you drink too much in the local tavern you might miss it altogether. Yet, people have put down roots here and prospered. At the turn of the 18th-19th centuries Koprivshtitsa was plundered not once, not twice, but three times by bandits who roamed the Balkan lands of the weakening empire. Something other than the clean air and the beautiful landscape attracted their attention.
At this time, Koprivshtitsa was becoming wealthy. Local manufacture and trade in wool and textiles was gaining momentum. The more adventurous took to tax collecting, an activity that was encouraged by a state which was increasingly unable to collect its own taxes and was prepared to lease the right to locals, who would undertake this unpopular task for a hefty profit.
The bridges and water fountains, the beautiful mansions and the main church, the 1817 Church of the Assumption, are all manifestations of Koprivshtitsa's economic progress, which is best seen in the changes to the so-called Koprivshtitsa traditional house in the span of mere decades. In the 1820s-1830s, houses were humble and had space only for a family to live and work. In the 1840s, houses became larger, with more rooms both for leisure and work, and now featured a special projecting bay window, where the owner could sit and keep an eye on his employees. After the mid-1850s, as Koprivshtitsa became even more prosperous, local houses developed into elegant mansions with arches, curved eaves, and walls painted with bright colours and lively frescoes.
The inhabitants were changing as well. One of the centres of a newly-emergent Bulgarian middle-class, Koprivshtitsa saw a surge in modern nationalism, which manifested itself in the opening of the local school and community hall (both have been preserved), the birth of a number of prominent men of trade, politics and letters, and the town's participation in the April Uprising.
According to legend, the people of Koprivshtitsa built the Church of Assumption in 1817 in only 11 days after its predecessor was burned by brigands, in 1809. The ringing of its bells announced the beginning of the April Uprising in 1876. The belfry is from 1896
Koprivshtitsa was plundered during the suppression of the rebellion, but at least it was not burned. However, it suffered greatly when Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878. Being an Ottoman tax collector was no longer an option, nor was there a large imperial market for quality wool. Cheap imports from the West helped to kill local manufacture. By the 1880s, the Czech historian and traveller Konstantin Jireček reported that people were abandoning Koprivshtitsa, leaving their empty houses behind.
In 1952, the town was declared a national monument. In the 1970s a large-scale restoration was started, turning Koprivshtitsa into what you see today – the narrow cobblestone streets winding between high walls, above which peer colourful bay windows under heavy, beam-supported eaves. Here and there, open doors invite you into gardens in full bloom and mansions with stories to tell. The homes of the writer and revolutionary Lyuben Karavelov and two of the leaders of the April Uprising, Todor Kableshkov and Georgi Benkovski, are museums, as is the home of one of Bulgaria's most beloved poets, Dimcho Debelyanov. The beautiful mansion of wool merchant and manufacturer Nencho Oslekov is the location of the town’s ethnography museum, and is worth a visit for its harmonious architecture and colourful murals.
Thankfully, Koprivshtitsa avoids the feel of a museum town. Many of the old houses that you marvel at are still the homes of an ageing yet tenacious population. You will see locals everywhere about the town, minding their own business among the tourists.
A year-round destination, Koprivshtitsa is beautiful in all seasons: under heavy snow or the green, green foliage of spring, in the cool mountain summer and the dazzling reds and yellows of autumn. Most of the time, it is pleasantly quiet, but if you want more hustle and bustle, plan a visit during the national festival of folklore art, when hundreds gather in the town and the surrounding meadows to sing and dance. This festival takes place every five years, and the next one will be in 2020.
Rich locals loved to decorate their houses with lavish floral ornaments and idealised landscapes of faraway places
Built in 1856, the house of Nenko Oslekov is one of the finest examples of local architecture, with slim façade covered with frescoes
The town has been declared a museum as early as 1952
Local fabric production brought prosperity to Koprivshtitsa in the 19th century
Tombstones in the yard of the Church of Assumption. Prominent locals like poet Dimcho Debelyanov and revolutionary Todor Kableshkov are buried in the adjacent cemetery
The so-called Lyutova House was built in 1854 and is now considered a masterpiece of local architecture. Its fine, harmonious and comfortable interiors are well preserved and worth a visit
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.