POSTCARD FROM ELENA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

From history to ham: sleepy Stara Planina town is hidden gem

Elena's traditional old town

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas. Seen as a magic bullet for all the economic problems that beset small-town Bulgaria, guesthouses, traditional restaurants and eco trails were popping up overnight all across the country.

The tourist boom never materialised in the way it was envisaged and promoted, and in many places tourism infrastructure began to decline. This, however, did not mean that those places which had had high hopes were not worth visiting. In the Covid-19-defined summer of 2020, thousands of Bulgarians decided to swap their usual holiday in Greece or Italy for Bulgaria, and they were amazed to discover the hidden gems in their own country.

Monument to 19th century painter Zahari Zograf

Monument to 19th century painter Zahari Zograf

Elena is one such place. This sleepy town of about 5,500 residents has all the attributes to be a centre of tourism. It is located in a particularly picturesque corner of the Stara Planina, and combines traditional wooden houses darkened over time with elegant turn-of-the-century town houses. Elena's history is equally formidable. It is quiet now, but in the 18th-19th centuries the town was prosperous. Its wealthiest inhabitants were so influential that even Ottoman officials were at pains not to disturb them. The local school was good at "producing" teachers who spread all over the Bulgarian lands, promoting modern education and ideas of national independence. It was dubbed The Teachers Factory. The list of prominent Bulgarian clerics, rebels, entrepreneurs, writers and politicians born in Elena at that time is disproportionately long for such a small place.

One of the legends about how Elena came to be reflects the high self-esteem locals had in those days. It attributes the foundation of the town to an eponymous medieval queen. The other popular legend about Elena's beginnings reflects the main danger the community faced: attacks by brigands vying for its wealth. It maintains Elena was named after a beautiful local girl killed in a brigand attack on her wedding day.

The 1865 Nativity of Virgin Mary church

The 1865 Nativity of Virgin Mary church

After the Bulgarian state was restored, in 1878, Elena began to lose inhabitants and businesses as many moved to the new capital Sofia and its opportunities. This was how Elena's long decline began, a process that became more pronounced after 1989, with the collapse of Communism and its planned economy that provided lowly-paid but secure jobs. In the 2000s and the 2010s, tourism was one of the few opportunities for locals to earn a living in Elena.

Elena and its environs are a delight to explore. Sleepy hamlets with traditional houses populate the meandering roads around the town. The nearby Hristovski Waterfall and the springs of the Kamchiya River are the most interesting natural sites in the area, and Yovkovtsi Reservoir is a pleasant spot for angling and holidaying.

Elena itself has physically changed little from the times of its prosperity. Its old core climbs up a hill: a maze of cobbled streets, dark wooden mansions and a museum precinct housing the "Teachers Factory" school and two formidable churches.

Assumption and St Nicholas church are a couple of meters apart

Assumption and St Nicholas church are a couple of meters apart

Built three decades and a couple of metres apart, St Nicholas Church and the Assumption Church could not be more different. The locals built St Nicholas in 1804 in line with the Ottoman regulations that limited the size and appearance of churches. Consequently, from the outside St Nicholas is low and unimpressive, its walls at least a metre thick and its windows looking like embrasures. You could certainly believe the legend which claims that during construction the citizens of Elena lied to the Ottoman, saying that they were erecting a barn, not a place of worship. When you step into the church, however, you are in for a surprise, as the interior is covered in bright, intense murals painted in 1817-1818.

The Assumption Church was built in 1837, soon after the sultan eased restrictions on non-Muslim places of worship, and it shows. This church is grand and ambitious in scale, and its dome can be seen from afar. It was in fact Bulgaria's largest pre-1878 Liberation church; a larger-than-life, unapologetic message of the self-confidence of the community which built it.

Murals at St Nicholas church

Murals at St Nicholas church

After 1878, Western European fashions in urban planning arrived in Bulgaria, and in Elena. Citizens were quick to build for themselves, their businesses and their community elegant homes, schools, assembly halls and churches. This part of Elena continues to reflect this: a charming mixture of Western architecture with strong Balkan and post-Communist flavours. Under Communism, Elena was also one of the few traditional Bulgarian towns that were lucky not to get revamped according to the brutalist urban planning popular in the 1970s and the 1980s. Its Socialist-era central square, adorned with the ubiquitous monument celebrating local history and the bright Communist future to come, is small and unobtrusive.

Elena is a pleasure not only for the eyes and the mind, but also for the palate. The area's unique microclimate is why here and only here the famous and utterly delicious Elenski but, an air-dried ham similar to prosciutto crudo, is produced. For years the only way to try it was to get to know someone in Elena eager to share their homemade Elenski but. Nowadays, thanks to local initiatives and entrepreneurs, you can buy it from specialised stores in Elena, along with other meat delicacies made from traditional recipes. Some of these businesses even deliver across Bulgaria, but that is no excuse to be lazy. Take a trip to Elena to experience this gem of a place for yourself. 

Each Elena family has its own recipe for the famed Elenski but bacon

Each Elena family has its own recipe for the famed Elenski but bacon

What was Januarius doing in Elena?

Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, the Ohio-born reporter for the London Daily News in the 1860s and 1870s sometimes stayed with a friend in Elena, who also acted as his interpreter.

Januarius MacGahan

Even under Communism Bulgaria celebrated MacGahan for his intense writing about Ottoman atrocities in the Bulgarian lands and for his championship of the Bulgarian national cause. The small Balkan town is one of the few locations in Bulgaria where you can actually see a monument to an American. In recent years the local authorities have even changed the caption to MacGahan's larger-than-life monument as the previous one misspelled his first name as "Jenerarius."

Painted horse carts can still be seen on the streets of Elena

Painted horse carts can still be seen on the streets of Elena

Monuments in Elena's Communist-era square

Monuments in Elena's Communist-era square

Petrified ammonite from Elena's most surprising site of interest, the Palaeontology Museum. Housed in a wooden old mansion it displays fossils found in the area

Petrified ammonite from Elena's most surprising site of interest, the Palaeontology Museum. Housed in a wooden old mansion it displays fossils found in the area

Old tombstones lined by St Nicholas Church

Old tombstones lined by St Nicholas Church

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